Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

A Beaut Little Hurler

I had to make some tough decisions on my library borrowings Sunday: I've had a bit of a bibliomania rush over the past couple of weeks and picked up too many of those interesting volumes that turn up on the shelf just next to the book you went in to borrow in the first place. It's time for them to go back to the cultural lolly-shop, so that I can do some genuine reading. For sheer pleasure I've got Frederik Pohl's O Pioneer. Pohl is still one of the best writers of "hard" science fiction there is and he's in fine form in this book. It's also pleasant to read an American writer of hard science fiction who isn't a complete right wing twat - In O Pioneer, Pohl even goes so far as to slip in a few sly "anti-American" jokes about a Pentagon.

Another book I'm hanging on to, at least for time being, is Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine. I think it might be worth doing the rounds of the remainder shops and the second hand book stores to see if I can pick up a copy of my own. The hard-back edition is of a good size and medium weight; I think it's the sort of book where you can get a good long throw with a simple overhand action, which I much prefer to the frisbee style lateral spin you have to use to get a respectable throw with a paperback. It looks like the sort of book that would give you plenty of provocation too, which is always a plus when you're looking to set a new personal best for distance.

The irritants start coming early, starting on the second page of the foreword by Richard Dawkins (p viii). Here Dawkins provides a brief history of the 'meme' meme:

... Since 1976, when the word was coined increasing numbers of people have adopted the name 'meme" for the postulated gene analogue.

The compilers of the
Oxford English Dictionary operate a sensible criterion for deciding whether a new word shall be canonised by inclusion. The aspirant word must be commonly used without needing to be defined and without its coinage being attributed whenever it is used. To ask the metamemetic question, how widespread is 'meme'? A far from ideal, but nevertheless easy and convenient method of sampling the meme pool, is provided by the World Wide Web and the ease with which it may be searched. I did a quick search of the Web on the day of writing this, which happened to be 29 August 1998. 'Meme' is mentioned about half a million times, but that is obviously confounded by various acronyms ... The adjectival form memetic, [Rhymes with emetic, doesn't it? Sorry, I needed to take a cheap shot, just for the break. Now back to the tedious task of transcription]. however, is genuinely exclusive, and it clocked up 5042 mentions.

Dawkins goes on to provide scores for a few other recently coined words and phrases: spin doctor (spin-doctor) gets 1412 mentions, dumbing down 3905, and so on. Dawkins then asserts (although I'm not sure how he arrived at his figures):

Of the 5042 mentions of memetic, more than 90 per cent make no mention of the origin of the word, which suggests that it does indeed meet the OED's criterion. And, as Susan Blackmore tells us the Oxford English Dictionary now does contain the following definition:

meme An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

Well, whoopy-do, 'meme' is in the OED, and it only took 22 years to get there. Now you'd think that the bloke who made up the word might have something to skite about, wouldn't you? Whoever he is, he's nearly up there with the egregious Stephen Potter (gamesmanship and one-upmanship), Lewis Carroll (chortle, and possibly one or two others), George Orwell (doublethink and, possibly, ungood and doubleplus ungood) and the legendary Dubliner who won a pub bet by getting quiz into the English language within the space of 24 hours. Can you guess who it was?

There's no real need to, if you've already read Dennett & Hofstadter's The Mind's Eye or if you just carry on reading. Dawkins drops a final modest hint on p xvi of his foreword and Blackmore drags the shy originator rightout onto center stage on page 4:

The term 'meme' first appeared in 1976, in [drum roll] Richard Dawkin's [cymbal] best-selling book The Selfish Gene.

Yes, it was Richard all the time. I bet you never guessed. You have to admit it, he's such a clever boy. I'm not going to say that the rest of the book couldn't possibly be any sillier than want I've read of it so far (which is a little more than what I've written about here) because I strongly suspect that it will. Intellectual football anyone?

Afterword: Having finished O Pioneer on Sunday night, I can thoroughly reccommend it. Pohl is in fine satiric form throughout. As a bonus, he gives us a hero and heroine who actually develop through the course of the novel, rather than arriving fully formed in the first chapter, straight off the standard science fiction hard man and beautiful woman production lines.

Can Libertarians Do Yum-Cha?

"Doing yum-cha" is a pleasant way to spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in Melbourne. Or anywhere other city. Melbourne has plenty of Chinese restaurants that put on a good yum-cha, and it's a popular way to celebrate special occasions like birthdays, wedding and divorce anniversaries, send-off lunches and those secret, after the event, "they finally sacked our bastard manager" parties.

