Category Archives: history

Francis Galton could be kind of a jerk

As here (from Hereditary Genius, p. 21)

Every tutor knows how difficult it is to drive abstract conceptions, even of the simplest kind, into the brains of most people—how feeble and hesitating is their mental grasp—how easily their brains are mazed—how incapable they are of precision and soundness of knowledge. It often occurs to persons familiar with some scientific subject to hear men and women of mediocre gifts relate to one another what they have picked up about it from some lecture—say at the Royal Institution, where they have sat for an hour listening with delighted attention to an admirably lucid account, illustrated by experiments of the most perfect and beautiful character, in all of which they expressed themselves intensely gratified and highly instructed. It is positively painful to hear what they say. Their recollections seem to be a mere chaos of mist and misapprehension, to which some sort of shape and organization has been given by the action of their own pure fancy, altogether alien to what the lecturer intended to convey. The average mental grasp even of what is called a well-educated audience, will be found to be ludicrously small when rigorously tested.


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Plagiarism, patchwriting, Perlstein

Some people are complaining about Rick Perlstein’s new book, claiming that some passages are plagiarized.  Most of my friends think this is nonsense.

Here’s a passage from Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution:

Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.

And from Perlstein:

The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.


Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane.  On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embranced him, and said, “Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!”  As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, “Well, I guess I’d better do it.”


When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the front row.  That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded.  One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  A woman threw her arms around him and said “Oh, Governor, you’ve got to run for president!” “Well,” he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, “I guess I’d better do it.”

The second passage is cited to Shirley, the first isn’t.  But I don’t think it matters!  You shouldn’t paraphrase someone else’s book sentence by sentence, even if you cite them.  If you’re going to say exactly what they said, you should quote them.

Is this plagiarism?  It is, at the very least, patchwriting:  “restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source.”  Mark Liberman at LanguageLog has a long, magisterial post about patchwriting in Perlstein’s book, pointing out some places where Shirley himself patchwrites from the New York Times.

I once came across a magazine article whose lede was patchwritten from an article of my own.  I talked to a few trusted friends about how to handle it.  Uniformly, they said:  it’s not nice, but it’s not plagiarism, and you shouldn’t accuse the other author of stealing your stuff.  In the end, I alerted the other author to the issue without accusing her, and she apologized, saying she’d done it in a hurry and didn’t realize it was so close.  Which is probably true.

So I guess it’s not plagiarism and Shirley is not going to win his $25 million lawsuit against Perlstein.  But I don’t really like it and I think when we do journalism we should strive to write our own stuff.

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Conservative commentators on education are mad about the new AP US History standards.

The group’s president, Peter Wood, called the framework politically biased. One of his many complaints is about immigration: “Where APUSH sees ‘new migrants’ supplying ‘the economy with an important labor force,’ others with equal justification see the rapid growth of a population that displaces native-born workers from low-wage jobs and who are also heavily dependent on public services and transfer payments.”

Here’s the full text of the relevant bullet point in the standards.

The new migrants affected U.S. culture in many ways and supplied the economy with an important labor force, but they also became the focus of intense political, economic, and cultural debates.

You can decide for yourself whether the standard sweeps under the rug the fact that many people wish there were fewer immigrants.  But shouldn’t Newsweek print the whole sentence, instead of letting its readers rely on selective quotes?  Why do I have to look this stuff up myself?

Grothendieck’s parents

From “Who is Alexander Grothendieck?  Anarchy, Mathematics, Spirituality, Solitude,” by Winfried Scharlau (trans. Melissa Schneps)

If one is to believe the account given in Eine Frau, Sascha saw Hanka’s photograph by chance, probably one of the photographs that still exist today, and immediately informed the dismayed husband: “I will take your wife away!”  A few days later Hanka appeared, still rather weak from her abortion — and it was love at first sight.”

Almost human intelligence

We do not expect our Presidents to be literary men and are correspondingly gratified when any of them shows signs of almost human intelligence in spheres outside of politics.

(Henry A. Beers, “Roosevelt as Man of Letters,” 1919.)

