May 072003

Everyone stop reading and go over to the Blowhards to read their interview with architecture theorist — and I mean that in a good way — and Christopher Alexander disciple Nikos Salingaros. I can’t go down the line with Alexander, whose views are a bit totalitarian for my taste, though far less so than those of the people, like Corbusier, he’s trying to supplant, but Salingaros will refine your thoughts about architecture if nothing else. It’s a five-parter, best read in order. One, two, three, and four are up so far. Five will presumably follow shortly. Don’t miss the comments to Part Two, in which AC Douglas gets tossed for being, well, for being AC Douglas, mostly.

In unrelated news, just two short days after being accused of “stifling dissent,” I am now called a racist (“dim-witted” too, but that’s old news) for this. I’m still waiting on “fascist” and “Nazi,” but at this rate I expect to fill my bingo card by the end of the week.

May 062003

Dissent is always stifled, like a sneeze, or crushed, like a grape, and finally after months of trying I’ve managed to stifle some. A while back I complained about a silly anti-war poem by Sam Hamill, of Poets Against the War, not on the grounds that it was against the war, mind you, but on the grounds that it was bad — monumentally, embarrassingly, high-school-creative-writing-class bad. In fact I have argued elsewhere that the nature of poetry is such that any decent poem about war is likely to be anti.

Joel Peckham, who teaches English, God help us, at Georgia Military College, of all places, was undeterred.

It is always amazing to me that if an artist espouses a view that is not in keeping with the main current of American thought, he or she is considered out of touch or irrelevant. Articles like this reflect the diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today. Anti-war protesters have been called cynics. It is much more cynical to dismiss art because you don’t like what the artist has to say. There have been, of course, great anti-war poems written over the past 2000 years–and quite a bit of dreck. The anthology most likely includes a good deal of both genuine poetry and a good deal of simplistic thinking. What is good will survive, what is bad will not. I also find it humorous that people are so upset about this that they are writing anti-sam hamill articles in almost every major publication and in almost every article, the central argument is that the movement and the poets are irrelevant. Apparantly not.

As usual this article is simply another effort to stifle dissent. The worste art is not the kind that has “a message,” it is the kind that has none.

Pass over the dreadful writing (“diminishment of hope that exists in American Culture today”), the dreadful spelling (“worste” is probably a typo, but “apparantly” is not), and the dreadful thinking (“dissent” posited as a virtue, as if society were better off because some people believe that the earth is flat or that Walt Disney is living in suspended animation on the Spanish Riviera). The remarkable aspect of this is that it has nothing to do with what I wrote. I dismissed Hamill’s poem on literary grounds, grounds on which it is indefensible and Peckham does not bother to defend it. Hamill’s politics are ridiculous, and I said so, but Wallace Stevens’ philosophy is ridiculous too, and he wrote great poetry. Good poetry and “simplistic thinking” can coexist, despite Peckham’s insinuation to the contrary. Good poetry and bad writing cannot.

Nor did I argue that Poets Against the War are “irrelevant,” which requires an object in any case. Irrelevant to whether there would be war, certainly; irrelevant to the good name of poetry, certainly not.

We have in Peckham a textbook case of what I.A. Richards used to call the stock response, which is a bit different, psychologically, than the straw man. Knocking down the straw man is a diversionary tactic, employed by those who at least recognize what the real argument is. In the stock response, on the other hand, a reader reads one thing, convinces himself that it’s just like something he’s read before, and proceeds to reply vigorously to that other thing. It saves time, but it’s a form of local insanity.

Peckham turns out to be a poet himself, and a poet against the war too: who would have guessed? I can’t reprint his verses here, as they lack Hamill’s one conspicuous merit, brevity; but feel free to see for yourself. They’re little quietist numbers, written in Whitmanesque long lines, full of children and fish and tomato plants by whose mere invocation the reader is supposed to be moved. They’re better than one would expect from the above prose sample, and better than Hamill’s; they are not good. And before writing one ought to learn to read.

May 032003

Friday, 9:04 AM: My Linux server goes blooey without warning. This means my site is down, the sites of several people I serve for are down, the source control for the project I’m working on is down. It’s a catastrophe. Software Boy springs into action.

9:06 AM: Call hardware guru. Get phone machine.

