Trenchant Lemmings
"Arrive in a clown car, bursting with anger."
Robert Weaver
Sydney, Australia
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The weblog description is a misquotation from Steve Aylett's Indicted to a Party: What to Do, Who to Blame.
The weblog title links to the "No Country Redirect" version, for whatever that might be worth.
November 30, 2010

It's stuff like this that reminds me why I need to spend more time at McSweeney's.

November 27, 2010
The Red and the Blue

Via Sociological Images, David Sparks' video of isarithmic maps of presidential voting.

November 25, 2010

Alex Pareene is counting down America's thirty worst pundits. Here's one of the representative quotes he chose for the post on Peggy Noonan:

I am inclined toward the long view. The life of people on earth is obviously better now than it has ever been -- certainly much better than it was 500 years ago when people beat each other with cats. This may sound silly but now and then when I read old fairy tales and see an illustration of a hunchbacked hag with no teeth and bumps on her nose who lives by herself in the forest, I think: People looked like that once. They lived like that. There were no doctors, no phones, and people lived in the dark in a hole in a tree. It was terrible. It's much better now.
Paragraphs like that don't just write themselves, folks.

November 24, 2010
Iron Law of Institutions - Management Variation

3QD featured the Tablet interview with Chompers. From the comments thread there comes a link to this interview at TruthOut, more standard subject matter for the Prof than the Tablet piece but nonetheless interesting:

During the Depression and the War, there was a real radicalization of the population -not just here but all over the world. And the post-War system was designed to reflect that. That's why you get welfare states developing in the '50s - a lot of popular pressure you couldn't escape. Changes have taken place since then and there's actually been a return to an extreme form of predatory capitalism, which means that not only will I close my business or move if I don't like what you do, but something else that's been happening, which is interesting. In the financial institutions, which by now dominate the economic system, the management level repeatedly acts in ways which will destroy their own institutions if it'll increase their benefits, and benefits are not small. You know, you take a look at the revenue of, say, Goldman Sachs - a very high percentage of it just goes to payment of management and bonuses. There was a time traditionally - say, GM in the 1950s - it was trying to develop a consumer base that would be loyal and lasting and they were thinking in terms of an institution that would remain and grow and thrive in the society. By now, a lot of the investment firms - bankers, hedge funds - are perfectly happy to destroy what they're in and come out with huge, tremendous benefits. That's a new stage of capitalism.


Is Melbourne possibly taking the lead in the development of significant regional variations in the Australian dialect?

The tendency to pronounce “el” as “al” has been heard before in places like New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Linguists call this the /el/-/æl/ sound change, and from a physiological point of view it’s not such a strange occurrence — when the tongue moves to form an “l” sound this encourages a change to the vowel that precedes it. But this is far from the whole story.

There’s a related but contrary process called /el/-/æl/ transposition. This is when people say words like “alcohol” and “alpine” as if the first syllable was “el”.
According to a commenter, this makes the pun in TISM's album title Machiavelli and the Four Seasons rather more obvious ("Machia Valli"), but if that's the case the Melbournian /el/-/æl/ swap has been around since at least 1995.

Technical paper (in pdf form) here.

(Do Melbournians still say "Travelling!" when in a hurry to somewhere? Or have they wisely stopped?)

November 21, 2010

Via Verso Books weblog, an interview with Noam Chomsky in Tablet, featuring some interesting discussion of his early life and influences, in linguistics and politics:

Did you read Nivi’im, the prophets, with your father in Hebrew?

The word "prophet" is a very bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word, navi. Nobody knows what it means. But today they’d be called dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical analysis, arguing that the acts of the rulers were going to destroy society. And they condemned the acts of evil kings. They called for justice and mercy to orphans and widows and so on.

