Interesting Articles, Links, Etc.

Some more links.

  • Why do companies buy out startups just to get their employees, rather than just offering them higher salaries, which seems like it would be cheaper? An interesting article in the NYT gives some answers to this puzzle about so-called acqui-hiring in Silicon Valley.1 See also the longer law article by the original authors of the study for more (which, I admit, I haven’t read yet). [Update: A friend who works in Silicon Valley points out an additional argument for aqui-hires: companies like hiring teams of programmers who are already used to working with each other. By doing an aqui-hire, the company ensures that it has the whole team.]
  • HL Mencken on how to drink like a gentleman.
  • An article by Robert Gottlieb2 in the Atlantic about Lorenz Hart, lyricist of Rodgers and Hart fame. A very interesting character (especially as regards love, sex, the comparison with Cole Porter, etc.).
  • A really interesting article by Colin Dickey in the Believer about controversies over how to set pitch. Who’d have thought that you’d ever read about Placido Domingo and LaRouche in the same article?
  • An obituary of Anthony Lewis, whose book Gideon’s Trumpet I remember enjoying a long time ago. An amusing quote is hidden in the article.

    Mr. Lewis’s coverage of the court impressed Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called Mr. Reston. “I can’t believe what this young man achieved,” Justice Frankfurter said, as Mr. Reston recalled in his memoir, “Deadline.” “There are not two justices of this court who have such a grasp of these cases.”

    This recalls a quote of Lionel Abel, recalled by Dick Schaap, from Abel’s NYT obituary:

    Sartre says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Kenneth Rexroth, the poet-critic, says Abel is the most intelligent man in New York City. Abel himself will not say that he is the most intelligent man in New York City. But he will say that Sartre and Rexroth are both magnificent judges of intellect.

  • An interesting interview on NPR’s Fresh Air about near-death (or after-death, as it’s called) experiences, with Dr. Sam Parnia. About 10-20% of patients who are resuscitated after heart failure report memories of white lights, can recall conversations that occurred in the hospital, etc.; interestingly (if I heard correctly), in certain cases this happens in spite of the fact that their brains showed no activity.
  • This blew my mind: the anecdote about Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn” ) is probably apocryphal. It’s not surprising when certain things—a quote attributed to Churchill, say—are apocryphal. But this seems like the sort of thing that would have been debunked. (So does this mean everything creative writing professors say is false? Can I tell things without showing?)  Along these lines, a segment from the Freakonomics podcast,3 The Legacy of a Jerk [full transcript], noted that Ty Cobb, in fact, wasn’t necessarily such a bad guy—and maybe Roberto Clemente wasn’t the saint he was turned into. Again, you’d think this information-filled internet age would change these things. (And perhaps it has; after all, I learned about Ty Cobb and Roberto Clemente from, yes, a book, circa 1995. Surely the nascent baseball fan nowadays learns things from the internet.)
  • A 1991 interview of Siskel and Ebert in Playboy. An interesting tidbit:

    Playboy: So besides yourselves, who has the biggest ego in the business?

    Siskel: I’m sure it’s a sixty-way tie.

    Ebert: When you say, “Who has the biggest ego,” there’s an implicit criticism. You’re actually asking who’s the biggest asshole. I would say that the biggest ego of anyone I’ve spoken to in the movies belongs to Ingmar Bergman, but I would want that to be heard as praise. He has a very highly developed sense of self, of who he is, what he thinks and what he cares about. He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. Woody Allen has an extremely well-developed and healthy ego. That does not mean he’s conceited; it doesn’t mean he’s insufferable. It just means that he takes himself seriously, and he should.

    In terms of dynamic energy and infectious enthusiasm, very few people are the match of Martin Scorsese. I gave him his first print review. It was his first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? I said, “In ten years, he’ll be the American Fellini.” Well, of course, that was wrong, because there’s nothing similar between Scorsese and Fellini. But he called me up and said, “Geez, do you think it’s gonna take that long?” 

