"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information." --George Orwell
"Anbody can make history. Only a great man can write it."--Oscar Wilde
Saturday, August 02, 2003
Someday, when I'm really old and actually have some free time, I'll make it a practice to read more books than book reviews. But for now:
(sigh) When I run a grad school of my own, I'll require every student to read at least one book a week that has nothing to do with his or her research.
One of Bruno Bettelheim's patients has written a memoir.
It's amazing how, when you're tired, the most obvious headline can seem baffling. Consider this one from today's Boston Globe: "Classified pages implicate Saudis." For a moment after reading it, I had this weird image of a classified ad requesting help with explosives, or something odd along those lines. I guess that's still more evidence that I'm an Ed of little brain.
An exhibition of avant-garde Russian art has opened in St.-Paul-de-Vence, France. I won't comment on whether the article has an appropriate headline: Katerina Clark would have far more to say on that subject than I do.
The Washington Times has published a review of David Gilmour's new Curzon biography. As a review of the book, it was competent but not outstanding: its author sometimes seemed not to understand that many people have a far more negative opinion of Curzon than he did.
Every so often, however, the reviewer wrote something that grabbed my attention:
This reads to me like a fair judgment of Curzon's travel writing, and a decent summary of conventional Victorian views of the world. It also made me wonder whether the author of this review could have done more justice to another book: this essay is mostly bland, with occasional points of interest, but anyone who has read Arthur Koestler's travel writings from Central Asia must be an interesting person. (For all I knew, Koestler had only written Darkness at Noon, The God that Failed, and a bunch of crazy stuff about mental telepathy and parapsychology.) Then again, I don't expect greatness from the book reviews in The Washington Times.
I'm always amused when the editors of blatantly satirical material feel the need to emblazon their work with the word "parody." Then again, when your subject is Ann Coulter, sometimes it's hard to tell satire from reality.
Denis Thatcher amuses me. I wonder what America's first "first husband" will be like.
Mirrors are more interesting than you'd think.
Did the Orientalist views of Western scholars help justify the Iraq war? Not surprisingly, Edward Said thinks so.
I've never had a straightforward reaction to Said's Orientalism, but I enjoyed this essay. (Call me a hopeless romantic, but I can't help but enjoy an essay expressing sentiments like this: "To young people of the current generation the very idea of philology suggests something impossibly antiquarian and musty, but philology in fact is the most basic and creative of the interpretive arts.") Some of Said's arguments seem indisputable to me:
Other passages seem less straightforward:
The first sentence strikes me as a valid indictment of part of this country's intellectual establishment. The second sentence strikes me as over-the-top: though the motives of the war were highly ideological, I'm not convinced that "world dominance" was the main goal of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and their allies. Simplistic language like this, I would argue, hurts the cause of critics of the war more than it helps them.
What interests me most, however, is Said's argument about the relationship of knowledge and empire:
I don't think I've done this essay justice (in fact, I may revise this entry after reading the article again or reviewing my notes on Orientalism, since it feels like a trite book report by an undergrad), but I think that the relationship between academia and the goals of the state is a topic that every historian who works with non-American history should consider carefully. My own field, Soviet history, was closely intertwined with the foreign policy establishment for most of the Cold War era. (Perhaps the best-known American historian of the Soviet Union--Richard Pipes--worked for the Reagan administration, and even today, my funding as a grad student comes from a Cold War-era federal government program.) In Soviet studies, one could argue that the goals of academia were shaped too strongly by the imperatives of American foreign policy. It became too easy either to adopt a pro-U.S. "totalitarian" line or to expend energy challenging that line, leaving other questions unexplored.
I'm very glad to be working in a less politicized atmosphere today, though I'm sure that current events make Middle Eastern history an exciting field for today's historians.
Now that Tony Blair has passed Clement Attlee as the Labour party prime minister with the longest uninterrupted tenure in office, The Guardian compares the Britain of 1951 to the Britain of today.
In These Times features a review of a book on FDR's geographer. (via Arts and Letters Daily)
It's a fascinating read. I had no idea that the "discovery" of Macchu Picchu was mostly a publicity stunt (and that the location of the city was widely known in the area); Isaiah Bowman, the subject of the book, participated in that expedition, and later helped to redraw the borders of Europe "scientifically" as a member of the American delegation to Versailles. He later served as head of the Council on Foreign Relations and president of Johns Hopkins, and was then chosen to "scientifically" manage the Jewish refugee problem during World War II. Suffice it to say that neither attempt at "scientific" policy-making was a success.
