Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reading Joyce 2

With Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, stage two in my evil plan to read all of James Joyce is complete! My review cross-posted from goodreads. I should also add that you can read this for free on Google Books.

There are some books that really ought to be read in the context of a literature class, with a professor to provide context and interpretation and the fear of a final paper to instill motivation. For me at least, Portrait was that kind of a book. It rewards intense study much more so than casual reading, and the somewhat irritating character of Stephen Dedalus becomes far more interesting when seen in a broader context. So it was slow going for me, especially the beginning, but several extended sections were simply fantastic (the priest's description of hell, the beach scene, the final conversation with Cranly).

Portrait is clearly the work of an older writer looking back on his youth with a bit of embarrassment and a lot of brutal honesty. We see Stephen caught in that universal phase of adolescence marked by pretentiousness, self-righteousness and snobbery. So he's a bit of a jerk, but also clearly idealistic, perceptive and sensitive to others. Definitely relatable, and not entirely unlikeable.

The arc of Stephen's story involves him casting off every piece of received wisdom or cultural expectation he encounters -- the lifestyle of his father, English imperialism, Irish nationalism, the Irish cultural revival, Roman Catholicism, his college friends, his country and even his hope for love and companionship -- in a quest for artistic freedom. Mirroring this journey, Joyce places Stephen in the midst of a blizzard of quotations and obscure references (the endnotes in my version were essential in deciphering these) until the final six pages where Stephen finally cuts through the noise and speaks in a first-person voice as he makes his choice.

Stephen's struggle should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tried to create something (be it a story, a piece of music, a scientific argument) -- namely the sinking feeling that it has all been said before and that your contribution is only a derivation, a minor rearrangement of the obvious. It won't truly be original, so why bother?

Unfortunately, his solution to this dilemma is literally exile and isolation. It all seems a bit harsh and more than a little melodramatic, although Joyce himself left Ireland as a young man and never returned. And perhaps it is true that great artists are in some ways outsiders to their community, never hewing to any party line.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Immediate Benefits of HCR

Here's a list of the top 10 health care reforms that kick in this year with Obama's signature--no waiting until 2014 or whatnot. (Via.)
  1. Adult children may remain as dependents on their parents’ policy until their 27th birthday
  2. Children under age 19 may not be excluded for pre-existing conditions
  3. No more lifetime or annual caps on coverage
  4. Free preventative care for all
  5. Adults with pre-existing conditions may buy into a national high-risk pool until the exchanges come online. While these will not be cheap, they’re still better than total exclusion and get some benefit from a wider pool of insureds.
  6. Small businesses will be entitled to a tax credit for 2009 and 2010, which could be as much as 50% of what they pay for employees’ health insurance.
  7. The “donut hole” closes for Medicare patients, making prescription medications more affordable for seniors.
  8. Requirement that all insurers must post their balance sheets on the Internet and fully disclose administrative costs, executive compensation packages, and benefit payments.
  9. Authorizes early funding of community health centers in all 50 states (Bernie Sanders’ amendment). Community health centers provide primary, dental and vision services to people in the community, based on a sliding scale for payment according to ability to pay.
  10. AND no more rescissions. Effective immediately, you can't lose your insurance because you get sick.
To toss out a few additional thoughts on HCR, I think Jon Chait makes a good case that ObamaCare is actually based on a bunch of moderate-to-conservative ideas that Republicans would probably support if it had been proposed by their side.
Obama's plan closely mirrors three proposals that have attracted the support of Republicans who reside within their party's mainstream: The first is the 1993 Senate Republican health plan, which is compared with Obama's plan here, with the similarity endorsed by former Republican Senator Dave Durenberger here. The second is the Bipartisan Policy Center plan, endorsed by Bob Dole, Howard Baker, George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, which is compared to Obama's plan here. And the third, of course, is Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan, which was crafted by the same economist who helped create Obama's plan, and which is rhetorically indistinguishable from Obama's.

And finally, a lot has been written in the past few days about how instrumental Obama and Nancy Pelosi were in getting this passed, but I think big credit is due to Harry Reid also. When I first came to DC, I remember hearing some crusty old political reporter talk about how the Senate Majority Leader is by far the hardest and most under-appreciated job in town because they are responsible for dealing with the 100 biggest egos in the country. As a result most Majority Leaders come off as slightly bumbling and Reid is no exception. But still. Dude got 60 votes on health care reform. Not to shabby.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Well the Democrats managed to pass comprehensive health care reform, and I have to say I am pleasantly surprised. I basically figured they were going to screw it up somehow, but they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of the defeat which had been previously snatched from victory's jaws. Or something like that.

Anyway, I'm glad to see Congress take a few baby steps toward a truly workable health care system. The truly important thing here is that Congress established the principle that everyone should have access to affordable health insurance. That is the new status quo and once people learn about it they won't want to give it up. The moving parts will be tinkered with and strengthened by politicians of both parties for years to come, but I don't think that core principle will ever be revoked.

I would personally prefer a more comprehensive "Medicare-for-all" system, but this is a decent step forward. My rough understanding is that the health insurance industry is a kind of natural monopoly, making it hard for small mom-and-pop companies to enter the market. Insurance companies don't really compete on the basis of service or quality of product so much as on the respective magnitude of the medical "risk" they carry. Without proper regulation, this leads to inhumane practices where the sick are excluded up front or dropped after paying premiums for years.

