Hawking Up Hairballs

Friday, November 30, 2007

This Really Shouldn't Bother Me

I read a lot of history. I've done so ever since I was a kid. Right now I'm finishing up Persian Fire, a history of the Persian Empire's conflict with the Greeks in the fifth century B.C. During that conflict, the Battle of Thermopylae took place. Some five thousand Greeks, led by three hundred Spartans, held off a much larger Persian force for a couple of days. The details of the battle are neither here nor there as far as what I want to talk about. The ancient Greek hisorian Herodotus wrote about this battle, and claimed that Xerxes's Persian army had a million men in it. Modern-day scholars dispute that figure. They don't all agree on its size, but they seem to agree on something around 250,000 men. I don't buy it, and for some reason it really bothers me. I know it shouldn't. For Christ's sake, it's a detail of a battle that took place 2500 years ago. It just goes to show you the poverty of my life, I guess, but it still bothers me.

I just plain don't understand how Xerxes' could have supplied such a horde. A few years ago, I read Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton by Martin van Creveld, a prominent contemporary military historian. In it, he says that in the Middle Ages in Europe, there were never armies much bigger than 25-30,000. In those days, they lived off the land, plundering the surrounding countryside as they passed through it. Such were the physical limits of this plundering that it could not support larger forces. From the accounts of ancient historians, Xerxes was well prepared for his invasion of Greece, and he brought stores of grains, etc., with him. Still, it seems implausible to me that he could have supplied an army of 250,000 given the types of roads and available transports of the day. Using a formula of van Creveld's devising that estimates grain usage, a force that size, along with its supporting personnel, in this case wagon drivers, bread bakers, etc., would require 560 tons of grain a day. That's a mind-boggling quantity of grain. There's other evidence against it as well. According to Persian Fire's account, taken mainly from Herodotus, cities along the route of the army were notified that the army was coming and required to not only feed the armies, but to put on a sumptuous feast for Xerxes and his retinue. Given that cities at that time were on the order of 10-20,000 in population, how could they feed a host of 250,000 even under coercion? It just doesn't seem possible.

I don't know if there are any scholars of the period who have looked into this in depth. The books that I've read on the period would seem to indicate that there aren't. If there are, I'd certainly like to look them over. If anyone reading this has anymore information, please comment. Like I said, this seeming inaccuracy bothers me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Amazon has come out with an ebook reader called Kindle. On the purely technical side, they seem to have gotten a lot right. Kindle's display is made out of some kind of electronic ink that mimics the quality of print. I haven't seen it, but the text is apparently sharp and clear. That has been a failing of previous ebook readers. Kindle also has a text-search capability and it has a built-in dictionary. Those are pluses as well.

Kindle is costly though. It's 400 bucks. The books aren't especially cheap either. To cite an example from a review that I read, the paperback version of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" is sold on Amazon for $10.17. The Kindle version is $7.99. (I know it seems unlikely, but it's purely a coincidence that I cited another Gladwell book in my previous post.) That's approximately 80% of the paperback price, and it's too much in my opinion. A large part of a publisher's costs comes from the fact that a book is a physical object. The publisher has to have presses or, what amounts to the same thing, contract for the actual printing. He has to have warehouses. There are shipping costs. There's the clerical work force to keep track of all those books. All of that goes away with an ebook, so it seems to me that they should cost a good deal less than they do.

Be that as it may, I read a lot and I would love to have something like Kindle. I'm not one of those people who have a fetish for books. If I could do away with all of those bulky tomes in favor of electronic files, I would do it. That said, Kindle scares me, not because of what it is, but because of what is implicit in the business plan. The idea is to make you pay for a book if you want to read it. Though family members and the like can register together and share Kindle ebooks, you cannot loan them to others and you cannot resell them. If Kindle or some other ebook reader were to catch on in a big way, think of the implications of that. Public libraries would go away. That would discourage reading and impact literacy, particularly among those who couldn't afford the reader and the books.

Of course, in the long run, ebooks are a threat to publishers as well, just as devices like iPod are a threat to the music industry. If publishers don't have to manufacture the books anymore, why are they even there? In an ebook world, they would just be middle men skimming off their cut. At some point, writers would start offering ebook copies of their books directly to the public. That's one reason why Amazon's ebooks are in a proprietary format, to forego such possibilities. Another, of course, is to prevent others from offering their own files for Kindle.