9:12 AM: Trying to restart the box with the case open, I spot the problem: the CPU fan isn’t working. OK, could be worse.

9:42 AM: Back from Radio Shack with new CPU fan, out $22.95 plus tax for an item that costs about eight bucks on the Internet. Another buck for heat sink epoxy at my local computer repair joint.

9:47 AM: Following the instructions closely, I manage to remove the broken fan and install the new one, jabbing a screwdriver into the motherboard several times in the process.

10:06 AM: Miraculously, the fan starts. The box, however, does not.

10:06 AM to 10:32 AM: Try to start the box a few more times; dead screen. Sulk.

10:33 AM: Software Boy’s got the problem sussed: the fan must have been broken for a long time, and the processor itself finally overheated. New processor, problem solved.

10:39 AM: Back to shop, where I discuss the matter with the Chinese repair kid, who agrees that it’s probably the processor. He generously agrees to sell me a new one, but suggests I check the motherboard to make sure it’s compatible. Do I happen to know the make and model of my motherboard? I do not.

10:54 AM: Home to check motherboard. Back to shop with the model number. Now the Chinese kid can sell me a processor, which he does, for $62.95 plus tax.

11:03 to 11:18 AM: Attempt to pry the new CPU fan off the processor. Fail. Enlist girlfriend, who finally succeeds, breaking off the fan’s handle and stabbing the motherboard with a screwdriver another half a dozen times or so.

11:19 AM: Install new processor, reattach CPU fan, reboot computer. Black screen: black despair. Gather up the computer and take it back to the repair shop.

11:28 AM: Chinese kid opens up the machine and notes that I’ve put the CPU fan on backwards. “What’s the matter with you?” he asks. He plugs it in, gets the same dead screen. He charges me $25 to leave it at the shop so he can figure out what’s wrong with it.

1:50 PM: Phone call from Chinese kid. The processor is fine, he reports, but I need a new motherboard. Decide against asking him whether it’s good for motherboards to stab them with flat-head screwdrivers.

2:02 PM: Back to shop to pick up computer. “By the way, your case is terrible,” Chinese kid calls after me as I leave the shop.

2:12 PM: As it happens, I have a spare motherboard laying around (don’t ask). Debate whether to install it myself.

2:13 PM to 2:47 PM: Prolonged sulk. Decide to install motherboard, since things have been going so well so far.

2:48 PM: Begin to remove old motherboard. Find out Chinese kid has removed half of my RAM.

3:12 PM: Chinese kid phones to report that he’s removed half of my RAM.

3:45 PM: Finally manage to wrench old motherboard out of case and put in the new one, this time installing the CPU fan correctly. Now it’s just a matter of plugging everything back in.

3:47 PM: Attempt to decipher Japlish instruction manual for new motherboard. Note dire warnings that pins must be placed at the proper polarity or “YOU MAY DAMAGE YOUR MOTHERBOARD.” I have one connector with a blue and white wire, one with a red and black wire, one with a green and white wire, and one with a black and white wire. There are no further indications of polarity.

3:48 PM: Ask girlfriend which is positive and which is negative. She suggests I call shop.

3:50 PM: Call shop. Chinese kid, stifling a giggle, explains that white is always negative and red is always positive.

3:53 PM: Plug in connectors and start box. For the first time today, a live screen. The new processor is recognized, and the screen hangs.

4:02 PM: Back to shop. Chinese kid returns my missing RAM and suggests I unplug all cards and drives and “refresh the BIOS.” OK, that’s software. I can do that.

4:14 PM: I follow instructions and sure enough, I get to the BIOS. I refresh it, taking all the “fail-safe default” settings.

4:16 PM: I plug in the hard drive and restart. Box recognizes processor and memory, and dies. Call hardware guru. Get phone machine. Call secondary hardware guru. He suggests I enter my exact hard-drive settings into the BIOS instead of using auto-recognition. This sounds like a lot of aggravation. I decide to sulk for a while instead.

5:26 PM: Instead of changing the BIOS settings, I opt for the magical approach, powering down the machine and trying again. For the first time today, Linux boots up. I shut down, replace the sound and network cards, and reboot. Black screen.

5:42 PM: I realize that I’ve jarred the video card loose when I replaced the sound card. I redo all the cards, screwing them down this time, and try again. The box boots up, I get Internet, and I’m home free. Almost.

