Thursday, February 19, 2004

My cold has migrated. I stopped constantly blowing my nose; now I'm just dealing with bouts of rattling coughs. I don't think it's bronchitis yet, and I'm trying to keep it that way. The sun was out today, so the trip to school would probably have been rather pleasant; still, I canceled meetings and worked from home today. I continued to drink enormous quantities of liquids: cold water, hot water with lime juice, mint tea, orange tea, osymanthus-flavored tea, and miso soup.

I did some work, but lacked the concentration to do anything substantial. I had a bad case of clear-ls syndrome, in which I suddenly realize that I've done nothing for five minutes but repeatedly clear the screen and list the contents of the current directory. My fingers know those command so well that they can perform them without any intervention from higher brain functions -- so if I quit thinking, they'll keep typing, just to stave off boredom. Of course, other tasks are nearly as automatic as clearing the screen: finding capitalization errors in a bibliography, for example, as I did yesterday evening. I might even find it easier to do such tasks when my wits are dulled; if I could muster my concentration, I'd probably find it annoying to spend it on such a picayune task.

I typically listen to the radio during the days I work from home, and today was no exception. I was particularly amused by Fresh Air today. The show featured an interview with a White House correspondent for the Washington Post, who spoke about what it is like to deal with the Bush administration; and an interview with the man who helped Bill Clinton make jokes for his speeches. Some of the things said by the correspondent in the first interview made me think about Bush's peculiar brand of cleverness. Garrison Keilor observed that Clinton speaks in complete paragraphs; in contrast, Bush seems to delight in devising malapropisms. But though Bush's unrehearsed public speech may be rough, he delivers prepared comments skillfully enough -- far more so than I would, were I in his shoes -- and I can only guess at what his private speech might be like. In any case, Bush is a successful politician: he has pushed through legislation that he wanted, and still he remains popular.

His geniality and political savvy aside, I dislike the reasons behind Bush's policies, even when I agree with his actions, or at least feel ambivalent toward them. I thought about that today when I listened to news about the report published today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in which the authors objected to the administration's policy of loading scientific review boards with administration supporters. On one of the radio programs that aired this morning, a panelist said: So what? Scientists disagree; why should we not choose the scientists who agree with our point of view? The panelist's comment reminded me of a point Barzun makes repeatedly in his essays: we apply the label of science to too many subjects in which there is precious little of the scientific method. It should not be an insult to state that a subject is not a science. Indeed, I do not regard most of computer science as a scientific discipline; rather, it is an engineering discipline. But somehow the meaning of the word science has blurred; we can say that someone has a skill down to a science and mean the skill is so practiced it is nearly automatic. Where is the sense of questioning, of hypothesis and experiment, in such a colloquial usage? In what sense does political science employ the scientific method? Scientists disagree, true, and debate over interpretation of the available data is an important part of the process. But scientific review panels should be chosen according to familiarity with the data; if our administration chooses instead based on political or religious position, it risks promoting the likes of Lyshenkoism.

In the evening, the music programming began. For half an hour I listened to a musician trained in the drum styles of the Indian subcontinent; for another half hour, I listened to jazz; and for another half hour, I listened to classical music. I appreciate music without lyrics, or songs in which the lyrics play a secondary role. The tune of Summer time is poetry enough even when unaccompanied by singing.