The only way that an ebook reader would redound to the benefit of the public at large is if it used an open file format. I realize that there would be problems with such a scheme as well. One of the big ones would be author payment. Someone could acquire a copy of an ebook and post it on a web site for anyone to download free. Such scenarios would have to be dealt with. In the end though, it would be a better way of doing things. Books and their contents are part of our cultural heritage and everyone should have access to them contents at a nomimal cost.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Trouble With Studies

I'm reading the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a popular science book whose subject is exactly what the subtitle says that it is. It's not bad, though I wouldn't particularly recommend it. There's not enough depth of information to suit my tastes.

However, Gladwell talks about one particular study that really struck me. A couple of psychologists gave black college students the Graduate Record Exam, the test that is used for entry into graduate school. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, the number of items that they got correct was cut in half. For those of you who might like to check out the study yourselves, here's the reference. I haven't done so myself. Claudia Steele & Joshua Aronson, "Stereotype Threat and Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, no. 5, (1995), pp 797-811.

It seems remarkable to me that the effect could be so dramatic. No doubt negative racial and ethnic stereotypes have deleterious effects on the subject groups, but this is hard to believe. I should probably check the study myself, just to see what the protocols were. After thinking about it for a few minutes, it occurs to me that there are a number of factors that could affect the outcome of the experiment. For example, what was the race of those who administered the questionnaire and the test? That could have an effect. However, there is something even more subtle that could have influenced the result. The black students undoubtedly knew that they were taking part in an experiment. Ethics and legal liability suggest that this must have been the case. Hence, it is conceivable that something like the following could have been going on. The students who were not given the questionnaire would undoubtedly think that their performance on the test was the point of the experiment. Those students who were given the questionnaire might have come to the conclusion that the experiment was about something altogether different and they might not have taken the GRE as seriously. I'm not saying that this is the way that it was. I'm just saying that these are possibilities, among others, that have to be eliminated.

I don't mean to belittle the effect of racial and ethnic stereotypes. They undoubtedly have deleterious effects. It's just that these studies often aren't what they seem to be. In order to decide whether the effect reported by this study is real or an artifact would require several experiments. This one study doesn't mean much.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I watched a two-part series on democracy in ancient Athens on PBS last night. It was apparently produced by the BBC, and it tried to give a pretty balanced view of the city state. Though Athens was democratic, slaves were disenfranchised, as were women. Since it is estimated that about a third of the population of Athens was slaves, that means that two-thirds of the adult inhabitants of the city were disenfranchised. The rest, of which there were approximately six thousand, gathered to deliberate upon state policy, and it was direct democracy, because they participated in all decision-making. There were no politicians, as such. However, generally speaking, only about a hundred of the citizens spoke or introduced legislation. According to this show, the ancient Greeks were not averse to "spinning" their positions. This was expected. It was what the art of rhetoric was all about. You were expected to persuade others of your position by whatever rhetorical means you could. Debate was not always civil either. Speakers who espoused positions that were too far from popular opinion were shouted down.

Athens is often portrayed as the seat of democracy, a peaceful city-state that stood in marked contrast to the war-like Sparta. The truth is something different. In its golden age of democracy, not two years went by in which the citizens failed to vote for war, and Athens was definitely an imperial power, dominating city-states all around the Aegean. They even built up an alliance of these states, called the Delian League. It was a decidedly unbalanced alliance that functioned mainly as an instrument of Athenian power.

Like all of the known ancient societies, Athens was intensely partriarchal. So much so that, according to this show, the idea of women wearing veils in public may have originated there. Various pieces of pottery show women veiled when out of the house. Life may have been far for idyllic for them in Athens, but it wasn't just the women who suffered. The city-state itself might have been better off if women had been part of the political process. The code of manhood in ancient societies was so thoroughly intertwined with the martial spirit that it probably didn't take much to get the male voters all worked up and ready to vote for war. The women presumably wouldn't have been so eager to see their men go off to die in often frivolous military adventures.

