Saturday, September 27, 2008


“[A]nchoring … lower[s] your anxiety about uncertainty by producing a number, then you ‘anchor’ on it, like an object to hold on to in the middle of a vacuum [or a storm]. [An] anchoring mechanism was discovered by the fathers of the psychology of uncertainty, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky … [They] had [test] subjects spin a wheel of fortune. The subjects first looked at the number on the wheel, which they knew was random, then they were asked to estimate the number of African countries in the United Nations [the true quantity being one of which they were completely ignorant, presumably]. Those who had a low number on the wheel estimated a low number of African nations; those with a high number produced a higher estimate.”

If you want a bargain start with a ridiculously low number? This “reference point in [the] head [will] start building beliefs around [it]. … The discussion will be determined by that initial level.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It rings true to me that the mind in a state of uncertainty is happy to cling to an idea, or gasp with relief at a suggestion, or huddle in the inadequate shade of the merest of hints, whether or not idea, suggestion or hint has a real world source. These mental landmarks feel real, thus provide comfort before the threatening panic of being lost and helpless.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How comics are like Hitler

In his Ten-Cent Plague David Hajdu reviews various campaigns against comic books. In 1944 (while we were actively at war with Germany) a Catholic group decried comics for their “vigilante spirit … Fictitious ‘junior commando’ groups bear a strong resemblance to the bands of child militarists in Nazi Germany.”

About ten years later in a new campaign against comics the psychologist Fredric Wertham testified before Congress. “’I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. … They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four, before they can read.’”

So comics, like Hitler, foment race hatred. And comics, like fascists, suggest children band together to enforce … something … community standards, maybe? Naturally Hadju’s book is rife with book burnings and community groups banding together to drive out the Other, with comics representing the Other.

But we know comics are bad because, you know, they are like Hitler. No need to say more, really.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a perishable brand

“The Phoenician invention of the alphabet [supposedly] served the purpose of commercial record keeping rather than the more noble purpose of literary production. (I remember finding on the shelves of a country house I once rented a mildewed history book by Will and Ariel Durant describing the Phoenicians as the ‘merchant race.’ I was tempted to throw it in the fireplace.) Well, it now seems that the Phoenicians wrote [literature], but using a perishable brand of papyrus that did not stand the biodegradative assaults of time.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb uses the example to argue that we can’t use lack of evidence for something as evidence that it didn’t exist. We don’t find Phoenician poems? They must not have had them! Or maybe they wrote their poems on scrolls that were handier to carry around, relegating financial records to clay tablets because nobody needed to whisper that sort of thing by moonlight beside a bower while the brook tinkled over stones?

I’m amused by the dig at the Durants. They are responsible for The Story of Civilization, a Euro-centric series of hefty histories that purport to survey human time. The tatty volumes on the shelf at Claremont were deleted last week. Some volumes hadn’t been checked out in more than ten years. We didn’t have them all anyway. (The Central branch still has copies!) The anonymous author at Wikipedia is more forgiving than Taleb: “Given the massive undertaking in creating these 11 volumes over 50 years, errors and incompleteness have occurred; yet for an attempt as large in breadth of time and scope as this, there are no similar works to compare.” The series weighs in at more than two million words and nearly 10,000 pages.

Monday, September 22, 2008


“People do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is one of those insights so profound as to be banal.

And the sun rises in the East?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

considering the fuzziness

“Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is why racism (or sexism or heterosexism …) becomes a problem. It’s not that sorting people into broad categories according to obvious characteristics is inherently bad, it’s the clinging to the category as though the general were more important than the specific even when you are dealing directly with the specific. When you are speaking about people you can broadly generalize and be right, frequently right. Individuals, however, will surprise you. The racist denies the reality of the individual, refusing to see a difference between the general and the specific, using, in fact, the general as a weapon against the specific. (Oddly, people seem to be able to see the specific and be blind to its implications – “You’re one of the good ones.”)

Saturday, September 20, 2008


“People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The problem comes in when you are presented with the resume showing what the person has studied and experienced.

