Archive for September, 2008

David Foster Wallace, RIP

September 15, 2008

I just read that David Foster Wallace committed suicide last Friday.1,2 The world is a less interesting place without him.


1 I am ashamed to say I have never read Infinite Jest, despite having borrowed a copy from someone at least once.

2 Wallace wrote the single best magazine article I have ever read.3

3 Interestingly, the multiply nested footnotes work better in print than they do as hypertext links.


Postmodern Politics

September 14, 2008

I’ve been thinking about straight-talking John McCain’s somewhat flexible relationship with “truth.” He (and the Sarracuda) seem to be even more blatantly ignoring reality than the master liars in the Bush administration—they generally seem to give up and at least change their stories when called on sufficiently blatant fibs, and I think even Rove acknowledges the existence of some sort of objective reality. I’m not so sure about McCain. He seems to let reality trouble him not at all. Could it be that for him and his campaign there is no objective reality? That the signification of words is a mere social construct? That “Il n’y a pas hors-texte?”1

Humpty_Dumpty_Tenniel Nah, probably not. Maybe this is better…

I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t– till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

‘When _I_ use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master– that’s all.’


1 “There is nothing outside the text.” Or maybe, “There is no outside-text.” I French isn’t much better than my grasp of deconstruction.

Rosemary Does Sarah and Cindy

September 11, 2008

I’m ashamed to admit that I have only just this minute learned that Rosemary Watson, the world’s greatest Hillary Clinton impersonator, also does a mean Sarah Palin and Cindy McCain. LOLZ!

The thought of a McCain presidency fills me with something between extreme annoyance and terror, but four years of material for Rosemary would be some consolation—


God Particle Atheism

September 9, 2008

"Mexican Hat" Higgs Potential There’s a good article in Slate today about the Higgs boson, and why we shouldn’t be surprised when the Large Hadron Collider doesn’t find it (assuming of course that the LHC doesn’t destroy us all when they fire it up tomorrow). I say it’s good because it says exactly what I’ve always thought about the Higgs particle: it’s an ugly mathematical hack, merely the simplest thing Weinberg and Glashow and Salam had handy to make SU(2) × U(1) electroweak theory work1. “God Particle” indeed. Please don’t believe this sort of thing (found just now by googling):

Specifically, the Higgs boson, the most elusive speck of matter in the universe. Often called the God particle, it’s supposed to be the key to explaining why matter has mass. Physicists believe that Higgs particles generate a kind of soupy ether through which other particles move, picking up drag that translates into mass on the macroscopic scale. The Higgs is the cornerstone of 21st-century physics; it simply has to be there, otherwise the standard model of the universe collapses.

The last sentence is, as far as I can tell, drivel. Actually, the collapse of the standard model would be just fine; it’s kind of a kludge, really, neither complete nor elegant.

For the record, I’m not expecting the LHC to find any squarks or sleptons either.


1. Actually the general mechanism is neat; it’s the specifics that are ad hoc and inelegant.

Hitchens on Palin

September 9, 2008

In a Slate article subtitled “Don’t Patronize Sarah Palin,” Christopher Hitchens patronizes Sarah Palin.

[A more accurate subtitle would have been “Do Patronize Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and the Clintons.”]

McCain Plays the Martingale

September 8, 2008

There’s really not much point in my writing about John McCain’s compulsive-gambler nature, both with dice and with his campaign. Plenty of others have done that much better than I will. But I’ll do it anyway, so that I can make a strained analogy and then stretch it even thinner. To wit, McCain seems to be using a vaguely martingale-like strategy with his campaign.

Actually, McCain prefers craps For those who are neither gamblers nor mathematicians (who talk about martingales in the context of probability theory), a martingale is a classic betting strategy that has the important property of sounding foolproof, while (like all betting strategies) eventually ruining those who use it. Suppose you’re playing roulette. Bet a dollar on “red.” If you win, you’re up a dollar; repeat as desired. If you lose, bet two dollars on red. If you win that second bet, you’re now up a dollar; if you lose double your bet again. Eventually you’ll win and be up dollar. You can’t lose!

Except of course you do lose. You can only double your bet and lose so many times before you go bankrupt. If you use the strategy repeatedly that will happen.

