“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Thursday, August 20, 2015

coincidence and crime 2

To return to my last coincidence post:
Nabokov played around with the coincidence device himself, in his novel, Despair. There, the hero, a prosperous businessman named Hermann, mistakenly supposes that he looks like a certain much poorer man. Hermann befriends this man on behalf of a plot to make make money and get out of a relationship with his cheating wife. The plot involves getting the double to dress as Hermann and then killing him. After this, the life insurance money will come rolling in, and Hermann can collect it. Hermann, then, is very much writing the “plot” for his characters, and banking on a coincidence. But what he doesn’t reckon on is his own blindspot with regard to what he looks like. There’s a character in a Turgenev story who says, somewhere, that he can keep a sharp mental image of strangers, but more familiar faces, including his own, never fix themselves in his imaginagtion. Hermann seems to be in a similar case – in fact, nobody else thinks his double looks like Hermann. Thus, the coincidence by which the murderer hopes to make his escape ends up being no coincidence at all – which is a very funny variation on the coincidence plot.
An Israeli sociologist, Ruma Falk, has made a career long study of coincidence stories. Like a disillusioned Hermann, Falk claims to have shown that our coincidence stories often depend on obtaining a statistically significant result from a deliberately chosen extreme example instead of basing that conclusion on a random sample”. The emphasis here on the random sample indicates the frequentist bias of Falk’s work – but at the same time, what really interests here is a cognitive property – the “surprising” effect of the coincidence. If Hermann had interviewed other candidates for doppelganger, or consulted his friends, he might well have found someone who, according to consensus, looked like him – which would of course be a coincidence, but one founded in the pool of types, cultural and genetic, in which Hermann existed, like some dictator looking for a body double to use as a security measure. But Hermann didn’t, because the coincidence surprised him to the extent that he didn’t question it.
Falk, then, looked at the element of surprise in coincidence stories. They divide stories of coincidence taken from a pool of subjects between self-coincidence and other-coincidence. They asked their subjects to judge the degree of surprise elicited by these stories – that is, stories the subject told about his or her experience, and stories the subject read about others’ experiences. “On the average, authors judged their self-coincidences somewhat more surprising than they judged others’ coincidences. However, the mean rating of the control subjects revealed that the other-stories were objectively more surprising than the self-stories. Taken together, authors found their own coincidences more surprising than others’ coincidences despite the fact that the latter were objectively more surprising.”
This is a complex response, no? One might speculate that the surprisingness of coincidence operates in more important ways in ordinary life than it is given credit for. At least, in listening to people talk about their lives, and about accidents that have befallen them, I get the sense that coincidence operates as a sort of guiding shadow to making sense of the incidents in a life - making the life seem fated, necessary, telic.

Comres' fishy poll: you just ask for the results, and we will deliver them!

One of the key tools of contemporary politics is the gamed poll - the poll that shows results satisfactory to those who commissioned it. These polls wear their disnonesty in their footnotes. With that said, one should look at Comres's internet poll that shows Jeremy Corbyn as a crater for the next election, as compared to the ever electable, ever conservative David Millibrand.

It looks bad for Corbyn until you read how the results were filtered. Because of course, you don't want to just accept the voices of your complete set of respondents - you want to filter them just right. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-would-reduce-labours-chances-of-winning-the-next-election-poll-reveals-10457458.html

Here is the revealing footnote: "ComRes interviewed 2,035 GB adults online between 12th and 13th August 2015. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of all GB adults. Data were also weighted by past vote recall. Voting intention figures are calculated using the ComRes Voter Turnout Model. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules."

Now, what does past voter recall and the Comres Voter Turnout Model mean? It means that Comres decided that the trouble with polling that showed Labour leading in the last election relied too much on the responses of young voters. This, in combination with voters who haven't voted recently, means that basically, the poll was skewed towards just the demographic that would have voted for the most conservative labour candidates. What Comres doesn't say is how they tested their conclusion. If we transpose this model to the American election of 2012, for instance, excluding black and young voters, Romney would clearly have been first in the polls - as indeed he was in the Fox News poll and in the Gallup poll. Intellectual honesty would demand, I think, that Comres publish the results without applying their "comres" model alongside the results of applying their model. But don't hold your breath for that to happen. After all, this poll is commissioned to get the Comres model results.
Which will then be twittered about by the usual Blairite suspects.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

the writing life - now with pee stains!