But once you make those practices illegal (as this law does) it makes more sense to pool medical risk as broadly as possible, to have everyone pay into the system when we're healthy and pay out when we (inevitably) get sick. And that starts to look at lot like Medicare-for-all. And perhaps we will evolve toward that system over sooner rather than later -- a public option would certainly speed up that process.

Beyond the policy, yesterday's vote signaled that Washington can actually do things and address big problems that seem impossible. People are already talking about how the HCR vote may actually revive the climate change discussions. If it had gone the other way the media narrative of failure, gridlock and impotence would have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

33.3 repeating

Apparently at 6:08 pm today I will be one-third of a century old -- 33 and 1/3 years. That doesn't happen every day, you know, and on St. Pats to boot. Old!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Here is a really cool video that takes crowd-sourced data about the movement of dollar bills around the country and deduces some interesting things about communities of people (apparently no embedding but click here). I thought the bit about how geographical boundaries (and even "straight-line" political boundaries) actually divide groups of people was totally fascinating.

Anyway, I saw this video in Science magazine's annual Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge 2009, which collects nifty visualizations of science concepts and subjects (link requires registration). Their winners are typically pretty neat, like this winner from last year that graphed every cross-reference in the Bible (there are a lot).

Visual and information design seems to be a field that has really flourished in recent years -- visually appealing information seems to be popping up a lot on the web. Some of my recent favorites include:
AND this awesome mash-up of time-travel plotlines from TV and movies -- apparently Marty McFly, the Star Trek crew and the Terminator all met (will meet?) sometime in 1985. (From the always interesting visual-blog Information is Beautiful.)

Cool stuff!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

No More Princesses

Elise tagged this blog post about how after a dozen (uniformly excellent) films Pixar is finally making one with a young girl protagonist ... who is unfortunately a princess.
Dear Pixar,

This is not an angry letter. It is especially not an angry letter about Up, which I adored. I could have sat in the theater and watched it two more times in a row. I cried, but I also laughed so hard in places that it wore me out.

So I'm not complaining; I'm asking. I'm asking because I think so highly of you.

Please make a movie about a girl who is not a princess.
Amen. The rest of the post is totally on target too. This is not to discount the attraction of a frouffy pink ball gown every once in a while, but I definitely agree it would be great to have more movies based around characters like Up's Ellie.

In fairness, while Pixar is unabashedly boyish and the trad Disney movies have bought into the "Princess" marketing juggernaut, basically every single Miyazaki film is centered around a tough and awesome girl hero, knee band-aids and all. So not to let Pixar off the hook, but there is good stuff out there -- Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, Nausicaa, etc.

Anyway, after becoming a father I have definitely become more attuned to portrayals of girls and women in the (small number of) shows that Quinn watches. We're big fans of the Dora the Explorer episode where Dora saves the prince trapped in the tall tower and I cheer inwardly every time she pretends to be a scary monster.

So the "Princess" hegemony is pretty irritating. I know we won't be able to filter it out of Quinn's cultural intake forever and undoubtedly she'll go through a princess phase and we'll roll with it. Still, every time I see one of the Disney princesses I get a lyric from my favorite Coup song -- Wear Clean Draws -- going through my head:
You know you're my cookie baby and you're too smart
I can see it in the lines of your school art
True heart, I mean courage, expressed with care
Go on draw them superheroes with the curly hair.

You're my daughter, my love, more than kin to me
This for you and the woman that you finna be
Tell that boy he's wrong, girls are strong
Next time at show and tell play him our song.
Tell your teacher I said princesses are evil
How they got all they money was they killed people.

If somebody hits you, hit 'em back
Then negotiate a peace contract.
Life is a challenge and you gotta team up
If you play house pretend that the man clean up.
You too busy with the other things you gotta do
If you start something, now, remember, follow through.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Buses are Bosons

Dan over at Cosmic Variance has a fun post explaining the mechanism for why, when buses are running late they tend to cluster (much to everyone's irritation). I confess that I once worked out the exact same problem while waiting for a bus in the freezing cold in Chicago -- although in my case it was the #55, not the #6. I distinctly remember waiting about an hour for a bus that was supposed to come every 15 minutes, and when it finally arrived there were 4 in a row.

The mechanism for bunching is pretty intuitive, but I wonder if there might be solutions to prevent the problem. Someone suggested faster loading of passengers, but it also seems like having the (empty, faster) trailing bus simply pass the (full, slower) front bus would help a little. The full bus could also start skipping stops (assuming no one wants to get off) knowing there was an empty bus right behind.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Obligatory OK Go Post

So this music video is the raging viral internet thing du jour, but it's still pretty awesome.

I don't even care if they faked the timing or edited multiple takes together, I'm just happy that it exists. They also have a marching-band video version of this song which is somehow even cooler.

[Check out this interview to learn a bit about how they did it. Apparently they did several full takes, but none was perfect so there is one splice in the video. Also apparently the timing wasn't faked, although they did speed up and slow down the video by small amounts in places.]