June 27, 2004

In case you've got some spare time

Posted by shonk at 12:45 AM in Blogging , Economics , Movies | permalink | comment

Some topics of note:

  • Fahrenheit 9/11 — Michael Moore’s newest movie is out and is, according to most of the reviews I’ve read (and not terribly surprisingly), an unabashed and unapologetic piece of propaganda. Which means, depending on your ideological persuasion, you’ll probably either love it or hate it. Christopher Hitchens hates it, whereas the subtitle of David Edelstein’s review pretty much expresses his sentiment: “Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is unfair and outrageous. You got a problem with that?”. At some point, I’ll probably watch it and post a review here.

  • Globalization — A topic we’ve discussed here a few times already, but I came across two interesting articles today that explore some new themes. In the first, “Low Taxes Do What?”, Thomas Sowell argues that jobs “exported” from the United States by globalization have been significantly outweighed by jobs “imported” by that same globalization. In the second, “Beggars Can Be Choosers”, Bob Murphy makes the surprisingly controversial case that charity doesn’t hurt people. Both are worth a read.

  • the gravey train — That’s the name of John Graves’ new weblog. John is a quantitative researcher at the Urban Institute, a fellow Sewanee alum and a good personal friend. Check him out.

Tryin' to kill me, eh?

Posted by shonk at 12:11 AM in Politics | permalink | 14 comments

After intimating that intellectual property crimes are, in effect, thought crimes, I want to continue in a similar thematic and, perhaps, iconoclastic vein by suggesting that attempted murder is not a crime. A bit radical, perhaps, but I want to make a case that such a position is at least understandable, even if nobody ends up actually agreeing with me.

To that end, it would probably be useful to make the terms I’m discussing as explicit as possible, so I’ll argue on the basis of the definitions given by the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, since that’s my current state of residence.

18 Pa.C.S. § 901(a) defines criminal attempt as: “A person commits an attempt when, with intent to commit a specific crime, he does any act which constitutes a substantial step toward the commission of that crime.” Obviously, in the case of attempted murder, the “specific crime” in question is that of murder, defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2502. As for punishment, 18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(c) gives the sentencing guidelines for attempted murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 40 years if the victim suffers “serious bodily injury” and 20 years otherwise, which correlates to the punishments for third degree murder (18 Pa.C.S. § 1102(d)) and for first degree felonies (18 Pa.C.S. § 1103), respectively.

What this all boils down to, then, is that, according to Pennsylvania law, if I stab someone with the intent to kill him, I’m subject to twice as long a prison sentence as if I stab without intending to kill. Similarly, if I do anything the court construes as a “substantial step” (a phrase I suspect left intentionally vague) towards killing someone, even if I never actually hurt her (and even if she never even knows about my attempt), I’m subject to just as long a sentence as if I rape her. Think about that for a minute.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that what we call attempted murder should never be punished. If I stab someone, that’s clearly a crime (namely, aggravated assault), whether or not I intended to murder him. If I spray bullets in someone’s direction, even if I miraculously fail to hit anybody, that’s also a crime (again, aggravated assault). And I certainly think aggravated assault is a crime worthy of punishment (although I will note that I disagree with the federal and state justice system’s emphasis on punishment of the criminal over rehabilitation of the victim).

What I have problems with is the notion that, in and of itself, intending to kill someone is criminal. Certainly harboring such intentions makes me not a very nice person, someone who deserves to be shunned by society and cast out of polite company, but, assuming my attempt breaks no other laws, I’m not sure on what grounds it can be justified as criminal (or on what grounds having an intent to kill while committing an assault is worse than simply committing the assault).

As I see it, the issue boils down to the simple question: are a person’s thoughts, intentions and desires, however degenerate or reprehensible, criminal? To me, the answer has to be “no”; for something to be criminal, it must be wrongfully damaging to another (this sort of statement must, of course, be founded upon an entire theory of justice, which in turn is based on morality, which I’d rather not get into right now; those holding contrary opinions are, as always, free to prove me wrong) and I simply don’t see how a person’s thoughts, beliefs or intentions can, in and of themselves, harm another. The qualifier “in and of themselves” is important in the preceding sentence, because actions predicated on certain thoughts or beliefs can, of course, be harmful.

The obvious parallel to a much more controversial topic is that of hate crimes. An example from the Pennsylvania statutes is “Ethnic intimidation” (18 Pa.C.S. § 2710), which states the following:

A person commits the offense of ethnic intimidation if, with malicious intention toward the race, color, religion or national origin of another individual or group of individuals, he commits an offense under any other provision of this article or under Chapter 33 (relating to arson, criminal mischief and other property destruction) exclusive of section 3307 (relating to institutional vandalism) or under section 3503 (relating to criminal trespass) or under section 5504 (relating to harassment by communication or address) with respect to such individual or his or her property or with respect to one or more members of such group or to their property.

Such offenses cause the crime to be classified one degree higher than otherwise specified. I’m not particularly familiar with “hate crime” laws in other states, but my impression is that they are similar.

Again, I’m not sure how the beliefs or intentions of a criminal are necessarily criminal. The implication of this particular law is that my beating up a black man on the streets would be worse if I were a racist than if I were simply a sadist. Now racism is certainly reprehensible (as are homophobia, misogyny and any other attitudes that might be targeted by “hate crime” laws), but, again, I don’t see how assaulting people for racist (or homophobic, misogynist, etc.) reasons is any more damaging to the victim than assaulting people for misanthropic or sadistic reasons. Put more bluntly, Matthew Shepard isn’t any more dead than Nicole Brown-Simpson (to take two high-profile cases from the last decade).

The case might be made that racists are more likely to be repeat offenders than other violent criminals and hence deserve harsher punishment, but, even setting aside the fact that sadists probably also have a higher propensity than average towards repeat offenses and yet there are no “sadist laws”, such considerations are already taken into account (at least in theory) by the legal system. Sentencing (again, at least in theory) takes into account both aggravating and mitigating circumstances and, although I’m no lawyer, I would have to imagine that a propensity towards repeat offense qualifies as an aggravating factor.

Anyway, the point is that a crime is not somehow worse because the criminal has a certain agenda and, going back to attempted murder, having certain intentions, no matter how despicable, is not a crime. Additionally, on a wholly more practical level, these “crimes of intent” are dangerous because they place evaluation of intent under the purview of the judicial system. And, let’s be honest, do any of us really trust the courts to be able to determine accurately what our thoughts may or may not have been in any given circumstance?

June 25, 2004

Do you own that song?

Posted by shonk at 07:59 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 5 comments

I’m not going to comment on the Supreme Court’s latest decision, though I suspect most readers will be able to guess my opinion. I’m also not going to comment on the recent success of SpaceShipOne, though I agree with Dave Masten that, although this may not be the dawn of the space age, the eastern sky is definitely getting brighter.