What do Americans think about religion?
The New York Times has published a fascinating article by Douglas Brinkley about recent attempts to track the authorship of works produced under the Depression-era Federal Writers Project.
One problem was that many authors (like John Cheever and Saul Bellow) were ashamed of their connections to the W.P.A.:
Researchers are also plagued by more infuriating obstacles:
The article is well worth a read. You should also check out Languagehat's entry on the Federal Writers Project, which includes a link to the American Memory section of the Library of Congress website.
Friday, August 01, 2003
Christopher Hitchens asks a question that's been bugging me the last week or so: Did Bob Hope ever say anything funny?
Personally, I think The New York Times (or some other prominent newspaper) should hire Hitchens as an obituary writer. When he's not pretending to be George Orwell, Hitchens can be a clever writer--and he clearly enjoys bringing beloved figures down a notch or two. Perhaps Hitchens should forget about Orwell and try to channel the spirit of H.L. Mencken (who wrote nasty obituaries of lots of people, not just of William Jennings Bryan.)
Hunter S. Thompson's obituary of Richard Nixon is another great read. (It was published in Rolling Stone, but is now available on The Atlantic's website for some reason. You should read it in its entirety.) The obituary includes its share of amusing passages:
It also includes a passage that's either profound or silly--I can never tell which:
Subjective Journalism (to paraphrase Thompson, odd capitalization and all) is a skill at which Christopher Hitchens excels. I'd much rather see him writing entertaining obituaries--or, failing that, articles like the Slate piece I link to above--than see him lambaste the left unfairly or pretend that all liberals should reflexively support the second Iraq war. Maybe, if we're lucky, he'll find a new journalistic calling.
Victor Davis Hanson has published a review of Paul Johnson's Napoleon biography in the Claremont Review of Books.
This is the sort of review that is difficult to judge fairly--especially for someone like me, who knows practically nothing about Napoleon. The best way to describe the article is to call it a polemical defense of a polemical book. Davis makes sweeping statements, declaring that "Napoleon and Alexander were money-driven thieves par excellence, perhaps the difference being only that the looted imperial treasuries at Susa, Babylon, and Persepolis yielded more specie than the Swiss banks at Berne." Discussing one of the seminal events of world history, he writes "Lest we think napoleon [sic] perverted the French Revolution's idealism, we should remember that he in some sense embodied the very brutality of that entirely unnecessary event." And, like so many commentators writing on French matters these days, Davis can't help but comment on contemporary affairs:
I've never been terribly impressed by Paul Johnson--he seems much more effective as a conservative polemicist than as a real historian. The Conservative Book Club advertises his Napoleon biography as "informative reading for every conservative who wants to keep the Left from repeating its twentieth century errors in the twenty-first," which wouldn't exactly draw me to the book even if I were a conservative. A 1998 Slate review of one of his books sums up his approach to history well (almost too charitably):
Victor Davis Hanson, on the other hand, strikes me as a more serious figure--but that's true when he's writing about hoplites, not when he's writing off the French Revolution as "unnecessary." (The Boston Globe ideas section recently published a profile of Hanson, available here.) His review is successful as a polemic, but should never be read as deep scholarship, and though Hanson is a learned man, he should not automatically be considered an expert on matters outside his field.
And yet both Johnson and Hanson have won over a large chunk of the reading public, convincing otherwise sensible reviewers of their great erudition and amazing versatility. National Review, for example, ranked Johnson's Modern Times eleventh on its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the twentieth century, which is simply ridiculous. (All of the books in the top ten, and most in the next ten, are reasonably plausible, if slanted toward the right, but the inclusion of Modern Times is just silly.) Hanson is viewed in similarly reverential terms by many on the right.
This bothers me, and right off, I can't think of an equivalent figure to Hanson or Johnson on the left. Perhaps this is because academic historians tend to be liberal, leaving an opening for a conservative non-establishment historian/journalist to make waves (and allowing cranky conservatives to vent about "slanted history" when they read works by those who share their biases.) But it seems that there should be some comparable figure on the left--a historian (or journalist) with a reputation for erudition, a frenetic schedule of publishing, a willingness to air his views in popular magazines and journals, and a goal of spreading a liberal view of politics and culture. I just can't think of someone who fits that description.
