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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The backwards oarsman

It was, I think, about six months after Adam learned to walk that he began to experiment with walking backwards. Walking backwards goes against our social bodily image, which aligns our face with our motion. For just that reason, it ends up, for a child, in the realm of play. Since learning to walk backwards, Adam indulges in it not so frequently, but always with a giggle and a sideglance at his parents, because he feels he is doing something a bit naughty.

The image of the oarsman that I’ve excavated from Montaigne and from Pliny exerts, to my mind,  a marvelous poetic power as a model that tells us something about the course of a life or a history partly because it stands in suprising contrast to  our rooted association of facial direction and forward motion. Of course, the sightless oarsman is looking, but only at what recedes behind him.

In considering this image, one has to recall, as well, the socio-economic system in which the slave oarsmen in Pliny’s time, or the oarsmen plying their gabare in Bordeaux in Montaigne’s time, were placed. Bordeaux, in Montaigne’s time, was the scene of a economic expansion in trade as the port infrastructure was put in place and the gabare who brought down dyes and wine and timber in their flat bottomed boats were found in several places in the logistical chain, either bringing in materials to be made into manufactures to sell or taking those products, the wine and the dyes out to ships who disembarked them in other areas of europe, most notably Great Britain and the Netherlands. The blind oarsmen were, in this sense, at the base of the fortune of Montaigne’s own extended family, much more than any invisible hand, in as much as his extended family was involved in finance and trade. The historian who has most profoundly studied the merchant marine culture in Bordeaux in the 16th century, Jacques Bernard, has noted the absense of a professional corporation for the gens de mer, although this does not preclude a tight professional culture of sailors and oarsmen – the kind of community that recent historians have discovered, or suppose they have discovered, among pirates. The oarsmen themselves were all contract laborers. Whether facing towards the port or away from it, their share of the proceeds was minimal.
John Florio’s translation of the word “l’utile” in Montaigne’s title is “profit” – on profit and honesty.  The recent interpretations of the essay are a battle ground over the question of whether Montaigne, like Machiavelli and certain humanists, puts profit – the public good – over honesty – or honor, the moral code. It has been read in this way by certain influential scholars, such as Quentin Skinner and Jean Starobinski. They have been criticised for abridging and distorting the arguments in the text by Robert J.Collins, whose essay on the text is a very close reading. Myself, I find the text interesting for developing a sort of anthropology of violence, in which the violation of norms is caught in a certain ritual that both allows the violation and pays for it with a sacrifice – the kind of thing dear to the heart of Rene Girand. Thus, the essay is chock full of the usual Montaigne anecdotes from ancient and contemporary history, which are used to vary the entitling theme – that of profit and honesty. Of course, Montaigne is notorious for the way the variations in his themes sometimes seem to escape them altogether. But I think Collins is right to suppose that Montaigne was using, here, as elsewhere, a conversational form (“I speak to the paper like I speak to the first person who comes along”) that, like all good conversations, loses itself in order to carry out the task of bringing to light the unconscious as well as conscious aspects of a theme. Pertinence is not lost, but enriched, in the process. And so it is here, where the violation of truthtelling, of fairness, of justice, of kindness, of friendship, of family loyalties, which are all countenanced by the reference to what profits the state – what is necessary for the public good – are instanced only from the viewpoint that they unleash a countering moment of sacrifice that engulfs those who have been the mechanics of injustice. In the secret police state, the secret policeman has every reason to believe he is next – that at least was Stalin’s policy, and it was, as well, the policy of various Roman tyrants and French kings.
Of course, to attend to the sacrifice instead of to the “progress” made by a state that has successfully profited from these instances of atrocity might be thought to be an inversion of the oarsman’s duty – which is only to keep looking backwards and moving us forwards. The image, I think, is inseperable from these historical dilemmas, which is why I think the most interesting heirs of the motif are those who are most anxious about the whole notion of progress.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

