Showing posts from March, 2013


For the last three decades, the United States has had an aggressive program to increase inequality among Americans. It has been fabulously successful. Can we stop now?

Archibald Garrod

One hundred and five years ago, Archibald Garrod reported one of the most consequential results in the history of biology: the link between gene and protein. This is remarkable mostly because enzymes were newly discovered and the nature of the gene was as yet unknown.

The Bissinger Buzz

Well known tough guy sportswriter Buss Bissinger, recently confesses to a $600,000 Gucci habit and reportedly checked into rehab. Now I don't know Mr. Bissinger, having read just enough of his work to be unimpressed, but his tale of Italian excess is ... uh ... peculiar. It started three years ago. I have never fully revealed it, and am only revealing it now in the hopes that my confession will incite a remission and perhaps help others of similar compulsion. If all I buy is Gucci, I will be fine. It has taken a while to figure out what works and what doesn't work, but Gucci men's clothing best represents who I want to be and have become—rocker, edgy, tight, bad boy, hip, stylish, flamboyant, unafraid, raging against the conformity that submerges us into boredom and blandness and the sexless saggy sackcloths that most men walk around in like zombies without the cinematic excitement of engorging flesh. I own eighty-one leather jackets, seventy-five pairs of boots, fort…

Foot Fetish

Pope Francis annoyed traditionalists by including women prisoners in his ceremonial penitential foot washing. Several outraged Cardinals complained that they hadn't changed their socks in weeks just in the hope of being picked themselves. Meanwhile, Rep Don Young (R - AK), ceremonially washed the backs of several Mexican tomato pickers for his own penance.

Educational Taxonomy: Hard or Fluffy

I tend to consider some subjects fluffy: history, sociology, philosophy, political science ... essentially anything that doesn't sets of intellectually challenging problems. If you have a good memory and are reasonably glib on paper, you can hope to cruise through such a course even if you are hungover when the class meets. I call them HO classes for short. The other kind of class, obviously, is a PS class: especially physics, engineering, computer science, mathematics, and so on. There are others that don't fit those molds, of course: foreign language, music performance/composition, fine arts, theatre, dance ... call them AF classes. Because computer scientists started the MOOC revolution, computer science classes are the best represented ones, and because those originators were into artificial intelligence, that subject is also very well represented. On edX, the most serious MOOC platform, MITX is the heavy lifter, with a solid and spectacular offering of courses in Phys…

Aboot Those Cold and Snowy Winters...

In Europe and the northern US. Eli assembles the evidence that decreased Arctic ice is a major player: dat WabbettThe evidence comes from models, observations and the way they match. Eli is careful to point out that the case is not yet iron clad, but the ring appears to be closing. That nasty drought in the Southwest and South Central US is there in the pictures too. Might get a little hard to sympathize with drought stricken farmers in those states that keep electing climate deniers to Congress. Our special attention, though, ought to be directed to North Carolina, where the State has actually made it illegal to take climate change into account in coastal planning. Next big hurricane - let's not be too quick to bail them out - financially, I mean - I'm not advocating the kind of "let the Democrats drown" approach Rove and Bush took to New Orleans.

A Whiff of Panic: Technological Unemployment in the Academy

Academics are starting to notice the threat posed by the MOOC. See, eg., here, here, here and here. The fear, I think, is well founded. The response, at this point, much less so. There is a lot of denial, bargaining and anger at this stage of their grief. Jonathan Rees, a history prof at CSU Pueblo, is the original voice here. Getting back to my original subject, did you ever notice that you never hear anything like this from superprofessors? Just once, I want to hear a superprofessor say (or write): “My MOOC is a pale imitation of the class I teach on campus.” or "The fact that I have a 90% drop out rate in my MOOC partially reflects the fact that many of my students find me boring.”Why don’t you hear/read obvious statements like these? Ego, again.Here is another theory. Maybe they don't believe the first statement. Maybe they didn't intend to teach their on campus course on a MOOC. At least one Prof has noted that his class at Standford had many students who …

The Party of Stupid: Part Whatever

It's not too shocking that among scientists, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine to one. After all, Republicans are the party of anti-science: anti-evolution, anti-big bang, and anti-Anthropogenic Global Warming theory. They have also forced big cuts on US science - not that Dems are great on that front either. The numbers are even more lopsided among geophysicists, while chemists, with something like 1 R to 6 Ds are a virtual bastion of conservatism.