  • A good article from Gawker: Journalism is not narcissism.
  • Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? An interesting article in the NYT. Economic theory says a lot about how self-interested actors ought to behave. This is only a crude approximation of reality, but it’s particularly problematic when one considers what happens within, say, a corporation. This is both because (a) even if employees are self-interested, there’s a challenge of aligning their interests with that of their employer and (b) of course people aren’t purely self-interested, at least not in the simplest sense for economic models (assuming they just want to maximize success and money). (Within academia—which is an interesting test case, since there are many of the same corporate issues, like challenges in aligning interests, managing finite resources, motivating employees, even though the ultimate goal is different than profit maximization—this comes up, too.)  So there are really two different issues here. One is more economic, thinking about how to align incentives well, so that employees will work hard, so that the desire for promotion doesn’t lead to interoffice politics where favoritism beats meritocracy, so that (appropriate) whistle-blowing is rewarded. But another is psychological. How do we acknowledge the reality that humans care about many other things than money and promotions?  I think culture—which is such a complicated beast—plays a big role in this. How, though, to effect cultural changes in a way that’s not artificial?  When I see the HR emails I get from University of Michigan, with their various ploys and awards, or when I go to a medical complex and read banal “Mission Statements”, I can’t help but think that these only create a more deadened, Orwellian world. Yet you can certainly tell the difference when you’re in institutions where there is a great culture, and it redounds to the benefit of all. I imagine Adam Grant’s research can shed some light here.

  1. The article is by law professor Victor Fleischer, who often writes good stuff about taxation. Taxation, stereotypes of boredom notwithstanding, is a fascinating topic; after all, if the world is all about different actor’s incentives, then taxation is a primary lever the government can use to effect change. 

  2. Apropos of Gottlieb, a good Paris Review interview with him. I love the Jewish prayer he cites: “May we never reach our dreams.” 

  3. Which I find problematic, unlike the fantastic Planet Money podcast. 

Allusion and Undertones in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I wrote in my introductory post that I am ambivalent about much of contemporary fiction. Well, it’s wonderful to come across as singular a counterexample as Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This is the sort of work that reminds you why you read; I heartily recommend it to all. (A word of advice: you should read Camus’s The Fall before you read this. Apologies if that word of advice is a very slight1 spoiler, but it seemed outweighed by the importance of reading the Camus first.)

I won’t write a full review. Instead, let me take this as an opportunity to jot down a few thoughts about something I’ve been mulling over for a while, about the role of allusion in literature. Apologies that this a touch disjointed. (Spoiler Alert: I won’t ruin any specific plot details, but I’ll discuss broader formal and thematic aspects of the novel. So if you’re bothered by these things, read the novel first—it’s a quick and captivating read.)

Let me start with the following premise: I’m deeply ambivalent about allusion2 in literature. What I mean, specifically, is that I feel uncomfortable with the way many authors intentionally fill their works with allusions, showing off their immense learning. What purpose does this serve, other than burnishing the ego of the author and providing employment for the professor? (I’m reminded of the quote of James Joyce about Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” Joyce is an interesting case, since I love his work. But I think it’s mostly in spite of the allusions that I love Joyce.3 And there’s more than a little irony in Joyce’s statement.4)

I won’t go at length into the specific examples that are problematic. Nabakov comes to mind, as does a whole range of more recent fiction (both of the realist and of the postmodern persuasion). In more contemporary works, I think my distaste has something to do with the problem of so many novels being written about people who are writers/artists living in Brooklyn, or professors working in the academy. Great novels should be about the world, about life—not about art itself. Form exists for the sake of function, not for form itself. So why keep talking about books?5

So what, then, about a work like The Reluctant Fundamentalist?  The novel clearly evokes Camus’s The Fall; both are monologic confessions told by a voluble and friendly host who meets his interlocutor, a mysterious foreigner who remains silent to us, in a cafe/bar. Further, one also gets a clear sense of The Great Gatsby. Yet I didn’t find this problematic, the way I do in so many other works.