I wonder how Adam picks phrases out of the air. We were walking in a park in Montpellier last month when Adam turned to us and, apparently a propos of nothing, said, why that’s the whole point! Today, we were walkng to school when Adam told me, that’s a done deal, Daddy. A done deal? Has Adam been hanging around with an MBA?
It is things like this, the innumerable things like this, that make me wonder why it is that children are supposed to be the enemy of the creative type. In this week’s London Review of Books there’s a piece by Jessica Olin about the book, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum. It is a curious review: Olin has chosen, mostly, to collage various of the essays. One of her comments, though, struck me as pretty awful, all the more so because it expresses one of the cliches of our time.
Parenting requires a public face; engagement with one’s community; fluency in multi-tasking. Writing demands focus and long stretches of solitude. The two job descriptions could not be more different; how many of us are equally suited to both?”
Where, I wondered, did this job description of writing come from? Perhaps it comes from the idea that writing has a “job description” – and after all, if it is a craft taught in school, perhaps it does, like insurance salesman or barista. But unlike those two professions, in actual fact, the only thing about being a freelance writer is that you write. Otherwise, there is no job description. It certainly doesn’t include long stretches of solitude.  Some may well need long stretches of solitude – Flaubert seemed to. Others, multiple others, seemed to need a very strong social life – Balzac, Dickens, Henry James, James Joyce, etc. Unfortunately, the apriori idea that writers don’t require a “public face” seems to me to etiolate the writing, to narrow it, to make it airless. I am a great consumer of writers’ letters – not a genre beloved of the public, but there you are. And to my mind, the job description for writers ought to read – must love interruption and disaster. This hushed idea of the solitary writer makes me laugh and think of Ring Lardner’s collection, How to Write Short Stories,  which begins with the observation that “most of the successful authors of the short fiction of today never went to no kind of a college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade. They could of got just as far in what I call the literary game if they had stayed home those four years and helped mother carry out the empty bottles.”
Of course, times have changed, and instead of piano tuning, the literary game is now played by immersing oneself in focus and solitude, apparently, with occasional preoccupied visits to the printing place while one carefully balances the panorama of one's novel - the battle scenes, the complete description of french nobility in 1415 - in one's precious head. I'd advise wearing sleeping shades, although the downside is accidentally strolling in front of a car.

 Somehow, though, I rather like the products of helping mother carry out the bottles.
My experience with Adam has been anything but non-writerly. I see a lot of things about human beings differently due to seeing and reflecting on Adam and the way he is growing up. One of the writers Olin quotes with approval drags out stereotypes about raising kids that are as risable as anything spouted by Victorian fairy tale authors: “Tim Kreider precisely renders parents’ ‘anxious and harried existence – noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought’.” I especially like the pee stained – of course, writers, the great ones, have always stayed away from excrement. It is so yucky! Indeed, I think Tim Kreider should change a thousand diapers or so in order to see that if you cannot confront pee and shit, you might consider changing your job description to, oh, say, selling life insurance policies. The idea that I am kept from an adult conversation or a coherent thought by the fact that I’m living with someone who is actually acquiring a language – well, it shows what kind of adult conversations or coherent thoughts are common traffic in the Tim Kreider set. Things like, did you see True detective last night?
Oops. A little snobbishness on my part. Still, if a writer actually has this abbreviation of infancy in his or her head, it should be knocked out of it. Have children or don’t have children, that’s not my beeswax. But if you can’t even look at what the experience is like, and are afraid of pee stains, well, writing might not be your gig.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Coincidence and crime 5

Nabokov translated Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time in collaboration with his son. It was the father, however, who wrote the preface. In it, he remarked on the mechanisms that Lermontov uses to move the story of Pechorin forward, in a matter of speaking.

“A special feature of the structure of our book is the monstrous but perfectly organic pat that eavesdroppiing plays in it. Now Eavesdropping is only one form of a more general device which can be classified under the heading of Coincidence, to which belongs, for instance, the Coincidental Meeting – another variety. It is pretty clear that when a novelist desires to combine the traditional tale of romantic adventure (amorous intrigue, jealousy, revenge, etc.) with a narrative in the first person, and has no desire to invent new techniques, he is somewhat limited in his choice of devices.”