I don’t want to say it was all beautiful. Dissident intellectuals aren’t all beautiful. You read Sakharov, who is sometimes appalling. Or Solzhenitsyn. And the nivi’im were treated the way dissident intellectuals always are. They weren’t praised. They weren’t honored. They were imprisoned like Jeremiah. They were driven into the desert. They were hated. Now at the time, there were intellectuals, "prophets," who were very well treated. They were the flatterers of the court. Centuries later, they were called "false prophets."

People who criticize power in the Jewish community are regarded the way Ahab treated Elijah: You’re a traitor. You’ve got to serve power. You can’t argue that the policies that Israel is following are going to lead to its destruction, which I thought then and still do.
The interview is surprisingly reasonable, which is to say not remotely as awful as one would predict after reading the sneering bien pensant gibberish of the introduction. Also best to steer clear of the attached comments thread; Romantic ethno-nationalists in the throes of Tu Quoque Tourette's are never a pretty sight.

November 18, 2010
Everyone Loves a Royal Wedding

Then and now.

Update: Mwahahahahah!

November 11, 2010
Hearing Yourself

From Language Log

It is possible to convince people of the truth of certain empirical claims about their own pronunciation. It involves recording them and making them listen to the playback. The linguist David Crystal was doing a workshop for British teachers and found that one of them regarded intrusive [r] as an abomination. That is, she regarded it as utterly wrong and unacceptable and coarse to pronounce the idea of it as the idearof it, as millions of British speakers do. So he had her say a few phrases like the idea of Africa and Asia on the other hand, and played her back. There were some clear cases of intrusive [r], and when she listened she could hear them herself. For a moment there was silence, and then the woman simply burst into tears.

David Crystal tells that embarrassing story with no relish at all.


Oh no! This colossal stern-faced hippie will destroy us all!

[L]ocal priest Reverend Sylwester Zawadzki... told reporters: "This is the culmination of my life's work as a priest. I felt inspired to fulfil Jesus' will, and today I give thanks to him for allowing me to fulfil his will."
This would be Jesus' will for the second tallest concrete Jesus in the world (sorry, kids, pedestals and headwear don't count) to be near Swiebodzin, Poland. Suck on that, Rio!

The Swiebodzin statue, like the others, is wisely situated far away from residential areas. If there's one headline leaders of the church don't want to find themselves reading of a morning, it's "Hundreds crushed to death by giant Jesus".

"Just ignore him, otherwise he'll follow us all the way home."

Updated to replace image lost to linkrot.

November 09, 2010
The Experiment Requires

In the course of On Being's program* featuring an interview with torture expert Darius Rejali, Krista Tippett plays an extract from recordings of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment on obedience, of one of those who refused:

Man Two: Look, I don't know anything about electricity. I don't profess any knowledge, nor will I go any further until I found out if the guy's OK.

Man: It's absolutely essential that you continue.

Man Two: Well, essential or not, this program isn't quite that important to me that I should go along doing something that I know nothing about, particularly if it's going to injure someone. I don't know what this is all about.

Man: Well, whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he's learned all the word pairs correctly.

Man Two: Well, you can sure have your $4.50 back. I didn't want it anyhow. I intended to give it some charitable organization. But I wouldn't go on with it.

Man: The $4.50 is not the issue here. That check is yours …

Man Two: Yeah, I realize that.

Man: … simply for coming to the lab. It is essential that you continue the experiment.

Man Two: No, it isn't essential. Not one bit.

Man: You've got no other choice, teacher.

Man Two: Oh, I have a lot of choices. My number one choice is that I wouldn't go on if I thought he was being harmed.
Fossicking through the show's related webpages and weblog, I discovered this episode of the ABC's Radio Eye program which interviewed various people associated with the experiment including four of the "teachers" who were asked to administer the electrical shocks in the interests of science. Fascinating stuff.
HERB WINER : The learner may have gotten the first one or two correct but it became quite obvious that he was a very dim witted learner and so each failure I imposed a shock and the level started to rise very rapidly. And I could hear him, his cries of pain and requests, “stop this, cut it out, this hurts” and similar expressions and at the same time the experimenter standing above me was instructing me very seriously that I had to go on. I became increasingly uncomfortable as we went up to about a hundred volts and I became increasingly agitated and concerned and of course the experimenter dealt with all objections with one or more of several phrases, like “you must continue”, or “the experiment requires that you continue,” or “you have no choice.”


