The Laboratorium
May 2008

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Nothing but Olives

I’ve been in Israel for a workshop the last few days. The event wrapped up today around two, and I don’t fly out until tomorrow at midnight, so my plan had been to go to Jerusalem to see what the fuss is all about. Those of you who’ve been to Israel are now laughing uproariously at the naïveté of said plan, which involved getting to Jerusalem right as Shabbat begins and leaving right as it ends.

Which is how I found myself on one of the last buses out of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this afternoon, heading towards a hotel I’d reserved a room at this morning, after having convinced a friend to drive me down from Haifa. As the bus climbed up into the hills and the shadows got longer, I feel a real thrill of anticipation. This is a well-trodden pilgrimage; people reach the end of it and the intensity of the place simply overwhelms them. A bit of it, knocked loose over the ages, lodged in my head. It helped that I’ve made a longish journey here in stages, and that sundown’s deadline was approaching.

In my case, the arrival was anticlimactic. The central bus station is not exactly a relic site; I don’t go to the Old City until tomorrow. But still. I’m in Jerusalem.

Shabbat shalom.

First Attested Usage?

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, page 23:

Mick straightened, frowning at her. “Now that’s exactly what I mean. You’re running with the flash mob, now, but thinking like a trollop! …”

Emphasis added.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull I give it 4 stars

Harrison Ford is an old man. The new Indiana Jones movie works with this fact, rather than against it, and thereby succeeds. Indy has always been a little world-weary; his advancing age now lets him be suitably cranky. His students are no longer swooning over him, but at the same time his attachment to academe seems deeper than ever before. He’s reached that age when professors look around, see that their senior colleagues have all died or retired, and realize that they’re next. It gives the proceedings this time around an elegiac, slightly mournful tone, intermingled with the usual B-movie fun.

The script is generally smart (though the Ray Winstone character could easily have been written out entirely). The villains this time around are the Soviets, but there are also digs at Red Scare paranoia. The action set pieces are enjoyable without going on too long; the suspense set pieces are properly creepy. Karen Allen makes a good return appearance; Shia LaBeouf does not annoy. John Williams’s score is top-notch, and, no, that famous theme doesn’t wear out its welcome. All the Indiana Jones movies use it this much.

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps I give it 2 stars

Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity uses the problem of synchronizing two clocks as a jumping-off point. Peter Galison’s book has a clever thesis: Einstein’s insight was no bolt from the blue, but rather a clever new twist on an engineering problem that was everywhere at the turn of the century. Thus, Galison retells the history of clock synchronization—physical, telegraphic, electromagnetic—with special focus on the work of Henri Poincaré, who anticipated Einstein’s emphasis on the centrality of synchronization in understanding time, but couldn’t bring himself to give up the ether.

It’s a great concept, but the execution is lacking. Whoever had this copy before me heavily underlined the first chapter, but the annotations peter out after that. I can understand why. The writing suffers from Devil in the White City syndrome: excessive dramatization of matters that would have been more engaging if told straightforwardly. There are long set pieces—such as one on the 1884 International Meridian Conference, which fixed the Prime Meridian in Greenwich—that seem to have been written by transcribing and condensing (though not by enough) some set of archival documents. Worse, for someone seemingly obsessive about getting right the subtle distinctions in Einstein’s and Poincaré’s conceptions of time, Galison gives too short a shrift to the details of their actual writings. Just when you think you’ve got it, the authorial voice intrudes.

In the end, I unleashed my inner Tyler Cowen and put the book down, unfinished. I’ve got better uses for my time—like folding laundry.

Taxi Driver I give it 2 stars

1970s cinema, like the 1970s themselves, must have seemed like a better idea at the time. The movie seems to be trying to say something, but we’re not sure what. Good DeNiro, but he’s trapped in a ponderous, pointless film.

Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis

Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis so opposed Caius Iulius Cæsar that Cato tried to block Cæsar from the office of consul by forcing Cæsar to choose between running for consul and celebrating a triumph. Cæsar instead gave up the triumph, ran for consul, and won.

Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis so opposed Caius Iulius Cæsar that he filibustered Cæsar’s land reform bill in the senate. Cæsar instead took the bill directly to a referendum, and won.

Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis so opposed Caius Iulius Cæsar that he refused to allow Cæsar to enter Italy as a private citizen. Cæsar instead entered Italy with an army, started the Civil War, and won.

Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis so opposed Caius Iulius Cæsar that, once the African campaign against Cæsar had been lost, he committed suicide rather than allow Cæsar to pardon him.

One wonders whether the Cato Institute, named (albeit indirectly) for Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis, considers self-defeating inflexibility a virtue or a vice.

Caesar: Life of a Colossus I give it 5 stars

Adrian Goldworthy has written a spectacular biography of Caius Iulius Cæsar. Or, perhaps, I should say that Adrian Goldsworthy has written a spectacular history of the end of the Roman republic, wrapped around a biography of the enigmatic Cæsar. If Goldsworthy is right, the two of them—Cæsar and the republic—died simultaneously on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The genius of the book is that it is just enough a biography and just enough a history to make that case, convincingly.

On Goldsworthy’s version, the internal logic of the Roman republic was that of individual glory. A man of senatorial rank was encouraged from birth to strive for auctoritas, a blend of dignity and reputation that could be earned through military success, public service, or personal virtue. The more the better, and better still if one’s auctoritas exceeded that of one’s rivals. And in the centuries of Rome’s rise, auctoritas proved a strikingly successful ideology for yoking the elite’s personal ambitions to the service of the public. A man born to wealth could spend it on wine, women, slaves, and villas, but if he wished to earn the respect of his peers, there was nothing for it but to lead an army and smash Rome’s foes. (A bolder reviewer than I might draw a parallel to the ideology of wealth in the United States; he who builds the biggest business wins the greatest adulation. The greater good is thereby allegedly served.)

In times of war and external crisis, the ideology of auctoritas has obvious benefits. Some men will win everlasting glory on the battlefield; others will die trying. The system ensures consistent belligerence and unbelievable societal tenacity. Hannibal pounded Rome and its armies again and again; unlike any rational nation that would have long since sued for peace, the Romans simply kept fighting, and fighting, and fighting. Rome’s leaders competed bitterly with each other for office and command, it is true, but it was hard to begrudge a rival his triumph when his success kept the city secure.

All this changed in the years after 146 BC, when Rome burned Carthage to the ground, eliminating its only serious rival. Rome, like a college student pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper, was about to discover the dangers of catching a breather. Over-caffeinated and jittery, Rome had too much energy for its own good. It needed a little rest and some land reform. Instead, over the course of the next hundred years, it got gridlock, then violence, then gridlock, then violence, then gridlock and violence both at once, then Cæsar and more violence, then truly unbelievable gouts of violence, and finally the emperor Caius Iulius Cæsar Octavianus.

The basic problem was that various deep-seated issues—the grain supply, a plague of pirates, an astronomically iffy calendar, unequal citizenship for Rome’s various vassals, and above all the misdistribution of land—had gone unaddressed for many years. The man who could fix them would do the republic a great service, and thereby win great auctoritas. Too great for his fellows, in fact. That glory could be theirs if they did it themselves, but better that no one do it than that a rival claim the honor for himself.

Where the pipes are clogged, however, pressure grows. And as the demands for reform grew louder, the men who stepped up to answer them grew bolder. In 133 BC, the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was the first. In the cause of land reform, he precipitated what we would today call a “constitutional crisis,” bypassing the senate and overruling a fellow tribune. Then, as now, one must be careful in angering powerful men. For his troubles, a group of senators clubbed him to death with a chair leg and threw his body in the Tiber.
In 122 BC, his brother Caius tried a similar reform program and met a similar fate.

For much of the next century, a succession of larger-than-life men had their moment in the sun. Some, like Caius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, achieved military success, became undisputed first man in Rome, tinkered a bit with reform, and then faced the tricky challenge faced by all dictators everywhere of how to give up power without being immediately killed. Others, like Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Lucius Sergius Catilina, concluded that the path to power and glory lay in fomenting rebellion among Rome’s second-class citizens. Civil wars, electoral malfeasance, secret plots, political murder, and private armies were regular features of Roman life.

The increasingly belligerent tint to Roman politics had all sorts of destabilizing effects. It made politics a higher-stakes game; defeated men frequently believe they faced a choice between resorting to the sword and being put to it. It made them even more determined not to see rivals succeed, since any man who rose high enough was a potential military dictator. It made almost any political decision subject to retroactive veto via brawl. And it made Rome’s leading mean extremely determined never to let themselves be put in positions of vulnerability.