One of the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, for instance, said she’d majored in American Lit at Harvard, but when show host Tyra Banks fired a series of famous American authors at her the contestant looked bewildered, as though she had never read any Jack London or Herman Melville, had barely even heard of them. It could just have been stage fright, of course. But it could have been something else. What did “American Lit” consist of for her?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Zombie Language, part 4

Can a dying language be revived? John McWhorter mentions “Hebrew, which by the late 1800s had essentially been used only in writing and for liturgical purposes for more than two thousand years … The movement to make it the official language of Israel was so successful that today it is spoken natively by a nation of six million people.” That happy story of reviving the undead has given heart to speakers (& wannabe speakers) of many other dwindling languages. There are serious efforts to bring back to dinner table chitchat such languages as Irish Gaelic, Breton, Occitan, Maori, Hawaiian, and (noted previously) Pomo.

When you’re talking about “a language”, however, you are actually talking about a cluster of dialects, more and less intelligible to each other. When there are so few speakers that this diversity is no longer sustainable the language that is being revived is a language that never really existed. What is taught as the language is a compromise among dialects, an invented standard. Invented languages don’t feel real. You can produce the words for school but when relaxing around the dinnertable they don’t just pop out. Is a language you don’t live in truly alive even if it retains a decipherable existence?

“Because it is harder for adults to learn new languages well than it is for children,” McWhorter continues, “when adults are forced to learn a new language quickly, the result is often various forms of pidginization, utilizing just the bare bones of a language. This becomes a problem in revival efforts because, even when adults of a given nationality desire strongly to have their ethnic language restored to them, the mundane realities of a busy life can make it difficult to get beyond pidgin-level competence in the language.”

Minority languages are some of the most complex on the planet. English is relatively simple. You can say English is in a constant state of pidginization - because learning it is important to non-native speakers English does not have opportunity to become isolated (and thus gather what McWhorter calls “baubles”). “[L]iving languages are developed far beyond the the strict necessities of communication and … incomplete learning guarantees that some of these baubles will be stripped away.” Even children, if the language learning is school-based, “typically speak a rather simplified variety”, particularly if it is a minority language and the language most used outside class is entirely other. Elder native speakers may disdain the improper language of the young, “sometimes putting a damper on enthusiasm for the revival itself.”

source: The Power of Babel: a natural history of language, by John McWhorter

see also Zombie Language part I, part II, and part III.

Monday, September 08, 2008

“observation of mind”

Leslie Scalapino: “One’s observation of mind is like an experiment to see what you are going to come up with. There is not going to be any objective observation of something. There is only going to be more mind stuff …”

source: Primary Trouble: an anthology of contemporary poetry, edited by Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster

Sunday, September 07, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 8

“I had horrible fever dreams about math and trying to figure out the same confusing situations over and over and over. Every time I figured anything out, I would wake up and write down the solution. But it was all in the dream. Then I would actually wake up, with nothing written down, and no solution.” – Aaron Cometbus

Besides the aches & sleep disturbance this is one of the major annoyances of a fever for me. In seemingly endless connected dreams I race to find the solution to some problem – usually not involving math but a problem for which there is a solution, my fevered mind is convinced, a solution that I will figure out, it’s just out of reach, no, I’ve got it in hand – but no matter how tight the fist the solution leaks out between my fingers.

source of quote: Signs of Life: channel-surfing through 90s culture, edited by Jennifer Joseph and Lisa Taplin (1994) Manic D Press, San Francisco.

Friday, September 05, 2008

beautiful bitterness

Sam Kashner, reviewing his decision to give up poetry (by now many years old), says:

“Poetry was turning out to be a mug’s game after all. Whoever said that – I think it was T.S. Eliot, the most successful poet of the century – was right. You wait around for your SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) to come back, your poems rejected from The New Yorker in your own handwriting. You see the fiction writers getting all the attention.”

There is something about that SASE, fat with rejection, looking up at you in your own handwriting …

There’s something about that that requires the ellipsis.

source: When I Was Cool: my life at the Jack Kerouac School by Sam Kashner. HarperCollins, New York. 2004.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

“The most sensitive poets seemed capable of cruelty.”

Talking about a poet whose name has long been familiar to me (and one I often see coupled with big praise) Sam Kashner, a memoirist who claims he has given up poetry, drops in this aside:

He is “a well-known poet, for what that’s worth in America, which means he still must feel pretty lonely.”

Then Kashner goes on (apropos the Trinidad I’ve been quoting): “[P]oets can be a pretty resentful bunch, possessors of bad attitudes. ‘Heap Big Jackasses,’ Billy [Burroughs] Jr had said about the poets who came and went through the Jack Kerouac School. The most sensitive poets seemed capable of cruelty. Just like anybody else.”

source: When I Was Cool: my life at the Jack Kerouac School by Sam Kashner. HarperCollins, New York. 2004.