The major leagues of clarification: Perhaps because Mario Livio is right here in Baltimore, his new book showed up at the Hopkins Barnes and Noble several weeks before Christmas. We thumbed through it there at our leisure. Yesterday, it rated this page-two review in the Posts dying Book World section.
Needless to say, you cant judge a book by its review. But this morning, we re-scanned the review, trying to see if any part of it seemed coherent. Did humans invent mathor did humans discover it? Were not sure the choice makes sensebut were certain that this passage doesnt:
KAUFMAN (2/8/09): Livio comes down in the middle, contending that math may well be both invented and discovered. He points, for instance, to the eternal truth contained in the geometry formulated by Euclid 2,400 years ago. By the 19th century, however, iconoclasts had posited and established a whole new world of non-Euclidian geometry. Livio writes about the symmetries of the universe: the immutable, if incompletely understood, laws of math and physics that make a hydrogen atom, for instance, behave in the same way on Earth as it acts 10 billion light years away. Another sign of universal structure, as teased apart with the help of math? No, Livio writes, it is more likely a sign that "to some extent, scientists have selected what problems to work on based on those problems being amenable to a mathematical treatment.
As presented, we dont get it. Would you be surprised to learn that a hydrogen atom behaves the same way in Kansas as it acts in Nebraska? Why, then, would you be surprisedor driven to philosophical turmoilby the passage weve highlighted here?
When physicists and mathematicians start asking themselves questions like this, you will often find yourselves in the major leagues of conceptual confusion (seeking the major leagues of clarification). Yesterday, we went back and looked at Livios book, which you shouldnt necessarily judge by this largely incoherent review. We were struck by a phrase on the books third page (we think). You check it out there: actual reality. Our question for you, if you look at the passage: Does an incoherent claim become clear when you stick the word actual in it?
JUDITH WARNERS DREAM: In recent weeks, it was chic in liberal circles to roll ones eyes at the New York Times columns penned by William Kristol, whom the Times had decided to can. For ourselves, we were puzzled by that Group Reaction, because weve often read the columns penned by New York Times liberals. It what way were Kristols columns less distinguished than those of this sad gang? We didnt see anyone try to explain. Team Players just knew that they were.
How bad is the work of this newspapers liberals? This past Saturday, we marveled at four different columns, starting with this pitiful can of corn by the papers Judith Warner.
How bad does the work of the liberal set get? Lets start with this undergrown tangle.
Warner, you see, had just had a dream in which Barack Obama, the American president, presented himself in her shower. (More specifically, the president was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs, and then he was being yelled at by my husband, Max, for smoking in the house, Warner explained.) Confronted with this intriguing datum, Warners simpering mind began to wonder ifto borrow from the early Dylaneverybody else had been havin the same old dreams. (Dylan, just 22 at the time, had been dreaming about something important, of course.) So Warner did the thing that seemed bestshe launched an e-mail inquiry, hoping to learn if others (if other women) were dreaming about Obama as well. Needless to say, Warners cup overflowedand she began her column with her e-mailers deathless sex dreams. This is the kind of perfect pap which typifies the culture of the modern-day New York Times:
WARNER (2/5/09): Many womennot too surprisinglywere dreaming about sex with the president. In these dreams, the women replaced Michelle with greater or lesser guilt or, in the case of a 62-year-old woman in North Florida, whose dream was reported to me by her daughter, found a fully above-board solution: Michelle had divorced Barack because he had become too much of a star. He then married my mother, who was oh so proud to be the first lady, the daughter wrote me.
There was some daydreaming too, much of it a collective fantasy about the still-hot Obama marriage. Barack and Michelle Obama look like they have sex. They look like they like having sex, a Los Angeles woman wrote to me, summing up the comments of many...
If you ever wondered why so many journalists couldnt stop sticking their big, long noses between the sheets that belonged to the Clintons, Warner was willing to help you see the inanity of her newspapers culture. The only cheer came from the comments, a good number of which questioned Warners emotional balance, or that of her mailers. This was one of our favorites:
COMMENT 51: Dear Child,
Please get an outlet for your very complicated, over-active mind. This type of writing is not the place for it.
Whenever I read you, I feel like you need the warmth and guidance of a good mothermaybe do some excellent Jungian dream work to help you get in harmony.
Good for Linda, a master of social work. But surely, the ironic fourth comment was most plainly relevant:
COMMENT 4: I dreamed that I read a column about President Obama in the New York Times that took the country and its problems seriously. This column wasnt it.
And sure enough: Two days later, on February 7, the Times featured three different columns by pseudo-liberals; all failed to take those problems seriously. Tell us again: Why are we supposed to think that Kristol stood out in this bunch?
Reading from left to right on that op-ed page, the first such column was this piece of pap by Gail Collins. As usual, Collins was striving for light and humorous; she presented imaginary Q-and-As about Obamas current plight. But political humor requires a point. What was the point of this blather, her second Q-and-A (out of seven)?
COLLINS (2/7/09): Wasnt Tom Daschle crucial for health care reform? What are they going to do without him?
We have to get past the idea that transformative change requires one great cabinet member to steer it. Thats the kind of thinking that got us Donald Rumsfeld. Tom Daschle always seemed like a lovely man, but the idea that only he could get a big, important, dramatic health care reform through the Senate seems a little flawed, given the fact that he never got any big, important, dramatic reforms through the Senate when he was the actual majority leader.
Of course, when Daschle was senate majority leader, President Bush (from the other party) would have vetoed such dramatic reforms. Political humor should have a point; as usual, this was simply inane. And needless to say, Collins couldnt type a column without rolling her eyes at those silly outlanders who actually do take the country and its problems seriously. What follows is the type of insulting pap which seems to be required by law in a Collins column:
COLLINS: Even when I get irked with Obama, I still want to help him. Isnt there something people can do?