There were a lot factual bits and pieces in the show, things that I didn't know. Here are a few of them. In history classes, the Parthenon is presented as a temple. In fact, it was more like a bank. That's where the Athens state treasury was kept, and we know of no religious ceremony that was held there. Something that I didn't know was that there have been lots of recent archaelogical discoveries that have deepened our knowledge of the period. In fact, there are apparently hundreds of documents from the fifth century BC that have not yet been translated. The reason is that they are in such bad shape that they have to be carefully handled. Some are even in pieces that have be reassembled. The show talked about one intriguing document that has been recently discovered in the undisturbed tomb of an obviously wealthy man. It's a philosophical document that says that the creation stories should be taken as metaphor and that the true facts of how the world came about are best explained by the atomic theory. It's an astonishingly modern point of view. Then too, there are the humorous trivia. My favorite was this one. The verb "testify" comes from the same Greek root as "testes". You see, in the Greek courts, a witness had to hold the testes of a sacrificed animal in his hand. That was their equivalent of putting his hand on the Bible. Which makes more sense? You be the judge. This isn't ancient Athens. Even you women can decide for yourselves.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I ran across this little item in the Science section of today's New York Times. Panpsychism. Talk about bunkum. It's yet another instance of a journalist writing about something that he doesn't really understand.

The article is about panpsychism, the notion that all matter, right on down to the smallest of subatomic particles, is possessed of consciousness or mind, at least to some degree. The arguments of the philosoper Thomas Nagel are summarized in the article. They run something like this. The brain is made up of atoms and such. These particles are no different from those making up anything else, yet they give rise to human consciousness. This consciousness can't come from nothing, so it must be inherent in the particles themselves. In short, every little bit of matter in the universe is conscious.

One could tie oneself up into all kinds of sophistic knots in arguing over whether consciousness is merely a consequence of a certain arrangement of atoms, or if it is there in the atoms themselves, but such arguments are fruitless. I don't know whether this Jim Holt who wrote the piece has accurately portrayed Nagel's position but the argument as presented suffers from a fatal flaw. It assumes that consciousness or mind is a thing, something which can be the object of study. It's easy to make such an assumption. Such is the structure of the human brain and its linguistic apparatus that we can take words like "consciousness," words that have no correlates in the world outside of us, and turn them into nouns that can appear as subjects and objects in sentences. When we start using those words that way, we soon begin to assume that a real object is being specified.

The facts are otherwise. "Consciousness" or "mind" isn't a thing. These are merely terms that we apply to beings that exhibit certain behaviors. The only thing that anyone can know first-hand as conscious is himself. When it comes to others, how do we make decisions about whether or not they are possessed of consciousness? By their behavior. It's as simple as that. Consciousness is an inferred property of others. Nagel can't understand how a certain arrangement of atoms produces consciousness. He sees that as a problem worthy of contemplation, but there's no problem there at all. The arrangement of atoms produces certain kinds of behavior. We have invented the term "conscious" to describe those who exhibit those kinds of behavior. Of course, there's still the question of why the arrangement results in that behavior, but that's not a philosophical question. It's a subject for scientific investigation.

Of course, the piece appears in the Times' Sunday magazine, and it's very short, so I suspect that it was written as filler. Still, I hate it when journalists write about things they don't fully comprehend, as is the case with Mr. Holt. Put him on the sports beat or, even better, business. It's all bullshit there anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I May Be Savage, But I'm No Detective

"Discipline and a kind of ingratiating charm, those are the keys to getting where you want to go. Discipline: writing every morning for at least six hours. Writing every morning and revising in the afternoons and reading like a fiend at night. Charm, or ingratiation: visiting writers at home or going up to them at book parties and telling them exactly what they want to hear. What they desperately want to hear."

I just finished reading The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes) by Roberto Bolano. (There should be a tilde over the "n", but I don't know how to do that here.) It's the story of a group of poets and literary wannabes, in particular, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, who call themselves the visceral realists. The novel begins in Mexico City in the mid-1970's and concludes some twenty years later. The book is divided into three sections. The first and the third are first-person narratives from the point-of-view of a 17-year-old poet, Juan Garcia Madero. The second section takes the form of interviews with various people who knew or encountered Lima and Belano in their travels through Europe and Latin America. The "detectives" of the title undoubtedly refers to Belano's and Lima's quest to find the very obscure 1920's poetess, Cesarea Tinajero, who they take to be the inspiration for their visceral realist movement. This quest is the subject of the third section of the book, and it ends in an act of violence, which is probably the reason that Bolano chose "savage" for the title.