My latest non-fiction is Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book is an exposition of the work that won him a Nobel Memorial Prize, and that work has by now permeated much of psychology, economics and antropology, so the ideas were not especially strange to me. His fundamental argument is that the mind has two systems that work in parallel, the fast part that makes instinctive decisions and a slow part that can do calculations and logical analysis. This notion is not even slightly surprising to the designer of robots. Robotic control systems (and other complex control systems) are designed in layers. Typically there will be a layer that performs some routine task (like go to a goal) and above it a layer that is called on only when some condition threatens the accomplishment of the goal seeking. The higher layer is responsible for switching to alternate behaviors when called for (avoid obstacle, etc). Still higher layers will perform higher level tasks like route p…

Demonic Creations

Freecell has got to be up there. That ubiquitous Windows variant on solitaire, originally included, or so it is alleged, to teach mouse skills, has lived on through many generations. Of course workplaces have mostly wised up and excluded it from work computers, but most people can still waste time on it at home. The trick is that while winning is nearly always possible, it can sometime be rather difficult. Still more insidious, but known to hard core addicts, is the fact that some games are in fact impossible. The original deal, consists of 32,000 odd (OK, 2^15) deals out of which only one is strictly impossible. It's always out there, looming in the mist, for the hard core addict, ready to sieze the unwary. Thus, even if you are a self-imagined Freecell hotshot who has won 1477 straight games, many with ridiculous ease, you can't get too comfortable. I personally always get a little nervous when a game numbered 11,*** comes up.

Emissions From the Moronosphere

Via Paul Krugman, Jonathan Chait looks at the right-wing outrage that Matt Yglesias, a semi-liberal, actually had the hypocritical nerve to buy a house. Unfortunately, satire is wasted on the fanatic. Slate economics blogger and frequent Chait blog frenemy Matthew Yglesias — who is left of center but in an often contrarian, Slate-y way — has purchased a condo in Washington. It’s pretty nice, fetching a $1.2 million price. Some of our brightest conservative minds believe that this is hypocrisy, because liberals don’t believe anybody should have anything nice. Or something. I’ll let them explain.

45 Years

We've now had about 45 years of string theory, and many of the long time practitioners have made big Russian bucks, courtesy of Yuri Milner. What we don't have is what we like to call results. The gold standard in science is prediction - prediction of new and verified physical results. String theory has not been shy about making predictions: supersymmetry, and extra dimensions, for example, but so far neither has made itself known. For now, that leaves String theory in the place where the atomic theory of Democritus sat for 25 centuries or so - tantalyzing but unproven and unprovable. The LHC was designed to find the Higgs, and it seems to have done that. Nonetheless, many string theorists were convinced that it would produce sparticles - some even bet on it. So far, no go. The LHC is being juiced up a bit, so there is still hope, but the fact is that nobody even has a clue what the energies are at which supersymmetry should be found. Unless that can be remedied, it se…

Pirate Islands

Islands have a long tradition as pirate lairs. Of course modern airpower makes that way of life a bit impractical, so a lot of them have gone into the offshore banking business. The original offshore bank center was that inshore offshore country Switzerland, and it's still the biggest player in the game. The principal purpose of offshore banks is for the rich, ultra-rich, random despots and (not meaning to be redundant) criminal class generally to hide their money from the tax man, law enforcement, and the revenge of the citizenry. They mostly, but not all, are islands. Cyprus, like Iceland before it, was a big player here - that is to say, much bigger than its gdp player. Their banks, like others before them, made some bad bets and now are unable to pay. Cyprus tried a number or bad ideas (haircuts for all, theft of the people's pensions funds) before apparently settling on the one PK calls least bad.Big depositors in Cypriot banks stand to lose circa 40 per cent of th…

Globalization 1840: Joe Mendel

The theme of our last lecture in 7.00x was Mendel and his milieu. The introduction of good roads, better ships and other transportation in the nineteenth century lead to an explosion of long distance trade. People became aware of new crops and breed of animals and their was intense interest in developing varieties to local conditions. With this impetus, the citizens of Brno, then near the epicenter of the textile trade, embarked on a program to study just how inheritance worked. They recruited a young physics student, a student of Doppler, to carry out the research in the local monastery.
That student was Johan Mendel, who took the name Gregor when he entered the monastery.

Why Can't A Repub, Be More Like A Dem?