A few words of explanation might be in order for anyone who's never been to a yum-cha. What you get is a lot of free tea (now seems as good a time as any to slip in the obligatory reminder that literally translated yum-cha means "drink tea"; however more intoxicating beverages are usually available, for a price) and a lot of dim sum*.

We're not talking about those bloated fish-and-chip shop dimmies here either, we're talking about the real thing: pot-stickers, steamed pork buns and chicken buns, shark's fin dumplings, taro dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaves; too many to list at once. You don't order from the menu - the usual drill is that the waiters bring carts of bamboo steamer baskets past your table, tell you what they've got on offer and you say "One of everything, except for the chicken feet." For some reason, everything comes three to a basket, even the chicken feet. They must get them off those mutant three-legged chickens that turn up in supermarket freezers from time to time.

Each time you order something off the trolley, it gets marked up on the bill for your table. If you have the good sense to book for the one-thirty sitting, rather than the eleven-thirty sitting, you can easily stretch things out until at least four o'clock (the eleven-thirty people are the slightly pissed-off bunch being politely, but firmly, ushered out of the restaurant to make room for you when you arrive). There's plenty of time for ten people to knock off a good twenty to thirty steamer baskets. And still find room for a coconut jelly dessert.

The usual arrangement for paying the bill is that everybody covers their own drinks but the total cost of food is split equally over the whole table, with a decent round-up for the tip. It's this arrangement that I think would present difficulties for hard-line libertarians. It's fraught with all kinds of problems like those which create their aversion to high taxing, high intervention government.

Take the chicken's feet - I think very few non-Chinese readers would, so here we have a clear example of moral hazard (thanks to Martin Wisse for his succinct definition, in the comments here): if some brave soul at the table decides, what the hell, I'll give them a go, there's a risk that he won't like what he gets. And the cost of that risk has to be borne by the whole table.

On the other hand, the offcuts gourmet who orders a basket of chicken feet, two of which go uneaten, has just received a subsidy from everyone else and, to make matters worse, she's also squandered some of the table's financial resources on a pair of useless, and rather unsightly, bits of dead bird. A chicken's foot is unmistakably a chicken's foot - even cooked. To this pair of squeamish western eyes, the only part of a chicken that's any uglier is the parson's nose. Apparently there are people who consider this a choice morsel as well.

Moving on, there's the free rider problem. Most of the carts come with steamer baskets at two prices: the cheap stuff, like fried turnip cake, steamed pork noodle, chinese sausage, black bean beef, steamed pork and chicken buns, pork dim sum, steamed greens, sticky rice and, of course, the chicken feet. Then there's the pricier stuff: crab claws, shark-fin dumplings, prawn and seafood dumplings, prawn noodle, prawn cakes, sesame prawn toast, steamed prawns, taro dumplings, peking duck and often a house special or two (such as baby octopus, which goes down quite pleasantly with a dab of chilli sauce).

It isn't possible for everyone on the table to get one each apiece all round out of the pricier baskets. A rationally self-interested person might well decide that they're going to appropriate an extra share of the goodies, so long as they can get away with it. The only deterrent is the risk that if you're caught, it might be the last time your nominal host will invite you to yum-cha. That's collectivism at work; split the costs of a Sunday afternoon meal and someone's bound to rip you off. If the yum-cha hog is your nominal host, it's a clear case of collectivism equals theft. If I were one of those property-fixated libertarians, I'd be very suspicious of an invitation to Sunday afternoon yum-cha.

Finally, let's look at the problem of cost blow-outs. Bean-counting is generally frowned upon at a yum-cha, especially in the early stages, when everyone is eager to start tucking in. By the time someone has thought to do a quick reckoning on the tab, to check whether the imaginary community largesse will stand up to a couple more baskets, it's often too late: everyone's over budget. It's pure tragedy of the commons. Naturally, there's bound to be some shifty bugger at the table who'll try to talk everyone into a couple more anyway.

Usually this starts with a cunning remark that it's a pity that the turnip cake and sticky rice didn't turn up earlier. A turnip cake faction and a sticky rice faction will spring up and quickly combine to agitate, oh so very politely, for an order of turnip cake and sticky rice, if possible. And, because rational restraint effectively dissolves in a collectivist environment, the result is that everyone says, what the hell, we've already run over what we expected to spend, it's only going to be another buck each and let's keep an eye open for the dessert trolley while we're at it. This tactic hasn't failed me yet.

