# Here be (mathematical) dragons

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Monsters lurk in the artificial paradises that mathematicians construct for themselves, swimming, slouching and fluttering into view from the corners of the imagination. These strange beasts – odd constructions or unexpected consequences of axioms – trouble the mathematical mind and threaten to expel the mathematician into chaos. By embodying the limits and the peculiarities of the concepts we use they force us to clarify, to draw distinctions where none had been drawn before, and to interrogate which objects we may meaningfully speak of and which properties we can assume. They also serve as a fascinating and wondrous gallery of the oddities of the mathematical universe, reflecting elegant and treacherous subtleties in their construction. Many mathematicians collect menageries of counterexamples and unusual cases, much as a naturalist might display upon returning from some distant continent.

A number of these emerge from the delicate structure of the number line, and the ideas of infinity and continuity that follow. One of the first and best-known is the square root of 2, along with the (probably apocryphal) story of the trouble it caused the Pythagoreans. Unlike most of the numbers we normally encounter, the square root of 2 cannot be written as a fraction (the ratio of two integers – what a mathematician would call a rational number)1. Allegedly the Pythagoreans, driven by their number mysticism and belief in a cosmos governed by whole numbers and their ratios, tried to keep this discovery a secret, going so far as to execute a member for revealing it to the outside world.

In fact, the situation is much worse. Not just most, but effectively all of the real numbers (the numbers on the number line; the numbers that can be written with possibly infinite decimal expansions) cannot be written as fractions. The numbers that we deal with everyday, numbers like ½, ¼, 5 and so on, are an infinitely small proportion of the total, lost in a host of numbers that we never dream of. This realization is the entry into the strangeness that is the real number line, and is a glimpse at the long attempt to grapple with and understand infinity and continuity.

# Monday Poem

Expect nothing and nothing
will come bearing something
—sure thing

Sure Thing

This is how the world began:
expecting nothing

but see how something
(a blazing ball
caroming off the tip of Kepler’s cue)
breaks the horizon
trailing a passionate veil of crimson light
which sets the sea afire with fierce luminescence
and me with fierce delight

this is how it is:
the earth, without expectation,
became a seething knot of azurite,
its nourishing greens and blues
spun from the cornucopia of nada
as if nothing’s empty store
were a well of even more

this is how it was:
I sat upon a diner stool
elbows on the countertop
like the legs of that Colossus
astride the harbor door of Rhodes
scanning the sea for future ghosts
and you came with carafe and side of toast

and nothing—
nothing expected could compare
and chestnut hair

by Jim Culleny,
12/31/11

# A Tiny Dying Such as This – Is There an Ongoing Mini Mass Extinction of Soil Invertebrates in the Midwest?

by Liam Heneghan

A short note in which I conjecture on a potentially vast local extinction event of Midwestern soil organisms especially of those inhabiting the leaf litter of woodlands.

In our evolutionary progression humans scrambled from the leafy treetops about half way down the length of the trunk. We now live perched between treetop and root ball on that convenient platform we call the soil. If physicists can give themselves vertiginous shivers by imagining those empty atomic spaces that constitute the seeming sturdiness of ordinary things then it is surprising that soil ecologists ever leave their homes knowing as they do how vastly crenulated, fissured, fractured and porous is the soil.

Ours is the exceptional ecological enterprise since more organisms live in the soil in those porous and interstitial lodgings than on the soil. We are not directly equipped for flight, we rarely burrow, we are condemned to walk upon the dirt until at last we may complete our descent into the ground, toppling into that large furrow excavated for our remains. A soil pore will have us after all.

If we had been just a little smaller and had migrated just a little further down the length of that primordial tree we’d be living in one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically active compartments of the biosphere. The upper ten centimeters or so of soil teems with living things. The organisms living in Earth’s thin and hyperactive rind are phylogenetically diverse, trophically heterogeneous, functionally assorted, highly variable in size, dissimilar in longevity, variegated in morphology, behaviorally divergent, adapted to different soil horizons, disparately pigmented, but are united in their reliance on death. Specifically, soil organisms are all similar in that they feed on detritus (i.e., dead organic matter). As I discussed in a recent column, collectively the action of these organisms within detrital-based food webs results in the breakdown of dead organic matter and the mineralization of organic compounds that makes key nutrient available to the living.