The Republican Party has looked deep into its soul, or at least the electoral math of today and tomorrow, and decided that hating on women, gays, Hispanics, Blacks, and young people might not be a long term winning strategy. A smug, uncaring, ideologically rigid national Republican Party is turning off the majority of American voters, with stale policies that have changed little in 30 years and an image that alienates minorities and the young, according to an internal GOP study... Of course the kind of change needed is anathema to much of the base.

"Math is Hard" -- Barbie

Lubos hates it when String theorists are asked impolite questions. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to tell us what Brian Greene's answer was.

A Model For the US?

Joe Stiglitz is high on my list of smartest guys around, as well as one of the most prestigious economists in the world, winner of the Nobel Memorial prize and the Clark medal. His editorial in today's NYT (Singapore’s Lessons for an Unequal America) says the US could take some lessons from Singapore in dealing with inequality and promoting prosperity. Excerpt: First, individuals were compelled to take responsibility for their own needs. For example, through the savings in their provident fund, around 90 percent of Singaporeans became homeowners, compared to about 65 percent in the United States since the housing bubble burst in 2007. Second, Singaporean leaders realized they had to break the pernicious, self-sustaining cycle of inequality that has characterized so much of the West. Government programs were universal but progressive: while everyone contributed, those who were well off contributed more to help those at the bottom, to make sure that everyone could live a decent l…

Krugman and WB Agree


One of the rituals of entering the Marines, or almost any military service, is losing very nearly all one's hair. By that standard, depositors in Cypriot banks are getting just a light trim, but they aren't happy. The problem is that those Cypriot banks made a lot of bad loans - where have we heard this story before? Mostly to Greece. Another problem: there's a lot of money in Cypriot banks from overseas, attracted, I imagine, by the big interest they were getting on those crappy loans. Let me rephrase the problem: the banks were undercapitalized and lent money not wisely but well...stupidly. The financial powers of the EU (AKA Angela Merkel) decided that the best thing to do would be to divide up the losses among the depositors. According to Matt Yglesias:A tax of 9.9% on deposits over €100,000 and 6.75% on deposits below that level. If this were happening in isolation, I would be inclined to say, "good plan." Who better to take the fall than the stockhold…

Hating on Krugman: the Cassandra Syndrome

Paul Krugman has got to be one of the favorite demons of Republicans, billionaires, right-wingers, Eurocrats, Chicago School economists and no doubt others. Why so? How did this happen to a highly respected economist. Well there is the fact that he is acerbic, sarcastic, and really good at mockery. Moreover, he is fiercely mocking while managing to keep his critiques substantive, unlike his critics who flail and resort to childisn name-calling - yes, I'm talking about you, John Cochrane and you, Niall Ferguson. That's probably a minor point though. Another factor is his bully pulpit as an NYT Op-Ed writer.. The real problem, I think, is that he has been so infuriatingly right. He was, as he reminds us, one of the few public figures to call "Bullshit!" on the Bush administration's justification for the Iraq War, and almost certainly the most important single critic. He did so from a newspaper and editorial page dominated by pro-Iraq-war propaganda. Then there…

Conservative Minority Outreach

If black people could just be reminded of what a priviledge it was to be a slave... From TPM:A CPAC session sponsored by Tea Party Patriots and billed as a primer on teaching activists how to court black voters devolved into a shouting match as some attendees demanded justice for white voters and others shouted down a black woman who reacted in horror. ...things went off the rails. Scott Terry of North Carolina, accompanied by a Confederate-flag-clad attendee, Matthew Heimbach, rose to say he took offense to the event’s take on slavery. (Heimbach founded the White Students Union at Towson University and is described as a “white nationalist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.) “It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.” Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slavemaster. “For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said.T…

Not a Religion: Inscrutable East Department

Once upon a time, a few mistakes ago ... (with apologies to Taylor Swift) I stumbled into an argument with Arun, some of his readers and a certain Guru. I say "stumbled into" because I never had any sense that I was contesting a point - rather I thought that I misunderstood something obvious, and merely was confused about a definition. The statement in question: "Hinduism is not a religion." My problem was that I thought that this failed the obvious "quacks like a duck" test. Arun's latest post has clarified matters in my mind, though he likely won't agree with my interpretation. It seems that in India, as in the US, there is an income tax advantage for charitable contributions, but differently than here, this deduction does not apply to religious contributions. Thus, it is very interesting what a certain tax commission has ruled. Arun quotes from an article in the Economic Times of India: Hinduism: Tax Tribunal says donations to Nagpur temp…