There's a lot of autobiography in The Savage Detectives. It's impossible to miss the similarity between "Bolano" and "Belano", though the character in the novel has "Arturo" as his given name. There's no mystery as to what that means. It alludes to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and Belano's fate parallels that of Rimbaud. Both men ended up in Africa, Rimbaud as a shadowy arms dealer, Belano as a sometime journalistic stringer. The last we hear of him, he is disappearing into the jungles of Liberia, where he is presumably killed by one of the factions in the country's civil war. There are a lot of similarities between Belano and his creator and, when I looked up Roberto Bolano in Wikipedia, I learned that Arturo Belano is an actual literary alter ego, who is the main character in at least one other Bolano novel, La pista de hielo, a mystery set in a Mediterranean town. As for the character Ulises Lima, I don't know what the intended allusions are. The novel is definitely an odyssey, so that might be the reason for the given name, but the "Lima"? I don't know.

I have to say that The Savage Detectives left me cold, and it was a real chore finishing it. The first section was pretty much an endless round of partying and fucking. It quickly came to seem like the same thing over and over again. The second section was the longest, one story after another in the style of Borges, but I like to finish a book when I start it, so I soldiered on. The third section was somewhat better. At least there was some dramatic tension, and that moved the narrative along. That said, I may not be the person to give Bolano a fair reading. He's much influenced by Borges and Cortazar, two writers who have never interested me at all.

Now, all of the above could be taken as preface to this entry. The quotation that opens it is from The Savage Detectives. It comes from the mouth of one of the characters in the second section. It struck me when I came across it. (All right, I guess that's obvious, since I saw fit to cite it.) My own literary aspirations have come to nothing, and I never really stood a chance, mainly because I couldn't do that second thing. I've never been able to ingratiate myself to the people who could help me. There are plenty of writers who I like a lot, but there isn't a one who hasn't published works that I don't care for. I could never tell those writers that I liked those particular works. I just couldn't make the words come out of my mouth. I don't make a good acolyte.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming to be some paragon of integrity. It's not a matter of a decision on my part. It's a question of temperament. I just can't do it. I think it's something in the blood, something passed down in the genes. My father was the same way, so are my four brothers. All of them were or are intelligent and diligent in their chosen fields, but all have hit the glass ceilings above which one doesn't rise without playing brown-nose politics.

When I was young, I was on a track to get a doctorate and teach in a college somewhere. I threw it all over and left grad school because I was going to become a great poet. Strange how that didn't happen, and I occasionally regret my decision, but I never would have made it in the academic world. Getting and keeping a position there is all about ingratiation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Rain Comes

I'm writing this entry from on my knees. It rained last night. Praise the Lord! Some 250 people apparently showed up for Governor Sonny's prayer service on the steps of the state capitol on Tuesday, and their prayers were heard. Some thirty-six hours later, the rain came. It didn't amount to much, and it didn't even put a dent in our deficit for the year, but that too should tell us something. 250 people out of a metro area of several million? That's pathetic. The Good Lord wants more of us out there. A thousand! Ten thousand! A hundred! Just think of how the rains would fall. We wouldn't want many more than a hundred thousand though. Given the results from the efforts of the few who were praying with Governor Sonny, if we got many more than that out there, we'd have to round up the animals in pairs while hustling to finish an ark.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Praying For Rain

On the subject of redneck, there's this little item. North Georgia is in the midst of an historically severe drought. Governor Sonny Perdue's administration has come under a lot of criticism, both locally and nationally, for his failure to come up with and implement a water management plan for the region. And, yes, the governor, a grown man of some age, actually calls himself "Sonny". Talk about your redneck given names. That's right up there with the likes of "Bubba".

Stung by the criticism, but unwilling to cross swords with the moneyed elites whose business interests might be affected by watering restrictions, old Sonny isn't sitting on his hands. He's putting them together in prayer. That's right, it's no typo. Governor Perdue is holding a prayer meeting on the steps of the Capitol during lunchtime today. A variety of religious and political "leaders" have been invited to pray for rain.