# The Pluralism Test

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The commentary stimulated by our November post helps to confirm our view that pluralism is a paradigmatic halo term. Many of the respondents clearly want to claim the term for their favored purposes; but the details concerning the term’s meaning are as yet uncertain. Of course, most philosophical terms admit of multiple interpretations; looseness is inevitable, as often the issues are the meanings of the terms in use. Yet we should aspire to as much precision as is possible. Resting with multiple well-defined yet conflicting conceptions of pluralism is preferable to the current state of affairs, which is less loose than mushy. Our aim is to suggest at a very general level what pluralism is by articulating some simple prerequisites for clarifying the term.

There are two criteria that can be employed in our task. The first would be applicable to any proposed philosophical term. It has two components. First, if pluralism is the name of any view at all, it had better be possible to identify some definite philosophical claims that are distinctive of the view. This is not to say that pluralism must be understood to name some single, monolithic position. Pluralism can be a philosophically distinctive position, and yet be a view which admits of different varieties.

Sometimes it is helpful when characterizing a philosophical position to identify what those who adopt it are united in rejecting. So we may state the first component of the first criterion in the following way. Whatever pluralism is, it had better be a view that is opposed to some other identifiable philosophical position. To put the point slightly more strongly, whatever pluralism is, it had better be a position that thoughtful people could reject. A view that only the insane, thoughtless, deluded, and incompetent could reject is of little philosophical significance. If pluralism is a view worth talking about, it is a view that both says something distinctive and is philosophically debatable.

# perceptions

Tara Tucker. This Year's Prom Queen. 2007.

Graphite on paper.

Do check out more of her wildly imaginative and incredibly executed drawings here and here.

# Perceptions of Freedom: Some Geographies of Urban Protest

There are only two kinds of freedom:
your freedom to do what you like, and
our freedom to determine what kind of a society we want to live in.

~Gerald Frug

One phenomenon that the Occupy Wall Street movement has crystallized in remarkable fashion is the unapologetic negotiation of the physical occupation of urban space. But before considering the context within which OWS has been operating, and what its successes and challenges may be, it is instructive to look into the deeper history of public space in New York. While some observers have examined how the spatial reality of the city, as presently constituted, influences the ability of its citizens to assemble and, implicitly, protest, I would submit that said spatial reality is really a symptom of not just physical geography, but also the landscape of legal precedents, political negotiations and accretions. This is an enormous – and enormously interesting – topic, so I will attempt to limit my remarks to the history of New York as seen through its street grid, its negotiation of what appear to be rights, and the intersection of political and commercial reality.

Thus it is a timely coincidence that 2011 marks the anniversary of the original “grid” plan, as conceived by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. Prior to its adoption by New York, street-grid planning had already had a long history – consider, among others, Francisco Pizarro’s original plan for Lima, Peru, conceived in the mid-16th century. The grid was seen by planners as an attractive alternative to the messy results of “organic” growth, that is, growth that lead to narrow alleys, winding streets and tortuous property claims. Such bottom-up density also made the broader provision of services difficult, and seemed to encourage the spread of disease and crime. Thus an authoritative master plan was the perfect means to sweep away the accumulated social and economic flotsam and jetsam that came with the decades of thousands of citizens scrapping and scraping for economic survival/prosperity over decades. (This tendency to overly treasure the act of tabula rasa continues to manifest itself today, most frequently as usually disastrous slum clearances in the cities of the developing world).

However, these same planners were confronted with a dilemma: by creating cleaner city layouts, the same designs that encourage mobility, commerce and interaction may, at the same time, encourage unwanted assembly, whereby citizens congregate in order to air grievances, hold strikes and generally foment the kind of unrest that might bring down a government. It is one thing to be all in favour of freedom of assembly or expression, but quite another to embody those rights within the built environment itself, no matter (or especially) what UNESCO might hold dear.

# The Humanists: Pedro Almodóvar’s The Flower of My Secret

by Colin Marshall

Pedro Almodóvar’s overarching project, spanning three decades and counting, makes the most sense to me as the redemption of the soap-operatic. I see it in his films’ bright colors; in their plots driven by the sturm und drang of love, death, and betrayal; and in their besieged women who balance a certain noble endurance with a hint of trashiness. (Over time, the noble endurance has taken the edge over the trashiness.) Watching the entire Almodóvar canon, my brain files each movie as one episode of a single, melodramatic story, albeit a complicated, ever-shifting one which begins in extremity and will surely end in relative mildness. While the filmmaker doesn’t encourage this way of thinking — characters from one film don’t seem acquainted with characters from the others, though my, what notes they’d have to compare — neither does he discourage it. Formal, thematic, visual, and even verbal echoes resonate across his pictures, and in The Flower of My Secret, a few of them crash right up against each other.