Why is this? Let me suggest an explanation, which constitutes a justification for allusion when done right. In Hamid’s novel, the clear evocation of Camus and Fitzgerald allows the undertones of those two great novels to reverberate through this new work. How accomplish that?  Well, you have to make the reader aware, and so you include the hints. But these aren’t recondite or obscure, and there’s no need to sit with each text in hand and compare. As long as the link has been made—ideally subconsciously at first—the effect is there.

I could articulate some of these thematic undertones that are now brought to the novel. From Camus, we have the sense of the fall, of judgment, of the reaction of the world to a calamitous event (World War II and the Holocaust in Camus reflect on 9/11 in Hamid). From Fitzgerald, the sense of romanticism, of love, of the riches offered by America, some of the hope of America.6 But these articulations don’t do justice; the whole point of these undertones is that they bring a whole fabric of associations that can’t be neatly parceled into a critic’s few categories.

And so the success of allusion in this book offers a guide to how it can be done effectively, without appearing in any way gratuitous, as it does in so many works. If there’s a powerful work, a work which an educated reader can reasonably be expected to be familiar with7, then if you want its fundamental undertones to reverberate through your work, you can evoke it. For example, I love Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Suppose I were writing a novel, and I wanted to bring Dostoevsky’s reverberations. What I can do is put a philosophical story-within-a-novel—say one with historical and religious themes that reflect on the themes of the novel as a whole—in the middle of my book, just as Dostoevsky has his Grand Inquisitor. I could have a character offer an existential confession, where he laments suffering and speaks of his “Euclidean mind”.8 I could even choose to have a trio of male protagonists, one hedonistic, one tortured and intellectual, and one saintly.9

To illustrate, by contrast, what I shouldn’t do: I don’t write a novel and then decide to have my characters eat fish soup at a key moment, just because that’s what Ivan and Alyosha eat during their crucial meal. That’s obscure, gratuitous. And if I am trying to bring Dostoevskyan undertones, then I only do it enough so that the connection can be made;10 I don’t keep putting in obscure things just so that critics can carefully parse the precise connections.

This being a blog, and this being a particularly sketchy meditation, I suppose I can avoid an elegant conclusion. Perhaps the way to put it is this. I tend to dislike most cases of allusion in (recent) literature, either because it comes out of some postmodern/meta tradition—and I generally don’t like that—or because it comes out of a realist tradition that lacks the life to do anything other than write about people who read and write books. (Or, I suppose, because it’s just really pretentious; Nabakov falls into this category, though he probably fits into the other two as well.)  But allusion can accomplish something important—something magical—in good literature, if it’s used to evoke works whose undertones can reverberate through a new work. Hamid’s novel, which is wonderful in many ways (not just in this regard), is a perfect example.

 Let me me finish by adding a few stray thoughts.

  • One sees this use of undertones in biblical allusions. These are (generally) wholly good, one very much wants to be able to call upon the Judeo-Christian heritage.
  • I read somewhere that in ancient epic literature, one was expected to have allusions to one’s forbears, as a way of acknowledging one’s debt. Thus it’s no surprise that Virgil’s Aeneid is full of parallels with Homer. I understand this sentiment. (Indeed, this is natural; the only reason I know Ivan and Alyosha had fish soup is because I had made a note to myself, Look, this is something I could allude to! I think we have a natural human desire to allude, both to offer our thanks, and also as a playful puzzle (cf. the etymology of allusion).)
  • Another justification for allusion is simply as a device for the author. I’m reminded of a point Douglas Hofstadter makes in his book Le Ton Beau de Marot: paradoxically, constraining oneself can in fact help one be creative. (He goes on to talk about various games of translation, e.g., translation Pushkin without using the letter e, or something like that. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, I don’t know if I would recommend it, but this point is important, and I don’t recall seeing it elsewhere.) Thus, trying to fit within the constraints of paralleling a famous book can help. (Sometimes the copy can be better than the original—cf. Picasso’s quote “good artists borrow, great artists steal”. For example, I enjoyed Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse much more than Nabokov’s Pale Fire.11 Interestingly, I think Millhauser’s book actually has more of an influence on my reading of Nabokov than vice versa.)

  1. Only in my world, where I refuse to read even blurbs on the backs of books, for fear of prejudicing my sole “virgin read” of a work. 
  2. Here, I will more broadly define allusion to include, as well, explicit reference. 
  3. Today, we treat Joyce as sacrosanct, afraid to criticize. A good antidote to this is to read Edmund Wilson’s 1922 review in The New Republic.

    It is not so bad when in order to convey the atmosphere of a newspaper office he merely breaks up his chapter with newspaper heads, but when he insists upon describing a drinking party in an interminable series of imitations which progresses through English prose from the style of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles to that of Carlyle one begins to feel uncomfortable.

    Apropos of the critical reception of Joyce, I love the following anecdote from Hugh Kenner’s book on Ulysses, p. 169: “Ezra Pound in old age liked to recall how Joyce had responded to reviews and explications: `If only someone would say the book was so damn funny.'” 

  4. Cf. this quote from “A Little Cloud” in Dubliners:

    If he could give expression to it in a book of poems perhaps men would listen. He would never be popular: he saw that. He could not sway the crowd but he might appeal to a little circle of kindred minds. The English critics, perhaps, would recognise him as one of the Celtic school by reasons of the melancholy tone of his poems; besides that, he would put in allusions.

  5. Note that is part of why I broadened my definition to include explicit reference, since what matters is the reference, regardless of whether it is implicit or explicit. 
  6. I am sympathetic with Hamid’s characterization of the novel as “a love song to America as much as it is a critique”, in response to a reductive interview question by Deborah Solomon. (I don’t know that I literally agree with him, but I understand where he’s coming from. This is a novel that I think is at grave risk of being so reduced.) I think the Gatsby undertones are important in giving it this sense, which is missed by some readers. 
  7. But it’s fine if they’re not. 
  8. Actually, I don’t like how Dostoevsky uses “Euclidean”, in contrast with other geometries. I prefer to misinterpret the quote (indeed, I think I initially misread it) as being about having a “logical” mind. 
  9. I once noticed that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest had just such a trio of brothers, too, in the same birth order; my bubble was popped a bit when a friend pointed out that, in fact, Hal is younger than Mario. Perhaps this trichotomy is somewhat archetypal; can’t the last three popes be categorized as the athlete, the intellectual, and the humble saint? 
  10. Acknowledging that different people might pick up on different things, you can—indeed you want to—have redundancy. Thus it’s okay, I think, that Hamid gave a character the name Juan-Bautista, which might have immediately rung a bell for some but didn’t for me until I looked back at my notes about The Fall (whose protagonist is Jean-Baptiste Clamence). 
  11. I think I mentioned this only because I want to include one of my favorite quotes from that novel, a quote which, like the Joyce line above, pokes fun at the pretensions of literary criticism.

    I once asked Edwin if the story was an allegory of the suffering artist in a society that does not understand him. “A what?” he replied. When I had explained “allegory” he frowned for a while and at last said no, he didn’t think it was an alligator. (191)

Interesting Links

I imagine in the blog that I will be sharing various links to articles, etc., that I find interesting. Perhaps lightly annotated. Rather than overburden your RSS feed or whatnot with too many individual entries (cough, cough Andrew Sullivan, who I would subscribe to if there would be some way to do so without it overwhelming me), I will do this in batches. Herewith, the first batch.

  • Did you know that as recently as 60-some years ago, London would occasionally get blanketed with a smog so thick it became dark as night in the middle of day? I’d never heard of the Great Smog of 1952 until hearing this BBC Witness podcast.1 Listen to the podcast, or just google it and look at the pictures.
  • Interview with J.Z. Smith, via Ellenberg’s blog. What a character. Some good quotes from this. (There’s also a shorter version.)
  • I’d never heard of Julian Jaynes before this (short) article in n+1 by Rachel Aviv. Interesting.
  • An interview with Estonian president Toomas Ilves, about the role of technology in government. Very interesting and impressive. An important point about programming: “Once you learn how to program, it’s not very difficult.”
  • Good article by Ben Birnbaum in TNR on Israel.
  • For once (since back when Woody Allen’s short prose was actually funny) the New Yorker has a funny Shouts and Murmurs. (Sorry, Mom, Andy Borowitz isn’t funny.)  Jesse Eisenberg (yes, that Jesse Eisenberg), Marv Albert is my Therapist. (Eisenberg is kind enough not to allude to certain ironies, given Albert’s past.)
  • This is no longer as timely, but a very interesting article in Der Spiegel about Pope Benedict. (And while we’re on popes, the following video of Pope John Paul I think justifies the existence of the internet.2)

  1. BBC Witness, by the way, is a great podcast. It’s amazing all these tidbits of relatively recent history that you’d think you’d have heard about before but haven’t. For example, another BBC Witness show was about the capture of the USS Pueblo by North Koreans. Why hasn’t an Argo-esque movie been made about this? 
  2. A discerning reader points out that this video is probably a hoax, presumably done by papal impersonator Gene Greytak. I would prefer to be like the child who, upon hearing that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, continues to hold out hope of belief. I’ll point out that the “pope” in this video is batting left-handed. Google News has a picture of Gene Greytak batting right-handed in his papal outfit, under the caption “But the pope’s left-handed”. (This is from the February 8, 1996, Southeast Missourian.) It’s not terribly clear from cursory web-searching whether Pope John Paul was in fact left-handed or not—it could have been a newspaper editor having fun with the caption—but he was wounded in his right arm (and left hand) in an assassination attempt, so it’s plausible that he would have batted left-handed. It’s all very sinister… 

Letters to the Living Dead

The eponymous hero of Saul Bellow’s Herzog spends his days writing letters. Moses Herzog1 is writing to “everyone under the sun…to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.”2 Later, he pauses during one his letters:

He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date. But then why shouldn’t he write to the dead? He lived with them as much as with the living—perhaps more; and besides, his letters to the living were increasingly mental, and anyway, to the Unconscious, what was death? (p. 198-199)

I’ve for a long while debated writing a blog. Until now, I’ve followed Herzog’s approach, at least in spirit. There are friends whose inboxes are flooded with random missives with my thoughts. And my own (private) journals might be considered letters to the living dead—living because the ideas are still alive. This allusion to Bellow is a touch disingenuous (not to mention macabre), because I have a less historical outlook than Herzog, and so I’m resisting the temptation to, say, name the blog “Letters to the Living Dead”. But I wanted to begin on this note, to set the tone for what I want to write about.

I want to write about ideas. Ideas matter fundamentally. A passage in another Bellow novel, Humboldt’s Gift, shows the difference between the essential curiosity of the intellectual and the parochial, narrow interests of the scholar or the academic:

Now then, could he say anything serious to me? But could I tell him what was on my mind? Could I say that that morning I had been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology, the pages on freedom and death? Could I say that I had been thinking about the history of human consciousness with special emphasis on the question of boredom? Could I say that for years now I had been preoccupied with this theme and that I had discussed it with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher? Never. Even with astrophysicists, with professors of economics or paleontology, it was impossible to discuss such things.3

Again, there’s a more historical and philosophical flavor to Bellow’s character’s interests than I have—my readings have more been in the synchronic study of sciences (mathematics, linguistics, economics) and the timeless world of fiction—but this captures the imperative I feel to ask the important questions.

And so: I have finally succumbed and started a blog. Mostly, I think, this will help spare the inboxes of the poor friends to whom I direct those random missives. (I joke to these friends, who seem to be doing things less amenable to procrastination than a Ph.D. program, that correspondence with me is a form of asymmetrical warfare. It gets particularly bad when I start long emails and then decide I can’t do without footnotes; I end up sending my poor friends pdf attachments with dozens of footnotes.4 One such friend suggests that I adopt a variation of the Andrew Sullivan subscription model for blogs: my friends pay me monthly for not having the obligation to respond to these emails.) More seriously, I have for a long while in my free time been working on various writing projects. Few if any of these have seen the light of day—and most of them won’t any time soon. But it seems time to start putting at least some of these into a more public sphere.