An instructive counterpoint to Hanson and Johnson from the left, I would argue, is Douglas Brinkley--a very prolific historian with some talent as a scholar, and with a driving need to publish readable books that will establish his reputation. Brinkley is sometimes said to want to be the next Arthur Schlesinger, but his work--to my knowledge--has no clear political agenda. Moreover, he's as well known for publicly mourning JFK Jr. than for his scholarly output or his political views. His book are reviewed approvingly, but not reverentially, by reviewers around the country. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that liberal popular historians aim for celebrity status, and conservative writers on history aim to change the world?
I find this situation a little disturbing. Perhaps this is just the result of two unhappy facts: too few academics are willing to write for the general public, and academia is often judged (fairly or unfairly) as liberal. When a prolific conservative writer or historian gives an impression of erudition and begins to win attention in the public sphere, he's treated reverentially and given far more attention than he deserves. I guess this just makes the work of other historians all the more difficult.
The New York Times has published another analysis of the futures market in terrorism. The more I read about it, the more I think that it wasn't a bad idea. It wasn't necessarily a great idea--I doubt that it would have greatly aided us against terrorists--but at its worst it would have been harmless.
At least the market idea ended John Poindexter's current stint in government--but I'm afraid it led to the firing of the right man for the wrong reasons.
Is kindness toward animals a luxury of the wealthy West? The people who care about the stray cats of Tbilisi don't think so.
What language do Russian animals speak?
Michele Berdy, the author of this article and the article on Russian interjections I linked to last week, writes a regular column for The Moscow Times. Earlier this summer she reviewed a charming Russian movie, Beloe solntse pustyni. (Well, it's charming until everyone gets shot at the end, but that's another story.) A Berdy article from Valentine's Day discusses Russian as the language of love. Yet another Berdy column from this summer explains how to ask for things in Russian.
Still more evidence that Larry King is a moron.
The Danube: river of blood or river of hope?
Is promiscuity innate?
Did Joseph Stalin order the assassination of John Wayne?
A new book says that he did. But, as The Guardian reports, Wayne decided to act on his own when he learned about the order:
I love the image of John Wayne fighting the reds in real life, and not just fighting bad guys on the silver screen, but I'm somewhat skeptical of this report. One of the main sources was Orson Welles, who wasn't exactly a noted Sovietologist. Given Stalin's personality (and the decline in his health in the years before his 1953 death), I can't rule this story out, but there are plenty of questionable theories about Stalin-ordered assassinations (Kirov, Gorky) that are far more plausible but still unlikely.
Thursday, July 31, 2003
Still more proof that James Thurber is really cool can be found in today's New York Times:
He wrote 1,200 letters a year?! I don't even write that many email messages a year, and Thurber's email would undoubtedly be wittier than mine.
Earlier this week, David Greenberg published a smart New York Times op-ed piece on Jeb Stuart Magruder's recent claim that Nixon had approved the Watergate break-in:
Of course, writing the paragraph above didn't stop Greenberg from providing a sensible analysis of Magruder's claim, with some colorful details on Nixon's attitude to the break-in. I'll look forward to his book when it comes out this fall.
The British historian Niall Ferguson will be joining Harvard's faculty. The hiring is being treated like a major coup.
I've never known what to make of Ferguson. He made his reputation with a series of books on economic history (unread by me) and made waves with his contrarian history of World War I, The Pity of War. The only book of his I've read (in part) is Virtual History, which struck me as more clever than insightful. (I've seen more intelligent analyses of the role of chaos in history, but Ferguson's chapters in Virtual History weren't bad.) My sense is that his latest book (Empire) isn't an especially deep work of history, but just might be a good read. I probably wouldn't like Ferguson's politics much, and I think he's at least as famous for his celebrity status as he is for his scholarship, but that doesn't mean that he hasn't done some interesting work.
For people interested in more information about Ferguson, here's a profile from the Telegraph. Robert Fulford, a Canadian journalist, wrote a series of articles on Ferguson for The National Post. Here's an interview with Ferguson from Tech Central Station, and here's a "digested read" of Empire from The Guardian. It amused me.
The BBC reports on the restoration of Red Square. Rock concerts and tank parades are hard on venerable old buildings, it seems.
Der Spiegel has an insightful profile of Tony Blair. Here's one interesting passage (part of it irritatingly written in the present tense):
The article ends with a British joke about Blair's popularity abroad and relative lack of interest in domestic affairs: "There is one thing that differentiates our Prime Minister from the Almighty, they say: God is everywhere. Blair is also everywhere, just not in Great Britain."
Mel Gibson is a scary man. The New Republic has finally posted its article on Gibson's anti-historical, anti-Semitic, graphically violent film about the crucifixion. The article is long and worth reading in full. But here's an excerpt if you don't have much time:
The article goes on to describe the ultra-conservative politics of Gibson's father (who considers the current pope illegitimate and doesn't think the Holocaust happened) and describes Gibson's own right-wing Catholic views and his quarrels with scholars who tried to make the film more accurate.
What do you do with the bodies of bad guys? There's been some debate on what to do with the bodies of the Hussein brothers, and Mussolini's corpse presented its share of problems.
Is it better to be read than dead? Peter Ackroyd thinks so, according to this review of his latest historical novel in The Times Literary Supplement. Stephen Abell, the reviewer, isn't a huge fan of the book:
Anyone out there read any Ackroyd? I've heard good things about his book on London, and have been tempted to read some of his fiction.
The concept of honor is a growing academic interest of mine--especially as it shapes the acceptable code of conduct of members of select groups. (The people whose behavior I'm most interested in, of course, are Communist party members.) I was struck by an article on honor (found via Arts and Letters Daily that appeared in The London Telegraph. It's worth reading for the first paragraph alone:
I'm not sure I buy the article's argument as far as foreign policy goes:
I'm not convinced that "credibility" and "honor" are exactly comparable terms, and I don't buy the idea that honor-based rhetoric has "spearheaded America's recent wars." This rhetoric has sometimes justified such wars, but has never driven them, I would argue. I would also question the idea that "George W. Bush could not allow Saddam to continue humiliating his country. Only war could satisfy honour." If George W. Bush was concerned about anyone's humiliation, it was his father's--not his country's or the U.N.'s. The main factor driving this country toward war was a neo-conservative plan to reshape the Middle East, coupled with legitimate concerns about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Archaeology magazine weighs in on the new Lara Croft movie. Will the discipline of archaeology survive in its wake?
Personally, I've always wanted to see a fourth Indiana Jones movie, in which the aged title character hobbles around an archaeological site hunting for broken pots and battles the evils of arthritis--before making a grand appearance at an academic conference. (Sure, we could throw in some Nazis, too.) But something tells me that the creators of Indy 4--if it ever does come out--will be disinclined to break with Hollywood tradition.
Archaeology's interview on Iraqi antiquities with an Oriental Institute scholar is also worth reading.
The Blog of Death really intrigues me: it even has a great name! I tend to doubt that the obituaries it publishes will be as marvelous as those written by Robert McG. Thomas of The New York Times, however.
The obituaries available on the site today commemorate Frederic Bradlee (a Broadway-actor-turned-writer who was the brother of The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee), the Hussein brothers, the radio DJ who inspired Dr. Johnny Fever on "WKRP in Cincinnati," and many more. None of the obits are spectacularly written, but they're worth a quick look.
In These Times features a left-wing critique of liberal interventionist foreign policy. It's the sort of article that hawkish liberals like me should read.
A travel writer for The Christian Science Monitor describes Berlin's Museuminsel--probably the most fantastic museum complex I've ever been to. These museums deserve far more recognition than they've gotten.
Jacques Barzun is a charming man. Consider these quotations:
I'd like the Hegel clerihew a little better if good old G.W.F. really had invented the bagel, but all these quotations amused me. If you're as charmed by Barzun as I am, then go out and buy A Barzun Reader. Either that, or I might lend it to you when I'm done reading it if you ask me really nicely.
The tone of this article on math camps bothers me a little, but I can't put my finger on why.
I find this oddly intriguing: if you look at the website for The Washington Times (a conservative DC daily), you can find links to individual sections on a sidebar on the left. These include all the standard newspaper sections--the front page, nation/politics, world news, op-ed, metropolitan, sports, entertainment, and technology--and one heading that really surprised me: the Civil War. It seems that the paper has an article or two on the war each week, including some interesting stuff. One profile described the post-war reputation of James Longstreet, a Confederate general-turned-Republican. Another piece describes "Our American Cousin," the play Lincoln was watching when he was shot. This week's installment describes the evolution of the Union cavalry's skills and leadership, and other articles describe Newt Gingrich's Gettysburg novel and the career of former National Park Service historian Ed Bearss.