To make the strained analogy explicit with regard to recent events, McCain decided during the Democratic Convention that he was in trouble. So he gambled on his VP choice—I really do believe that he genuinely liked Sarah Palin and saw her as a kindred spirit and so on, but I also really do believe that he didn’t plan much in advance and did a lousy job with the vetting, and that he had very little rational reason to believe the choice would work out well. And at first it looked like a disaster, especially after the wild rumors and speculation that first weekend, culminating in the Bristol’s-pregnancy announcement.1 So, double down! Embrace Bristol’s Choice of Life! Blame the media! Let the Democrats underestimate Palin and lower expectations! And sure enough it seems to have worked.

I assume that McCain will continue his betting strategy for the rest of the campaign; he’ll certainly have more opportunities for desperate gambling before long. I really really hope he hits his limit before the election, because if he wins he’ll raise his stakes to the welfare of the entire country.

1. Sane reaction to which was expressed most succinctly at The Superficial (highly recommended for both celebrity gossip and bikini pictures):

The 17-year-old daughter of John McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin (a.k.a. Governor MILFalicious) is reportedly five months pregnant. The McCain campaign revealed the news to rebut rampant rumors that Governor Palin’s infant son is actually her grandson and she faked her pregnancy to protect her daughter Bristol. You seriously just read all that, and I’m now 90% positive John McCain’s research involved picking this woman’s name out of of a hat.

In which I pick on John McCain for Sloppy Web Content

September 7, 2008

In a rare and inexplicable moment of responsible citizenship I decided to look a little into what Barack Obama and John McCain had to say about an actual issue or two. Specifically—and I’m at as much of a loss to explain this as you are—I looked at what they, or rather their websites, had to say about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the magic of Cap-n-Trade. What I learned is that Obama’s standards for web content (and design, and aesthetics) are rather higher than McCain’s.1

Specifically, McCain’s position statements are full of awkward phrasing and funny capitalization. Here are a couple of sample paragraphs:

To Support The Cap And Trade System, John McCain Will Promote The Innovation, Development And Deployment Of Advanced Technologies. John McCain will reform federal government research funding and infrastructure to support the cap and trade emissions reduction goals and emphasize the commercialization of low-carbon technologies. Under John McCain’s plan:

Emissions Permits Will Eventually Be Auctioned To Support The Development Of Advanced Technologies. A portion of the process of these auctions will be used to support a diversified portfolio of research and commercialization challenges, ranging from carbon capture and sequestration, to nuclear power, to battery development. Funds will also be used to provide financial backing for a Green Innovation Financing and Transfer (GIFT) to facilitate commercialization.

OK, I suppose I’m just being snarky, but that really looks like they copy-pasted from a press release (like this one), removed some formatting, and didn’t bother to check the results. On top of that, there’s a typo (maybe a “Cupertino?”): “process” for “proceeds.” I also think that the constant use of “John McCain” sounds stilted (Obama’s equivalent page refers simply to “Obama”). Maybe “stilted and awkward” is on purpose, to reinforce his public speaking style?

Obama also has longer and better-written descriptions of pretty much all the issues. But rather than talk too much about substance, I’ll mention that not only is Obama’s website uniformly more attractive than McCain’s, even the very URLs are more humanely designed than McCain’s. Mouse over this and this (links to the two emissions-reduction pages) to see what I mean.

By the way, the two of them say pretty much the same thing about cap and trade. Obama makes it clearer that he wants permits auctioned off; McCain says only “Emissions Permits Will Eventually Be Auctioned To Support The Development Of Advanced Technologies.” They seem to have different priorities for what to do with the auction receipts, but that’s hard to tell. Since whatever either might actually try to do would really be done in Congress, I see no effective difference between what they say. The real distinction is that, unlike McCain, Obama probably actually knows what his position is.


1. It is probably unwise of me to criticize anyone for sloppiness. “Let one who is without sin cast the first stone” and all.

In which Godwin’s Law Should Probably Be Invoked

September 7, 2008

Brian Leiter (h.t.: David Bernstein at Volokh), railing against Republicans, quotes a “colleague” thus:

I heard some of the ‘Republicans’ on the radio last night and it was horrific.  Only twice have I heard anything so blood-curdling:  First, on viewing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens while an undergraduate.  And second, on listening to a radio broadcast of an old tape of a Jim Jones sermon in ‘Jonestown’ Guyana.  These people – Romney, Huckleberry, Giuliani, Palin – are so unbelievably depraved it doesn’t even feel remotely like America any longer.  Even Bush and Cheney seem almost quaintly familiar by comparison.