That I’ve kept most of my writing projects private hints at a very real problem, a problem that’s very germane to the medium of the blog. There’s a big difference between jotting things down in (digital) notebooks and publishing something sufficiently polished for the world to see. Both acts are tremendously important. It’s crucial, I think, to engage in such private notebooking and journaling; I’ve grown a tremendous amount intellectually from this process. And it would be dangerous to do so in a public realm: the self-censoring would discourage the intellectual honesty necessary for my own thoughts, and the time and energy it would take to write such entries with sufficient care would engulf my life. And yet: if one has thoughts, ideas, one wants to share them.5 This is certainly true for the larger of the aforementioned writing projects, which will require significant amounts of time to finish. And so, as an interim measure, perhaps I can share some of these ideas here.

The challenge, then, will be to seek a balance: how to write a blog, something I must craft carefully enough to be willing to show the world, without letting it take too much time, without letting it distract from my other projects? I’ll have to content myself with giving this caveat here (even though I don’t know whether I’ll follow it): these are not necessarily polished, not necessarily crafted, these are essays in the etymological sense.6 We’ll see how that goes. (After all, I’m the type of person who insists on writing a long preamble to a blog.)

What will I write about? I expect to write about ideas, broadly conceived. Of course, this means that I can write about anything I want. We’ll see what exactly this means. I suspect the topics will include literature, economics, education, journalism, law, linguistics,7 technology, science, and math, among other areas.8 I should note, though, three topics that I don’t expect to dwell on:

  1. Although I’m in graduate school in math, this certainly isn’t primarily a “math blog”. It’s not completely orthogonal (to use a math word, sorry) to pure math, because I do expect to write from time to time about things pertaining to math (just as I might write about things related to theoretical linguistics, which I used to study), but I expect to do so in a way that’s accessible (I hope) to the general reader. Indeed, I believe rather strongly that we need more poets to study math, and more mathematicians to study poetry, and likewise for everyone and everything in between. (I particularly think that we need bankers to study literature, and we need humanists, journalists and politicians to study economics. And everyone should learn more probability.)
  2. This isn’t a twitter, a livejournal, a xanga, or anything of the sort (does xanga even exist anymore?): this isn’t a personal blog about my life. Things may come up from time to time—and certainly, as I explore the form of the essay, I’m not going to deprive myself all the tools of the authorial voice of personal experience—but that’s not what this is about. The personal is personal; I’m not the type to share this over the internet.
  3. I probably won’t be going into politics very much. For those who know me, perhaps this is not surprising. I might address the “political” in certain narrower issues, and there might the stray elliptic comment—see, e.g., above on poets and bankers—but I’m not going to open that can of worms.

Although I expect to write a good deal about non-literary topics—indeed, I hope most of the blog can appeal to those without any literary interests—because much of my focus is literary, I want to make two points about how I will write about literature.

First, I should note that I’m somewhat reluctant to criticize the living. There’ve been discussions recently about the importance of negative criticism. I think this is tremendously important. I certainly love reading a good polemical review—by people like William Deresiewicz, Anthony Lane, or Paul Berman. And I’m rather ambivalent about much of contemporary fiction (although I should make clear that I’ve only read a very thin sliver of it, and hope to be proved wrong), so I want someone to attack the sacred cows. But it probably won’t be me. Thus, for example, I’ll say that I recently read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and was blown away by how beautiful this was and urge everyone to read it, but I probably won’t name the various highly hyped books of literary fiction in the past few years that I’ve been nonplussed by. (For movies and other massive commercial things where it’s not a solitary author on the line, I’ll be more open. Thus, in addition to saying that Incendies9 and Moonrise Kingdom are two of the best movies I’ve seen, I have no compunction saying that the primary redeeming merit of Les Mis was my entertainment in reading the scathing reviews.) I just want to say this, for the sake of intellectual honesty. (Also: I reserve the right to change this; perhaps I will change this, develop a critic’s pen.)