BILL MENOLD: I didn’t know what I was doing, and you know, I thought one of three things is happening either this guy’s unconscious, he’s dead or this thing is a complete sham. I mean I had thought, while my thought process was still working, there was a concern that I had that I was being set up because you don’t do this - this isn’t the way the world operates but the conflict within me to know which one of those was right was unbelievably stressful, as I said I couldn’t, I was not functional. I really had lost it intellectually, or emotionally or whatever… And I didn’t know what I was gonna do and I stopped at one point and I said I’m not going to continue with this because I don’t know what’s going on and I’m not taking responsibility for this and that’s when this facilitator said don’t worry about it Yale University is taking full responsibility. You just conduct your part of the - he was just an authority figure and he was just, “this is your job just go ahead and do it we know what we’re doing don’t get excited here, just continue with the experiment.” And I did. I was totally out of any world that I’d ever known. I was tormented internally. I was a basket case.
Naturally, you quickly find yourself musing on the recursive nature of the whole thing. Although Milgram and his staff expected the vast majority of participants to refuse to continue with the shocks, they must have realised the potential for significant emotional stress to the subjects, and, indeed, reported on the distress that did occur, in their results. And yet the experiment continued, in the interests of science, and I wonder if the experimenters saw the element of introspection in what they were doing, the fact they were learning about themselves. I suspect they did. One can only hope. Should you continue causing this distress, Stanley? It is essential that you continue.

* Via Mondoweiss. Mr Weiss and Ms Tippett say half the subjects refused to continue the shocks, which given the small sample size is probably fair enough, although the actual figure is 14 out of 40.

November 08, 2010
A Golden Anniversary

Geoffrey Robertson recounts the history of the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial:

In 1960, in the interests of keeping wives dutiful and servants touching their forelocks, Lady Constance Chatterley's affair with a gamekeeper was unmentionable. The prosecutors were complacent: they would have the judge on their side, and a jury comprised of people of property, predominantly male, middle aged, middle minded and middle class. And they had four-letter words galore: the prosecuting counsel's first request was that a clerk in the DPP's office should count them carefully. In his opening speech to the jury, he played them as if they were trump cards: "The word 'fuck' or 'fucking' appears no less than 30 times . . . 'Cunt' 14 times; 'balls' 13 times; 'shit' and 'arse' six times apiece; 'cock' four times; 'piss' three times, and so on."
"And so on"?

I think Mr Robertson somewhat overeggs the pudding as to the class-war aspect of the prosecution, and on the social impact of the "Not Guilty" verdict, but his railing against "the striped-trousered ones who rule" (quoting Orwell) is half the fun of the article.

Strange then that he only alludes to but does not quote the notorious and greatly mocked passage from the prosecutor's opening address that did so much to cement the notion that censorship is the process whereby the better class of person decides what the lower orders may read. The London Telegraph's commemorative piece has the glorious words:
'Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?'
Brilliant in its way; a timeless classic.

November 06, 2010
Watching The Clock

At the LRB blog, Jonathan Romney reviews Christian Marclay's videomontage The Clock.

Marclay has taken thousands of fragments of footage containing images of clocks, watches and other timepieces, and edited them into a 24-hour collage (the gallery is normally open only in the daytime, but the installation can be seen at weekends in its round-the-clock entirety). The time references on screen are synchronised with the real time of projection, so that if you walk into the gallery at 5.47 p.m., say, the clock or watch on screen will read 5.47. That is, the film itself functions very accurately as a clock.