While I approve of the sentiment—I’m all for anti-Republican rants, and the general tone of the speeches I heard was…pretty bad—the comparison to Triumph of the Will was not only hyperbolic but insulting—to Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl. Sure, they were evil, but they were prodigiously talented, of an altogether different order than the pathetic amateur AV Club running the Republican Convention. Fortunately for them, the election is unlikely to be decided on the basis of aesthetic brilliance.

Not Triumph of the WillTriumph of the Will        

Not only do the Republicans not have a Speer or a Riefenstahl, I’m not sure they even have a Goebbels, now that Rove is on the outs as Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Rudy, maybe?

Rudy GiulianiJoseph Goebbels

Chrome, continued

September 6, 2008

I just tried to edit a Google Groups page using Google Chrome, and I see:

Page editing not supported in your web browser. Download a new copy of Firefox or Internet Explorer to edit pages.


Apart from that, I continue to be pretty impressed with Chrome. A few more observations:

  • I’ve seen a few crashes, and Google’s claims about sandboxing the tabs and apps seems mostly true:  a crash in one tab or app doesn’t usually bring down the whole browser.
  • I like the way that there’s no status bar taking up space all the time; addresses appear over the lower left corner of the window when you mouse over links, rather than in a dedicated space.
  • In-page search is incremental (as with Firefox), but has a few nice features: the browser tells you how many matches it found, and highlights both a “current” match and all the others, in different colors. It also shows you in the scrollbar area where the matches are, although it doesn’t let you click the indicators to go there immediately. I also like the location (upper-right) of the search window, I suppose because both my attention and the cursor are more often near the top than the bottom of the page.
  • Chrome DOES work with Java, but requires JRE 6 update 10, now in beta. Perhaps they needed the experimental “serialize user’s soul” feature…
  • While I wish the javascript debugger were friendlier—one thing that has annoyed me repeatedly is not being able to click on an error to go to the source; I’m told I should open the file in the inspector, but I seem not to be able to do that—but the DOM/css explorer is nice. Apparently webkit has a fuller version, but AFAIK it doesn’t work with Chrome (only Safari).
  • For some reason Chrome installs itself in your local app settings directory, not in \program files. I suppose there must be some reason for that…
  • The Application Shortcuts are surprisingly nifty for such a simple feature: all they really do is remove the browser ui. I have to assume that this is a harbinger of things to come. Chrome will become Google’s general application framework, a central part of their plan for world domination. Googlezon approacheth!


September 5, 2008

Really, I was planning to watch Sarah Palin’s speech the other night. But I made the mistake of tuning in a bit early, and Linda Lingle put me right to sleep—my stars, what an awful speaker; did they put her on just to make the others look good? I woke up somewhere in the middle of Rudy vowing to annex the Sudetenland or whatever he was ranting about. I couldn’t bear that, so I gave up and went to bed. I’ve seen only snippets; maybe I’ll watch the whole thing eventually. Or not.

Last night the Terror Porn disgusted me so thoroughly—why isn’t that getting more attention? Am I really that sensitive?—that I didn’t even try to watch McCain; although again I’ve seen snippets (including, fortunately, what sounded like the Football Hooligan section drowning out an idiot protester with drunken chants of “U S A! U S A!”) (and hey, it turns out McCain was a POW!).

Which is probably all just as well. Political speeches and speakers in our era pretty much suck1. From what I saw of Palin she’s not a super-great orator (unless you’re comparing her to poor Linda Lingle). She did seem to be enjoying herself, which I suppose is enough. McCain just seems uncomfortable. Oh, there are some who aren’t bad: Huckabee has a certain folksy appeal, for example, not that he ever has anything to say. But even Barack Obama, by far the best of the current lot, leaves me (heresy!) a little cold.

The only political speech I’ve ever heard that genuinely moved me2 was one from before I was even born: JFK’s inaugural, which I happened to hear on the radio one day. Hearing that I was ready to join the Peace Corps. It’s probably just as well it was a Sunday morning.


1. Ack, I sound like an old codger bitching about the world going to hell in a handbasket. Maybe I should be a Republican.

2. Not counting MLK. He was a Prophet, in the truest sense of the word, not a politician.