backwards progress. Montaigne's image

Comparisons, it was anciently thought, were among the royal tools of thought, along with logic. One of the interesting thing about comparisons is how, buried beneath them, we find coincidences, intersections on the plane of concept or image. And the comparison is all the more powerful in that, like a coincidence, it produces a cognitive shock, a crossroads surprise. The shock, if the comparison goes off well, will be transmitted to the object we began with. It will seem not only as if we have given an explanation, but we have given a surplus of explanation.
It is here that comparison runs into trouble, for, like coincidence, it seems tangled in superstition. Enlightenment begins, perhaps, with a suspicion of the surplus of explanatory value. Ancient  enlightenment – the sceptics and epicurians who came after Aristotle – recognized that comparison did too much work. It is as if an occult power, a dark force, planned that meeting of concepts or images or situations. The enlightenment state of mind is always allergic to occult forces. These are, after all, things that plunge us into taking a magical view of history. And yet, if the Enlightenment wants to have a history itself, if it works towards “progress”, it is always itself subject to a self-subverting contradiction, the projection of some force that makes for history as a progress. Which is just to say that enlightenment itself often does not resist the temptation to seek out destinies and fates, and tarries with an image of history as a sort of white magic.
This is one side of comparison. Another side is its absorption, over time, into the literal, the long march from connotation to denotation. Coincidence, here, is routinized, or overlooked so often as to seem no coincidence at all.
I want to look at a brilliant comparison in Montaigne’s essay, “On the useful and the honorable” – which Florio translates as the Profitable and the Honest. This essay begins the third book, which was published four years before Montaigne’s death, in 1592. The third book has a certain retrospective splendour, rather in the manner of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – one feels that Montaigne, like Prospero, is about to break his rod and drown his books, as the last voyage approaches. On the useful and the honorable (de l’utile et l’honnête) mingles memories or summings up from Montaigne’s public career with a reflection on the division between what it is useful to do for the state – what profits the prince, or one’s ambitions - and what it is honest, moral, honorable to do from the perspective of the private individual.
The image and comparison I have in mind arises in the context of a characteristic moment of self-accounting, with its to-and-fro motion:
“What was required by my position, I furnished, but in the most private way possible. As a child I was plunged into it up to my ears. And I succeeded well enough, but I have often, in good time, disengaged myself from it. I have since avoided meddling in public affairs, rarely accepting to do so and never requesting it. Holding my back turned to ambition. If not like rowers who advance, thus, backwards. Nevertheless, being embarked, I find myself less obliged to my resolution than to my good fortune. There are, indeed, paths less inimicable to my taste, and more adapted to my temperament, by which, if my fortune had called me in the past to public service and advancement in the opinion of the world, I know I would have bypassed all the arguments of my reason and followed it.”
The to and fro is held together here, I think, by that discrete glimpse of rowers advancing with their back turned. It is an image of progress that surely has a double root in Montaigne’s own experience and in the classical authors.
For a man who saw the world as constantly dissolving one hard element into another, Montaigne was very phobic about water, much prefering solid land, and even the bumpiness of coaches, to the waves. Nevertheless, he did travel, sometimes, by water. In a gabare, a flat bottomed boat that was poled or rowed. There was one that went from Bordeaux to Blaye, a village on the Garonne that was a point of contention in the guerilla war between the Catholics and the Protestants when Montaigne was mayor of Bordeaux. Indeed, advance has an emphatic military meaning as well as one that indicates a certain directed movement. The symbolism of the rower who, facing backwards, advances the boat must have suggested itself to Montaigne hundreds of times. But perhaps he was also inspired by an essay of Plutarch’s which was thematically akin to this essay: If it is true that we should live a hidden life.
“The oarsmen, turned towards the stern, chase after the catch by the action that they impress on the oars in a sense contrary to the direction of the vessel. Something similar happens to those who give us such precepts: they hurry after fame in pretending to turn their back on it.”
I have been revolving this image in my head, and it grows more interesting the more I think about it. Here fate, fame, progress, and a strange reversal of how we think of human progress all come together. I think there is a long European history of this image, and I, being in an Auerbachian mood, am going to chase after it a bit more.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