6:08 PM: I reassemble everything, leaving only three screws unused, close the case, and set the box back up in its usual place. After I’m done I realize I’ve forgotten to reconnect the floppy and CD drives. I reopen the box, reconnect the drives, and actually remember to test it this time before closing the box. It works.

6:17 PM: Server back in place, with new processor, new motherboard, and new CPU fan. Everything is running. For the moment.

Now wasn’t that easy?

Apr 302003

It requires a certain type of mind to excite itself over “fragments of fragments,” but the normally sober baseball analyst Rob Neyer exults giddily over them in his column the other day.

The question at issue is how lucky the 2002 Detroit Tigers were. On the one hand, they lost 106 games. On the other, if you apply Pythagorean analysis to their run margin, they “should” have lost 112 games. So they were lucky. But on the third hand, as one of Neyer’s correspondents points out, they scored fewer runs than one would expect from their offensive components, and allowed more than would expect from the offensive components of their opponents, and they really should have lost 98 games. So they were unlucky.

But why stop there?

All hits, for example, are not created equal. If two players hit 120 singles, we consider those accomplishments the same. But what if one of the players hit 80 line drives and 40 ground balls with eyes, and the other hit 120 line drives? Would we expect them to match performances the next season?

No, we wouldn’t. We’d expect the guy with 120 line drives to outperform the guy who got lucky with the grounders.

That is just one tiny example, of hundreds we could come up with. And for the people who care about such things, finding the fragments of the fragments of the fragments is the next great frontier.

Ah, fragments of fragments of fragments. Perennial employment for baseball analysts! More work for Rob Neyer!

Neyer analogizes this process to pricing financial derivatives, which I happen to know something about, having worked as a programmer for several years for a software company that did exactly that. On slow afternoons the analytics boys would quarrel over whether to construct the yield curve using a two- or three-factor Heath-Jarrow-Morton model. Sure, with a two-factor model you might be able to price the bond to four decimal points, but with a three-factor model you can price it to seven! Eventually someone, usually me, would have to rain on their parade by pointing out that bonds are priced in sixteenths (of a dollar), and that the bid/offer spread dwarfs anything beyond the first decimal point.

In baseball granularity is not measured in sixteenths, but in wins. Since it takes about eight to ten additional runs for each additional win, any variance below five runs or so is a big, fat engineering zero. And I can assure Rob Neyer without even firing up a spreadsheet that a team’s line drive/ground ball ratio when hitting singles won’t get you anywhere near five runs. It’s barely conceivable that it could help you draft a fantasy team. Knock yourself out.

Hitting has been well understood since John Thorn and Pete Palmer published The Hidden Game of Baseball twenty years ago. All work since has been on the margins. The new frontiers in baseball analysis lie elsewhere. Pitching is still imperfectly understood, because its results are mixed with fielding, which, until Bill James’s new book on Win Shares, was not understood at all. Voros McCracken (where do you sign up for a name like that?) recently demonstrated that a pitcher’s hits allowed, relative to balls in play, is almost entirely random. That’s serious work. Fragments of fragments is masturbation.

The lesson here, which applies more broadly to the social sciences, is not to seek more precision than is proper to your subject. Fortunately Professors Mises and Hayek have already given this lecture, and I don’t have to.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

Apr 292003

I’ve added a new Hall of Reciprocity on the upper left, reserved for all you generous souls who keep me in your permanent links. It’s the least I can do. Most of these sites are very good indeed, they all show exemplary taste, and I read every one of them, at least occasionally.

Apr 292003

Eugene Volokh dispenses some advice, worth, as he says, at least what you paid for it, on how to promote one’s blog. It’s sound and well-considered, like nearly everything he writes, but to my mind (and God knows I’m not exactly an authority on this topic) he omits one important thing, maybe the most important thing. Comment on other people’s blogs. Leave comments on their blogs and write responses on your own. Some say you ought to notify bloggers when you reply to them, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Like every other blogger I comb through my reefer logs, and if you write something about me rest assured that I will find it. This is Dale Carnegie 101. People will show interest in what you say if you show interest in what they say.

When the chips are really down, do what I do: comment on Steven Den Beste. He is immensely fair-minded, everybody reads him, and if you say something reasonably intelligent about one of his posts he will find it and link it. It’s the one sure solution when you’re hurting for traffic.

