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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On numerology

Another great thing about Bodin's Methodus (I forgot to mention that mercifully, this one has been translated into English for moi) - an entire section on the importance of the numbers seven and nine in determining the rise and fall of states. Six is the women's number, so it is not relevant to the manly arithmetic of politics. But, men, beware:
No one considering this matter attentively doubts that the death of men occurs in multiples of seven and nine: as 14, 18, 27, 28, 35, 36, 42, 45, 49, 56. But if the seventh occurs with the ninth, all antiquity agreed that it was a most perilous year.
Do you persist in doubting?
Nor am I disturbed by what Aristotle thought in Book v of the Politics and at the end of the Metaphysics - that there is no importance at all in numbers. Why then does the seventh male heal scrofula? Why does the child born in the seventh and the ninth month live, that born in the eighth, never?
Leaving aside for the moment the assertion that no child born in August ever lives to adulthood, just what is the logic behind the claim that birth in the seventh or ninth month ensures life, but seventh and ninth years bring death?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The pressing questions of our age, 3

When I read online reviews for some basic clothing item like shorts or cardigans or button-down shirts and see that someone has written something like, "This item is so great that I bought one in every color!", I always think this person must either hate clothes and just want to get the necessary acquisitions over with (but then why would she bother posting online reviews, an activity I associate with enthusiasts?), or she must be an enthusiast of monotony. It's great that something is perfect in every way for you, but the world of clothes is broad and wide, and if you like them, then don't you want subtle variety in your collection of basics?

But then I recently had to replace my black cardigan and so bought a style I liked off of Ebay, only to realize when it arrived today that I in fact own this exact cardigan in (now) four different colors. This was not an intentional "I will buy all the things!" event, since it did take three years to acquire my collection, but the J.Crew Jackie cardigan is really great (and evidently many other women agree, given how long J.Crew has been selling it). Does this mean that women who seize on a good style when they see it and buy all the colors are right?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The history of the scholarly citation

I've never come across this in early modern books before (not that I've read all that many), but in Bodin's Methodus, there are citations of the sort that are supposed to guide the reader not just to the book or author mentioned, but to the passage in question. Hours of delight for the modern academic! (Not me; I just read the footnotes.) The major obstacle seems to have been the lack of consistent page numbering in a world of manuscripts, but Bodin compensates thusly:
As Modestinus said in the title "About prisoners" starting at "I do not hesitate"...
Moreover, there are even acknowledgments of the "I am obliged to the pedantic brilliant Librarian Bob at Big National Archive for bringing this obscure datum to my attention" variety. From Bodin:
"This alliance, copied with all the early history of the French from the originals of the treasury, was shown to me by Charles Le Voisin, my colleague, a man famous for erudition and integrity."
Lest we suspect him of forging the thing.

Almost as delightful as the travails of manuscript production with cats.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

First world problems: No nap space in Harvard Yard

Omg peeps, do you know how hard life is when you don't have a "designated nap space" within one mile of you at all times? Basically unlivable. Sure, there's the library, or your dorm room, or even your lecture hall to sleep in. But these are not designated nap spaces. They're only makeshift nap spaces. What kind of self-respecting Harvard student would deign to nap in a place not marked out for napping,* and how can he possibly be expected to study or learn effectively without such provisions?

My suggestions for future student demand that would "enhance productivity": complimentary professional spa services, individualized course assistants who walk students through their assignments or possibly do the assignments for them to spare them the stress of personal responsibility, and campus rickshaw service to save the time it takes to walk from one end of the Yard to the other or, even more arduously, from the Yard all the way to CGIS or SEAS, so that students can get more done in the few minutes they save. As for spaces, I propose building several "hot tub spaces" in the Yard for relaxation, and maybe a ball pit or two, along with the installation of a playground, some low-impact carnival rides, and other diversions that would help students achieve better "work/life balance." Also, obviously, a comfortable and well-equipped "sex space" is in order, for the ultimate in relaxation and stress relief. It goes without saying that all these improvements ought to be located inside the Yard, because as we've seen, traveling more than 200 ft for something is an outrageous demand on busy, hard-working students.

Miss Self-Important also fully endorses the proposal for more "brain breaks," whatever those are, for the very important reasons presented:
As a Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisor, Margaret E. Crane ’14, who proposed the petition, questioned why brain break isn’t offered on weekend nights. “Providing students with food past 7 p.m. will allow them to have a full stomach if they choose to drink, and create a social space in the dining hall,” Crane said.
Harvard has failed to facilitate student drinking every night of the week, and that is without a doubt an instance of almost criminal neglect.