coincidence and crime 2

To return to my last coincidence post:
Nabokov played around with the coincidence device himself, in his novel, Despair. There, the hero, a prosperous businessman named Hermann, mistakenly supposes that he looks like a certain much poorer man. Hermann befriends this man on behalf of a plot to make make money and get out of a relationship with his cheating wife. The plot involves getting the double to dress as Hermann and then killing him. After this, the life insurance money will come rolling in, and Hermann can collect it. Hermann, then, is very much writing the “plot” for his characters, and banking on a coincidence. But what he doesn’t reckon on is his own blindspot with regard to what he looks like. There’s a character in a Turgenev story who says, somewhere, that he can keep a sharp mental image of strangers, but more familiar faces, including his own, never fix themselves in his imaginagtion. Hermann seems to be in a similar case – in fact, nobody else thinks his double looks like Hermann. Thus, the coincidence by which the murderer hopes to make his escape ends up being no coincidence at all – which is a very funny variation on the coincidence plot.
An Israeli sociologist, Ruma Falk, has made a career long study of coincidence stories. Like a disillusioned Hermann, Falk claims to have shown that our coincidence stories often depend on obtaining a statistically significant result from a deliberately chosen extreme example instead of basing that conclusion on a random sample”. The emphasis here on the random sample indicates the frequentist bias of Falk’s work – but at the same time, what really interests here is a cognitive property – the “surprising” effect of the coincidence. If Hermann had interviewed other candidates for doppelganger, or consulted his friends, he might well have found someone who, according to consensus, looked like him – which would of course be a coincidence, but one founded in the pool of types, cultural and genetic, in which Hermann existed, like some dictator looking for a body double to use as a security measure. But Hermann didn’t, because the coincidence surprised him to the extent that he didn’t question it.
Falk, then, looked at the element of surprise in coincidence stories. They divide stories of coincidence taken from a pool of subjects between self-coincidence and other-coincidence. They asked their subjects to judge the degree of surprise elicited by these stories – that is, stories the subject told about his or her experience, and stories the subject read about others’ experiences. “On the average, authors judged their self-coincidences somewhat more surprising than they judged others’ coincidences. However, the mean rating of the control subjects revealed that the other-stories were objectively more surprising than the self-stories. Taken together, authors found their own coincidences more surprising than others’ coincidences despite the fact that the latter were objectively more surprising.”
This is a complex response, no? One might speculate that the surprisingness of coincidence operates in more important ways in ordinary life than it is given credit for. At least, in listening to people talk about their lives, and about accidents that have befallen them, I get the sense that coincidence operates as a sort of guiding shadow to making sense of the incidents in a life - making the life seem fated, necessary, telic.

Comres' fishy poll: you just ask for the results, and we will deliver them!

One of the key tools of contemporary politics is the gamed poll - the poll that shows results satisfactory to those who commissioned it. These polls wear their disnonesty in their footnotes. With that said, one should look at Comres's internet poll that shows Jeremy Corbyn as a crater for the next election, as compared to the ever electable, ever conservative David Millibrand.

It looks bad for Corbyn until you read how the results were filtered. Because of course, you don't want to just accept the voices of your complete set of respondents - you want to filter them just right.

Here is the revealing footnote: "ComRes interviewed 2,035 GB adults online between 12th and 13th August 2015. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. Data were also weighted by past vote recall. Voting intention figures are calculated using the ComRes Voter Turnout Model. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules."

Now, what does past voter recall and the Comres Voter Turnout Model mean? It means that Comres decided that the trouble with polling that showed Labour leading in the last election relied too much on the responses of young voters. This, in combination with voters who haven't voted recently, means that basically, the poll was skewed towards just the demographic that would have voted for the most conservative labour candidates. What Comres doesn't say is how they tested their conclusion. If we transpose this model to the American election of 2012, for instance, excluding black and young voters, Romney would clearly have been first in the polls - as indeed he was in the Fox News poll and in the Gallup poll. Intellectual honesty would demand, I think, that Comres publish the results without applying their "comres" model alongside the results of applying their model. But don't hold your breath for that to happen. After all, this poll is commissioned to get the Comres model results.
Which will then be twittered about by the usual Blairite suspects.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

the writing life - now with pee stains!