The point, Goldsworthy suggests (if he does not directly say), is that Cæsar was the man who broke the logjam. During the year of his consulship—59 BC—he managed to push land reform through the senate, and to survive. In part, this was due to the help of his patrons and co-triumvirs, Cnæus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, but it was also due to his great charisma, force of will, and creative genius.

From then on, Cæsar knew that his political future (and perhaps his life) depended on never being at the mercy of the normal political system again. His Gallic campaigns, famous as they are, were also a convenient way of ensuring his own safety: away from Rome’s political cesspool, at the head of a very large army. When he crossed the Rubicon with his army to return (among the fascinating details Goldsworthy provides is that to this day we do not know exactly which river the Romans called the “Rubicon”), it was because his political foes would not provide him safe passage and immunity from prosecution (for his perhaps somewhat irregular land-reform legislation). Of course, for the various reasons aforementioned, they were as much afraid of him as he was of them. Rome’s reserves of trust had simply been depleted.

Goldsworthy treats us to a fine narration of Cæsar’s campaigns, first against the Gauls and then against other Romans. It’s military history for an audience not obsessed with military history. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar is not an unequalled genius; he is an outstanding leader of men, a remarkably fast mover, and a competent tactician whose talent consists in making fewer mistakes than his enemies. At the end of it, he is the last man with an army standing, the unchallenged leader of Rome. And that was probably the best that Rome could hope for.

Goldsworthy doesn’t dwell on this point, at least not explicitly, but it is clear in his telling. Cæsar emerges as almost unique among his contemporaries in one striking way: he pardons his enemies. Any man could fight against him once, but would be pardoned on surrender. Only on the second time would Cæsar’s wrath descend. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar is saddened that Pompey is murdered and Cato self-murdered before he has a chance to deal with them leniently. He alone argues for mercy towards the Catilinarian conspirators. The contrast with his bloodthirsty predecessors, rivals, and successors is notable. Caius Iulius Cæsar may well have been the one great man in Rome of his generation willing and able to rule it benevolently and trustingly.

Too trustingly, in fact. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar surrounds himself with any man willing to throw his lot in with Cæsar. Marcus Antonius was a drunkard and a wastrel; Caius Cassius Longinus had commanded Pompey’s fleet against Cæsar. Goldsworthy tells us that with Cæsar now preeminent in Rome, the old desires for auctoritas were now to be definitively thwarted: any glory would have to be derivative of Cæsar’s own. So the force of that old republican ambition took one last, destructive turn. The conspirators surrounded Cæsar and stabbed him to death. They hoped to restore the republic, by which they meant restore the institutions that would let them acquire auctoritas. They seemed all but oblivious to the fact that Cæsar as leader was repairing those (badly-damaged) institutions that actually gave Romans a functional, benevolent government. Their daggers killed the republic; Augustus would fill the chaos they created with a very different sort of polity, one that had much less use for the dangerous currents of old-fashioned auctoritas.

Some more ought to be said about the literary virtues of this biography, which are many. Goldsworthy writes as Cæsar does: clearly, effectively, without needless complexity or affectation. He interleaves biography and context effortlessly; each digression is placed exactly where it ought to occur. The names, always a challenge when writing about the name-recycling Romans, are neither too many nor too few. The cast of characters is large, but never unmanageable. And Goldsworthy has an eye for the telling detail and the memorable anecdote.

The account has a villain, and perhaps a surprising one. It is not Pompey or Vercingetorix: they appear as worthy, if nonetheless inferior, adversaries. Nor are the assassins villainous; their motives are probed, their humanity made clear. His Cæsar is certainly not a villain. No, the true fiend in this tale is Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis. Though some today celebrate Cato’s conservatism and personal virtue, Cato, as Goldsworthy depicts him, was an implacable, bigoted, priggish force of destruction. A less rigid man might have compromised a little and thereby saved his causes; instead, Cato’s intransigence led him to take indefensible stands and to force confrontations. Cæsar, being Cæsar, in the end won every outright clash between the two; Cato’s irrational hatred of Cæsar wound up creating the very colossus he sought to destroy. Goldsworthy’s Cato fetishized goodness, but his deeds were not good.