Course Review: MIT 700x

Introductory Biology, the Secret of Life, taught by Eric Lander of Harvard and MIT, is the best Massive Online Open (MOOC) course I've met yet, and maybe the best course I've ever had. I've now been in a few of these MOOC courses, having finished Spanish at Duolingo (really excellent), and Control of Mobile Robots from Georgia Tech via Coursera (ditto) and currently enrolled in a few other courses from edX, Udacity, and Coursera. Lander's course is demanding, and I'm not sure I will have time to complete it, but I'm learning a lot. Let me mention a few features which I think work very well: His lectures are taught in front of a classroom full of students, who occasionally ask questions. In his case, at least, this is preferable to the usual talking head in front of a camera. The lectures come in short segments, interupted by frequent mini-quizzes. The problem sets are both challenging and fun. There is a lot of work with software that allows manipulation…

How a Nation Changes Its Mind

It's a cliche that old prejudices die when the prejudiced old do, but it's not quite right. Rob Portman today became the first GOP Senator to come out for gay marriage, an epiphany triggered, ableit belatedly, by his son's revelation that he was himself gay - some two years ago. Matt Yglesias doesn't let that make him happy though. I'm glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation—memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt—to be the most annoying form. Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn't lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers sim…

Winter's Bite

87 effing degrees F. WTF? This is supposed to be Winter still. In Las Cruces, NM, elevation 4000 feet.

The End of Physics

Every few decades, it seems, there is reason to start fearing that the end of physics has arrived. This might be another one of those times: From Peter Woit: Earlier this week the Simons Center at Stony Brook hosted another big public event promoting the latest deep-thinking from theoretical physicists. On Monday Andrei Linde gave a talk on “Universe or Multiverse?”. Besides the usual pseudo-science, there were some things I hadn’t seen before. Linde argues that one should replace the “pessimist’s”: If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to prove that we live in the multiverse. withe the “optimist’s”: If each part of the multiverse is so large, we will never see its other parts, so it is impossible to disprove that we live in the multiverse. and goes on to argue that multiverse theory is more basic than universe theory because it is more general. At a more technical talk the next day he showed an implementation of this …

What is Religion?

Here is a view from the edX course I'm taking in The Ancient Greek Hero: 00§12. In the Classical period, an authoritative source goes on record to say that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. That source is the historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE. According to Herodotus (2.53.1-3), Homer and Hesiod are the repository of knowledge that provides the basics of education for all Hellenes. [8] And such basics, as we will see in this book, are conceived primarily in terms of religion, which requires an overall knowledge of the forms and the functions of the gods. 00§13. Here I make two points about the historical realities of ancient Greek religion: 1. When we apply the term religion to such traditional practices as the worship of gods in the classical period of Greek civilization as also in earlier periods, we need to think of such practices in terms of an interaction between myth and ritual. Here is a quick working definition of myth and ritua…

Fitzgerald vs Wallace

The Great Gatsby is my latest read, and it's sort of interesting to contrast it to Infinite Jest. Of course everything about Gatsby is spare and understated, where IJ is vast and bloated. Both these guys can tell a story, but I have the feeling that in Gatsby, every bit of technique is subordinated to the story and almost invisible, whereas in IJ it's the opposite. Wallace wants you to see every bit of his wobbling lens and the heck with the scene. Just sayin'

Zero Dark Thirty

Have i mentioned lately how much I hate so-called "daylight time?" And getting up an hour before daylight? Who votes for this abomination anyway?

Jeb Lesson of the Week

If you are planning to publish a book, sometimes you ought to read it first.Or have a literate political aide read it.

Intrade Closing Stat


Why Can't the French Learn to Speak ...(English)

It's seems that the French are not too expert at speaking English. Or any other language. In fact they trail everybody else in Europe. Except the British. I'm going to guess that some outlanders (moi? other Americans?) aren't so hot either. David Sessions has the sensational story here.

Genetic Engineering

Jennifer Ouellette has a Slate profile of one of the world's most successful genetic engineers, Frances Arnold of Caltech. It's a nice article, though I don't think it really captures how impressive Arnold's work really is. Cells replicate by dividing in two, but with each replication, small variations creep into the DNA sequence. Rather than waiting for natural mutations, Arnold causes small mistakes to be made when DNA is copied in the test tube. Then she inserts all the mutated copies into living microbes, which translate the genes into proteins. At that point, she combs through the different proteins to find the ones she likes. Arnold opted for this brute-force approach, running hundreds—even thousands—of experiments with random mutations in the proteins, selecting those with the characteristics she wanted to breed in the second generation and so on over multiple generations. And because microbes reproduce every 20 minutes, it didn’t take billions of years to see…

Drones, Spooks and Lawyers

Obama walked into what Daniel Klaidman calls a "public relations debacle" in the events that culminated in Rand Paul's Senate filibuster. Klaidman's article in the Daily Beast lays out the details: You know it’s not a good day for the Obama administration when a paragon of the Tea Party right is roasting the president and liberal twitter feeds are lighting up in support. But that’s exactly what happened this past week when Kentucky Senator Rand Paul mounted his “talking filibuster” to block the confirmation of CIA nominee John Brennan. Paul kept up the parliamentary maneuver for 13 hours in an effort to extract answers from the administration about its covert drone program, and particularly the question of whether it is legal to target American citizens on U.S. soil.Klaidman puts the blame on "lawyers and spooks" but of course the buck always stops with the President, especially if he defers too much to his subordinates. The drones mess also reflects Obama…

Alas Poor Sheldon

Paul Frampton seems to have a lot in common with the fictional physicist Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Frampton undoubtedly has an IQ in the top 1%, which fact he seems to reflect on frequently, but his common sense intelligence, or CSIQ, is clearly in the bottom 1%. Unlike Dr. Cooper, though, Frampton is not free of lust, either the usual or monetary types. This fact, together with his exceptionally low CSIQ, seems to have done him in. If the story of his involvement with someone pretending to be a Czech bikini model, and cocaine smuggling in South America has caught your attention, Maxine Swann's long story in the New York Times Magazine has the tale in full. If Frampton hadn't been a slightly famous physicist who had written 450 papers, it would be just the story of another dope smuggling dope, but it has its moments. In November 2011, Paul Frampton, a theoretical particle physicist, met Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model, on the online dating site S…

Hating on the Libertarian

Talking to a leading thinker, I happened to mention our shared hostility to libertarians, and wondered a bit about it's origins. It's a visceral thing, we agreed, and not really much about policy. In my case, anyway, it's not like my feeling that most Republican politicians are dishonest scoundrels. The anti-libertarian feeling is something more primitive. In some symbolic terms, Cain was the quintessential libertarian. When asked about his late brother, he replied "Am I my brother's keeper?" That's the crucial problem with libertarians - they don't think that they are keepers of their brothers. Edward O Wilson and others have argued that the key difference between humans and our closely related chimpanzee cousins was the development of what he call Eusociality. Jonathan Haidt had another phrase: humans are 90% chimp and 10% ant. That eusocial 10% made all the difference, and allowed humans to live and work in closely cooperative groups, becom…

El Estudiante Perpetuo

I've always had a problem with that reach vs. grasp thingy. I'm currently signed up for 3 classes from Coursera, 2 from edX, and 2 more from Udacity. I may have to retire to have time for the homework. Besides, there a couple of more classes I would really like...

The End: IJ

??? Further review might follow someday.

Some Assembly Required

I guess I'm a 4-D printer. We all are, from humblest Sequoia to most arrogant bacterium. The technological world has also recently made this jump. What 4-D printing can do, that conventional 3-D printers can't, is make things continue to self assemble after their manufacture. The Internet was abuzz last week about a new idea, intriguingly dubbed “4-D printing,” emanating from the TED conference in Long Beach, California. Much of the buzz was probably a response to the sci-fi sounding name, which seems to imply that 3-D printing—itself all the rage right now—has already been supplanted as the technology most likely to take manufacturing to the next level. In fact, the new technique still uses 3-D printing, or depositing materials layer by layer to build a custom 3-D structure. 4-D just involves using materials that help the new structure continue to assemble after it’s been printed. ... [article has a video] I spoke to Skylar Tibbits, a member of MIT’s architecture facul…

IJ: Endtimes

I must be near the end, even though I'm only on page 957, since I am on the very last page of the endnotes (#382/388). It is by now pretty clear that this is going to be a shaggy dog story - there being not nearly enough time to wrap up the many plot lines. Oh well.

Right Wing Ethics

The Heritage Foundation is one of the premier right-wing think tanks, or rather propaganda arms. Their loyalties, however, seem to be price conscious. Paul Krugman points us to a convenient example. For years, the Heritage Foundation sharply criticized the autocratic rule of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, denouncing his anti-Semitism, his jailing of political opponents and his “anti-free market currency controls.” Then, late in the summer of 2001, the conservative nonprofit Washington think tank began to change its assessment … Heritage’s new, pro-Malaysian outlook emerged at the same time a Hong Kong consulting firm co-founded by Edwin J. Feulner, Heritage’s president, began representing Malaysian business interests. The for-profit firm, called Belle Haven Consultants, retains Feulner’s wife, Linda Feulner, as a “senior adviser.” And Belle Haven’s chief operating officer, Ken Sheffer, is the former head of Heritage’s Asia office and is still on Heritage’s payro…

IJ: Endnote 321

I think you probably need to blame the publisher for this one: (d/dx)x^n given as nx + x^(n-1) I suspect author really wanted the correct n times x^(n-1)

IJ: Dialog

David Foster Wallace makes a big point of Dialog where two characters talk past each other. This is annoying in real life and really annoying in fiction. Does he have some point here? ‘Hey Hal?’ ‘Booboo, I dreamed I was losing my teeth. I dreamed that my teeth dry-rotted somehow into shale and splintered when I ate or spoke, and I was jettisoning fragments all over the place, and there was a long scene where I was pricing dentures.’ ‘All night last night people were coming up going where is Hal, have you seen Hal, what happened with CT and the urine doctor and Hal’s urine. Moms asked me where’s Hal, and I was surprised at that because of how she makes it a big point never to check up.’ ‘Then, without any sort of dream-segue, I’m sitting in a cold room, naked as a jaybird, in a flame-retardant chair, and I keep receiving bills in the mail for teeth. A mail carrier keeps knocking on the door and coming in without being invited and presenting me with various bills for teeth.’ ‘She …

IJ: Milestone 740

The first hint I can recognize of something like character analysis. The subject is the central character of the novel, already deceased, bizarrely so, at the time of all its action: James Incandenza, AKA Himself and The Mad Stork, scientist, engineer, filmmaker and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, the scene of much of the action. The analyst, Joelle van D., possibly recovering crack addict and formerly Prettiest Girl Of All Time. She might have known from the Work. The man’s Work was amateurish, she’d seen, when Orin had had his brother— the unretarded one— lend them some of The Mad Stork’s Read-Only copies. Was amateurish the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the Work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness— no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience. Like…

What's In a Name?

Shakespeare's Juliet famously asked the question, and Anthony Paletta has a nice so-entitled meditation on their literary import. Dickens paid exquisite care to the problem, preferring to fix a name before he wrote about a character. Before settling on Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens went through Sweezlebach, Cottletoe, Sweetletoe, Pottletoe, Spottletoe, Chuzzletoe, Chuzzlebog, Chubblewig, and Chuzzlewig. And to Fowler, Oliver Twist is about as bountifully evocative as four syllables can get: In the slang of the underworld he would soon enter, “twist” meant “appetite” and “hang by the neck.” So when the pangs of “twist” (hunger) make Oliver ask for more, Mr. Limkins predicts “that boy will be hung” (will “twist”). To underline the point, Noah Claypole “announced his intention of coming to see him hung.” As for his first name, Oliver, it meant “sky-lantern,” moonlight as a hindrance to crime. And sure enough, when the alarm is raised at the Maylies’, what should Oliver do but drop his e…

Beastly Milepost: IJ

Page 666. Wallace is capable of writing a compelling tale, or at least a few short tales, but they are embedded in a vast matrix of horrific dreck. He likes to chop up his stories and feed them to you in little bits, interspersing them among each other. They are, we can see from here, converging. The overwhelming theme is deformity and depression: psychological, social, physical and societal. This is his best prose, actually. Not surprising from someone who committed suicide due to his own depression - psychotic depression, in his term. The book has lots of fans. I still have very little idea why. Much of it is like a parody of every vice of pompous literary pretension - an absurd vocabulary, most of which is not found in my Kindle's dictionary, warped and crooked run on sentences, and preposterous dialog. Character's are distinguishable almost entirely by their particular physical deformities or outrageous costumes. Nowhere is there much hint of ability to sketch and…