I wonder how Adam picks phrases out of the air. We were walking in a park in Montpellier last month when Adam turned to us and, apparently a propos of nothing, said, why that’s the whole point! Today, we were walkng to school when Adam told me, that’s a done deal, Daddy. A done deal? Has Adam been hanging around with an MBA?
It is things like this, the innumerable things like this, that make me wonder why it is that children are supposed to be the enemy of the creative type. In this week’s London Review of Books there’s a piece by Jessica Olin about the book, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum. It is a curious review: Olin has chosen, mostly, to collage various of the essays. One of her comments, though, struck me as pretty awful, all the more so because it expresses one of the cliches of our time.
Parenting requires a public face; engagement with one’s community; fluency in multi-tasking. Writing demands focus and long stretches of solitude. The two job descriptions could not be more different; how many of us are equally suited to both?”
Where, I wondered, did this job description of writing come from? Perhaps it comes from the idea that writing has a “job description” – and after all, if it is a craft taught in school, perhaps it does, like insurance salesman or barista. But unlike those two professions, in actual fact, the only thing about being a freelance writer is that you write. Otherwise, there is no job description. It certainly doesn’t include long stretches of solitude.  Some may well need long stretches of solitude – Flaubert seemed to. Others, multiple others, seemed to need a very strong social life – Balzac, Dickens, Henry James, James Joyce, etc. Unfortunately, the apriori idea that writers don’t require a “public face” seems to me to etiolate the writing, to narrow it, to make it airless. I am a great consumer of writers’ letters – not a genre beloved of the public, but there you are. And to my mind, the job description for writers ought to read – must love interruption and disaster. This hushed idea of the solitary writer makes me laugh and think of Ring Lardner’s collection, How to Write Short Stories,  which begins with the observation that “most of the successful authors of the short fiction of today never went to no kind of a college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade. They could of got just as far in what I call the literary game if they had stayed home those four years and helped mother carry out the empty bottles.”
Of course, times have changed, and instead of piano tuning, the literary game is now played by immersing oneself in focus and solitude, apparently, with occasional preoccupied visits to the printing place while one carefully balances the panorama of one's novel - the battle scenes, the complete description of french nobility in 1415 - in one's precious head. I'd advise wearing sleeping shades, although the downside is accidentally strolling in front of a car.

 Somehow, though, I rather like the products of helping mother carry out the bottles.
My experience with Adam has been anything but non-writerly. I see a lot of things about human beings differently due to seeing and reflecting on Adam and the way he is growing up. One of the writers Olin quotes with approval drags out stereotypes about raising kids that are as risable as anything spouted by Victorian fairy tale authors: “Tim Kreider precisely renders parents’ ‘anxious and harried existence – noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought’.” I especially like the pee stained – of course, writers, the great ones, have always stayed away from excrement. It is so yucky! Indeed, I think Tim Kreider should change a thousand diapers or so in order to see that if you cannot confront pee and shit, you might consider changing your job description to, oh, say, selling life insurance policies. The idea that I am kept from an adult conversation or a coherent thought by the fact that I’m living with someone who is actually acquiring a language – well, it shows what kind of adult conversations or coherent thoughts are common traffic in the Tim Kreider set. Things like, did you see True detective last night?
Oops. A little snobbishness on my part. Still, if a writer actually has this abbreviation of infancy in his or her head, it should be knocked out of it. Have children or don’t have children, that’s not my beeswax. But if you can’t even look at what the experience is like, and are afraid of pee stains, well, writing might not be your gig.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Coincidence and crime 5

Nabokov translated Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time in collaboration with his son. It was the father, however, who wrote the preface. In it, he remarked on the mechanisms that Lermontov uses to move the story of Pechorin forward, in a matter of speaking.

“A special feature of the structure of our book is the monstrous but perfectly organic pat that eavesdroppiing plays in it. Now Eavesdropping is only one form of a more general device which can be classified under the heading of Coincidence, to which belongs, for instance, the Coincidental Meeting – another variety. It is pretty clear that when a novelist desires to combine the traditional tale of romantic adventure (amorous intrigue, jealousy, revenge, etc.) with a narrative in the first person, and has no desire to invent new techniques, he is somewhat limited in his choice of devices.”

Although Nabokov was famously anti-bolshie and refused even to meet Andrei Bely because Bely was “squishy”, the notion of the device is exported straight from Skhlovsky. But Nabokov could rightly claim, I suppose, that it had become part of the repertoire of slavic literary criticism. What it shows, here, is that Nabokov is making a formalist analysis of the text, viewing the text’s coincidence as evidence of a choice among a range of devises that would unite the plot.
One might wonder as well as, however, whether the plot, that ueber-device, is not itself, necessarily, a coincidence-making machine. In any case, for Nabokov, the coincidence must have been chosen because Lermontov was eager to move his total story along:

… our author was more eager to have his story move than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion, [and thus] he emplyed the convenient device of having his Maksim Masimich and Pechorin overhear, spy upon, and witness any such scene as was needed for the elucidation or the promotion of the plot. Indeed, the author’s use of this devise is so consistent thoughout the book that it ceases to strike the reader as a marvelous vagary of chance and becomes, as it were, the barely noticeable routine of fate.”