* This is very similar to the perennial undergrad complaint that Harvard lacks "social spaces." I have never understood what this could possibly mean, because I have never had the slightest problem finding places to meet people on and around campus, and as a grad student, I don't even have access to any of the dorm spaces or dining halls available to the undergrads. But maybe the problem with all the dozens of libraries, cafes, and multipurpose rooms full of overstuffed chairs on campus is that they lack signs proclaiming, "THIS IS WHERE YOU ARE PERMITTED TO SOCIALIZE," and the undergrads are paralyzed without such explicit instructions.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Alumni notes on alumni notes

I don't really understand why alumni magazines bother with maintaining the appearance of serious journalism when they could just devote themselves wholly to refining their alumni notes and obituaries sections. Does anyone really read the articles? They're all stock fawning profiles of various professors who discovered groundbreaking! new! cutting-edge! theories/genes/dinosaur bones. But alumni notes! That is where you learn what your alma mater is really about - facilitating institutional endogamy, certifying gastroenterologists, and fostering bizarre ambitions.

Alumni notes are just for updating you about your classmates' doings, but almost exclusively those doings which their authors feel proud of publicizing, and what they decide is worth taking pride in is in its own way strange and amusing. For example, from the U of C alumni mag, you can learn that 100 percent of alumni over the age of 65 (who bother to submit alumni notes) "remain very active" and "are living life to the fullest" by learning tribal dances, running marathons, and visiting Thai jungles, so take that, equally old but sedentary and even declining classmates who remain silent. If we just keep moving, we will never die! That is also where you can learn that Large Swimmingcanoe, AB '68 (formerly Bob Smith) has been fruitfully employed as a shamanic healer for the past decade, and that George Oager, AB '73, AM '75 has married a woman from Russia 25 years younger than himself who arrived with a 13-year-old daughter. How did that happen? Must be George's stunning good looks (not pictured). John Self-Important '77 (my dispositional but not blood-cousin) is working on a 900-page memoir of the first 18 years of his life, coming of age on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And at least seven people have self-published their poetry. Only the oldsters are interesting in this unexpected life story way though, because everyone who graduated after about 1990 is wholly pre-occupied with marrying, baby-making, and advancing their careers in gastreoenterology. I'd skip them, but they're the only ones I've ever possibly met in person, so skipping is impermissible.

There was a brief moment in the history of Facebook privacy controls, sometime around 2008 I think, when public photo albums were the default (or at least public to anyone with whom you shared a "mutual friend"), and a huge number of middle-aged people eager to showcase their family lives and upload their childhood photos joined without knowing to change the default, so Facebook turned into a vast archive of browse-able vintage family photos of near-strangers. I spent untold hours perusing your aunt's photos from the 1960s that year. And that was frankly the peak of Facebook's appeal to me, when it was a unintentionally open door into people's private homes just after they'd been scrubbed and brightened for company.

That Golden Age of Facebook came to an end, but its spirit survives in alumni notes, which also seem to be composed not for self-branding to strangers or mass public consumption, but for an audience of the Joneses - the sort-of and long-ago friends and unacknowledged frenemies to whom one is nonetheless tethered by weak bonds of common (in this case, educational) history that permit some openness and familiarity and encourage embellishment while preventing outright fabrication. And some people really are surprising and interesting, though I'm more partial towards conventionalists than converts to Native American tribal healing practices. It's the softer face of the phenomenon of alumni networks, most of whose other faces are of the more forthrightly instrumental, career-climbing sort. Flavia has also written in the past about Harvard's undoubtedly more jacked-up version of Chicago's piddling efforts in the field of alumni relations, which only recently became sleekly and aggressively professionalized, but the effect seems to be quite similar - you feel a strange tenderness for these absurd people whom you'd totally hate if they'd said the same things about themselves in a different sort of forum.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Paging Withywindle

Andrew Gelman also finds some problems w/ Ron Unz's statistics, including some of the problems I indicated about counting Jews of intermarried parents with non-obvious names, and the drop in the percentage of the Jewish population that is not Ultra-Orthodox and so competing in elite high school achievement contests like NMS and Intel and applying for elite college spots. He seems to be coming from the same position as me - not primarily concerned with the political correctness of making Unz's claims, but that the claims be based on methods that take account of demographic realities.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Domesticated nature

Science: studying the outdoor behavior of fluffy house cats by suspending cameras from their necks to record them mercilessly killing small animals and doing other stuff good too. If I had known this was an option, I doubt I would have bothered with political theory.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The pressing questions of our age, 2

What is the purpose of peep-toe heels? I don't mean sandals that are generally open and also have open toes, but shoes that are all but ankle boots, but then have this random toe cut-out? Which season are they for? Can they be worn with tights, despite the hideous way they will show off the toe-seams of said tights?