Is the DC area loaded with Civil War buffs? Is an important Washington Times editor an avid reader of war scholarship? Does the paper have an agenda in publishing these articles? I haven't read the section carefully enough to check for bias, but I'm always glad to see history given a high profile in our country's newspapers.
Benjamin Franklin: bourgeois revolutionary? Robin Blackburn reviews two new Franklin biographies in The Nation.
I sometimes feel bad for Edmund Morgan. He's an eminent historian who published a well-received biography of Franklin--only to see Walter Isaacson, a journalist with no real history training, publish another biography that gets far more attention (despite receiving at least some criticism from professional historians.) I haven't seen a comparison of the two books' sales, and I don't want to sound like an elitist who doesn't think that journalists can write history, but this seems like an unfortunate case of bad timing.
Libraries are cool.
Does Tony Blair understand history? Linda Colley, a prominent British historian, doesn't think so. The British prime minister, Colley argues, simply doesn't see the importance of history: "For Blair, the past is irrelevant, because this is a new world facing entirely new dangers." He could have learned a valuable lesson from the work of Richard Hofstadter:
There's something to this, I think, but I'm a little wary of Colley's argument: ultimately, there just isn't a lot of substance to it. History is, of course, important, and I wish that Blair weren't quite so eager to follow Bush's lead. But I'd have been more convinced by Colley's essay if it had argued that the best way to understand what's going on now is to understand the Muslim/Arab past, or if it had better explained the specific lessons history teaches us today. It's easy to criticize someone for historical ignorance when they follow a policy you don't favor. It's harder to build a convincing case for exactly what they should do, under the same circumstances, if they are truly students of the past.
Update: An op-ed in today's New York Times does a more effective job of explaining how the lessons of the past can help policymakers. The authors look at the U.S. experience occupying Okinawa and describe how lessons from that occupation could help shape Iraq policy.
The New York Times has published an article on "the fudge factor" at museums: in the quest to lure in more visitors, museums are turning to fluffier and sillier exhibits. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, has now opened an exhibition on chocolate--giving visitors the opportunity to watch "chocolatiers" mold chocolate animals and combining serious exhibits on the food's history with "testimonials about the pleasures of chocolate."
I wrote a short article on this issue when I worked at The American Prospect, and the issue is just as relevant today. Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, for example, is now featuring an exhibit on Monster Trucks. I don't want to sound too much like a snob--there's something to be said for bringing in new visitors with untraditional exhibits, after all--but I think things have gone a little too far.
What I'd really like to know, however, is the reason that museums are now desperate for money--and a history of when this decline began. Has attendance slipped? Has government funding gone down? Are private philanthropists feeling less generous? I suspect that each of these explanations is partially true, and I'd rather read a serious article explaining these questions in detail than see another fluffy general interest story on the cute "chocolatiers" at the American Museum.
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Why make history when you can write it? A former police colonel who once served as the deputy head of Russia's Presidential Security Service is now helping to publish controversial memoirs and biographies illuminating post-Soviet history.
Mark Steyn is a Canadian journalist and writer--a conservative who likes to think he's amusing and who has quite a following among the right-of-center readers of American blogs. I've never really understood his appeal. His writing has often struck me as trite and his humor has seemed underwhelming. From what I've seen so far, his politics have been straightforwardly supportive of the war on terror, with little nuance or insight but lots of strong rhetoric. (Like many conservative columnists, he seems to think that he understands the evils of the twentieth century--Nazism and Stalinism--and hence has the perfect perspective on the dangers of Islamic terrorism.)
I was struck by this recent Steyn offering: a profile of one of the century's most despicable leaders, Idi Amin. The column was more snappily written than a lot of Steyn articles I've seen--perhaps a sign that I should familiarize myself with his writing before judging him too harshly, or maybe evidence that even a hack can sometimes turn out a well-crafted paragraph or two. Then again, Steyn also produces passages like this:
That second sentence is a little tough to parse: Steyn seems too eager to show off his supposed wit and too slow to recognize that good writing doesn't magically appear when you cram as many words as possible into one sentence.
But enough about Steyn's style. The article itself is informative and interesting, but ultimately I'm really not sure what its point is. The tone seems self-congratulatory and snide. As I've written before, almost no one will joke about Hitler's genocide, but Steyn has no problem making light of Idi Amin's dark side. Maybe I'm being too fussy and even Nazi jokes should be okay, but Steyn's humor just doesn't seem very funny.