I am reminded here of the physicist E.T. Jaynes’ remark that “entropy is an anthropomorphic concept. For it is a property not of the physical system but of the particular experiments you or I choose to perform on it.”  It is striking that many protagonists in novels are, in a sense, experimenters in coincidence. That is, they take coincidences as signs, and follow them so that they produce more coincidences. In a sense, what Nabokov says about Lermontov, the writer of the novel in which Pechorin is the chief protagonist, could be said, as well, of Pechorin, in as much as he makes a plot out of his life, or a portion of his life. To do such a thing, to incorporate the adventure form into a life, turns coincidence into the “routine of fate.”

Nabokov is right to mention the adventure form as that in which coincidence plays the greatest role. The adventure form, of course, has fissioned into many forms today – the crime novel, sci fi, and, often, the modern and po mo variants of the novel. I think, for instance, of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote a number of novels in which the motive force that moves the plot is the impression that the appearance of a character is coincidentally like that of another character. For instance, in The Faces of Janus, the entire motive for the engagement of the poet, Rydal Keener, with the crooked businessman, Chester McFarland, and his wife Colette, is that Chester vaguely  looks like Rydal’s father and wife like the cousin that Rydal had a crush on when he was a teen. Even before Rydal is involved with the couple, the author presents Rydal’s habit of looking a little too long in the eyes of strangers, seeking Adventure.  In a variation on this theme, in Strangers on the Train, the architect, Guy Haines, meets a rich playboy type named Bruno, and the two recognize that they are in similar situations: Guy is frustrated by his wife’s refusal to divorce him so he can marry his girlfriend, and Bruno is frustrated by his father, who is keeping him from enjoying the family fortune. They jokingly trade “murders”, except that Bruno actually commits one, the murder of Guy’s wife. This is a particularly vivid instance of how the device of coincidence is not something that is confined to a single accident, but extends into an adventure that is much like a previous state of order becoming a more and more pronounced disorder.  

It is the relation between adventure, coincidence and disorder that makes coincidence loom so large in crime novels. The very activity of “looking for clues” is a way of scripting an adventure – a thematically connected series of social events, in which the social can, unexpectedly, slip away (which is the fright is meant to be evoked by the lone person entering into some isolated space, the isolation being defined by the fact that the criminal doesn’t risk being seen by anyone but the victim. At this point, the criminal operates as the writer’s surrogate, even if the writer demonizes him or her, for both are engaged in the scripting of coincidence.

Nabokov played around with this motif himself, in Despair.   

the NYT's shoddy Upshot column: bullshit and statistics

Another Sunday, another Monday, another idiotic Upshot article in the NYT. Upshot has become the home for the NYT’s consi derable rightwing cheering section, with Cohn, Barro, and Cowen providing the juice.  Barro, the scion of one of the plutocracy’s big defenders at the University of Chicago,  Robert Barro, has settled into the role of “reasonable conservative” that the NYT editors just love love love – it’s the David Brooks gig. Although, to be fair, Barro sometimes is worth reading – which I don’t think one can ever say about David Brooks. This Sunday, though, Nate Cohn was up at the bat to tell us two things: Bernie Sanders is a mere pimple on the vast system so ably managed by our elites – his surge is just exaggerated because, as Cohn puts it in the incomparable jazz style preferred by the Times:

“Mr. Sanders has become the favorite of one of the Democratic Party’s mostimportant factions: the overwhelmingly white, progressive left. These voters are plentiful in the well-educated, more secular enclaves where journalists roam. This voting support is enough for him to compete in Iowa; New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England; the Northwest; and many Western caucuses. But it is not a viable electoral coalition in a Democratic Party that is far more moderate and diverse than his supporters seem to recognize.”

So those supporters are in for a surprise, because, of course, they have never read a newspaper or a magazine telling them that the moderate center is the largest voting bloc in the country. Of course, newspapers and magazines are in the habit of presenting this as an apriori truth, instead of like going to any independent source that empirically checks the statement. Rather, they sometimes turn around in their desks and ask their neighbor, that white guy, usually, who is pulling down more than 250 thou a year – are you a moderate or centrist?

After tut tutting away the Sanders campaign, Cohn then sticks his thumb in his mouth and reflects with all the bogosity of a crooked statistician about Hilary Clinton’s favorability ratings. Here’s our poobah:

“Mrs. Clinton may be a primary juggernaut, but she could surely lose to a Republican in November 2016. President Obama’s approval ratings are in the mid-40s, so Mrs. Clinton may not benefit from the party’s incumbency. On paper, the race is more or less a tossup. In such a close contest, it might seem reasonable to argue that Mrs. Clinton’s unfavorable ratings are hugely important.