Almodóvar builds the film around Leocadia Macias, known to her public — and to her public, only — as romance novelist Amanda Gris. Frustrated by a emerging dissatisfaction with her literarily unchallenging racket, a military-strategist husband who’s grown both emotionally and geographically distant, and the unquenchable aphrodisiac side-effects of one of her medications, Leo lets Amanda Gris’ novels go bleak. Bleak in a way, in fact, that meets the standards of Pedro Almodóvar pictures, although Leo’s sensibility, as reflected in an article she anonymously publishes against Amanda Gris’ latest opus, may have permanently taken this turn toward the Almodóvarian. Her life then takes its own swerve in the same direction.

Man thievery, drug addiction, crime, attempted suicide, family squabbles, a retreat to the village, difficulties with the maid, sudden revelations of artistic potential: Almodóvar’s followers, among whom I count myself, have come to expect all these developments from him and more. This film delivers them without doubt or hesitation, but some smell in it a whiff of the bitterness of an auteur chafing against his reputation. “We have the materials here for a comedy, but not the willingness,” Roger Ebert writes, “and gradually the awful suspicion dawns that Almodóvar himself, like Leo, is tired of his success and despairs that his producers will ever let him do something ‘serious.’”

I would hesitate to declare any Almodóvar movie “serious,” just as I would hesitate to declare any Almodóvar movie “not serious.” Like soap operas, they first allow you to approach them as inconsequential fluff, and then they plunge their characters into an exaggerated drama whose stakes quickly become everything. A genuine soap still allows the discerning viewer the opportunity to write the thing off for its cheap, hazy look and the profusion of artifacts of its rushed production. Cutting crisply, designing with deliberate solidity, and cultivating a host of the classical cinematic qualities, Almodóvar offers no such escape hatch. If you can’t accept the story’s grave oscillations at the same time as the storyteller’s brazenness, aestheticism, and brazen aestheticism, you’ll have to reject his entire enterprise.

Hence my suspicions about whether Almodóvar truly feels pangs of regret over squandering his creative will in a league of ambition alongside soap operas and romance novels. Over and above breathing weight and body into the flimsy materials he shares with those forms, he introduces a kind of complexity they’ve rarely known. Extending almost involuntarily over decades and decades, the long-term continuity of soap operas and romance novels inevitably grows Byzantine: characters appear, locations shift, characters fall away, extended dream sequences reveal themselves, characters undergo resurrection. Almodóvar operates on a higher level. He can manipulate person, background, and layer of reality with the hardiest daily scriptwriter, but he performs an altogether more impressive craft with less tangible elements of narrative.

# Happy Birthday, Stephen Hawking

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

At the end of 1992 I was a finishing grad student, applying for postdocs. One of the places I applied was Cambridge, to Hawking’s group at DAMTP. There is a slight potential barrier for American students to travel to the UK for postdocs, so they like to get out ahead of things and offer jobs early. Unfortunately I was out of my office the day Hawking called to offer me a position. Fortunately, my future-Nobel-Laureate officemate was there, and he took the call. He explained that Stephen Hawking had called to offer me a job — I was thrilled about the offer, but understood “Hawking called” as metaphorical. But no, Brian later convinced me that it actually was Hawking on the other end of the line, which he described as a somewhat surreal experience. Of course after the initial introduction the phone gets handed over to someone else, but still.

Cambridge is one of the world’s best places to do theoretical physics, and I was sorely tempted, but I ended up going to MIT instead. Three years later, I went through the process again, as postdocs typically do. And again Cambridge offered me the job — and again, after a very tough decision, I said no, heading of the the ITP in Santa Barbara instead.

Up to this point I had never actually met Hawking in person, although I had been in the audience for one of his lectures. But every year he visits Caltech and Santa Barbara, so I finally got to be with him in the same place. The first time he visited he brought along a young grad student named Raphael Bousso, who has gone on to do quite well for himself in his own right. As a group of us went to lunch, I mentioned to Raphael that I had never said hi to Stephen in person, so I’d appreciate it if he would introduce us. But, I cautioned, I hope he wasn’t upset with me, because he had offered me a postdoc and I turned it down.

Raphael just laughed and said, “Don’t worry, there’s this one guy who he offered a postdoc to twice, and he turned it down both times!” So I had to explain that this guy was actually me. At which point Raphael ran up to Hawking, exclaiming “Stephen! Stephen, this is the guy — the one who turned down DAMTP for postdocs twice in a row!”