Second, I want to acknowledge the uncomfortable state of reading criticism about things one hasn’t read. I studiously avoid reading any reviews of a book before I read it (ditto for plays and movies); I even avoid reading back covers. (Of course reviews play an important role in the informational problem of determining whether to read a book, see a movie, etc. Luckily, at least when it comes from books, there’s a large enough supply of highly lauded books to last a lifetime, and one can generally get a sense of reviews by osmosis without learning any spoilers.) And so, because it’s one of my pet peeves, I’ll try to be careful about revealing any spoilers.

Design, Layout, Etc.

I’ve used the Ari theme, hosted using WordPress.10 I hope this formats well on all of your devices. I’m rather old school—my phone is dumb, I don’t have an ipad, all I use is firefox on a mac, and besides I use technology (RSS) that Google has deemed unimportant—so I can’t check that everything looks lovely on newer devices. But I think this theme is supposed to be appropriately adaptive. If you’re on a narrower screen, the third column appears below the main text. I’ve put what I hope is the crucial information on the first, left column, but you can scroll down for that third column. (The width of the text is slightly too narrow for my taste, but then there’s research that suggests that narrow columns are actually easier to read. If you make the browser a bit narrower, when the third column disappears the main column becomes in fact slightly wider, which you might like.) I half do and half don’t want to spend the time to make the typefaces, etc., match my aesthetic sensibilities, but at some point I probably will.11 For now, my apologies for the garish bar next to extended quotations, the mismatch between serifed and sans-serifed fonts, etc. If anything is hard to read, do let me know.12

Frequency, Content, Etc.

We’ll see. It’ll have to be a level that will be manageable. It’s possible at times that it will be sparse. See here for some options for subscribing. If I find links to interesting articles, etc., I imagine I’ll do them in one batch of a bunch of links, rather than cluttering up an RSS feed with too many small entries.

Feedback and Comments

I’m generally quite skeptical of online commenting. (Indeed, I’m on the record13 for this stance.14) But I would very much love feedback; please do write to me with comments, by email.15 Only with your permission, I might post them.

Also, if you see a typo, other egregious infelicity of writing, broken link, etc., please let me know so I can fix it. Otherwise, I will be overly paranoid in proofreading, and this will take up too much of my time.

Amazon Links

Since I’ll be providing lots of links to books anyways, I’ve decided to use‘s affiliates program. If you click on one of the links to Amazon from my blog and buy that item within 24 hours, I get a small percentage. This helps pay for the cost of hosting the site, so please do this! In fact, I believe the way it works is that if you buy anything through Amazon through this link, then I will get a commission on. Yes, yes, I support local independent bookstores (hooray for the newly opening Literati Bookstore here in Ann Arbor, filling a void left by the departure of Shaman Drum). So you should too. But I also order plenty of things from Amazon, as I imagine do you, so why not make some money.


I want to respect, to the extent possible, privacy on the web, while also acknowledging friends and others who’ve given me ideas. I’ll err on the side of disguising the identity of any friends I refer to, and won’t link to friends’ pseudonymous or semi-pseudonymous/hidden-by-obfuscation blogs (which I very much enjoy!), but if I’m referring to you or your blog and you want more public credit, please let me know and I will de-anonymize you. Obviously, I’m comfortable posting these thoughts online under my name, so I’m happy to be cited and linked to, but I hope I can do so in a way that keeps my personal life private.

N.B.: Apologies for the length of this. I’m of course the type of person who likes to do this, cover all the contingencies; in my very straightforward calculus classes, somehow my syllabi are twice as long as those of other instructors. Maybe I should follow Bellow’s Herzog in writing only to the dead; they have all the time in the world for qualifications and caveats.

  1. I read in James Atlas’s biography that Bellow had forgotten that this was the name of an obscure character in Ulysses. (“—Circumcised? says Joe./—Ay, says I. A bit off the top.” [12.17 in the Gabler edition]) Somehow this great phrase barely turns up in google searches. I suggest we commence using this phrase. The phrase of Joyce’s that I most want to bring into public use, though, is the word “peloothered” for drunk, from Joyce’s Dubliners.