The account also has a hero, again not Cæsar. (This is a warts-and-all biography, in the scholarly fashion, which means a careful discussion of why Plutarch but not Sallust mentions a particular wart). No, the real hero of this book is Marcus Tullius Cicero. History is written, not by the victors, but by those whose letters survive. And this is why Cicero seems inevitably to be the most interesting man on the stage, the one you’d like to have over to your house. By turns, the great orator is cowardly, indecisive, pragmatic, benevolent, sarcastic, foresighted, ambitious, pompous, heroic, and hilarious. He worries about his reputation six centuries hence, cracks puns, tries to broker compromises between enemies, hurls invective at his own. Cicero refers to Antony as “vomiting his words in the usual way”; he says that Cato’s resolutions “are more fitting for Plato’s ideal Republic than the cess-pits of Romulus.” It’s through Cicero’s eyes that we have our best window on Cæsar’s life, and that’s because Cicero himself is the most strikingly modern, human figure of all the Romans.

Caius Iulius Cæsar towered above his contemporaries. This biography does the same.

Shorter Atlantic Magazine

Professor X, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower:

My students don’t learn anything in my classes. It’s their fault. Or maybe society’s, for insisting that college is for everyone. But definitely not mine.

Excellent Spam

I just received a message from “Ordaz Waffle” with the subject line “eleemosynary subset.” I must have the best spam filter in the world; it lets through only amusing spam.

Why I Love the Romans

Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, page 148:

In spite of his obvious guilt, Clodius was acquitted after he and his friends mounted a concerted campaign of intimidation and bribery. For the final session, the jurors requested and were granted guards for their protection. When they voted thirty-one to twenty-five for acquittal, it prompted the scornful Catulus to say, “Why did you ask us for a guard? Were you afraid of being robbed?”

The Same Guy

Open Access Guy Peter Suber is also Knot Guy Peter Suber is also Nomic Guy Peter Suber is also Philosophy Guy Peter Suber.

Overheard in the Elevator

“I’ve been promoted to CSI: street crime investigator.”

Street Fight I give it 4 stars

All politicians are crazy. No sane person would throw themselves whole-heartedly into a campaign. But some politicians are good crazy and some are bad crazy. This film shows the difference.

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt I give it 2 stars

Notwithstanding the glowing reviews on Amazon and MetaFilter, this book is drier than a desiccated mummy. One yawn-inducingly dense essay follows another, never saying much. It doesn’t work as history, as anthropology, as archaeology, as religion, and certainly not as a story. Here, let me open it at random (page 270):

Both men also had large tomb chapels at Sheikh Abd-el-Qurna on the Theban west bank (TT 29 in the case of Amenemopet); indeed Sennefer had two tombs (TT 96 upper and lower) in order to accommodate several different female contemporaries, probably including wives and sisters. The elder daughter of Sennefer, Muttuy, shown on statutary and in the lower part of tomb TT 96, appears to have married a man called Kenamun who succeeded Sennefer as mayor of Thebes. This couple, Muttuy and Kenamun, were contemporaries of Amenhotep III and were interred in tomb TT 162.

Is it any wonder that I have no recollection whatsoever of reading this passage the first time through?

UPDATE: Aislinn pointed me to this pamphlet on mummies from the Field Museum. At 18 pages of clear and informative text, it weighs in at somewhere around ten times as interesting on a per-page basis as the Oxford History.

The Carissa’s Wierd Genealogy Project

(For Miranda and her changed tastes.)


Carissa’s Wierd was active from the late 1990s until 2003. The constant core of the band consisted of Mat Brooke (vocals and guitar), Jenn Ghetto (vocals and guitar), and Sarah Standard (violin). Their most frequent drummer was Ben Bridwell; Jeff Hellis regularly played keyboards and accordion. Other performers listed on album or song credits include Gilden Tunador (keyboards), Robin Perringer (drums), Sera Cahoone (drums), Thomas Wright (tour drums), Sam Beam (backing vocals), and Creighton Barrett (tour drums?).


CW recorded three conventional-format studio albums: Ugly But Honest, You Should Be at Home Here, and Songs About Leaving. In support of a summer 2003 tour, they produced a rarities collection, sold at their concerts: Scrap Book, which includes ncludes four inspired new songs, and five covers, two remixes, and a demo, all uninspired. After returning to Seattle at the end of the tour and announcing plans to disband, they played a farewell show at the Crocodile Cafe in November 2003. Nine songs from that set, along with three further unreleased studio recordings, were assembled into I Before E.