Instead, I want to post a response I wrote today to someone who claimed that people who don’t recognize “intellectual property” do not have a “philosophy of property”. As you read this, keep in mind that this isn’t an issue completely settled in my own mind. As you’ll note, I do think that ideas can be owned, but I do not think that this ownership is as complete as many defenders of “intellectual property” would like to think. With that in mind, to the argument:

Nobody, but nobody, is claiming that you don’t own the products of your labor. Rather, anti-IP types are, by and large, simply arguing that the control implicit in ownership does not extend to a right to control the actions of others who are doing no harm to you.

Suppose, for example, that you come up with a catchy tune this afternoon. Now, this is the product of your mental labor, and hence you would surely argue that you own this tune. And that is entirely true. You have complete and utter control over what, if anything, you will do with this tune, and nobody, not even hypothetically, has the ability (let alone the right) to use this tune in a way not acceptable to yourself. Your ownership of this tune is more complete, at least in the sense of the degree of control you exercise over it, than your ownership of your car or your shoes or your nailclipper.

You may choose to simply keep the tune in your head, that you may enjoy it. You may choose to pick up your guitar and play the tune to yourself, allowing you to enjoy the tune aurally as well as mentally. You may choose to record the tune on some form of magnetic or electronic media, so that you may enjoy the aural experience passively. At this point, you still have complete and utter control over the tune.

Now, suppose keeping this tune to yourself isn’t as satisfying as you might like, and you decide to play the tune for others, or to give them a CD on which you’ve burned the tune. Now, we come into an entirely different realm. You no longer have complete control over the tune as a mental construct. The people to whom you’ve given a CD can now play it whenever they like, even if you might disapprove of them, say, playing it while they masturbate. By doing so, they are not damaging you in any way and so it would be illegitimate for you to assert control by way of force over them in an attempt to prevent them from playing the tune on their CD player while masturbating. In much the same way, if you toss a twenty dollar bill out the window, you have no right to assert that the person that picks it up is under an obligation to use it only to purchase products you approve of.

Similarly, you of course have the right to sell CDs with your tune on them, rather than giving them away. Again, though, you do not have a right to control where or when your customers play those CDs, just as you don’t have the right to prevent the person to whom you’ve sold your car from entering it in a demolition derby or driving it to Nevada (of course, all of these things can be specified by contract, but we’re arguing purely philosophically here, in a sort of legal vacuum).

Now, suppose one of the people to whom you’ve given or sold a CD decides that he will, in turn, sell that CD to someone else, rather than keeping it. Again, I think we would all agree that you have no right to prevent that person from doing so.

Suppose, instead, that instead of merely selling his copy of the CD, this person makes a dozen copies and sells them. Certainly, if he has legitimately acquired the CD, he has a right to do with it however he wishes, including inserting it into certain electronic devices that may transfer the data contained therein to other storage media. So nobody could reasonably claim that the copying itself is illegitimate. Rather, it must be the act of selling those copies which is anathema. Now, in our hypothetical, this person has obtained the blank CDs onto which he’s copied the tune legitimately, and he certainly has the right to sell those blank CDs unaltered, so, if we are to say that selling CDs onto which the tune has been copied is wrong, we must have a very good reason for doing so.

Specifically, it must be demonstrable that selling those CDs is causing actual damage to some other person (this is, after all, why stealing something is wrong; it’s not the moving of your car to another city, in and of itself, that’s important, but rather the damage I do to you by taking your car). And so, to demonstrate that the selling of those burned CDs qualifies as theft, it is necessary to demonstrate that somebody has been damaged by this sale.

Before we get into this particular issue, though, note how already the situation is different from that embodied by the theft of some material thing: when I steal your car, I’m depriving you of your car, and whether I turn around and sell the car or not is ultimately irrelevant to the situation; when I “steal” your tune, the claim is that the crime occurs at the time of dissemination (because, after all, I have every right to make a dozen copies of your CD for, e.g., my personal collection). More basically, when I steal your car, I deprive you of that car; when I “steal” your tune, I do not deprive you of your tune, as it still (presumably) resides in your mind and on the original CD that you made. This, in and of itself, makes “intellectual property” different from “ordinary property”; defenders of “intellectual property” claim that one can steal it without depriving the original owner of it. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that this is where many people stop: how can you steal something from someone when they still have the thing you supposedly stole? This is a very reasonable question, but I agree that it doesn’t completely put the issue to rest. After all, assault isn’t stealing (at least not without some contorted reasoning), but it’s still wrong. If it can be demonstrated that you, as the creator of the tune, are damaged by someone selling copies of CDs which will play that tune when used appropriately, then surely a crime has been committed, even if it’s not theft in the usual sense of that word.

The point is, the defender of “intellectual property” needs to demonstrate that the creator is damaged by the dissemination of his creation through undesired channels. Going back to our example, we would need to demonstrate that you are damaged by the sale of those 12 burned CDs. Now, it’s clear that those 12 CDs aren’t going to actually physically injure you, or take money from your bank account that you’ve already deposited, or in any other way damage the property you already own. And so, here arises the misleading concept of “potential damages”. That is, the notion that the sale of those 12 CDs has potentially prevented you from making money from selling your own copies, that your future earnings may be lower. However, this idea is flawed in two basic ways. First of all, these potential future sales are simply impossible to quantify. The only way to quantify them would be to turn back the clock and re-run time with everything exactly the same as it was with only one difference: that the sale of the 12 copied CDs never happened. This is clearly a physical impossibility. Maybe all 12 people who bought copied CDs would have purchased CDs from you, maybe a few of them would have, maybe none of them would have. Maybe those people turned around and sold burned copies of their own, maybe they only played those CDs in private, or maybe they played them at parties, thereby actually marketing the tune to people who would otherwise never have heard it, resulting in bigger sales for you. It’s simply impossible to tell, even if we grant the notion that you have a right to all revenue from sale of the original tune, which situation obtains in any given case.

The more fundamental flaw, however, addresses this last notion. You do not have the right to all revenues from the original tune. Saying you do equates to the notion that, if you toss a twenty out your window and the guy who picks it up invests in a stock that’s about to blow up, that you have a right to the money he made by selling the stock. Or, to take another example, if you sell me some scrap aluminum that I make into a sculpture, you don’t have a right to my earnings from the sale of that sculpture (and, similarly, gun manufacturers should not be liable for what their customers do with their products).

You have no right to compensation for your labor; you are free to get the best price you can for it, but society is not obligated to reward you for your labor. If I dig a hole and then fill it in, I don’t have a right to compensation. Labor is not innately valuable. You have the right to try to get as much as you can for your tune, but if you don’t get as much as you think you should have gotten, you are not being damaged by that fact. Perhaps I’m not explaining this very well, but my question is simple: On what grounds does one have a claim to something that isn’t real? Potential future earnings are not, to put it bluntly, real; they’re potentialities, dreams of a future that may never come. In fact, the argument that you own the potential future revenues of your song is basically saying that you own the future decisions of others and that they have an obligation to purchase your song.

And so on…

June 17, 2004

Why social scientists need to throw away their classical paradigms

Posted by shonk at 09:55 PM in Economics , Geek Talk | permalink | 7 comments

Brian Doss has responded to my response to my initial response to his critique of Steven Strogatz’ book Sync (whew! Have I broken the record for hyperlinks in a single sentence yet?). There’s a lot to cover here, but I’ll try to do what I can with it.

First, he rightly points out that much of his original point is uncontroversial:

My small beef with the concept that there was any sort of ‘the emerging’ science of spontaneous order was in the (I thought) uncontroversial point that the fields of Biology (macro, micro, and molecular) and Economics both concern themselves with spontaneous order and have done so for centuries (more or less) prior to the publication of ‘Sync’. As that was the case, I further noted that since we have 2 sciences studying specific kinds of spontaneous order and that neither science requires mathematics to either understand the subject matter or to gain knowledge in the first place, that perhaps the author of ‘Sync’ should take some hints and possible insights.

This is all true, but at the same time misleading. While biology has generally done a good job describing the spontaneous order processes that come into play in evolution, the “pure” biological approach is not well-suited to, for example, explaining the tertiary structure of proteins. The tertiary structure of a protein is the general shape of the protein, which is determined by the sequence of amino acids of which the protein is made, but which can be surprisingly complex and three-dimensional. One of the big revelations to come since proteins were first understood as sequences of amino acids is that knowing the higher-order structure of a protein is crucial to understanding what it does and how. And scores of mathematicians are intimately involved in trying to understand exactly how these higher-order structures arise.

In fact, mathematical biology is one of the hottest fields in mathematics today, and much of the research in that area stems from attempts to understand the structures of both proteins and of nucleic acids (i.e. DNA and RNA). And, perhaps surprisingly, advances in that field have had bidirectional influences on supposedly “abstract” areas like knot and braid theory.

Also, to borrow the definitive example from Strogatz’ book, biology did a very poor job of explaining the spontaneous order evident in the simultaneous flashing of Thai fireflies. It took some very hard-core mathematics (and some extreme simplifying assumptions) to even begin to explain how millions of fireflies could all flash in unison without having some “master” firefly. Even verifying those explanations (or discrediting them, for that matter) is something that should be experimentally possible, but such an experiment would be very difficult and has not, as yet, been carried out. This fact, along with the fact that the explanation required significant assumptions, is what led me to say in my previous post that “the mathematics of spontaneous order is both several steps ahead of and well behind the real world.”

The point of this digression is simply to suggest that the classical approaches are reaching their limiting points even in biology and that the days where one didn’t need to know mathematics to do chemistry are swiftly fading. Which isn’t to say that mathematics might not benefit from incorporating the techniques of biology and economics as they relate to spontaneous order, but, based on my admittedly very limited understanding of those two subjects, I have my doubts as to how much fruit such an attempt would bear.

Why do I have doubts? Quite simply, because biology and economics have generally done a good job noting that spontaneous order does arise in the relevant areas, but have not done a particularly good job by themselves of explaining why. Which is not to say that the why is not understood, but the best explanations I’ve seen (here I would cite, for example, Dawkins’ The Selfish Geneor pretty much any microeconomics course) derive, ultimately, from game theory, which is itself a distinguished mathematical discipline, dating back to at least [Fermat].

Back to Doss’ post: he rightfully points out that I unfairly posed the following parenthetical question:

(as a side note, both Doss and Swanson, in the original Catallarchy post linked above, seem to reject mathematics because it conflicts with the principles of Austrian economics and the Austrians’ rejection of empirical economics is well-known; so my question is this: if Austrians reject empiricism as well as mathematics (i.e. deduction), how, exactly, do they advocate gaining knowledge? (Of course, I know the answer, but the Austrian-sympathizers would do well, in my opinion, to keep this question in mind)).

Of course, mathematics does not conflict with the principles of Austrian economics/praxeology (although some of the more zealous and narrow-minded Austrian sycophants seem to think it does); rather, it is the application of mathematical methods to economics in parallel to the classical application of mathematics to physics that conflicts with Austrianism. Or, as Doss puts it, the classical “methods appropriate for studying the physical sciences are inappropriate for studying thinking, acting, subjective humans.”

However, I do think that many Austrians have a fairly poor grasp of exactly what mathematics is, which is why I added the disclaimer that they would do well to keep the above question in mind. I grant that this strikes of pedantry, but I think it’s an important point, and Doss seems to be one of those Austrians who doesn’t seem to understand mathematics very well:

Mathematical methods work in the physical sciences (and to a lesser extent in life sciences) because (a) there is an objective, unchanging reality to the physical laws of the universe and therefore it is (b) possible to design experiments where aspects of reality can be held constant, and thus strict, formal, mathematical relationships can be inferred from the data.

The key misunderstanding, I think, derives from a conflation of the terms “mathematical” and “computational”. Not that this is an uncommon confusion: my non-math friends occasionally ask me what it is, exactly, that I do, occasionally jesting that I must be adding some really big numbers. In fact, mathematics is, ultimately, the discipline devoted to determining the abstract structure that logically follows from a particular axiom set. Mathematicians aren’t, generally speaking, taking a particular equation and plugging a bunch of different values into it to see what results.

In this sense, in fact, mathematics is remarkably similar to Austrian economics itself. Doss links to a Mises article which explicitly compares economists to mathematicians, a comparison I’ve made myself many times before. In fact, in my view, the Austrian school is the most mathematical of all schools of economics by a wide margin. As Doss points out, though, “[t]he difference, of course, is that Austrian scholars have followed a verbal logical formalism instead of a mathematical one.” Which is something I have never well understood. I simply cannot understand why the Austrians consistently reject symbolic logic (which I would call “formal logic”, though obviously an Austrian would contend that my definition is incomplete). Which isn’t to say I haven’t seen the arguments, it’s just that I don’t understand them. For example, here’s what Rothbard has to say on the matter in “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics” (which parallels his argument in Man, Economy and State):

The suggestion has been made that praxeology is not really scientific, because its logical procedures are verbal ( literary ) rather than mathematical and symbolic. But mathematical logic is uniquely appropriate to physics, where the various logical steps along the way are not in themselves meaningful; for the axioms and therefore the deductions of physics are in themselves meaningless, and only take on meaning operationally, insofar as they can explain and predict given facts. In praxeology, on the contrary, the axioms themselves are known as true and are therefore meaningful. As a result, each step-by-step deduction is meaningful and true. Meanings are far better expressed verbally than in meaningless formal symbols. Moreover, simply to translate economic analysis from words into symbols, and then to retranslate them so as to explain the conclusions, makes little sense, and violates the great scientific principle of Occam s Razor that there should be no unnecessary multiplication of entities.