What struck me most about Steyn's article, though, was its attitude toward Africa. In one revealing passage, he writes:
This may well be true. But, in a sense, I think that Steyn's article reveals a more subtle sort of the same "bigotry." Steyn is quick to point to colorful details about Amin's horrific rule, but his article doesn't seem to have a point beyond "Aren't these evil African dictators crazy?" (Perhaps I should drop the word "African" from that last sentence--or maybe not.) Consider this passage:
Steyn obviously isn't letting Amin off the hook here--quite the contrary, in fact. But he dwells on grisly individual acts rather than on the big picture. The expulsion of Uganda's Asian population was a horrendous human tragedy--and all Steyn tells us about it is that it resulted in the country's economic ruin. He mentions that 300,000 Ugandans died during Amin's rule, but never tells us why. Instead, he describes a handful of ghastly cases of his cruelty that don't begin to tell us about what Amin did to his country. I wish that Steyn had spent as much time explaining why 300,000 Ugandans were killed as he did writing about how Amin liked to take Western expatriates hostage.
If a historian wrote a profile of Stalin that mentioned the millions of deaths he caused, but then dwelled on how he drove his wife to suicide and how he had Trotsky and Bukharin killed, he'd be missing the point completely. Why not tell about the larger context in which the Old Bolsheviks were purged? Why not write about the many other victims of the purges, the fate of Russia's kulaks (rich peasants), or the evils of forced collectivization? Steyn's profile has no larger point than to provide us with colorful details of a dictator's cruelty. He says that "Amin remains the best of the post-colonial jokes," but tells us little about his legacy. I don't want to sound like I think Steyn is a racist--I know nothing about his views at all--but he sounds like the sort of man who believes that colorful evil of the variety practiced by Idi Amin is just the sort of thing that pops up from time to time throughout the world, and that the most proper response from Westerners is to laugh about it.
Addendum: I don't want to overplay race in my critique of Steyn's article. From what I've read, I think that Steyn has a simplistic view of "the West" and an extremely unnuanced view of totalitarianism and "evil." For him, I wonder if it's enough to say that Idi Amin was a cruel man personally and to read all the effects of his rule as logical consequences of his personality, when I'm sure that more was at stake. Conservatives of his ilk are often willing to write off parts of the developing world as lacking in the "Western" virtues of democracy and hence to act unsurprised (or even amused) when tragic consequences ensue. The results of such an analysis are at best simplistic and at worst tasteless and arrogant.
Does Matt Ridley have a Wittgensteinian approach to the nature/nurture debate?
Via Universal Language, here's a Deutsche Welle article on efforts by teachers to "sex up" the German language and make it more attractive as an international language. (A link on that site led me to DW's Instant Germanizer. The fun goes on and on!)
Slate has just posted an article on a city I could conceivably travel to this summer: Ekaterinburg. (I'd be visiting the provincial party archive there, not the many local factories or the site of the murder of the former royal family. It's most likely that I'll go to a provincial city nearer to Moscow, though.)
What do you get when you mix rat brains, robots, and art?
Nina Berberova: a Russian Hemingway?
I have to admit that I've really never liked Hemingway. But perhaps I'll give Berberova a try.
The Tempo section in today's Chicago Tribune has a pair of fluffy but fascinating articles: a profile of an expert on crying and an interview related to the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962.
Fifty-five years after they began work on the authoritative Sanskrit dictionary, scholars have nearly finished work--on the first letter. (via The Corner, of all places)
Some people at the Pentagon have interesting minds: they want to develop a futures market in which investors can bet on the likelihood of terrorism, war, assassinations, and Middle Eastern chaos. Plans for the market have attracted a lot of criticism, and it seems that the idea has now been dropped.
This reminds me a little of the Iowa Electronic Markets, in which people can bet on electoral outcomes. (If I read the current prices correctly, investors think that some "other" candidate is the most likely to win the Democratic nomination, with John Kerry the second most-likely nominee.)
Are there other similar experiments in the market? Is there any evidence on whether, say, the Iowa market has any real predictive power? (Even if it does, I suspect that potential investors know more about American politics than about the plans of al-Qaeda terrorists.) If life were a bad science fiction novel, the terrorism futures market would thrive--and al-Qaeda would make a fortune from betting on its own plans. But somehow I don't think this market would thrive even if it were to be established.
