Friday, August 22, 2014

Understanding the Greenspan Years

01-04-10 © bofotolux

In the spirit of a throwback Thursday, [oops, too late] here is a reflection about something that ran in FORBES magazine back in October 1987.

"He [chairman AG] has argued in the recent past that import prices could climb almost 10 percent a year without generating dangerous inflationary pressure....Chances are that he will be willing to let the economy grow faster than many observers expect."

The article also said that Greenspan expected the U.S. dollar to fall about 3 percent against the yen the following year.

On October 19th, the first Monday after the appearance of this article, the stock market crashed. Cause and effect? Probably not.

Synchronicity? Definitely. And Greenspan never gave another media interview throughout the remainder of his tenure as chairman.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Review Essay on Narcissism

Two new books about narcissism are getting some play in the press of late. Jeffrey Kluger's THE NARCISSIST NEXT DOOR comes to us from Riverhead Books. The other, THE AMERICANIZATION OF NARCISSISM by Elizabeth Lunbeck, hails from Harvard Un. Press.

Kluger, a science writer with TIME, wants to warn and forearm readers about the potential "monsters" in their own lives -- families, workplaces, neighborhoods. He also invokes such pop-cult examples as Donald Trump, who he says has the "insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room."

Lunbeck. a professor of history at Vanderbilt, seems to want to take Christopher Lasch down a peg. It was Lasch who wrote THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM (1979), and Lunbeck says that Lasch's treatment of the term has made narcissism a cliché, "a highfalutin name for the old-fashioned complaint that modernity means a loosening of restraint."

I'm looking at this moment at a review essay by Laura Kipnis, whose black-and-white image adorns this blog post. Kipnis discusses both Lunbeck's and Kluger's book, in the August issue of HARPER'S. She discusses much else too, including a matter of Harvard dorm room assignment. [Christopher Lasch and future novelist John Updike roomed together at Harvard in the 1950s. Lasch gradually accepted the view that his roommate was the more talented writer of the room, and re-jiggered his own ambitions away from fiction toward history.]

Yet, Kipnis tells us, Lasch remained a novelist at heart, and the prototypical "narcissist" he discusses in his famous 1979 book is a literary character more than a diagnosis. It describes a narcissist as depression-prone, anxious, unable to maintain stable relationships with other human beings, an insomniac, and as a creature who must oscillate between a calculated pose of seduction and the nervous laughter of self deprecation. This makes him "one of the great characters of twentieth-century literature" [outdoing the characters invented by Lasch's old roommate?] but it doesn't make Lasch an accurate social critic.

Indeed, both Lunbeck and Kipnis believe that Lasch got a lot wrong, and that his influence has been baleful. But they make this point from different directions. Kipnis thinks the whole concept of narcissism is dangerously vague and needs reworking. Lunbeck believes on the other hand, that the concept as wielded for example by Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in THE ANALYSIS OF THE SELF (1971)  is germane -- Lasch simply didn't understand it. Lasch wrote for example as if narcissism is necessarily a bad thing, editing out Kohut's views on the healthy aspects of narcissism, Lunbeck scores against him on this.

Kipnis, for her part, scores against Kluger for failing even to mention Lasch, although plainly laboring under his influence.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Quoting Goethe About God

 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I recently encountered the following quotation (never mind where): "Nature is the living, visible garment of God." This was attributed with some confidence (but without further specificity) to the German romantic poet/.philosopher Goethe.

I googled the phrase "visible garment of God" curious about particulars. It gets 31,000 hits.

But if you follow some of them you'll soon find that there are quotes of quotes of quotes. I began to understand Abe Lincoln's frustration when he said, "I never said most of the stuff you see me quoted as saying on the internet."

I persisted in my inquiries. It turns out that Goethe had a character say something LIKE this, but that wording is due to another romantic poet/philosophy, Thomas Carlyle.

In FAUST, Goethe had a character called Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) say: "I walk and work, above, beneath, work and weave ... 'tis thus at the roaring Loom of Time I ply, and weave for God the Garment thou seest Him by."

Thomas Carlyle picked up on this passage, and used the oft-cited "Goethe quote" as his summary of it in his own book, SARTOR RESARTUS (1833). Since the whole book is a play on the imagery involved in the tailor's art, it was surely impossible for Carlyle to resist this.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Languages and steady-state

Language Arts 2

There may not be much of a tendency for seldom-used languages to disappear

A natural question (for those who think about languages at all) is: what number of fluent speakers is necessary for the language to be a rational continuing project?

Assume that there is some mental energy exerted in learning a language, and continuing to use it over time enough to be "in practice," that is, to be one of those fluent speakers. Some portion of your language-using brain is freed up when you (a multi-lingual person) abandon one of your languages to the forces of erosion or rust or whatever.

So: the more fellow speakers of that language you have, the more worthwhile to you are the costs of maintaining that ability.

On such assumptions, it is reasonable to expect that there is some number of speakers X which is the minimum for a sustainable language.

What is that number? David Clingingsmith thinks it is rather small: steady state (a language that is neither growing nor shrinking) requires only 35,000 speakers.  See his 2013 paper on this topic (pdf). 

Scholars have long conjectured that the return to knowing a language increases with the number of speakers. Recent work argues that long-run economic and political integration accentuate this advantage, leading larger languages to increase their population share. I show that, to the contrary, language size and growth are uncorrelated for languages with 35,000 speakers. I incorporate this finding into an evolutionary model of language population dynamics. The model’s steady-state follows a power law and precisely fits the size distribution of the 1,900 languages with 35,000 speakers. Simulations suggest the extinction of 40% of languages with < 35,000 speakers within 100 years.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Another Ahab at the Movies


When watching movies I sometimes entertain myself thinking like a Jungian. Especially if the movie is itself forgettable, I have mental resources to wonder to which deep collective images, archetypes if you will, the screenwriters might have thought they were making an appeal.

This was my reaction to the recent movie INTO THE STORM. It was marketed as a disaster movie about a big storm cell that generates a lot of tornadoes, some of them of unprecedented ferocity, devastating the town of Silverton, Oklahoma.

But my suspicion is that the screenwriters at some point thought they were making more of a human interest movie about the well-financed storm chasing team using a state-of-the-art vehicle called the TITUS, a modified tank, designed to let them get into the heart of the storm, get photos of the eye and inner wall, and get out unscathed. 

The head of the team is a fellow named Pete -- I don't know if he gets a last name -- played by Matt Walsh.  That's Walsh, in character, in the photo above.

Pete set off my archetype-recognition wetware. Pete is the captain of his ship, which happens to be a modified tank, and he is obsessed with getting the perfect shot within a white whale of a perfect tornado. He has given 20 years of his life to this -- it is vastly more important than, say, the safety of his crew. Indeed, one member of his crew dies a grisly death at one point and Pete is unfazed, with his eye on the prize.

Now I'm afraid that I can't carry the analogy through properly without spoilers.

If my hypothesis is right, and the movie was conceived of at one point as Pete's story above all -- or his team's story more generally -- the writers with that conception have a legitimate beef. Someone cluttered up their archetypal tale with irrelevant intersecting plots, giving us the day in the life of a town about to be flattened.

They have my sympathies, and this song from Melanie.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Classic Dilbert

As I've done once or twice before, so again today, I'll simply quote a classic DILBERT comic.

The familiar crowd sits around a conference table in the first frame. There's the pointy-haired boss in the 12-o-clock position. working around the clock face, there's his secretary, Wally the crafty deadbeat, Asok the intern, non-descript Ted, Alice, and Dilbert. This surely isn't meant to be the whole department, BTW, or they'd have to include Tina the brittle-egoed Technical Writer. [I made her omission right by including her above.]

At any rate, in this first panel, the boss says, "We need to communicate less with other departments."

Second panel: our PoV has zoomed in on just Dilbert and boss. Boss is saying, "The more they know about us, the more they criticize what we do."

Third paragraph, still the same tight frame, has Dilbert's response on the right and the bosses rejoinder on the left. Respectively:

"Is this part of your larger war on knowledge?"

"That was the last thing I'll ever tell you."


Okay, I take it that's a "yes."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Fresh New Look at the Old Testament

I recommend, for any actual or aspiring Bible scholars among my vast readership, the blog BIBLE WANDERINGS, in which a woman who describes herself as a "contemplative scholar" gives us the benefit of her thoughts about the books as she reads through them carefully.

She finds odd the story, in 1 Chronicles 17, of how the Lord became angry with David for taking a census.

I also recommend the comments section, in which Shiba says that the King, in taking the census, was telling God that he, David., didn't trust God, he wanted instead to put his faith in numbers.

"This certainly doesn't mean that taking a census or knowing how many men you have in your army is wrong, but this was a special case, as we can see by the context."

For Chistian readers, there will surely be extra resonance here -- another earthly sovereign was demanding a census at the time of the birth of Jesus, we're told.