More here.

# On Neutrinos and Angels

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Tribune (Pakistan):

Speed of light issues have often moved sections of religious people in rather strange ways. Way back in 1973, as a young physics lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, I had been fascinated by the calculation done by the head of our department. Seeking the grand synthesis of science and faith, this pious gentleman — who left on his final journey last month — had published calculations that proved Heaven (jannat) was running away from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His reasoning centred around a particular verse of the Holy Quran that states worship on the night of Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Revelation) is equivalent to a thousand nights of ordinary worship. Indeed, if you input the factor of 1,000 into Einstein’s famous formula for time dilatation, this yields a number: one centimeter per second less than the speed of light!

These days the internet groans under the weight of claims that the Holy Quran had specified the speed of light 1400 years ago. Dr Mansour Hassab El Naby, said to be a physicist from Egypt, announces that according to his Quranic calculations, this speed is 299,792.5 kilometres per second. He even gives error bars! Another video gives a still more precise figure of 299792.458 km/sec. Given the unrestrained leaps of logic made by the authors, it is not surprising that they all arrive at more or less the same numbers.

Interested readers may also wish to visit an intricately-designed website that has clocked up over 750,000 visitors so far. Chockful of mathematical formulae, diagrams, and pictures, it starts from the premise that “angels are low density creatures” taking orders from a “Preserved Tablet” and says “the speed at which they commute to and from this Tablet turned out to be the known speed of light”. To enhance the visual impact, the website has a Java applet showing a white Caucasian scientist who moves his eyes up, down, and around in wondrous rapture. While doing so he sonorously pronounces — in what sounds like an Australian accent to me — that the extra space-time dimensions demanded by the physics of string theory are exactly those predicted in the Quran. The final conclusion: “Einstein’s theory of General Relativity proves the Quran right”.

# So, What is a “Temporal Cloak”, Anyway?

Over at Skulls in the Stars (for Jonathan H and via Zite):

This week, the experimental realization* of a “space-time cloak” or “temporal cloak” by researchers at Cornell University has made national news. This novel device differs from the “invisibility cloaks” discussed previously on this blog in that it hides temporal events, not spatial objects. Loosely speaking, this has also been referred to as a “history editor”. Naturally, the discussion of “cloaking” has again brought out references to “Harry Potter cloaks” and other dramatic imagery; the reality is much more mundane, but still fascinating — and an amazing achievement. Let’s take a look at what was done, what was not done — and why it’s quite cool!

First, let’s get rid of some misconceptions that the terminology naturally brings to mind. The terms “space-time cloak” and “history editor” make it sound like the device is ripping a hole in the fabric of space-time itself — like a time machine equipped with a big eraser! This is definitely not what is happening here! There is no manipulation of time itself, but rather a manipulation of a beam of light to hide something that the light would otherwise detect.

It is difficult to come up with a simple analogy to explain what is really going on, but let us imagine a beam of light as a long moving train of hanging curtains, as illustrated below:

We might imagine that these curtains are at an assembly line and have recently been dyed, and are still wet (I told you, analogies for this phenomenon are tough!). We want to pass objects from one side of the curtains to another, but any attempt to simply push an object between them will mess up the dye and leave a mark.

# Walter Benjamin on the 120th Anniversary of his Birth

Avner Shapira in Ha'aretz:

If 2012 is the year our world comes to an end, as doomsayers predict, that will provide additional employment for the angel of history, who observes the past and the wreckage of humanity as described by Walter Benjamin in his essay “On the Concept of History.” But if the world and its inhabitants continue to exist, they will be able to observe, next July 15, the 120th anniversary of Benjamin's birth. His influence has only been growing in recent decades, and his writings are increasingly the inspiration for discussion and reconsideration.

The growing corpus of works about Benjamin is about to be augmented with the publication, in January, of a comprehensive study, “Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait,” by Prof. Eli Friedlander (Harvard University Press ). Friedlander, head of the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University, discusses Benjamin's approaches to concepts such as history, mythology, language, beauty and truth. His aim is to tie together the threads of thought spun by the philosopher, who committed suicide in 1940.

# Rethinking the Growth Imperative

Kenneth Rogoff in Project Syndicate:

There is a certain absurdity to the obsession with maximizing long-term average income growth in perpetuity, to the neglect of other risks and considerations. Consider a simple thought experiment. Imagine that per capita national income (or some broader measure of welfare) is set to rise by 1% per year over the next couple of centuries. This is roughly the trend per capita growth rate in the advanced world in recent years. With annual income growth of 1%, a generation born 70 years from now will enjoy roughly double today’s average income. Over two centuries, income will grow eight-fold.