Update: Lots of people have been discussing this issue, but Virginia Postrel posts to an article and a paper on the broader context of the debate. I'm somewhat skeptical of the idea, but my economics knowledge is shallow enough that it would take me too long to develop a vaguely rigorous critique. In any case, the idea of a futures market in terrorism strikes me as more harmless than tasteless (though it includes elements of both), and I think that the fiercest opposition to it is misplaced.
Update 2: Daniel Gross of Slate has weighed in on the issue, pointing out some obvious problems with it and discussing how the "dumb agent" theory might have affected the market. Slate's Brendan Koerner, meanwhile, has a list of online prediction markets.
Update 3: Yet another Slate article on the controversy.
Russia's rich youth: are they like a new nobility?
Evil is spreading in the world of mandated summer reading lists: I'd have been furious if my high school teachers had made me read Dave Eggers, Mary Higgins Clark, or John Grisham over the summer. Required summer reading lists are bad enough already...
Should Russia sell China a big chunk of Siberia? An author for Slate likes the idea. A Washington Post article discusses tensions between Russians and Chinese immigrants in the Russian Far East.
In Edge, Elaine Pagels discusses the politics of Christianity and Murray Gell-Mann describes the making of a physicist.
I may add some commentary (especially on the Pagels interview) when I've had a little time to think about it. Watch this space! For now, all I'll say is that Pagels is a really interesting woman--but the interview with her was pretty lame.
Have tourists ruined Florence?
Monday, July 28, 2003
One of my biggest pet peeves these days is the recent explosion in infantile criticism of the French. I have no particular interest in France or the French language, I think that France's position on the recent Iraqi war was self-interested and questionable on policy grounds, and I find German and Russian culture far more interesting. Nevertheless, I get really irritated when I hear whiny conservatives joke about how France has never won a war, when stupid and lazy writers recycle the same boring old cliches about French intellectuals, or when people who know nothing about history, culture, or language make fun of the Academie Francaise. (Not that I think that the Academie Francaise is always right--I just think that knowledge is a prerequisite for criticism.) I thought it was telling when a French joke appeared on The Simpsons last year: the joke was both a sign of the show's precipitous decline in quality and an indication of the type of person who finds French jokes amusing. (Homer Simpson claimed that the French didn't even have a word for victory, if I recall correctly; the sort of person who likes to laugh at the French, in my imagination anyway, is the sort of person who sits in front of the TV all day drinking beer and eating Doritos.)
The most recent relevant controversy, of course, is the debate over the use of the word "email." If you want an intelligent discussion of the question, go to the blogs Universal Language and Pedantry.
The Russian news agency Itar-Tass recently polled cabinet members on how they'll spend their vacations. If the poll response was any indication, Russia is led by ardent outdoorsmen--but The Moscow Times suggests that Russian politicians aren't nearly as talented at hunting and fishing as they like to let on:
"Hunting, fishing and Russian politics, mixed in equal parts, form a Harmonic Convergence of lying," the Moscow Times concludes. The whole article is worth a read.
A book of eye-witness accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto has now been published.
Byron as Cad: can evolutionary psychology enrich literary criticism?
(I just noticed that this is an old article: Philosophy and Literature either doesn'tupdate its website very often or isn't publishing any more. Either way, the article was interesting.)
The New Republic has an online debate about Howard Dean, featuring two political writers I like a lot: Jonathan Chait and Jonathan Cohn. So far, I think Chait (anti-Dean) has the upper hand, but I'll be reading with interest.
Here's a dull article on an important issue: the effect of budget cuts on state-run historical sites. Unfortunately, I think the problem will only grow in the years ahead.
Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle, was an interesting guy.
The Guardian reports on the controversy over Russia's high school literature syllabus.
The part of me that wanted to be an archaeologist when I was in the sixth grade finds this headline really intriguing:"Roman fingerprints found in 2,000-year-old cream."
Last week I commented on a Christian Science Monitor article that described a study on the relationship between professors' looks and teaching evaluations. Now The Washington Post has reported on the same study. (Scroll down to "Looking Good, Grading Well: Beautiful Teachers Score High.") (Link via Invisible Adjunct, which also has further commentary on the study.)
Sunday, July 27, 2003
It's history day at Mildly Malevolent! Blogging will be very light today, as I've predicted before. But here are some articles (mostly about history) that caught my eye:
I may have more commentary (or more links) after the tournament today. Or maybe not!