Now that is a good question, and a good answer might be founded on looking at polls putting Clinton against all of her possible Republican opponents. But, oddly enough, Cohn, who is writing in something called the Upshot, seems sadly unaware that these polls exist. He – like the NYT in general, where article after article tells us that Clinton is mired in scandal and flailing generally – leaves discretely unmentioned that in those polls, which are easily accessible on Real Clear Politics, Clinton beats all her opponents by 3 to 12 percent. RCP amalgamates all the current polls, but it shows those polling results. One can see that the reason Clinton doesn’t do better is that the Fox News polls consistently show Clinton doing 4 to 10 points worse than the rest of the polls. Pull the Fox News polls from the mix, and Clinton is beating all GOP rivals by unheard of numbers – 6 to 7 percentage points.

So much for the standard shoddy Sunday Upshot. Today, we get a retread of the GOPvoters are happier meme, which has been assiduously promoted by the head of theAmerican Enterprise Institute,  ArthurBrooks.  Our purveyor of nonsense thistime is  David Leonardt. Now I will give Leonardt some credit – he is lesssophistical than other Upshot columnists. But he is prone to publish thingsthat require a little critical thinking. The headline today is that Republicanssay they are happier with their marriages. This is, of course, the old ArthurBrooks trick – publish surveys based solely on self-reporting. No sociologist with any credibility believes that what people self-report is a perfect guide to how they really act. In fact, it is easy to show that the very fact of asking about a self-report can lead to changes in the responses one receives. So, of course, you need some other anchors to clarify the meaning of these self-reported responses. In the case of marriage, the anchors are pretty clear. If Party membership was a significant factor in happy marriages, then those states with a dominant party should, pari passu, show lower divorce rates.
It is well known that, in fact, those states that do have boost larger Republican majorities are also states with higher divorce rates. If Leonhardt was not lazy, he would have at least gotten the name Jennifer Glass from his rolodex and called her. She’s a professor at the University of Texas and has published a pretty well publicized article about the subject in the American Sociological Review (with coauthor Philip Levchak). Let me quotean abstract of the thesis from family

“Authors Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak are more nuanced in their own telling of the story, but their findings are provocative. The authors conclude, “The results here show that communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants actually produce higher divorce rates than others, both because conservative Protestants themselves exhibit higher divorce risk and because individuals in communities dominated by conservative Protestants face higher divorce risks.”
As for exactly how conservative Protestants are increasing divorce risks for themselves and their neighbors, Glass and Levchak point to evidence that conservative Protestants and their communities encourage young people to marry and have children earlier, sometimes before their educations are completed. These early-marrying couples face a double dilemma of learning to live together (and perhaps raise children together) while also struggling to get by in an economy that is increasingly tough on those who don’t finish college. Then, speculating beyond their data, the authors suggest that conservative Protestant norms against premarital sex and abortion (which might encourage earlier marriage and childbearing) and disdain for religiously “mixed” marriages, along with public policies that fail to support quality public education (enacted in communities dominated by conservative Protestants) combine to create a brew which, paradoxically for divorce-disdaining conservative Protestants, undermines stable marriages.”

Notice that the speculation of these researchers consists of inferences from their data, which tell a plausible sociological tale linking the results of conservative social policies with divorce. It could well be wrong, but at least it is not a mere juxtaposition taken from dubious self-reporting statistics and lathered with speculation that has no empirical anchor whatsoever.

I could probably become a more popular blogger just by fisking the generally shoddy upshot column, and call it something like upchuckshot. But then, I do have a life.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Coincidence 4: information

E.T. Jaynes was a mathematician and philosopher who, in the twentieth century, did perhaps the most to counter and wrongfoot the frequentist tradition in possibility theory. Jaynes tried to prove that the possibility calculus is rooted in logic – that it is, indeed, as Laplace said, “the calculus of inductive reasoning” – of which random experiments are merely a subset. In other words, Jayne tried to harden the hearts of all who were interested in probability against the idea that probability represented some objective property of objects – or a Popper put it, a propension. To Jayne’s mind, at the same time that the frequentist line attempted to demonstrate that probabilty was something objective, instead of subjective, it also abstracted, absurdly, from the laws of physics. His central case for this was the discourse around coin tossing. Coins, as Jayne points out, are physical objects, and their rise and fall is completely described by the physics of ballistics. (I take this example from Jayne’s book, Probability theory: the logic of the sciences). Thus, to say that a coin with heads and tails has a fairly equal chance of landing on either side, with a lean a bit to heads over a long series of tosses, is to speak nonsense. Rather, everything depends on how a coin is tossed, as a physical object.