Overall, we seem to be watching a huge, madly diffuse multi-stranded narrative with a cast of thousands - an epic drama about simultaneity, in which no narrative can ever reach completion. Micro-narratives emerge, not always linear. One is the story of a man bound and gagged, forever sweating nervously as he contemplates a time bomb. Another follows Jack Nicholson’s ageing process, from young rake (whose singing in Ken Russell’s Tommy apparently adds to the torment of the time bomb victim) to the haggard doyen watching the clock in About Schmidt (2002).

Marclay’s collage teaches us things we might have overlooked about times of the day. Between three and four in the afternoon is a period for slumber: alcoholic screenwriters and maverick cops wake around now, while others start dozing at their desks.
There's an accompanying "catalogue" book. I guess we can't expect a DVD.

November 05, 2010
Umpteenth Time's the Charm

Newsflash: Democratic candidates lose votes by failing to persuade people likely to vote Democratic to vote for them:

"In my case, it's simply a matter of the Democrats not voting," Grayson, who was defeated by Republican Dan Webster in Florida's 8th District, said. "We don't have the final numbers from Election Day yet, but in the early voting, when you compare the vote this time to the vote in 2008, the Republicans dropped about 20 percent, and the Democratic vote dropped 60 percent."
Clearly the solution is moving even further to the right.

November 04, 2010
Hyperbolic Discounting

James Surowiecki reviews The Thief of Time, a book about procrastination, in The New Yorker.

The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy...

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time - in particular, from a tendency that economists call "hyperbolic discounting." A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing...

The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.
You'll be pleased to discover this post contains no joke about how long it took me to cite this article.

November 03, 2010
Get Thee to the Moon

The only children's book written in second person, future tense*. Which is odd, because it's a stylistic device that probably only works on children.


*Until I hear otherwise.

November 02, 2010
In Late News...

... as in, I'm late to it, the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages have returned to their traditional "All Demented Fantasy All the Time" state. Mr Frank's first column at his new digs at Harper's will be published in December. I'd say I can't wait except I'm guessing Harper's has a paywall too - although not one that funnels money to Rupert Murdoch, so that's still an improvement.

November 01, 2010

The individual who then consciously opted into resistance was a man who accepted his own freedom: call it existential liberation.

This freedom was reinforced by liberation of a more paradoxical kind... The individual was also liberated, like it or not, from the pretext and from the sui generis constraints of democracy as we know it, from the illusion that the act of voting now and again is anything other than symbolic abdication of political freedom. It may seem inappropriate when talking of individual freedom in the context of German occupation to quote from Tolstoy on Russia in the nineteenth century, but his words may help to define the kind of freedom which was discovered in a country suddenly plunged into despotism:
Those Englishmen who come to Russia feel much more free here. At home they are bound by laws which they make themselves through their representatives, and which they obey, imagining all the time that they are free men. Now in this country it is not I who made the laws: consequently I am not bound to obey them - I am a free man.
This may seem like Tolstoian pervesity, but there is more than a slight echo of these words in Sartre's famous beginning to 'The Republic of Silence':
We have never been more free than under German occupation. We had lost all our rights and first of all the right to speak; we were insulted to our faces each day and we had to stay silent; we were deported en masse as labourers, as Jews, as political prisoners; everywhere we looked, on walls, in newspapers, on the cinema screen, we were confronted by the same vile and insipid image of ourselves that our oppressors wanted us to have: because of all this we were free. Because the Nazi's venom infiltrated our very thoughts, each just thought was a conquest; because an all-powerful police sought to constrain us to silence, each word became precious as a declaration of principle; because we were hounded, every gesture had the weight of a total commitment.
Under occupation this peculiar freedom - and its associated responsibility - was given to the individual.
From Stephen Hawes, "The Individual and the Resistance Community in France", in Resistance in Europe: 1939-45, ed. Stephen Hawes & Ralph White, 1975.

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