Of course, you've got Buckley's chance of making it work if you're hanging out for the chicken feet. You're only real hope is that they might turn up with the turnip cake and sticky rice. If they do, it's wiser not to order them - the turnip cake and sticky rice factions might get a little snarky** because the sight of you eating your preferred delicacy is putting them off eating theirs. And the dessert or coffee majority definitely won't want chicken feet around while they're tucking into their coconut jelly or slurping up their flat whites.

So, on the whole, it's very hard for me to imagine a die-hard libertarian being happy at a yum-cha. I think Mongolian barbecue would suit them better. The trick there, of course, is to know how to really pack your bowl. Otherwise, once you get it back from the chef, with everything cooked down to half its original volume, you'll discover it's half empty (or half full at best). This leaves you with two choices: stump up some readies for another bowl, or hope that someone with better Mongolian barbecue skills will finish up with some left-overs they're willing to part with. In other words, pay more or hang out for charity. Me, I'm sticking with yum-cha, chicken feet and all. By the way, did I mention the stuffed bean-curd? How could I possibly have missed the stuffed bean curd? Never mind, there might be a chance to get it in before ...

* Readers from outside Australia (I have some reason to think that I might have a few) may recognise that what we call a "yum-cha restaurant" here is a "dim sum restaurant" in most other parts of the world. I know that this is so in Hong-Kong - and the only way to get the staff to take you seriously enough to start bringing round the good stuff, is to pluck up your courage and order the chicken feet. At least one of you has to be seen eating one too. I admit, a little shame-facedly, that I wasn't that person.

** Another blogger told me recently that the word "snark", which I usually associate with Lewis Carroll, has now been appropriated to mean a peevish post on a blog (and I expect it's very likely to get extended to other written media as well). On this basis, I assume that the adjective "snarky" is a synonym for "peevish" or something similar. This is the one and only time I intend to use either of these words on my blog.

Whoever coined this usage obviously has a limited vocabulary: there are already plenty of perfectly good nouns and adjectives in the English language to describe nasty writing, and the world's most widely used but least popular word processing package has a handy little thesaurus feature which will provide suggestions if you need them. The word "snark" properly belongs to Lewis Carroll and has nothing to do with spite or malice. I admit that Carroll is dead, but there are a lot of Lewis Carroll fans out here who want the damn word put back where it belongs, thank you very much. And don't you go nicking our slithy toves, [mimsy] borogoves, mome raths, jub-jub birds, frumious bandersnatches, tum-tum trees or jabberwocks either. If you do, we'll set a boojum on you.

Update: thanks to mark for hunting down an on-line copy of The Hunting of The Snark, giving me the perfect excuse to update this post and fix up some wonky paragraphing at the same time.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Ken Parish wonders "Why is it easier to expose emotions and vulnerabilities to hundreds of strangers on a blog than to just one on a tram?" This is very personal. And sad.

Bumper Pretty Bloody Ordinary Monday Edition!

Thanks to a very productive weekend of off-line pseudo-blogging, I had three fairly good pieces to start off with this week. Thanks to a technical hitch with a recalcitrant 3.5" floppy, and a serious ufpuck by the standard disk repair and file recovery tool of the world's most commercially successful PC operating system, only one made it onto the hard-drive of the PC where I usually give posts a final polish before they go on the net. All that's left of the other two is interspersed with garbage from old files and long strings of ASCII null characters. With a little luck, and a better floppy disk, they ought to be available tomorrow. So Chris Sheil of Troppo Armadillo and the Babboon will just have to hang out another day to find out what the book was. The only post that is left in a fit state to put up today opens The Potemkin Museum of Antique Humour. The first section to open to the public is our English Humour collection, starting with some pre-Thatcherian items from The New Statesman. The collection includes items from earlier periods, which will be put on display over the next few weeks.

The idea for an on-line museum of "antique humour" came to me on Saturday: I was looking for a useful pretext to post on one or two books I have in my extensive humour collection (It includes both intentional and accidental humour: anyone who doesn't get a laugh from Sartre's immortal dicta "To touch slime is to be contaminated by the slimy," and "Slime is the agony of water," was probably wearing too much black in the late fifties). I couldn't find anything plausibly topical, so I had to come up with something else. You'll find that some of the material is quite dated: re-reading some of the books, I wonder what I found so amusing that I was willing to shell out $2.00 secondhand or $5.00 remaindered for them. Still, one or two pieces might stand up, dated though they are and, as for the rest, they might have cautionary value. Looking at the society and blogosphere around me, I'm leaning towards the view that a few people might benefit from a gentle reminder that nothing gets old anywhere near as quickly as bad humour.

The Potemkin Museum of Antique Humour

Various (England, Later Young Elizabethan Era): New Statesman "Comps"

Description: Over several decades, the English magazine New Statesman ran Weekend Competitions where readers were challenged to produce short literary works in a variety of styles, often on a contemporary political issues. At least four anthologies of winning "comps" entries have been published, in 1946, 1955, 1968 and 1979.

The following selection of winning entries is drawn from the 1979 anthology Never Rub Bottoms with a Porcupine! In his introduction to the anthology, Arthur Marshall notes the sort of problem of which bloggers currently conducting competitions of their own might need to note:

... There have, I regret to say, been occasions when the word limit has, unspotted by the adjudicator, been exceeded by an overexcited competitor and furious rivals have quite rightly written in to complain. Have the word exceeders, covered in shame and confusion, then nobly surrendered their prize money? Your guess is every bit as good as mine.

The 1965 anthology was Salome Dear, Not in the Fridge! I have no idea what the titles of the two previous anthologies were.

Each entry (or set of entries) is preceded by the page title from the book and a short description of the competition that produced it. With one significant exception, the entries on display were selected either because they're "timeless" (without any intent to imply that they are classics) or because I think they have some relevance, however tenuous, to current events. I don't think the exception will be too hard to spot.


Never Rub Bottoms with a Porcupine!
A few proverbs and aphorisms which either state the bleeding obvious or are just fatuous.

If there's no lead in your pencil you don't need a rubber. J. A. Smith

Tomorrow is what today was yesterday. R. Armstrong

A bald man does not fear grey hair. T. Griffiths

A bird in a taxi's worth two in a bus. G. R. MacFarlane

All: 1969

A Just Not So Story
Competitors were asked for inside stories exposing the myth of the Black and Tans or the Slave Trade. Here's one on the latter.

Interviewed today, Mrs Hagar Ffoulkes of Takoradi said: 'The British Hulk Trading Association are doing a grand job. My husband, family of foour and myself have all been placed in holiday homes. No, we don't pay a penny. We live as family. Later, I believe, exchanges are to be arranged so that colonists out here can see out beautiful country. The children are about twenty miles away on another plantation. It is the first holiday from the children that I have had since they were born. Of course I help out in the house. It is the least I can do in return for the hospitality I have received here. Yes, the iron collar is free, too ...
Eileen M. Haggitt, 1969

Hello World
Famous words of the newly-born.

OEDIPUS: I'll be back. Roger Woddis

JESUS: My father was never in these parts. Gerald Hinch

Both: 1969

Beyond Our Faculties
A new university course and its justification.

A Parisian countess, returning from Proust's funeral, encountered a friend who, on learning where she'd been, remarked 'Marcel Proust? Who's he?' Suddenly the countess records she felt 'une immense fatigue'. Your Faculty, having pondered many doctoral hundred doctoral theses with titles like 'The Tensile Heart: Patterns of Moral Equilibrium in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson' confesses to sensations of similar weariness. It has been decided therefore to scrap the existing ENGLIT course and substitute for it an anonymous happening. Anyone who wishes will be lent a selection of books that some people in the past have found meritorious and will be given a quiet, warm room (adequately stocked with alcohol, tobacco, coffee, etc.) in which to read them. There will be no lectures, seminars or tutorials, nor will there be any terminal examinations, gradings or assessments. The 'course' will have no objective, produce no result and will provide no marketable qualification whatsoever. Your Faculty has meanwhile awarded itself a well-earned sabbatical and will be engaged in literary research in Las Vegas.
Molly Fitton, 1969

Grave Matters
This competition asked for elegies to "contemporary bigwigs in the style of any notoriously good-bad poet".

For Mrs Thatcher, after Alfred Austin

Across the wires the message sped,
She is no better, actually she's dead.
Fair Leaderette! with Party cares o'erladen,
Supreme example of a self-made maiden,
A grocer's daughter, born in Grantham Lincs,
She got a Second in what some call 'Stinks',
But First in the affections of the Tories,
Secure in History she evermore is.
Though Number Ten she never dwelt inside,
Be sure the Pearly Gates will open wide
To welcome her in heav'nly twin set clad,
The best Prime Minister we never had.
Stanley J. Sharpless, 1975
[I don't know who Alfred Austin was either. Gummo]

'P' Means Relief Is Permitted
Helpful advice for tourists visiting the UK.

In Scotland, Gentlemen's lavatories are indicated by a picture of a man in a kilt. A. C. C. Brodie

London barbers are delighted to shave patrons' armpits. V. F. Corleone

Bus Conductors like to be paid in L5 and L10 notes as they hate carrying heavy coins up and down the stairs. C. Vita-Finzi

All: 1976