Although Nabokov was famously anti-bolshie and refused even to meet Andrei Bely because Bely was “squishy”, the notion of the device is exported straight from Skhlovsky. But Nabokov could rightly claim, I suppose, that it had become part of the repertoire of slavic literary criticism. What it shows, here, is that Nabokov is making a formalist analysis of the text, viewing the text’s coincidence as evidence of a choice among a range of devises that would unite the plot.
One might wonder as well as, however, whether the plot, that ueber-device, is not itself, necessarily, a coincidence-making machine. In any case, for Nabokov, the coincidence must have been chosen because Lermontov was eager to move his total story along:

… our author was more eager to have his story move than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion, [and thus] he emplyed the convenient device of having his Maksim Masimich and Pechorin overhear, spy upon, and witness any such scene as was needed for the elucidation or the promotion of the plot. Indeed, the author’s use of this devise is so consistent thoughout the book that it ceases to strike the reader as a marvelous vagary of chance and becomes, as it were, the barely noticeable routine of fate.”

I am reminded here of the physicist E.T. Jaynes’ remark that “entropy is an anthropomorphic concept. For it is a property not of the physical system but of the particular experiments you or I choose to perform on it.”  It is striking that many protagonists in novels are, in a sense, experimenters in coincidence. That is, they take coincidences as signs, and follow them so that they produce more coincidences. In a sense, what Nabokov says about Lermontov, the writer of the novel in which Pechorin is the chief protagonist, could be said, as well, of Pechorin, in as much as he makes a plot out of his life, or a portion of his life. To do such a thing, to incorporate the adventure form into a life, turns coincidence into the “routine of fate.”

Nabokov is right to mention the adventure form as that in which coincidence plays the greatest role. The adventure form, of course, has fissioned into many forms today – the crime novel, sci fi, and, often, the modern and po mo variants of the novel. I think, for instance, of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote a number of novels in which the motive force that moves the plot is the impression that the appearance of a character is coincidentally like that of another character. For instance, in The Faces of Janus, the entire motive for the engagement of the poet, Rydal Keener, with the crooked businessman, Chester McFarland, and his wife Colette, is that Chester vaguely  looks like Rydal’s father and wife like the cousin that Rydal had a crush on when he was a teen. Even before Rydal is involved with the couple, the author presents Rydal’s habit of looking a little too long in the eyes of strangers, seeking Adventure.  In a variation on this theme, in Strangers on the Train, the architect, Guy Haines, meets a rich playboy type named Bruno, and the two recognize that they are in similar situations: Guy is frustrated by his wife’s refusal to divorce him so he can marry his girlfriend, and Bruno is frustrated by his father, who is keeping him from enjoying the family fortune. They jokingly trade “murders”, except that Bruno actually commits one, the murder of Guy’s wife. This is a particularly vivid instance of how the device of coincidence is not something that is confined to a single accident, but extends into an adventure that is much like a previous state of order becoming a more and more pronounced disorder.  

It is the relation between adventure, coincidence and disorder that makes coincidence loom so large in crime novels. The very activity of “looking for clues” is a way of scripting an adventure – a thematically connected series of social events, in which the social can, unexpectedly, slip away (which is the fright is meant to be evoked by the lone person entering into some isolated space, the isolation being defined by the fact that the criminal doesn’t risk being seen by anyone but the victim. At this point, the criminal operates as the writer’s surrogate, even if the writer demonizes him or her, for both are engaged in the scripting of coincidence.

Nabokov played around with this motif himself, in Despair.   

the NYT's shoddy Upshot column: bullshit and statistics

Another Sunday, another Monday, another idiotic Upshot article in the NYT. Upshot has become the home for the NYT’s consi derable rightwing cheering section, with Cohn, Barro, and Cowen providing the juice.  Barro, the scion of one of the plutocracy’s big defenders at the University of Chicago,  Robert Barro, has settled into the role of “reasonable conservative” that the NYT editors just love love love – it’s the David Brooks gig. Although, to be fair, Barro sometimes is worth reading – which I don’t think one can ever say about David Brooks. This Sunday, though, Nate Cohn was up at the bat to tell us two things: Bernie Sanders is a mere pimple on the vast system so ably managed by our elites – his surge is just exaggerated because, as Cohn puts it in the incomparable jazz style preferred by the Times:

“Mr. Sanders has become the favorite of one of the Democratic Party’s mostimportant factions: the overwhelmingly white, progressive left. These voters are plentiful in the well-educated, more secular enclaves where journalists roam. This voting support is enough for him to compete in Iowa; New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England; the Northwest; and many Western caucuses. But it is not a viable electoral coalition in a Democratic Party that is far more moderate and diverse than his supporters seem to recognize.”