Friday, February 08, 2013

Some ways that knowledge is power

Andrew Stevens says of my previous post,
I once met a young woman who told me that A) she didn't even know anything about drugs until she was in DARE and B) shortly after she was in DARE, she started using drugs. So my very unscientific conclusion would be that it probably promoted drug use.
This is in a way true, and is the second of my DARE stories (of which there are only two). Apologies to those of you who've heard this story before in real life.

In the classroom instruction portion of DARE, we were supplied with information about the many kinds of narcotics to which we might find ourselves just saying no. We'd all heard of cigarettes and probably marijuana before the sixth grade, and those of us with a predilection for YA novels and after-school TV specials had run across the names of a few other controlled substances, but basically, we were clueless about the composition of these drugs and their varied effects on our psyches. There were stimulants and depressants, and there were their different effects, and the different ways they should and should not be mixed, and there were even quizzes about all this to ensure that we would retain it when we found ourselves roofied (depressant) at a party at which we had been drinking (depressant) and smoking (stimulant) and would be saved by this information.

In order to escape such situations, however, we had to also learn the "street names" of the drugs we'd be resisting, in case we might be so foolish as to think, when offered some "rock" by one of the many gang members in Starter jackets lurking in mean streets of Skokie, Illinois that what he meant to give us was sidewalk sediment (neural effect unknown) and not crack cocaine (stimulant). Accordingly, we memorized the street names for common drugs, including marijuana - pot, weed, grass, bud, mary jane, etc. (We also learned that gang members could be identified by their Starter jackets. That the entire male population of my middle school could also be identified by their Starter jackets diminished the usefulness of this information somewhat.)

Weed and grass. Now these were interesting. Don't weeds and grass grow everywhere? My friends (the same ones responsible for the anti-drug anthem of the '90s) and I were curious. Some of the drugs we learned about in DARE sounded very scary, like cocaine, which they told us was so addictive that if we tried it even once, we would be stealing televisions to feed our addictions by the following week. But marijuana's pleasures were tied to only vague ill-effects and claimed to be eventually addictive, but not on the first go. Generally, we were not the type to seek out gang members in Starter jackets from whom to procure illicit substances, but if it was true that marijuana was basically just our front lawns, then why not give it a try? So we agreed to meet after school and smoke the lawn.

We had not yet at 12 been exposed to the idea of supply and demand, so it did not quite occur to us that marijuana would not be expensive if it consisted of lawns. Nor did we consider that the other street names for marijuana did not bear such a literal correspondence to the composition of the drug. We did not, for example, think to smoke the kitchen pots. However, grass was a plant we knew, and marijuana was a plant we did not know, and so it seemed perfectly likely that marijuana was therefore grass.

So we again gathered at my friend's house and set out to collect grass. That task complete, we had a brief debate about whether the grass had to be dried before it could be smoked, but concluded that drying would take too much time, and my friend's mother would be home soon and she couldn't be permitted to see us. Whatever essential marijuana-esque qualities were contained in the grass would certainly come out as well from fresh as from dried grass, maybe even more, just like fresh fruit tastes better than dried fruit. This agreement was followed by some doubts about the correct joint-construction procedure to be followed, since none of us had ever rolled a joint or even a cigarette before, nor had we ever strictly speaking examined such an item at close enough range to comprehend its structure. But how hard could it be? Filling, paper, adhesive. So we brought the grass inside, rolled it in a sheet of printer paper, and taped it up. Perfect grass cigarette. We lit one end and began to smoke it.

Well, none of us quite knew how to smoke either, but we assumed that part would be fairly intuitive, since DARE had already taught us that only stupid people smoke or do drugs, and surely we were smarter than stupid people, the very evidence for which fact was that we had never smoked or done drugs. But no, it turned out that stupid people had something on us, because first, we couldn't figure out how to inhale the stuff without coughing it back up, and second, the cigarette burned at an uneven rate, the printer paper going quite rapidly while the wet grass hardly at all, making smoking it a danger to our fingers. Finally, after a few passes, we gave it up, and scrambled to clear the bathroom of smoke with an overdose of air-freshener.

It was not in fact immediately evident to us after this episode that the reason for our failure to smoke the lawn was that the lawn is not marijuana, or a smoke-able substance of any kind. We chalked it up to many possibilities - one being botanical mis-identification, but also potentially that we had simply gone about it incorrectly. Maybe the grass should've been dried after all? Or maybe the scotch tape we used to seal it got in the way of the effect? Nonetheless, we let the issue rest because, as we concluded righteously from our experience, "Smoking sucks!" "Yeah, it feels terrible in your throat, and it's soooo bad for you. I can really tell!" DARE was thus vindicated.