This weekend the Obama army is going to rise again, creating a nation of stimulus house parties, made up of people who would like nothing more than to spend their days off talking about the administrations economic plan. Theres a Mommies, Daddies and Wee Ones Gathering in Brighton, Colo. (We will have kid crafts, videos, juice, snacks and coffee.) And a gathering called What Happened to My Retirement Nest Egg? is scheduled for Watsonville, Calif. (Well break out the wine and cheese.)
Or, for sterner spirits, theres the Economic System Redesign Leadership Meeting in Manhattan, which is sponsored by the Corporate Social Responsibility Advocates for Obama, the Social Innovators for Obama and the Sustainability Activists for Obama. (Please bring your own lunch or eat before coming.)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! As noted, no Collins column is considered complete without some version of this eye-rollingeye-rolling aimed at the silly rubes who will actually give up weekend time to discuss their nations challenges. Tell us again, so well all understand: In what way did Kristol stand out, thrown in as he was with this crap?
There was more. Next to Collins, we found Charles Blow, off on his latest ridiculous quest. Lets keep it simple: Gallup had asked the dumbest poll question in historyand inevitably, Blow had been drawn there. By the last of his four pointless graphics, we were reviewing this bit of nonsense: Among people who think the tone in Washington hasnt changed since Obama was elected, who do they blame for the lack of improvement? Only a fool would waste time on such nonsense. Or a scribe on the Times op-ed page.
But for our money, it was Bob Herberts column which was most instructive. Herbert perfectly captured the style of debate in which we assail our opponents motives and character without making the slightest attempt to assess the merits of the things they have said. Uh-oh! Republicans werent voting the way King Obama preferred! In accord with time-honored rules, Herbert knew that this made them bad people:
HERBERT (2/7/09): It was good to see the president, ordinarily so cool, so accommodating, exhibiting some real fire the other night. It seems to have done some good.
With the economy in deep, deep trouble, and Americans suffering by the tens of millions, the Republicans spent much of the week doing their same-old, bad-faith Neanderthal two-step: trying their best to derail the economic stimulus package working its difficult way through Congress.
This bill is stinking up the place, said Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator from South Carolina who not only opposed the legislation but wanted to make sure that no one would mistake him for a class act.
One of the goals of the package, of course, is to begin cleaning up the holy mess that resulted from the long, dark night of G.O.P. control in Washington. President Obama went out of his way to get a substantial number of Republicans to make a genuine effort to move the economic revitalization process along, but was rebuffed, and in some cases contemptuously.
Poor Herbert! Hed been sent to the fainting-couch by the fact that Graham had said the word stinksand by the contemptuous conduct he forgot to attribute to solons by name. Beyond that, he somehow knew that such statements by people like Graham represented their bad faith, not their failures of judgment. But then, Herbert spent amazingly little time explaining what was actually wrong with the Republican judgments at issuejudgments to which many voters were being exposed. For example, consider the way he cuffed Bob Corker aside:
HERBERT: Neither the job losses nor the presidents prodding was enough to prompt much of a response from the Republicans. But by Friday evening, it appeared that a small number of G.O.P. senators, enough to assure Senate passage of a revised (and watered-down) stimulus package by a very slim margin, had come aboard.
But only a small number. Even as the report of an agreement was being circulated, Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, was bad-mouthing the package on CNN. This bill is a disaster, he said.
Its been clear for years that the G.O.P. is a party without a heart. But its pointless obstructionism, its overall lack of any serious response to what is a clear national economic emergency, seems to indicate its also a party without a brain.
Shorter Herbert: How dare Corker bad-mouth and obstruct (i.e., oppose) a proposal I, King Herbert, favor? In this passage, Herbert engages in a great deal of invective about Corkers pointless obstruction and lack of a brain. But he fails to describe the detailed complaint Corker made in that CNN appearance; instead, he says how offended he is by the rude mans choice of words (in this case, by the word disaster). But: Was there any merit to Corker long, detailed objection? Did his objection make any sense? We dont have the slightest ideain part, because we waste our time reading hacks like Herbert. Its amazingly easy to write columns like thiscolumns which make little attempt to address the merits of any issue, which simply name-call opponents instead. But heres our question to you, dear readers: Do you know what Corker actually said? We do, because we saw him on CNN. But Herberts readers dont know what he said, and never willand theyll get no help for Herbert when it come to understanding the merits. If Corkers presentation was wrong or patently ludicrous, that would be important newsthe kind of news that might affect the judgments of voters. But Herbert was too lazy to research and offer such work. Instead, he complained that Corker had said the word disasterand he told you that this conduct made him a very bad man.
Dear Children, we wanted to write to these columnists. Please get an outlet for your very scripted, under-active minds.
But to quote the younger, dead-panning Dylan: It was a normal day. Warner had typed up womens dreams about sexy-time with Obama. Collins had engaged in her endless eye-rolling, mocking those who take the country and its problems seriously. Blow was again chasing after the worlds dumbest questionsand Herbert was spending his standard ten minutes mind-reading and name-calling those who dont vote the way he prefers. (Remember the names he once called Al Gore? Four weeks before that election?) But so it goes in these high liberal precincts.
So it goes in these liberal precincts. A few nights earlier, Charlie Rose had fought rather hard to reject the truth about Darling Maureen. And in the weeks preceding that, analysts all over the liberal web had handed themselves a bit of real pleasure. Kristols columns were just soooo bad, our dear children endlessly said. It makes children glad to type such thingsand it keeps them from seeing their problem.
This morning: Krugmans column is loaded with meat (which doesnt necessarily mean that its right). In our view, Krugman, not Kristol, has been the Times most striking outlier.