The laws of mechanics now tell us the following. The ellipsoid of inertia of a thin disc is
an oblate spheroid of eccentricity 1/2. The displacement x does not affect the symmetry of this ellipsoid, and, so according to the Poinsot construction, as found in textbooks on rigid dynamics (such as Routh, 1905, or Goldstein, 1980, Chap. 5), the polhodes remain circles concentric with the axis of the coin. In consequence, the character of the tumbling motion of the coin while in flight is exactly the same for a biased as an unbiased coin, except
that for the biased one it is the center of gravity, rather than the geometrical center, which describes the parabolic ‘free particle’ trajectory.”

Given these physical facts, this is what Jayne suggests:
Therefore, in order to know which face will be uppermost in your hand, you have only
to carry out the following procedure. Denote by k a unit vector passing through the coin
along its axis, with its point on the ‘heads’ side. Now toss the coin with a twist so that k and
n make an acute angle, then catch it with your palm held flat, in a plane normal to n. On
successive tosses, you can let the direction of n, the magnitude of the angular momentum,
and the angle between n and k, vary widely; the tumbling motion will then appear entirely
different to the eye on different tosses, and it would require almost superhuman powers of
observation to discover your strategy.

Thus, anyone familiar with the law of conservation of angular momentum can, after some
practice, cheat at the usual coin-toss game and call his shots with 100% accuracy.”

Jayne’s point is that probability is not a spooky physical property connected with the two sidedness of the coin, but is a logical abstraction describing the physical event, including in its reference set the manner of the tossing.

Jayne goes on to demolish other examples from the frequentist literature. Here’s his conclusion:

“… those who assert the existence of physical probabilities do so in the belief that this establishes for their position an ‘objectivity’ that those who speak only of a ‘state of knowledge’ lack. Yet to assert as fact something which cannot be either proved or disproved by observation of facts is the opposite of objectivity; it is to assert something that one could not possibly know to be true. Such an assertion is not even entitled to be called a description of a ‘state of knowledge’.”

This conclusion led Jaynes to some radical and unorthodox positions. In particular, it led him to stress lack of knowledge, rather than physicalism, when accounting for quantum mechanics. He is famous for applying this, as well, to thermodyamics:  “entropy is an anthropomorphic concept, not only in the well known statistical sense that it measures the extent of human ignorance as to the microstate. Even at the purely phenomenological level entropy is an anthropomorphic concept. For it is a property not of the physical system but of the particular experiments you or I choose to perform on it.”

Often, while following a philosophical train of thought, one encounters a moment when the values one has been using strangely seem to inverse themselves. It is like the child's game of closing your eyes and spinning around and around: at the moment you stop and open your eyes, it seems that it is the world that is spinning around and around and you are standing still in the eye of it. The argument about probability partakes of that vertigo. The classical school inherits from Laplace the confidence that the world is a totally determined system, in which all phenomena can eventually traced back to material causes. And yet, to get to this argument, the school has to advance the thesis that probability is simply a measure of knowledge - or, to use the modern term, information. This means that, in classical terms, possibility is subjective. On the other side is the world picture that rejects crude determinism and accords chance a very real place. This school, then, takes possibility as as a real property, or in Popper's terminology, propensity, of events. This is, ultimately, an argument that makes possible an ontologically distinct thing called subjectivity. But, in grounding subjectivity in chance, in making possibility objective, this school entangles itself in all the logical problems adduced by Jaynes. And so, as the first group bases its determinism, which ultimately dissolves subjectivity, on the subjectivity of the probability calculus, the other group bases its indeterminism on the reification of a spooky non-cause. As I've pointed out, what goes for chance goes for coincidence. Perhaps here a Kantian probabilist could claim that we have reached the limit of our reason - the antinomies of chance are undecidable. But I'm pretty sure Jaynes would question whether, ultimately, we are not just making undecidable a case of our lack of knowledge, thus forcing us back towards his school.