Now suppose that we lived in a much faster-growing economy, with per capita income rising at 2% annually. In that case, per capita income would double after only 35 years, and an eight-fold increase would take only a century.

Finally, ask yourself how much you really care if it takes 100, 200, or even 1,000 years for welfare to increase eight-fold. Wouldn’t it make more sense to worry about the long-term sustainability and durability of global growth? Wouldn’t it make more sense to worry whether conflict or global warming might produce a catastrophe that derails society for centuries or more?

# Will We be All Right in the End?

David Runciman in the LRB:

The recent Brussels summit to save the euro was a strange affair, and not just because of the quixotic behaviour of the British delegation. It was presided over by two politicians who were giving out a very mixed message. Nicolas Sarkozy told the world in the run-up to the meeting that this was the moment of truth not just for the currency but for the future of democracy. Europe only had a few days to save itself: ‘Never has Europe been in so much danger,’ he announced. Get this wrong and ‘there will be no second chance.’ It was salvation or the abyss. Angela Merkel wanted people to know that it was important not to be rushed; any solution would take time. ‘The European crisis will not be solved in one fell swoop,’ she declared. ‘It is a process and this process will take years.’ So which one was it: now or never, or wait and see?

Probably it was both. The two halves of ‘Merkozy’ were simply reflecting the way most of us feel about this crisis. We are in a split mind about it. The whole thing is simultaneously deeply threatening and somehow remote. The worst-case scenarios are so ghastly that it’s almost impossible to fathom what they would mean, but for that reason it’s equally hard to imagine mature democracies deciding to walk off a cliff. This is what gives the crisis its peculiar character. We know we are in trouble but we don’t know how much trouble, because we have an underlying suspicion that we will pull back from the edge, if only we could be clear about where the edge is. Democracies often look like they are in a total pickle, but they always get out of the mess in the end. Don’t they?

# The Myth of Japan’s Failure

Eamonn Fingleton over at the NYT's Sunday Review:

DESPITE some small signs of optimism about the United States economy, unemployment is still high, and the country seems stalled.

Time and again, Americans are told to look to Japan as a warning of what the country might become if the right path is not followed, although there is intense disagreement about what that path might be. Here, for instance, is how the CNN analyst David Gergen has described Japan: “It’s now a very demoralized country and it has really been set back.”

But that presentation of Japan is a myth. By many measures, the Japanese economy has done very well during the so-called lost decades, which started with a stock market crash in January 1990. By some of the most important measures, it has done a lot better than the United States.

Japan has succeeded in delivering an increasingly affluent lifestyle to its people despite the financial crash. In the fullness of time, it is likely that this era will be viewed as an outstanding success story.

How can the reality and the image be so different? And can the United States learn from Japan’s experience?

# John Brockman: the man who runs the world’s smartest website

Johan Naughton in The Guardian:

In cyberspace, Brockman is best known for Edge.org, a site he founded as a continuation of what he describes as “a failed art experiment” by his late friend, performance artist James Lee Byars. Byars believed, Brockman recalls, “that to arrive at a satisfactory plateau of knowledge it was pure folly to go to Widener Library at Harvard and read six million books. Instead, he planned to gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world in a room, lock them in and have them ask one another the questions they'd been asking themselves. The expected result – in theory – was to be a synthesis of all thought.” But it didn't work out that way. Byars did identify his 100 most brilliant minds and phoned each of them. The result: 70 hung up on him!

Byars died in 1997, but Brockman persisted with his idea, or at any rate with the notion that it might be possible to do something analogous using the internet. And so Edge.org was born as a kind of high-octane online salon with Brockman as its editor and host. He describes it as “a conversation. We look for people whose creative work has expanded our notion of who and what we are. We encourage work on the cutting edge of the culture and the investigation of ideas that have not been generally exposed.”As of now, the roll call of current and deceased members of the Edge salon runs to 660. They include many of the usual suspects (Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter and Stewart Brand, for example, plus Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, George Lakoff, Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Humphreycorrect and Richard Thaler, to name just a few.).

More here.

# Surprising Science

From Smithsonian:

6) Female elephants live in groups of about 15 animals, all related and led by a matriarch, usually the oldest in the group. She’ll decide where and when they move and rest, day to day and season to season.