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Izabella Łaba, who grew up in Communist Poland, wrote a long, fascinating blog post about the lived realities of socialism:

If I were to name the most “socialist” things that I see or hear about on this side of the pond – “socialist” referring to the reality I’ve experienced, not to the latest myth du jour – Obamacare or “big government” would not be especially close to the top of the list. (If you recall, the problem with the “big government” in the Soviet bloc was a little bit more particular than it just being big.) On the other hand, big U.S. banks and other “too big to fail” entities are pretty good analogues of the coal and steel communist corporation. Pork barrel politics. I’ve mentioned Wall Street already. Academic politics, in so many ways that it just hurts to think about it. But also bureaucrats and politicians who try to micromanage academic research they don’t understand and use arbitrary indicators of “usefulness” to evaluate it, much like communists instituted a set of “criteria” to control production.

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Yossef Zisman, 1832-1925


This is my great great great grandfather, Yossef Zisman, who lived in Corjeuti, in what is now Moldova.  He died at 92 when his cart overturned in the snow and he was crushed by his own horse.YossefZisman

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Novel World Series matchups

Next to the Yankees, the Cardinals, Dodgers, A’s, Tigers, and Red Sox are the teams with the most pennants, and all are still in the playoffs.  So you might think we’re very likely to see a World Series matchup we’ve seen before.  If the Cardinals win the pennant, that’s true:  they went up against the A’s in 1930 and 1931, the Tigers in 1934, 1968, and 2006, and the Red Sox in 1946, 1967, 2004.

But the Dodgers have never faced the Tigers or the Red Sox in the World Series.  Basically, they won lots of pennants but just played the Yankees again and again.

I’m still holding out hope for the Pirates to take the National League pennant.  If they do, they’ve got a chance to get revenge for their loss in the very first World Series, in 1903, 5 games to 3 to the team then known as the Boston Americans, now called the Red Sox.


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Adam Smith on mathematicians and poets

I got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes back!

The beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary. The one establishes, the other shakes, the good opinion which he is anxious to entertain concerning his own performances. Experience and success may in time give him a little more confidence in his own judgment. He is at all times, however, liable to be most severely mortified by the unfavourable judgments of the public. Racine was so disgusted by the indifferent success of his Phaedra, the finest tragedy, perhaps, that is extant in any language, that, though in the vigour of his life, and at the height of his abilities, he resolved to write no more for the stage. That great poet used frequently to tell his son, that the most paltry and impertinent criticism had always given him more pain, than the highest and justest eulogy had ever given him pleasure. The extreme sensibility of Voltaire to the slightest censure of the same kind is well known to every body. The Dunciad of Mr Pope is an everlasting monument of how much the most correct, as well as the most elegant and harmonious of all the English poets, had been hurt by the criticisms of the lowest and most contemptible authors. Gray (who joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and to whom nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more) is said to have been so much hurt, by a foolish and impertinent parody of two of his finest odes, that he never afterwards attempted any considerable work. Those men of letters who value themselves upon what is called fine writing in prose, approach somewhat to the sensibility of poets.

Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.

Now that the public reads no more poetry than it does mathematics, have the moral habits of poets and mathematicians converged?

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Baseball players and Brooklyn hipsters

My mom got me the excellent Baseball in the Garden of Eden, by John Thorn, whose book The Hidden Game of Baseball I studied obsessively in the pre-sabermetric days of my youth.  The new book aims to clear out some of the mythic fog surrounding the history of the game — which means taking a clear-eyed look at urban America in the 1840s and 50s, something we learn almost nothing about in school.

Here’s a small insight I drew from the book.  You know how we make fun of young hipster dudes in Brooklyn who form leagues to play kickball, because it seems such a dopey affectation for adults to play a kids’ game and drink beer while they do it?  Well, the early history of organized baseball is more or less exactly the same.  Thorn shows persuasively that baseball (and its relatives, like “round ball” and “old cat”) were popular children’s games, which no more had an inventor than do Capture the Flag or Kick the Can.  The innovation was for adults to play the game in organized leagues, to drink beer, to bet on the outcome, and to charge admission.

Also, I was surprised to learn that the use of the word “plugging” to describe hitting a runner with a thrown ball was already prevalent in the 19th century.  My idiolect somewhat favors “pegging” over “plugging” for this, but both make sense to me.


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