There's a old baseball saw that goes, "Spahn, Sain, and pray for rain," but that's from an earlier era before the Braves had moved to Atlanta, and it wasn't the sort of thing that was meant to be taken seriously. Maybe old Sonny has seen too many of those old, black-and-white cowboy movies where the Indians do rain dances. If he has, he's forgetting that those dances were taken as evidence of the primitive mindset of our native brothers.

I don't believe in a deity, at least not in any sense that would be acceptable to the sorts of Bible thumpers who are applauding the governor's action, but even if I were a Christian, this sort of thing would leave me shaking my head. These believers often complain that they aren't taken seriously by those of us who embrace Enlightenment values, but what do they expect when their conception of God has more in common with Santa Claus than anything else. They're both older males of a paternal cast. Both sport long, white beards. The North Pole and Heaven? Both are far-off, inaccessible places. God sent his only son to die on a cross. Old Santa is randier sort, but there's that nasty, little genetic defect he suffers from. He hasn't been able to sire anything but elves. Still, I've got a suggestion for old Governor Sonny. Why don't you ask all the little kiddies of Georgia to tell Santa to bring them rain, lots of rain, for Christmas? God forbid that you limit water usage to the likes of Coca-Cola, or that you place restrictions upon the developers who have turned the Atlanta area into such a sprawling mess.

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Inner Redneck

So, there I was a few days ago, driving up I-85 to meet my brother and his family for dinner at a new Malaysian restaurant, the Assam House. I had my radio tuned to a station that plays classic rock. Its selections are usually pretty anodyne. For example, I've never heard them play any Bob Dylan, and they seem to favor the soft stuff, like Stevie Nicks, Elton John, and Jimmy Buffett. The upshot of all this is that I had the radio on merely for background music, and the volume was down low. All of a sudden though, my hand shot out toward the radio and turned the volume up. What was the song that caused this reaction? Sweet Home Alabama by Lynard Skynard. I could hardly believe it. What was up with that?

Sometimes, at the strangest of times and places, one comes face to face with truths about one's self, and it was at that moment that I had to confront a painful fact. Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I ain't nothing but a redneck. I mean, Sweet Home Alabama, for Christ's sake! And I confess to liking Greg Allman, especially Midnight Rider. Even worse, though I don't care for country music, I really like old Bocephus, Hank Williams, Jr., even though I'm put off by the implicit racism of some of his songs.

My father was a career military officer, and I spent most of my formative years in Ohio, but blood tells. On mother's side, there were Irish and German dirt grubbers. My paternal grandfather's family was one of the old Minorcan families of St. Augustine, Florida. Hence, my Spanish last name. In St. Augustine, there were three segments of society, the whites at the top, then the Minorcans, and the blacks at the bottom. When my paternal grandfather married my grandmother he scored a coup. She was as white as they come and she had the pretensions to go with it. And where was she from? Why Alabama, of course. Muscle Shoals, to be specific. Her father must have been some kind of tough customer. He fought for the South in the Civil War. Starting out as an ordinary soldier at the beginning of hostilities, he fought all the way until the bitter end at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, where he was taken prisoner just a few months before it was all over. He was wounded six different times, and rose to the rank of lieutenant, probably because there were so damned few who lasted the whole war alive and relatively whole. The fact is, that on my father's side, twenty-one family members fought for the Confederacy, so I come by the redneck honestly. My mother's forebears were recent immigrants in Ohio at the time, and they showed better sense in avoiding the war altogether.

It doesn't end there though. The St. Augustine Historical Society has published a history of the city. In it there is a picture of my paternal grandfather's daddy. It's a posed shot. He's in his Sunday best, sitting in a wicker chair. Next to him is a wicker table, upon which stands his favorite fighting cock. He was apparently proud of the bird. Ah, different times. It was a good thing that PETA wasn't around back then. He was apparently quite the character. He worked as a carpenter, though only when he felt like it, if my father was to be believed. There too, times were different though. You didn't have to bust your ass to make a living in towns like that. He lived until well into his eighties, and he died in the 1920's as a result of injuries suffered when an automobile hit him while he was riding his bicycle. Yep, you got that right. The old guy was riding a bike in his eighties.

By the way, the Assam House was great. The avocado shrimp, in particular, was yummy, but I sat there wondering where I got my taste for Asian food. Hmm, some say the Chinese got to the so-called New World before Columbus.