So those supporters are in for a surprise, because, of course, they have never read a newspaper or a magazine telling them that the moderate center is the largest voting bloc in the country. Of course, newspapers and magazines are in the habit of presenting this as an apriori truth, instead of like going to any independent source that empirically checks the statement. Rather, they sometimes turn around in their desks and ask their neighbor, that white guy, usually, who is pulling down more than 250 thou a year – are you a moderate or centrist?

After tut tutting away the Sanders campaign, Cohn then sticks his thumb in his mouth and reflects with all the bogosity of a crooked statistician about Hilary Clinton’s favorability ratings. Here’s our poobah:

“Mrs. Clinton may be a primary juggernaut, but she could surely lose to a Republican in November 2016. President Obama’s approval ratings are in the mid-40s, so Mrs. Clinton may not benefit from the party’s incumbency. On paper, the race is more or less a tossup. In such a close contest, it might seem reasonable to argue that Mrs. Clinton’s unfavorable ratings are hugely important.

Now that is a good question, and a good answer might be founded on looking at polls putting Clinton against all of her possible Republican opponents. But, oddly enough, Cohn, who is writing in something called the Upshot, seems sadly unaware that these polls exist. He – like the NYT in general, where article after article tells us that Clinton is mired in scandal and flailing generally – leaves discretely unmentioned that in those polls, which are easily accessible on Real Clear Politics, Clinton beats all her opponents by 3 to 12 percent. RCP amalgamates all the current polls, but it shows those polling results. One can see that the reason Clinton doesn’t do better is that the Fox News polls consistently show Clinton doing 4 to 10 points worse than the rest of the polls. Pull the Fox News polls from the mix, and Clinton is beating all GOP rivals by unheard of numbers – 6 to 7 percentage points.

So much for the standard shoddy Sunday Upshot. Today, we get a retread of the GOPvoters are happier meme, which has been assiduously promoted by the head of theAmerican Enterprise Institute,  ArthurBrooks.  Our purveyor of nonsense thistime is  David Leonardt. Now I will give Leonardt some credit – he is lesssophistical than other Upshot columnists. But he is prone to publish thingsthat require a little critical thinking. The headline today is that Republicanssay they are happier with their marriages. This is, of course, the old ArthurBrooks trick – publish surveys based solely on self-reporting. No sociologist with any credibility believes that what people self-report is a perfect guide to how they really act. In fact, it is easy to show that the very fact of asking about a self-report can lead to changes in the responses one receives. So, of course, you need some other anchors to clarify the meaning of these self-reported responses. In the case of marriage, the anchors are pretty clear. If Party membership was a significant factor in happy marriages, then those states with a dominant party should, pari passu, show lower divorce rates.
It is well known that, in fact, those states that do have boost larger Republican majorities are also states with higher divorce rates. If Leonhardt was not lazy, he would have at least gotten the name Jennifer Glass from his rolodex and called her. She’s a professor at the University of Texas and has published a pretty well publicized article about the subject in the American Sociological Review (with coauthor Philip Levchak). Let me quotean abstract of the thesis from family studies.org:

“Authors Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak are more nuanced in their own telling of the story, but their findings are provocative. The authors conclude, “The results here show that communities with large concentrations of conservative Protestants actually produce higher divorce rates than others, both because conservative Protestants themselves exhibit higher divorce risk and because individuals in communities dominated by conservative Protestants face higher divorce risks.”
As for exactly how conservative Protestants are increasing divorce risks for themselves and their neighbors, Glass and Levchak point to evidence that conservative Protestants and their communities encourage young people to marry and have children earlier, sometimes before their educations are completed. These early-marrying couples face a double dilemma of learning to live together (and perhaps raise children together) while also struggling to get by in an economy that is increasingly tough on those who don’t finish college. Then, speculating beyond their data, the authors suggest that conservative Protestant norms against premarital sex and abortion (which might encourage earlier marriage and childbearing) and disdain for religiously “mixed” marriages, along with public policies that fail to support quality public education (enacted in communities dominated by conservative Protestants) combine to create a brew which, paradoxically for divorce-disdaining conservative Protestants, undermines stable marriages.”

Notice that the speculation of these researchers consists of inferences from their data, which tell a plausible sociological tale linking the results of conservative social policies with divorce. It could well be wrong, but at least it is not a mere juxtaposition taken from dubious self-reporting statistics and lathered with speculation that has no empirical anchor whatsoever.

I could probably become a more popular blogger just by fisking the generally shoddy upshot column, and call it something like upchuckshot. But then, I do have a life.