Bootlegs, Singles, and Rarities

An unknown fan taped CW’s sow in Omaha during the 2003 tour. There are a few moments of feedback and some loud chatter, but the audio quality is generally good and the performances strong.

“You Should Be Hated Here” (from You Should Be At Home Here) was released as a 7”; the B-side was a cover of Morrisey’s “Suedehead.”

Other songs by CW kicking around on various compilations include a cover of Suede’s “Digging a Hole” a cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and an original(?) song entitled “Where Are You Now?.”

CW played a live four-song set on KEXP in 2002 and KEXP taped a live performance from the Capitol Hill Block Party in 2001.

Jenn and Mat performed as guest artists on a rem-mix of The Six Parts Seven’s “On Marriage.”

YouTube has live versions of “Sympathy Bush” and “One Night Stand” (Jenn and Mat), plus the otherwise unavailable “Winter in Sea.”

Other Projects

Mat Brooke and Ben Bridwell founded Band of Horses (originally just Horses), by far the most prominent band in the Carissa’s Wierd ecology. Their first album, Everything All the Time, has much a stronger rock sound than CW’s work. Band of Horses then relocated to South Carolina, minus Brooke. Their second album, Cease to Begin, shows essentially no traces of any CW influence.

Mat then founded another band, Grand Archives, which released the eponymous The Grand Archives in 2008. The band’s sound is hard to characterize, as it changes substantially from song to song. “Sleepdriving” could almost be a CW song; others, others, such as “The Crime Window,” and “Miniature Birds” seem to come out of an entirely different musical universe, one that has a horn section and major keys. Guest performers on individual songs include Jenn and Sarah.

While working with CW, Jenn Ghetto also pursued a solo project, S. Her 2001 album, Sadstyle, features the distinctly lo-fi self-recorded solo guitar/vocals aesthetic familiar from early CW songs like “Blankets Stare.” The lyrics are confrontational and confessional; the overall effect is harsh, intimate, and sometimes affecting. Her second album as S, Puking and Crying, goes even further into electronics and tape-effects territory.

Sera Cahoone, sometime drummer for CW, Band of Horses, and Grand Archives, has released two albums under her own name: Sera Cahoone and Only as the Day Is Long. They’re both warm, quiet, and soothing, featuring a small acoustic ensemble with a slightly country twang.

In addition to supporting guest work for Sera Cahoone and Grand Archives, Sarah Standard has performed for the electronica group Plan B.

Hurt Journalism

Shorter New York Times Magazine (Michael Sokolove, Hurt Girls):

Compared with the “normal” rate of injury for boys who play sports, girls who play sports get hurt a lot. Umm, I mean compared with the rate for boys who play sports other than football. Girls tear their A.C.L.s five times as often as boys. Ouch. Tear tear tear. Why are we letting girls play sports when they’ll regret it later?

The article also points out that studies have shown that doing specific warm-up exercises cuts the risk of A.C.L. tears between four and ten times—that is, to a rate somewhere possibly as low as half that for boys. But it proceeds to dismiss this possibility, because “It’s hard to fight for equal rights while also broadcasting alarm about injuries that might suggest women are too delicate to play certain games or to play them at a high level of intensity.”

Why, oh, why can’t I have a New York Times that doesn’t make me want to throw the magazine section against the wall every time it writes about sex, gender, or feminism?

Possible Sequels

  • Grand Theft Autobot
  • Grand Theft Autoclave
  • Grand Theft Autonomous Region
  • Grand Theft Otter
  • Grand Theft Autoharp
  • Grand Theft Auteur
  • Grand Theft Audubon
  • Grand Theft Tugboat
  • Grand Theft Oxbow

Call for Freedom and Privacy

I’ve just looked over the program for this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. This’ll be the first one I’ve gone t. For a long time, I thought of it as a place where epic things happened, something I might someday aspire to attend. So when Frank asked me to be on a panel proposal he was putting together, I thought, “That sounds like fun, but I’m not even worthy to attend CFP yet.”Well, long story short, we’re on the program, so I’m going, and it’s a bit of a rush.

In addition to our own panel — Rights & Responsibilities for Software Programs?, the program looks great. Among the highlights: