Wednesday, April 30, 2008

If we took a holiday ...

It's interesting that the shameful pandering that is the gas tax holiday is being acknowledged as such by the establishment press; I can't remember such a broad consensus in the punditocracy about charges like that. Is that because Obama resistance to that pandering is such a rarity? If  there weren't that contrast I'm not sure the establishment press would approach the story in that way; they might take it as a face value policy decision, as they do many other sorts of pandering. Notice that in most areas such anti-pandering would be heresy, insofar as pandering usually has something to do with national pride ("how dare you say American foreign policy had something to do with 9/11!"). On the other hand, the Republicans routinely get away with the most gratuitous pander of all, and a shell game to boot, tax cuts. If Obama can do to tax cuts in general what he's doing the gas tax holiday, when may finally be seeing a Democrat who has the courage and know-how to successfully fight instead of tucking tail and parroting the Republicans in political fear (on the Iraq war, economic policy, etc.).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Poetry Friday: Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

Richard Wilbur published his first poem when he was 8 years old. He went on to translate Moliere and Racine, write lyrics musicals, win the Pulitzer Prize, and become the U.S. Poet Laureate. If you've never been inspired by laundry, now's your chance.

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World

by Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,

And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul

Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple

As false dawn.

Outside the open window

The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,

Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.

Now they are rising together in calm swells

Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear

With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying

The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving

And staying like white water; and now of a sudden

They swoon down into so rapt a quiet

That nobody seems to be there.

The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,

From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,

And cries,

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,

Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam

And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges

With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,

The soul descends once more in bitter love

To accept the waking body, saying now

In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;

Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;

Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,

And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating

Of dark habits,

keeping their difficult balance.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

Poetry Friday: Philip Larkin's "Aubade" - "I work all day, and get half drunk at night"

In the Middle Ages minstrels sometimes sang Aubades, or songs about lovers parting at dawn. This theme was revived by metaphysical poets like John Donne. In "The Sun Rising," he rails against the sun for its interruption of lovers.

In "Aubade," Philip Larkin replaces one lover with death, and speaks of night not as romantic cover but as an encounter with "what is really always there," mortality. The parting lover becomes the parting of this consciousness of mortality in exchange for the glare of distractions from it -- socializing, work, religion, drink. "I work all day, and get half drunk at night."


Philip Larkin

<!-- Aubade Philip Larkin poem -->I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
-- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused -- nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel
, not seeing
That this is what we fear -- no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Monday, April 7, 2008

We are All Descendants of Muhammed, Charlemagne, etc.

And like Barack Obama, we are all cousins of Dick Cheney.

A little research that once ended my genealogical ambitions to find someone famous in my family:
Under the conditions laid out in his paper, the most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang's model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today.

This constant churning of people makes it possible to apply Chang's analysis to the world as a whole. For example, almost everyone in the New World must be descended from English royalty—even people of predominantly African or Native American ancestry, because of the long history of intermarriage in the Americas. Similarly, everyone of European ancestry must descend from Muhammad. The line of descent for which records exist is through the daughter of the Emir of Seville, who is reported to have converted from Islam to Catholicism in about 1200. But many other, unrecorded descents must also exist.
The staggering number of ancestors each of us has (for example, perhaps 200 million of them in 1300 AD) also means that your ancestry is probably more diverse than you think. Somewhere among those 200 million people who were your ancestors in 1300, there are probably some folks who came from places you wouldn't think likely, or who were members of ethnic groups that would surprise you. You'll never know who all those 200 million people were, but they can be abundant fuel for your imagination. (PDF)
If a common ancestor of all living humans is defined as an individual who is a genealogical ancestor of all present-day people, the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for a randomly mating population would have lived in the very recent past (ref). However, the random mating model ignores essential aspects of population substructure, such as the tendency of individuals to choose mates from the same social group, and the relative isolation of geographically separated groups.Here we show that recent common ancestors also emerge from two models incorporating substantial population substructure. One model, designed for simplicity and theoretical insight, yields explicit mathematical results through a probabilistic analysis. A more elaborate second model, designed to capture historical population dynamics in a more realistic way, is analysed computationally through Monte Carlo simulations. These analyses suggest that the genealogies of all living humans overlap in remarkable ways in the recent past. In particular, the MRCA of all present-day humans lived just a few thousand years ago in these models. Moreover, among all individuals living more than just a few thousand years earlier than the MRCA, each presentday human has exactly the same set of genealogical ancestors.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Poetry Friday: Crossing the Hellespont

A poem by me, available here.