Monday, August 10, 2015

coincidence 3: the naive and the sophisticated novelist

In 1850, Dickens began a novel with an exemplary sentence: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station shall be held by someone else, these pages will tell.”  It was, in fact, obviously the nature of these pages – the novel – to tell this story. It went without saying that for Dickens, as well as for other Victorian novelists, the interest of the novel was tied to interest in the individual. If there was an anxiety here, it was about heroism in Carlyle’s key, a heroism that passes the moral tests of life – but there was no doubt that a life was definitely not a matter determined within a larger social pattern, and only of interest insofar as it could be grouped with a subpopulation in order to display certain tendencies. In this sense, the novel bet everything on the ideology of heroism.

Even so, at the same time, in mid nineteenth century, there were indications that a radically different point of view, the statistical mindset, was winning minds outside the circle of literature.  Quetelet, for instance, in 1835 had already tried to show that crime should not be understood through its individual instances, but through statistics demonstrating its likelihood of incidence. From this, Quetelet inferred that it was society, and not the criminal, which produced crime, just as an orange tree produced oranges. We would not hold an orange responsible being an orange, although we might pluck it and squeeze it to death for its juice – just as we might take down a criminal and cut off his head to satisfy the principles of social hygiene.

Dicken’s notion of the novel and the individual produced what Robert Musil called a naïve, or old fashioned story form, which was very difficult to break with. In his view –a view, it must be admitted, conditioned by Musil’s envy of the fame of the great modernists – Ulysses and A la recherche are still footed in the archaic world of certainty and heroism, instead of the world in which that ground had disappeared and criminals could be considered the fruit of society, rather than bad actors making bad decisions, while characters could be considered as hybrids of the interior thoughts that, they delusively believe, guide them, and the administrative purposes for which they employed by exterior forces.

It is in this context that Musil thought a lot about coincidence – Zufall. Chance, after all, is felt as coincidence in a story, especially when science shatters our confidence that a life and a life story are one and the same thing.  In his diaries,  Musil piled up references to popular work on probability and chance in the field of math and physics. One of his sources was Erwin Schroedinger’s essay on the Gesetz der Zufall – the Law of Chance – in Koralle, a popular science magazine, which appeared in 1928.

It is a small, lucid essay, with two themes. One is that our understanding of the physical world is based not on certainty, but on probability. The other theme is that the second law of thermodynamics, which posits that systems advance from order to larger degrees of disorder, doesn’t free us from the link of determinism, if by determinism we mean unpredictability. Rather, entropy is highly predictable.

To make this point, Schroedinger uses an example that would have struck a writer like Musil – the example of the library.

He asks us to imagine a library that has been organized so that all the books in it are numbered and put in their proper places. And then he imagines a horde coming in on Monday – surely, students right before exam time – and going through the library and taking out books and putting them back with no regard for their proper place:
 Now the astonishing feature is that this process proves to be subject to very definite laws, especially if we suppose that the valumes are taken from the shelves in the same haphazard way as they are put back…. If we suppose that there were eighty volumes of Goethe’s works, for instance, neatly arranged in one section of the library when the casual mob entered, and if we find that only sixty volumes are now in their places while the other twenty are scattered about here and there, then we can expect during the second week about fifteen volumes will disappear from the row, and about eleven volumes will vanish during the third week, etc. For since we have supposed that the books are taken out quite at random, the probability that one of the remaining volumes will meet with this misfortune decreases as their number decreases.”

Schroedinger concedes that his example is stylized – really, for the predictions to be more exact, the numbers must be bigger. If the collected works amounted to 80,000 among millions of volumes, the deviations from the predicted number of remaining books would be smaller.

Schroedinger’s library example is interesting to follow through. If this were a real library, then some of the Goethe volumes would be checked out, and some of the books that were scattered around would be discovered by library assistants and put back in their place. In terms of the second law, what this would mean is that the system had feedbacks – which means that it is not entirely closed.
“ We do not wish to asseert anything more than that the total balance of disorder in nature is steadily on  the increase. In individual sections of the universe, or in definite material systems, the movement may  cvery well be towards a higher degree of order, which is made possible because an adequate compensation  occurs in some other systems.”

The notion of feedbacks gives us a new way of thinking about the game played between the novel and the author, in as much as the author keeps adding and subtracting from the novel, as well as that played between the reader and the novel, in that the reader keeps decoding the novel. But the question Musil was gnawing on was whether the novel as a system could accommodate the character as a point determined by the irreversible progress from order to disorder inherent in the other administrative systems within the social world that give the character a content.