    —Yes, yes, said Mr Kernan, trying to remember. I remember now there was a policeman. Decent young fellow, he seemed. How did it happen at all?
    —It happened that you were peloothered, Tom, said Mr Cunningham gravely.
    (Dubliners, p. 125 in the Oxford World Classics edition).

    As I seem to be on a tangent about good euphemisms, may I heartily recommend the essay “I am Michiko Kakutani,” citing which I hope won’t put me in Ms. Kakutani’s bad book if I ever achieve literary success. 

  2. p. 3 in my Penguin classics Edition. (I hate how some reviews don’t give page numbers for quotes. Perhaps someday Google Books will make that unnecessary, but for now it’s awfully useful. I will always do so.) 
  3. p. 69 in my Viking edition, 1975. 
  4. There will be footnotes here, too. I hope these aren’t too ungainly. WordPress doesn’t give amazing solutions for footnotes. Part of me is attracted to the Tufte-style marginal notes that Grantland uses, but I didn’t find an easy way to do these in wordpress (let me know if you know how), and I’m not sure how well they’d work in an RSS reader, which is how I at least enjoy reading blogs, not to mention the various mobile-sized screens people use nowadays. Part of me just wants to post my nicely typeset pdf files. (Update: I’ve switched to using Markdown, which is a much better solution for inputting footnotes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow the footnote to appear in the alt text anymore, as did my previous solution, nor can I put the brackets around the footnote number.) 
  5. One of my favorite quotes comes from Luc Sante’s review of Sontag’s diaries:

    You might say there are two kinds of writers: those who keep a journal in the hope that its contents might someday be published, and those who do not keep a journal for fear that its contents might someday be published.

    I have a friend who makes sure each time he flies that he has all his external hard drives with him, so that if the plane goes down they go with him. I, by contrast, make a point of noting to my friends (and now, I suppose, the internet) my multiply redundant backup systems. 

  6. This contrasts with the actual genre of the essay, a genre I very much admire which in its best incarnations is certainly very carefully crafted. I do have several ideas that I hope to turn into such real essays; perhaps I will experiment with those here. 
  7. Although I should note that, despite having studied theoretical linguistics (and having done scintillating research which can be pithily if disingenuously summarized as confirming that the word “that” means nothing), and despite caring a tremendous amount about writing and language, I’m rarely interested in pop linguistics discussions of quirks of language, etymologies, concatenations of the word Buffalo that can be parsed as a sentence, etc. (These are the sorts of things one might find on a blog like Language Log.) It’s interesting how both linguistics and mathematics (the academic disciplines I know best) have these amateur “puzzle” branches. In math, too, I find puzzles (and their cousins, board games) rather uninteresting. I think it’s important that it be said that the true beauty of the fields isn’t in these sorts of puzzles. 
  8. One particular idea I’ve had is to offer expositions of certain incredibly beautiful, under-appreciated ideas: price discrimination in economics, machine learning in computer science (and why it works reasonably well on Amazon but is laughably bad on, say, ok cupid), conversational implicature in linguistics, Benford’s law in statistics, various ideas from probability, the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny in biology (and in literature/ideas), and so on. 
  9. An interesting case where I found the film much better than the play. 
  10. Update: This has changed, I’m now (May 2013) using a new theme, which I think looks a lot better. 
  11. Well, to be precise, I very much do want this to happen, but I very much don’t want to spend the time to do so, and for now the former impulse is winning. 
  12. I hope, in particular, that the footnotes aren’t too hard to read. 
  13. In an article from when I was public editor of the Stanford Daily, whose site has inexplicably lost its archives from when I was in college, so I can’t link to the original article. 
  14. I’ve always thought that online comments would be a great opportunity to try out micropayments. (I’ve noticed that the new New Republic is partially following this idea, in limiting comments to subscribers.) Also, I should note that my public editor article linked above did miss an important legal subtlety: actually, it’s probably in a newspaper’s legal interest to avoid any moderating, which is a failing on the part of the law.) 
  15. I might experiment with having a comments form at the bottom of entries, just for feedback, or I might just have a link to email me.