7) Male elephants leave the matriarch groups between age 12 and 15. But they aren’t loners—they live in all-male groups. In dry times, these males will form a linear hierarchy that helps them avoid injuries that could result from competing for water.

8) Asian elephants don’t run. Running requires lifting all four feet at once, but elephants filmed in Thailand always kept at least two on the ground at all times.

9) An African elephant can detect seismic signals with sensory cells in its feet and also “hear” these deep-pitched sounds when ground vibrations travel from the animal’s front feet, up its leg and shoulder bones, and into its middle ear. By comparing the timing of signals received by each of its front feet, the elephant can determine the sound’s direction.

10) Like human toddlers, great apes, magpies and dolphins, elephants have passed the mirror test—they recognize themselves in a mirror.

More here.

# Sunday Poem

To an Iraqi Infant

do you know
are dry bones?
that her breasts
are bursting
with depleted uranium?

do you know
that the womb's window
overlooks
a confiscated land?

do you know
has no tomorrow?
is the ink
of new maps?

do you know
the slowness of her moments
into an elegy?
mourning you?

don't be shy!
the tears are dry
everyone's gone

come forward!
it's only a short way
don't be late
at its watch!

don't be afraid!
which ever way you want
like a flower
on top

come forward!
there are more every day
. . .
will play together

come on!
.

by Sinan Antoon
December 2002
Translated from the Iraqi by the poet

# Rethinking “Out of Africa”

Christopher Stringer in Edge:

At the moment, I'm looking again at the whole question of a recent African origin for modern humans—the leading idea over the last 20 years. This argues that we had a recent African origin, that we came out of Africa, and that we replaced all of the other human forms that were outside of Africa. But we're having to re-evaluate that now because genetic data suggest that the modern humans who came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago probably interbred with Neanderthals, first of all, and then some of them later on interbred with another group of people called the Denisovans, over in south eastern Asia. If this is so, then we are not purely of recent African origin. We're mostly of recent African origin, but there was contact with these other so-called species. We're having to re-evaluate the Out-of-Africa theory, and we're having to re-evaluate the species concepts we apply, because in one view of thinking, species should be self-contained units. They don't interbreed with other species. However, for me, the whole idea of Neanderthals as a different species is really a recognition of their separate evolutionary history—the fact that we can show that they evolved through time in a particular direction, distinct from modern humans, and they separated maybe 400,000 years ago from our lineage. And morphologically we can distinguish a relatively complete Neanderthal fossil from any recent human.

# Bipolar America

From The New York Times:

Thomas Frank is the thinking person’s Michael Moore. If Moore, the left-wing filmmaker, had Frank’s Ph.D. (in history from the University of Chicago), he might produce books like this one and Frank’s previous best seller, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” As you can tell from its ham-fisted title, “Pity the Billionaire” is not the world’s most subtle political critique. But subtlety isn’t everything. Frank’s best moments come when his contempt boils over and his inner grouch is released. This book is Frank’s interpretation of developments since “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” was published eight years ago. Frank’s thesis here is basically that the thesis of the old book has been confirmed. He will not persuade anybody who does not already buy the Tom Frank line. But those who do (as I do, more or less) will enjoy a very good time having their predispositions massaged.

Frank sometimes writes in an arch voice that seemed familiar when I first encountered it but that I couldn’t place. Then I read in his book-jacket bio that he writes for Harper’s Magazine, and I thought, “Zounds, Watson, the man may have Lapham’s Disease.” The symptoms of this malady, named after the longtime editor of Harper’s, Lewis H. Lapham (now of Lapham’s Quarterly), include an elevated, orotund, deeply ironic prose style that, in severe cases, reveals almost nothing about what the topic is or what the author wishes to say about it except for a general sense of superiority to everyone and everything around. Fortunately, Frank’s case is very mild. What he retains is a healthy refusal to be intimidated by charges of “elitism.” He’s not afraid to give his chapters titles like “Mimesis.” (I looked it up. It’s a good joke.) He says of some right-wing nut who enjoyed 15 seconds of YouTube fame that he possessed “an understanding of German history that bordered on complete fantasy.” His message to liberals is: Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t be so defensive! The other side (Republicans, financiers, business executives, billionaires) has most of the economic — and therefore political — power. Today’s conservatives wield reverse snobbery as a weapon, accusing liberals of sins like living on the East or West Coast. Frank mocks conservatives’ claims that they are victims of an all-powerful liberal establishment. He calls this “tearful weepy-woo.”

More here.