In a sense, Rothbard is correct to point out that the Austrians’ deduction is slightly different from standard formal logic, because, in formal logic, you are free to use valid propositions in the deduction even though those propositions may not make any sense when translated into natural language, whereas the Austrians want to use propositions that are both valid and meaningful at every step along the way. However, I disagree with his suggestion that, as such, translating into a formal language is a pointless and superfluous step. If Austrian deductions are, in fact, valid, then they should be translatable into formal language and still hold as valid deductions; the fact that many other deductions might be possible in that formal language that would be invalid to the Austrian would be irrelevant. Rothbard’s objection serves, it seems to me, as a valid rationale as to why an Austrian wouldn’t want to deduce in the formal language itself, but I don’t think it at all justifies the apparent disdain the Austrians have for confirming the deductions they’ve already made in this rigorous way (such confirmation being something I’ve asked for before).

Now, Rothbard is quite right that meaning is better expressed in words than in symbols, which is why it would, presumably, be difficult to translate Austrian axioms/deductions into formal language, but difficulty, in and of itself, shouldn’t serve as justification for not attempting the task. I also find it curious that Rothbard employs Occam’s Razor as a scientific principle, as the Austrians seem to be so disdainful of scientific methodology in economics. Besides the fact that Occam’s Razor is totally inapplicable in this realm, anyway, as the notion that “the simplest explanation is usually the best” says nothing about how to go about confirming conclusions that one has reached.

Having digressed again, I want to make the point Doss (and many other Austrians, for that matter) may be closing his mind to mathematical insights that actually buttress his position because he views mathematics through a classical lens. As a matter of fact, modern mathematics, with its investigations into chaos and complexity, is actually making the case that predictive determinism is essentially impossible. As commenter buck40 points out:

One of the main insights [of modern mathematics] is that prediction and control are in most cases false hopes. Those who apply the insights of complex adaptive systems to social sciences do not seek control, do not counsel control. Quite the opposite, they help policy makers understand why efforts to control will surely fail. You might find that they are your allies in a way, that they are all Hayekians in a manner of speaking.

In that light, consider, for instance, the recent No Treason post “Butterflies and Sweatshops,” where John T. Kennedy suggests that not only is the effect of an individual purchase on third world working conditions too small to predict, but that the effect of that purchase simply cannot be predicted to any level of certainty. I think we would all agree that the world economy is more complicated than the three body problem, yet even the three-body problem cannot, in general, be solved explicitly. Hayek and Mises argued that central planners suffered from a knowledge problem, that someone trying to direct the economy could not, practically speaking, acquire enough knowledge to accurately predict how their interventions would affect the economy. Chaos theorists have extended that further, essentially demonstrating that this is not merely a practical problem, but that, in fact, such a prediction is manifestly impossible, even in the abstract. So, chaos/complexity theorists are “all Hayekians in a manner of speaking”.

Similarly, insights in network theory are helping to explain, for example, both the scale-free aspects of internet hyperlinks and the resiliency of the power grid. One can only imagine that a solid grounding in network theory coupled with an understanding of economics might well yield new insights into economic phenomena.

And, finally, it should be pointed out that the work being done by Strogatz and others is demystifying spontaneous order, demonstrating that there’s nothing supernatural about markets or evolution, but rather that the fruits of spontaneous order are all around us and that the mechanisms that underlie this order are often very simple. To return to the fireflies, the simultaneous flashing that is almost certainly a result of the interaction of coupled oscillators is more extensive than could ever be coordinated by some master firefly keeping time.

June 16, 2004

Happy Bloomsday!

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM in Literature , Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses supposedly took place. Celebrations are no doubt already underway in Dublin; as my own small tribute, I reproduce here a few Joyce quotations that seem tangentially relevant to the usual stuff I write about. These are not necessarily my favorite examples of Joyce’s writing, since most of those are pretty much meaningless without context (for example, this brought a huge smile of appreciation to my face when I first read it, but is almost meaningless in its own right: “Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping cane came taptaptapping by Daly’s window where a mermaid hair all streaming (but he couldn’t see) blew whiffs of a mermaid (blind couldn’t), mermaid, coolest whiff of all.”), but rather, I think, display something of his political and social criticism as well as his characteristic ambiguity:

The workmen’s discussions, he said, were too timorous; the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt that they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries.

She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?

— “A Painful Case”, Dubliners, pg. 111 in the Viking Critical Edition.

For a swift season of merrymaking the money of his prizes ran through Stephen’s fingers. Great parcels of groceries and delicacies and dried fruits arrived from the city. Every day he drew up a bill of fare for the family and every night led a party of three or four to the theatre to see Ingomar or The Lady of Lyons. In his coat pockets he carried squares of Vienna chocolate for his guests while his trousers’ pockets bulged with masses of silver and copper coins. He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, wrote out resolutions, marshalled his books up and down their shelves, pored upon all kinds of price lists, drew up a form of commonwealth for the household by which every member of it held some office, opened a loan bank for his family and pressed loans on willing borrowers so that he might have the pleasure of making out receipts and reckoning the interests on the sums lent. When he could do no more he drove up and down the city in trams. Then the season of pleasure came to an end. The pot of pink enamel paint gave out and the wainscot of his bedroom remained with its unfinished and illplastered coat.

HIs household returned to its usual way of life. HIs mother had no further occasion to upbraid him for squandering his money. He too returned to his old life at school and all his novel enterprises fell to pieces. The commonwealth fell, the loan bank closed its coffers and its books on a sensible loss, the rules of life which he had drawn about himself fell into desuetude.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbles mole.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pgs. 97-8 in the Viking Critical Edition.

It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong but room for improvement all round there certainly is though every country, they say, our own distressful included, has the government it deserves. But with a little goodwill all round. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan.

Ulysses, lines 16.1095-1101 in the Gabler Edition

Finally, on the jump, I’ll close with something I wrote last year when I was taking a class on Joyce. As you may know, each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, and the final project for the class was to retell a familiar story in two of those styles. I really enjoyed writing my version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the style of Chapter 17, “Ithaca” (the penultimate chapter in which Joyce brings tensions to a head in a pompously stylized cross-examination style which simultaneously frustrates the reader’s sensibilities and underscores the ambiguous nature of those tensions) and I think it even turned out half-decent, so I reproduce it here, in the hopes it will inspire some to try reading this difficult but ultimately rewarding book. If you do choose to do so, I highly recommend Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated for all your annotation needs.

Particularly, this pastiche is a re-telling the very end of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, of which I quote Edith Hamilton’s version:

Thisbe, although terrified of the lioness, was still more afraid to fail her lover. She ventured to go back to the tree of the tryst, the mulberry with the shining white fruit. She could not find it. A tree was there, but not one gleam of white was on the branches. As she stared at it, something moved on the ground beneath. She started back shuddering. But in a moment, peering through the shadows, she saw what was there. It was Pyramus, bathed in blood and dying. She flew to him and threw her arms around him. She kissed his cold lips and begged him to look at her. “It is I, your Thisbe, your dearest,” she cried to him. At the sound of her name he opened his heavy eyes for one look. Then death closed them.

She saw his sword fallen form his hand and beside it her cloak stained and torn. She understood all. “Your own hand killed you,” she said, “and your love for me. I too can be brave. I too can love. Only death would have had the power to separate us. It shall not have that power now.” She plunged into her heart the sword that was still wet with his life’s blood.

* What course did Thisbe take returning to the mulberry tree?

Proceeding cautiously from the shrubs, she proceeded past elderberry, elm and birch in turn: then, relaxing a bit, circled towards the clearing by way of an old deer-track: then, at a slower pace, occasionally halting, bearing left over a tree stump, under low-lying fir branches, as far as the edge of the woods.

What did she ponder during this excursion?

Love, music, man, foolish romanticism, small springs, phase changes, the tensile strength of both skin and plaster, the more pertinent aspects of feline anatomy, adrenaline, chlorophyll factories, metabolism, torn tissue, prophylactics, the menstrual cycle, Pyramus’ tardiness.

Had she ever before engaged in similar ambulatory nocturnal thought?

Once, two years prior.

What further reflection did this connection inspire in her mind just before reaching the clearing?

She reflected that experience was an aid to learning only so long as emotional attachment did not interfere with rational discourse.

What act did Thisbe perform upon arriving at her destination?

Standing beneath three elms arranged in an equilateral triangle, head turned to look for pallid whitefruit of mulberry.

To what effect?

Little. Though smooth, rough, triangular, rectangular, circular, pyramidal, parabolic, elongated, shrunken and imaginary forms were visible, none below the tops of the trees were white.

Did the lack of white within the visual spectrum distress her?

It did.

Where was the mulberry tree?

Where it had been since proto-trunk exited seed and penetrated soil in search of light and warmth 8 years, 6 months and 13 days since: in the middle of the clearing.

Describe it.

Its roots (invisible) spread like tentacles throughout the surrounding ground, supporting a slender trunk, which, though light-brown in color, appeared black due to lack of sufficient candlepower, itself explained by the nocturnal hour and the shady circumference of branches, twigs, leaves and berries supported against the 32 f/s/s exerted upon all bodies native to the superficiality of the globe. Branches forked smaller recursively, the inductive result being rounded, pointed, serrated leaves and clustered, cylindrical, crimson fruit.

What drew Thisbe’s attention to the mulberry tree?

Slight movement near its base, accompanied by faint but distinctly human sounds, easily amenable to onomatopoeiatic treatment.

Produced by what?

Pyramus, expiring in stop-action.

What action did Thisbe’s apprehension of this fact provoke?

The placement of left foot forward, followed by right. This sequence of actions then re-iterated more times in rapid succession, resulting in arrival below the crimson mulberry fringe.

Producing what physiological manifestations?

Shortness of breath, increased pulse and blood pressure, heightened adrenaline and testosterone production, effusion of water saturated by sodium chloride over the expanse of the epidermal layer, displacement of various keratin strands.

Did this displacement evoke any involuntary action?

It did: the passage of right hand through hair, with the aim of removing visual obstruction.

What proclamations, following a kiss to cold lips, caused the recumbent figure to briefly part closed eyelids before expiring?

Of identity, of name, of affection, of possession.

What contrapositive fears succeeded in the feminine mind?

Of false accusations of manipulation, moral inferiority, covetousness, fornication and murder made by recumbent’s paternity; of parental disapproval and misunderstanding; of social ostracism; of economic independence and insufficiency; of miscalculation in assignation of amour.

What did Thisbe perceive next to the limp, bloodsoaked hand of Pyramus?

A sword, finely balanced, lacking the notched imperfections of regular use, with rounded pommel superceded by recently re-wrapped hilt, quillion reminiscent of demonic horns, artificial crimson rivulet progressing slowly down the fuller.

Perceived as a tool for what new aim by the imaginative mind?

Literary immortality spawned by perception of unswerving loyalty and love, transcending pervious paradigms of separation and death.

How achieved?

By passage of carbonized not-stainless steel between 4th and 5th ribs, slightly left of centerline defined by vaginal, umbilical and oral cavities, resulting in perforation of left ventricle.

In what position did dead and dying lie?

Dead: on back, legs extended, neck cocked, right arm bent at the elbow away from hips, left arm tracing straight line from armpit to thigh, stiff oratory posture. Dying: on sinister side, legs and arms curled toward torso, head resting on right knee of dead.


Of pot rot ought and not, of read head on the linen of fir and beech, nightcrawler.


June 13, 2004

Smoking out the kids

Posted by shonk at 12:24 AM in Politics | permalink | 9 comments

Along the lines of my post on Creekstone farms and the mercantilist policies that are preventing them from testing their beef for mad cow, comes news that clove cigarettes are being outlawed, supposedly to prevent kids from starting to smoke, but more importantly because Philip Morris doesn’t make flavored cigarettes (other than menthol cigarettes, which are expressly omitted from the ban) and is flexing its lobbying muscles to prevent competitors like R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson from marketing such things as the Camel Exotic Blends and Midnight Berry Kools:

Since added flavors make cigarettes more appealing to “our children,” they cannot be permitted. It’s just a happy coincidence that Philip Morris, one of the bill’s main backers, does not manufacture cigarettes with any of the prohibited flavors—although it does make menthol cigarettes, which are specifically exempted from the ban.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, featuring the snappy acronym FSPTCA, is, of course, rationalized on the standard “for the children” grounds, since, of course, 15-year-olds are right now lining up to purchase smokes that cost twice as much as normal cigarettes. Now, admittedly, I wasn’t really plugged into the whole high school smoking scene, but I’m pretty sure most underaged smokers, especially those still in the experimental stage, are smoking whatever manifests that elusive combination of low cost and availability, with the primary emphasis on availability. In other words, probably not niche-market flavored brands. Still, though, the sentiment is nice.

And not, of course, without precedent, as anybody who remembers Australia’s ban of Moo Joose knows. Again, that ban was justified by the supposedly negative impact that a widely-distributed alcoholic milkshake would have on the maturity-challenged. Of course, left out of the rhetoric was the fact that so-called alcopops (like hard lemonade), which were first introduced in Australia in the early ’90s, are still a going concern. Google is remarkably unhelpful on this front, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that Australia’s hard lemonade manufacturers threw their lobbying support behind the Moo Joose ban.

Speaking of smoking, yesterday I came across news that Portuguese police are planning to let English soccer fans smoke dope before Sunday’s match with France at EURO 2004 on the notion that stoned soccer hooligans don’t hooliganize so much as drunk soccer hooligans. The “Here We Blow” policy was apparently inspired by the Dutch, who employed a similar strategy to great success in 2000.

Which, of course, draws to mind the old Bill Hicks bit:

“You’re at a ballgame, you’re at a concert and someone’s really violent, aggressive and obnoxious. Are they drunk or are they smoking pot?”


“Wow. We all know the truth. I have never seen people on pot get in a fight because…it’s fucking impossible: ‘Hey buddy!’ … ‘What?’ … end of argument.”

Portugal’s got the right idea if you ask me, but the head of the British police contingent in Portugal sounds a bit miffed:

“English people should be adhering to the standards of law that we follow at home.

“From our perspective it would be quite an unusual sight to see two or three thousand England fans draped in their flags ‘whiffing a bit of blow’, or whatever we are calling it these days.”

Needless to say, that particular phrase seems to be entirely the good constable’s own invention, demonstrating once again that George W. Bush and Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf aren’t the only malaprop-prone public officials out there.

(Speaking of which, the latest Bushism I’ve seen comes from the text of his “we’re going to Mars” speech, where he calls NASA-employed astronauts “spacial entrepreneurs”, which is depressing in that it uses the right terminology to commend the wrong strategy.)

June 08, 2004

Body-snatching Lorenz equations

Posted by shonk at 04:47 AM in Geek Talk , Words of Wisdom | permalink | 13 comments

First off, a bookkeeping note: Curt will be traveling around Europe for the next month, so he likely won’t be posting much, if at all.

Now, I promised last week, in my review of Strogatz’ Sync, that I would devote an entire post to an extended quotation from the book that I found very interesting. Reading the comment thread associated with John Sabotta’s post denouncing evolutionary psychology at No Treason, I was reminded of that promise, so this is that post. In the pertinent passage, Strogatz is discussing a chaos-based encryption system first envisioned by Lou Pecora. Pecora was trying to figure out a way to devise an encryption system based on Lorenz equations, wherein three variables are related to each other in a particular way (specifically, by way of a system of differential equations).

(As a side note, I would point out, apropos my earlier comments on Strogatz book, that this passage serves as an excellent example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. The primary strength, aside from Strogatz’ obvious depth of knowledge of the material, is his ability to describe complicated technical mathematics by way of metaphors that make it highly accessible to a lay reader. The primary weakness, at least in my view, is that he doesn’t ever give any of the technical details. Admittedly, systems of differential equations are a bit intimidating, but the fact that the entire book, basically, is written in metaphor is a bit grating)

Anyway, on to the quotation, followed by one or two of my own thoughts:

In technical terms his scheme can be described as follows: Take two copies of a chaotic system. Treat one as the driver; in applications to communications, it will function as the transmitter. The other system receives signals from the driver, but does not send any back. The communication is one-way. (Think of a military command center sending encrypted orders to its soldiers in the field or to sailors at sea.) To synchronize the systems, send the ever-changing numerical value of one of the driver variables to the receiver, and use it to replace the corresponding receiver variable, moment by moment. Under certain circumstances, Pecora found that all the other variables—the ones not replaced—would automatically snap into sync with their counterparts in the driver. Having done so, all the variables are now matched. The two systems are completely synchronized.

This description, though technically correct mathematically, does not begin to convey the marvel of synchronized chaos. To appreciate how strange this phenomenon is, picture the variables of a chaotic system as modern dancers. By analogy with the Lorenz equations, their names are x, y, and z. Every night they perform onstage, playing off one another, each responding to the slightest cues of the other two. Though their turns and gestures seem choreographed, they are not. On the other hand, they are certainly not improvising, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Given where the others are at any moment, the third reacts according to strict rules. The genius is in the artfulness of the rules themselves. They ensure that the resulting performance is always elegant but never monotonous, with motifs that remind but never repeat. The performance is different from minute to minute (because of aperiodicity) and from night to night (because of the butterfly effect), yet it is always essentially the same, because it always follows the same strange attractor.

So far, this is a metaphor for a single Lorenz system, playing the role of the receiver in Pecora’s communication scheme. Now suppose that time stands still for a moment. The laws of the universe are suspended. In that terrifying instant, x vanishes without a trace. In its place stands a new variable, called x’. It looks like x but is programmed to be oblivious to the local y and z. Instead, its behavior is determined remotely by its interplay with y’ and z’, variables in a transmitter far away in another Lorenz system, all part of an unseen driver.

It’s almost like the classic horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. From the point of view of the receiver system, this new x would seem inscrutable. “We’re trying to dance with x but suddenly it’s ignoring all of our signals,” think y and z. “I’ve never seen x behave like that before,” says one of them. “Hey, x,” the other whispers, “is it really you?” But x wears a glazed expression on its face. Just as in the movie, x has been taken over by a pod. It’s no longer dancing with the y and z in front of it—its partners are y’ and z’, unseen doppelgängers of y and z, remote ones in the parallel universe of the driver. In that faraway setting, everything about x’ looks normal. But when teleported to the receiver, it seems oddly unresponsive. And that’s because the receiver’s x has been hijacked, impersonated by this strange x’ coming from out of nowhere. Sensitive souls that they are, y and z make adjustments and modify their footwork. Soon, all becomes right again. The x, y, z trio glides in an utterly natural way, flowing through state space on the Lorenz attractor, the picture of chaotic grace.

But what is so sinister here, and so eerie, is that y and z have now been turned into pods themselves. Unwittingly, they are now dancing in perfect sync with their own doppelgängers, y’ and z’, variables they have never encountered. Somehow, though the sole influence of the teleported x’, subtle information has been conveyed about the remote y’ and z’ as well, enough to lock the receiver to the driver. Now all three variables x, y, and z have been commandeered. The unseen driver is calling the tune.

— pp. 196-7


So far, chaos-based methods have proved disappointingly weak. Kevin Short, a mathematician at the University of New Hampshire, has shown how to break nearly every chaotic code proposed to date. When he unmasked the Lorenzian chaos of Cuomo and Oppenheim, his results set off a mini-arms race among nonlinear scientists, as researchers tried to develop ever more sophisticated schemes. But so far the codebreakers are winning.

— pg. 204

The obvious conclusion is that each variable in these specialized systems in fact encodes the entirety of the system. From a mathematical perspective, I admire the ingenuity required to come up with this sort of scheme. From a metaphysical perspective, though, it’s hard not to find this whole thing vaguely unsettling. After all, people usually respond in fairly predictable ways to outside stimuli. The point I guess I’m stumbling towards is this: the idea that a chaotic system in which the actors respond in predictable ways to the other actors could lead to the sort of lockstep mirroring described above seems, at least to me, to say something very pertinent to the whole determinism/free will debate. Admittedly, the eerieness is largely due to Strogatz’ metaphor, but the fact that the y and z variables, thinking themselves to be operating independently of the y’ and z’ variables, would ultimately end up mirroring those same variables simply because they followed the same rules in reacting to the x/x’ variable is pretty fascinating.

What I’m not trying to do is say that this sort of thing settles the determinism/free will debate. Rather, I’m just pointing out that these new mathematics give new insight into ways in which seemingly independent activity can yield identical results. And, although these are admittedly specialized cases, it’s somewhat surprising (at least on an intuitive level) that there are any circumstances in which variables seemingly reacting to another variable’s independent activities would, in fact, end up exactly duplicating the variables to which that wild variable was itself reacting. The result, of course, being a system in which all three seemed to be mutually reacting, while in fact one was paying no attention at all to the other two. In other words, one has to wonder, at least a little bit, in what direction causality points, exactly.

June 04, 2004

Regrettably necessary

Posted by shonk at 04:38 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

First off, I want to apologize again for the lack of content around here recently. Being on vacation for the last few weeks has made regular updating difficult, but during the last eight days I’ve endured multiple migraines on all but two of the days. Which makes it sort of hard to think very clearly or write very effectively. Anyway, I got some new drugs from my doctor today, so hopefully the migraines will soon recede.

Okay, what was I going to talk about? Oh, yeah, politics. Somehow, despite the fact that I hate politics, especially party politics and especially this year’s version, I seem to be uncontrollably drawn to some sort of weird punditry every couple of weeks. This round’s inspiration are the dual pillars of madness and genius embodied by The Onion and Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of Journalism. Reversing the order of discussion and thereby causing no end of anguish to my tenth-grade English teacher (if she’s reading this, anyway), those who pay any attention to the Books page have no doubt noticed that I’m currently reading Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, which is, more or less, a collection of the biweekly articles he wrote on the ‘72 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone.

Needless to say, those looking for “objective” journalism should look somewhere elsewhere than Thompson. In fact, in his own words:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Anyway, the point of that little tangent is to say that Thompson, as should surprise nobody familiar with his work, has no qualms about projecting himself into his articles on the campaign, no problem with stating his opinions directly and pursuing his biases openly. Though I haven’t even reached the Democratic Convention yet, one of the main themes of the book is obviously the problem that, in 1972, a lot of people cared more about defeating Nixon than about any particular opposition candidate. Which was the primary reason the apparently Ibogaine-dependent Ed Muskie was crowned in 1971 as the Democratic front-runner solely on the basis of the opinion that he was “the only man who can defeat Nixon”. Needless to say, one sees some immediate parallels to the current election.

In fact, the parallels are quite overt. The situation in Iraq is small potatoes compared to what was going on in Vietnam in 1972, but the fact remains that in both cases America was involved in a military conflict in southern Asia. In both cases, the incumbent is a Republican who had succeeded a southern Democratic predecessor, but in neither case had the incumbent defeated his predecessor in an election. Cynics can, no doubt, fill in their own table of similarities between George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon.

Early in the book, when it appears obvious that Thompson’s favored candidate (McGovern) will be an also-ran in the Democratic primaries, he has this to say on the whole process:

How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?

Hmm…sound familiar? As it turned out, in ‘72, the choices actually ended up being fairly disparate, with the anti-war and semi-radical McGovern getting stomped by tricky Dick. In ‘04, on the other hand, it looks like we will face down exactly what Thompson was most horrified by, the necessity of choosing the lesser of two evils, of choosing which rich, white, middle-aged member of Skull & Bones will be the president for the next four years (or at least until the winner is impeached, which somehow strikes me as likely and fits in nicely with my 1972 parallels).

In fact, that’s precisely what caught my eye in The Onion this week. After I got done chuckling at the caption “Shotgun Blast To Abdomen Just Pisses Wilfred Brimley Off More”, I had to admit that the article “Many Americans Still Unsure Whom to Vote Against” (archived) pretty much hits the nail on the head:

According to the poll, 46 percent of the registered voters surveyed would vote against Bush if the election were held tomorrow, while 45 percent said they were ready to vote against Kerry. Factoring in the 2 percent margin of error, the two candidates are essentially deadlocked in the race to determine which candidate America doesn’t support.

Of course, I find it all deliciously ironic. People who claim to care about social justice, egalitarianism and pacifism will be voting for John Kerry, who in addition to being a part of the elite of the elite for his entire life is notoriously difficult to pin down on just what, exactly, he thinks ought to be done in Iraq (pretty much the same thing Bush thinks, as it turns out). On the other hand, people who came to care about free markets, freedom and smaller government will probably cast their votes for Bush, who is not only a mercantilist of the old school, but passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act (which Kerry, and the rest of the chumps in Congress, voted for but now hypocritically denounces, by the way) and has increased federal spending like it was going out of fashion (which is ironic, because it never seems to).

Anyway, the point is that nobody, but nobody, who votes in this year’s election is going to be voting for a candidate with which they agree with on more than half the issues. Actually, let me re-phrase that: Nobody with half a brain who votes, etc. In other words, the president, whoever it ends up being, does not accurately represent the citizenry.

And yes, I’m well aware that this isn’t exactly a startling insight. But it still needs to be said, as plainly and as often as possible. Oh yeah, and one more thing: voting is a sucker’s bet. You’re about as likely to get run over by a car on the way to the polling booth as to cast the deciding ballot in the upcoming election (pdf file) and, let’s be honest, the difference between life and death is orders of magnitude larger than the difference between Bush and Kerry in the White House.

To complete the cycle, a couple more relevant quotes from the book:

But this is stone bullshit. There are only two ways to make it in big-time politics today: One is to come on like a mean dinosaur, with a high-powered machine that scares the shit out of your entrenched opposition (like Daley or Nixon)…and the other is to tap the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told that you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

— pg. 73

The latest craze on the local [Washington, D.C.] high-life front is mixing up six or eight aspirins in a fresh Coca-Cola and doing it all at once. Far more government people are into this stuff than will ever admit to it. What seems like mass paranoia in Washington is really just a sprawling, hyper-tense boredom—and the people who actually live and thrive here in the great web of Government are the first ones to tell you, on the basis of long experience, that the name or even the Party Affiliation of the next President won’t make any difference at all, except on the surface.

The leaves change, they say, but the roots stay the same.

— pg. 90

June 01, 2004

Revenge of the Greeks

Posted by Curt at 05:15 PM in Sports | permalink | 9 comments

It’s something of a mystery to me how a magazine with political editorializing as craven and sectarian as The Weekly Standard’s is able to not infrequently dig up excellent pieces of general cultural criticism, like this piece on Greek athletics. The author wins some easy points by observing, for example, that:

“The idea that the ancient games were apolitical celebrations of amateurism, for instance, is an invention of the late Victorians, who projected their idealizations of the Greeks back onto a reality that was as obsessed with money and prestige as our own times.”

It is especially amusing to me that he actually calculates out the amount that some athletes were able to earn from the more high-paying competitions, such as one competitor who supposedly earned the equivalent of $44 million during the course of his career. I suspect that the means of arriving at this sum is nowhere near sophisticated enough to accurately yield a sum this precise, but nevertheless it is useful for exposing the fatuousness of the envy-disguised-as-virtue of those who cannot stand the thought of others earning so much more than them and cloak this envy in the fradulent cult of amateurism which is supposed to have defined sports since the days of ancient Greece. As I have said before, whether or not it is “fair” that certain athletes earn so much more money than, say, elementary school teachers is totally irrelevant, as athletic compensation, unlike teacher compensation, is not at all coercive or publicly mandated, but rather simply a factor of people’s personal preferences about where they wish to distribute their money. There is even some meritocratic justification for this state of affairs, as only the best athletes become wealthy, whereas every teacher (apart from professors) is essentially paid equally.

Anyway, back to the article. This puncturing of the phony moral purity of amateur sports and the Greek athletic tradition is well-taken, but not a very profound point. Here is the true awakening paragraph of the article:

“None of the ancient competitive events involved team sports. Only individuals competed against other individuals, the athlete depending solely on his own ability and drive to win the crown that would be denied to all the rest—which is, one recalls, the universal condition of the leading characters in the tragic plays that filled the Greek stage. Greek tragedy always presents the isolated protagonist who must bear alone the burden of trying to achieve and then living with the unforeseen consequences of that success and the high cost of his aspirations.”

This is really a significant point, and one I don’t think I have ever heard articulated in quite this way. As much as people blather about our supposed American hyper-individualism, if this point about Greek athletics is true, as I suspect that it is, in sports as well perhaps as in other realms the Greeks glorified individuality far more than us, for while a Greek charioteer, for instance, represented his city, he also competed by and for himself, with all the responsbility of success or failure lodged solely upon his head. In so many of our sports, by contrast, we relentlessly emphasize the preeminence of the team, the group, the herd, to which every thing must be subordinated. I am not sure what the relative values of these two models are, but being a misanthrope myself, and having throughout my childhood been quite torn between my love of sports and my frequent loathing for teammates with whom I was supposed to cooperate and for whom I was supposed to sacrifice myself, it is encouraging to think that perhaps once upon a time individualism was the founding philosophy of sports rather than virtually the antithesis of its ideals.

On the other hand, I am pretty dubious about the author’s subsidiary point that this apotheosis of individual achievement represented an “aristocratic” temperament in Greek society which conflicted with the “radical egalitarianism” which arose during this period and led to the birth of democracy. Even putting aside the minor point that democracy was a purely Athenian institution and hence this “conflict” probably did not even exist on a societal level for the vast majority of Greeks, I am fairly suspicious about the idea of either the use of sports as a metaphor for elitism or its conflict with “egalitarianism.” In defense of his thesis about athletic individualism as a manifestation of aristocratic distinction, he claims:

“In ancient Athens, athletic competition embodied the conflicted feelings the non-nobles had for the aristocrats. On the one hand, the nobles, though possessing no more political power than the masses, nonetheless retained the glamour and allure of unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority.”

I do not see how “unique achievement and excellence owed not to law or procedure but to sheer superiority” can at all be construed as “aristocratic” distinction. In fact, artistocratic distinctions seem to me to be inherently “owed…to law or procedure”; the converse of this would be a true meritocracy, which seems much less threatening to the notion of equality, unless one presumes that all achievement, all “superiority,” is a result of purely genetic endowment or divine ordinance. On the other hand, if one believes in the innate equality of all men, it is perfectly easy to reconcile this view with the idea of meritocratic superiority, because if all are created equal, all acheivements must be the result of the indvidual’s striving, not of some inherited talents. I myself am at all sure of the merits of the idea of fundamental equality or whether human achievements are primarily a result simply of inherited factors, but the point is that the sheer existence of meritocratic distinction and the idea of fundamental equality are not contradictory.

I also find this contention by the author extremely silly:

“A consequence of egalitarianism is a leveling of the citizens, a reduction of the distinctions based on talent and ability that give the lie to absolute equality. So relentless is this process that in Athens, Plato only half-joked, “horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.”“

The obvious question is, if egalitarianism really can cause “a reduction of…distinctions based on talent and ability,” than how is it that the existence of these distinctions “give[s] the lie to absolute equality”? Assuming that we discard the spurious qualifier “absolute,” which the author seems to throw in as a straw man to make egalitarianism seem more ridiculous, it would seem to me that if egalitarianism really does erode meritocratic distinctions, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and hence is not “given the lie” to by those distinctions which for the most part no longer exist. So the author wants to have it both ways, but in reality it would seem that either egalitarianism really can erode distinction, in which case it is not contradicted by any cold, hard realities of the world, or it does not, in which case it is hardly a threat to the very concept of distinction, as Plato, Aristotle (and the article author) seem to think it is.

Of course, although he argues against egalitarianism on the basis of its supposed inefficacity, like people who do not eat meat because they think it is immoral but try to sell vegetarianism to others based on its supposed health benefits, I suspect the real objection the author has to egalitarianism is not that he thinks it will not work but because he, like probably the majority of the readership of The Weekly Standard, thinks some people simply are superior to others and that society should be stratified accordingly. Of course, he doesn’t actually have the courage to say this, other than quoting Plato about “horses and asses…marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen.” Neverthless, when he claims at the end that he finds it to be a “tragic truth” that “We all aren’t winners, and we all don’t deserve prizes,” I find this lament to be all crocodile tears. I don’t think that he finds this “truth” at all tragic; I think that he thinks that this is exactly as things should be.


Posted by shonk at 04:20 AM in Bitching and Moaning | permalink | comment

I apologize for the lack of content this weekend. Aside from the fact that Curt and I were both stuck in dial-up land, I was laid up for most of the weekend with three straight days of migraines. Hopefully, new content later today.