(Update: Floyd McWilliams says pretty much the same thing, but nearly an hour later. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to stay ahead of me, like before noon.)

(Another: Marduk comments. So does Dr. Weevil. And brmic too. Clearly I left out the best advice of all: write posts about getting linked.)

Apr 272003

In all the fuss over Rick Santorum’s foolish remarks, the major interference of the government in the bedroom has gone largely unremarked: It marries people.

Marriage used to bring certain responsibilities, notably the obligation to support one’s dependents and not to divorce absent extraordinary circumstances. But the first has nothing to do with legal marriage, and the second is obsolescent. With the divorce rate in this country in excess of 50%, “till death do us part” has become an absurd fiction.

The privileges, however, remain. Married couples enjoy evidentiary immunity, special immigration rights, and various insurance and tax advantages. Some of these are conferred by the State, but most are not. Such matters as inheritance, adoption, joint leases, and child custody are agreements between private parties that could be easily arranged without State interference. Other outside private parties, like insurance companies, voluntarily confer benefits on married couples, which again is no matter for the State. Insurance companies could easily ask you if you live in a monogamous relationship and give you a rate break on that basis, the same way they now ask you if you smoke.

As for the State privileges of marriage, why should they exist at all? Why should husbands and wives not be permitted to testify against each other in court, except possibly to provide a plot point in Witness for the Prosecution? The key tax advantage to marriage lies in being able to pass an estate to one’s spouse without estate tax; surely it would be more rational simply to repeal the estate tax. The marriage exception to immigration law employs a lot of INS bureaucrats; is this a virtue?

Homosexuals who promote laws protecting single-sex unions are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. If you want to kick the State out of the bedroom, the answer cannot be to take a special privilege and make it more inclusive. Many people object to homosexuality on moral grounds, and there is force to the argument that the State ought not to grant special privileges to an arrangement that many, or even the majority, of its citizens consider immoral. The proper question is, why should the State grant special privileges to any particular living arrangement?

I don’t object to the conventional nuclear family. On the contrary, raising children under one roof with a mother and father has proved to be enormously popular, for excellent reasons. This very fact, however, makes it absurd for the State to privilege Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis over Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. It’s as if the State were to subsidize the deodorant industry on the grounds that the vast majority of Americans use deodorant. If anything requires special protection, surely it’s the minority arrangements, not the majority ones.

If the State did not marry people, they would doubtless marry on their own, for religious and other reasons, again without objection from me. Even today, people often describe themselves as married when they lack the certificate; my girlfriend of seventeen years and I often do so ourselves, because it’s too much trouble to explain. I’m all for marriage. Just keep it out of City Hall.

Now I grant that for homosexuals, politically, a campaign against legal marriage is not a winning argument. What it is is a logical argument.

(Update: Jeff Bryant argues that the State’s principal interest lies not in marriage, but divorce.)

Apr 272003

The hit counter passed 100,000 this week. A poor week’s work for some, but not bad for ten months, considering my sometimes esoteric content, and certainly more than I expected when I began. Thanks to everyone who came.

Apr 242003

Sent to The New York Times today. OK, it’s barrel-fishing. I had some free time.

To the Editors:

Bob Herbert’s mendacious column of April 24th on the near-execution of Delma Banks Jr. in Texas omits every piece of evidence that convicted him. Banks was the last man seen with the murder victim, Wayne Whitehead. He unwittingly led the police to the home of Charles Cook, where a gun was found that was matched to the murder on unrebutted ballistics evidence. Cook testified that Banks showed up at his house the morning after the murder with the gun and Whitehead’s car. None of this was disputed at the time or to this day. It is true that the prosecution witnesses perjured themselves and later recanted on minor matters, that the prosecution committed various acts of misconduct, and that on this basis Banks probably deserves another trial. But “a complete reading of the record, including facts uncovered during his appeals, shows that he is most likely innocent”? Come on. If Banks didn’t commit the murder himself, he must know a good deal about who did. So why isn’t he talking?

Herbert is no better with logic. He hauls out the tired argument that the death penalty should be abolished because executions occur far more frequently when whites are the murder victims than when blacks are. Assume this is true. How does it prove that the executions that do take place are unjust? Justice is an individual, not a social matter. One could as easily conclude that more murderers of blacks should be executed.

Sincerely yours,