BEHIND THE CURTAIN: The alleged philosopher's flimflam and quest!

TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017

Part 3—Hero of his own gong-show:
Perhaps it's time to define the nature of Jim Holt's actual quest.

His quest is explained in the first two pages of his Ten Best Books of 2012 book, "Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story." His quest adopts this form:

Holt was raised Catholic in rural Virginia. He was told by the nuns and the monks that God created the world.

As "a callow and would-be rebellious high school student," he "began to develop an interest in existentialism" in the 1970s. He was bowled over by Heidegger's presentation of the question, or perhaps the pseudo-question, Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

The explanation Holt had received from the nuns no longer seemed to work. Almost forty years later, he set out on a quest to write a book to examine this deepest question.

Did God create the world, and was God "self-caused?" The nuns told us that story too; we memorized the correct answers as part of Catechism class. As Holt notes on his second page, "It is a story still believed by a vast majority of Americans."

For ourselves, we got talked out of that story in (we think) ninth grade. Full disclosure:

Like many people who cease to believe that story, we don't think that we the humans are likely to provide an alternate answer to Holt's question, at least not any time soon.

Physicists can take us back to the Big Bang, but it has proven rather hard to explain things much beyond that. And when "philosophers" enter the scrum, the foolishness really gets started, as Holt demonstrates, again and again, all through his ridiculous book.

We don't think the three-year old preschoolers up the street could build a ladder to Mars. We also don't think that a person like Holt has any real chance to answer the question which has dogged him, or so he claims, since he became a rebellious teen, Heidegger and Sartre in hand.
so he
Forty years later, Holt set out to see if he could answer that question, or at least so he pretended. The result was a plainly ridiculous book of a rather familiar kind, a book larded with silly self-dramatization and obvious manifest bull-roar.

In other words, the type of book the New York Times adores! In the next dew weeks, we'll be peeking behind the curtain in an attempt to come to terms with this state of affairs.

Credit where due! When Dwight Darner reviewed Holt's book for the Times, we thought we saw green shoots of scorn pushing up through the ground.

Still and all, Holt was a "made man" within the journalistic elite, and Garner is employed within that guild. Perhaps for that reason, he was willing to describe Holt's basic account of his quest without noting how silly and absurd this premise actually is:
GARNER (8/2/12): Mr. Holt’s book was inspired partly by Martin Amis, who suggested in an interview that humanity is, in terms of discovering the algebra of existence, “at least five Einsteins away.”

This comment lights more than a few synapses in Mr. Holt’s mind. “Could any of those Einsteins be around today?” he wonders. “It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.”

An excellent quest it mostly turns out to be.
It’s no spoiler to report that the author doesn’t return, like Ernest Hemingway with a marlin, with a unified theory of everything. “Why Does the World Exist?” is more about the nuances of the intellectual and moral hunt.
An excellent quest it (mostly) turns out to be? Scripted reviewer, please!

Holt does in fact describe that "quest" in his book's opening pages. As he does, we're introduced to the heroics which animate this ridiculous book—and we're asked to believe Holt has magic trombones for sale which basically play themselves.

For the record, Holt's book starts on page 3. The rumination shown below, concerning a search for the "algebra of being," arrives quite early on.

Trust us—nothing Holt writes before this passage helps us understand the term "algebra of being." The showy term is a type of flim-flam, of a type which litters this book:
HOLT (pages 10-11): How close are we to discovering such an algebra of being? The novelist Martin Amis was once asked by Bill Moyers in a television interview how he thought the universe might have popped into existence. “I'd say we're at least five Einsteins away from answering that question," Amis replied. His estimate seemed about right to me. But, I wondered, could any of those Einsteins be around today? It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.

So that is what I set out to do.
My quest to find the beginnings of an answer to the question Why is there something rather than nothing? has had many promising leads. Some failed to pan out.
So begins Holt's "quest." Let's note how silly this is.

For starters, why the Sam Hill would Bill Moyers have popped that question to Amis?

We don't have the slightest idea how to answer that question. That said, if you work off things like published transcripts, this is the actual Q-and-A which actually seems to have transpired back in 2006:
MOYERS (7/28/06): What brought you to this PEN festival of writers on faith and reason? Because you're not a believer?

AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
At least on that occasion, that's what Moyers actually asked. And that's what Amis said in reply.

That exchange occurred in 2006. Seven years later, the Moyers site was still linking to the transcript of that program, while posting the videotape of that specific exchange. To convince yourself, click here.

Holt, who's extremely light on sourcing, provides no source for the exchange he describes. We're prepared to consider the possibility that it never occurred, at least not in this part of the multiverse.

Whatever! Holt's presentation does supply the tiny gist of what Amis actually said. That said, what Amis actually said is this:

Amis said that he doesn't think that three-year-olds could build a ladder to Mars. He also doesn't think that we the humans have anything like the ability to answer the kinds of questions Holt pretends to explore in his flimflam-laden book.

Amis said we're "eight Einsteins away." That's what his statement meant.

To Holt, Amis' statement seems to suggest something different. He cut "eight Einsteins" down to five, then handed his readers a hero quest—a hero quest starring himself and driven by servings of flimflam.

Charlatan, please! Einstein (1879-1955) is popularly considered the greatest physicist since Newton. Newton was born in 1643. In short, an Einstein, in the sense Amis meant, comes along every 236 years.

(Full disclosure: When Amis said we're eight Einsteins away, he wasn't suggesting that the eight Einsteins would show up all at once.)

Holt says that he himself couldn't aspire to be one of these Einsteins, thereby lodging the idea that he maybe possibly could. But he imagines that he might be able to find as many as four such people just by flying around on somebody's dime and talking to people he's heard of.

Humblebragging skillfully, Holt imagines himself discovering as many as four new Einsteins, within just a couple of years! After finding these four people, Holt was further planning to "arrange them in the right order."

Holt assumed that book reviewers would ignore the absurdity of this idea. Quite correctly, he assumed they would respectfully describe his "quest" as if it made some sort of sense.

"So that is what I set out to do," our humble hero says. In the rest of his page 11, he proceeds to describe three of the "promising leads" which actually "failed to pan out."

But alas! Even when his leads fail to pan out, Holt skillfully humblebrags in the course of describing the failures. This incessant elevation-of-self is basic to this style of flam, which is widely observed in "cable news" and within the types of silly books the New York Times adores.

At any rate, our humble hero assigns himself a quest. He plans to jet around the world in search of maybe four Einsteins.

What isn't explained is why we should think that he would be able to spot a new Einstein even if he stumbled upon one. He didn't even provide a source for his nugget anecdote, which he seems to have misrepresented and which doesn't seem to make sense. But somehow, he's going to find a string of Einsteins as he flounces about in the finer cafes—with time out for talking about his dead dog, "the best part of the book."

Holt seemed to feel sure that the New York Times wouldn't notice small matters like these. That they wouldn't mention a basic fact—again and again and again and again, his utterly silly and ludicrous text makes no earthly sense.

Tomorrow: On to the text-in-itself

People Comey the God had no reason to fear!

TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017

People like Tomasky and Drum, along with Kornacki and Maddow:
Last weekend, Kevin Drum wrote a long post about James B. Comey which struck us as oddly illogical.

Did James B. Comey's behavior last year tip the election to Donald J. Trump? That is surely quite possible.

On the other hand, the election tipped to Trump by a narrow margin in three states. In such a situation, many factors can be said to have possibly tipped the election to Trump. Examples:

It may be that Clinton would have won if Comey hadn't behaved as he did. But it's also possible that Clinton would have won, in spite of Comey, had she run a better campaign in some way.

Beyond that, it may be that Clinton would have won in spite of Comey absent the Russian invasion. Especially in a narrow race, any number of different factors may have tipped the campaign.

For some reason, Drum seems determined to fix Comey as the "decisive" cause of November's outcome. Absent further explanation, that doesn't exactly make sense. Neither does Drum's claim that Clinton probably ran an average campaign, not a bad campaign.

In truth, there is no objective way to say who ran a "bad" campaign. Drum chose several subjective measures, then used them to say that Clinton's campaign wasn't all that bad.

In this, his nugget explanation, he correctly says that Clinton outperformed one predictive model. This leads him to suggest that Clinton's campaign just wasn't all that bad:
DRUM : [T]hat got me curious: how do Clinton and her campaign compare to past elections? There's no way to measure this directly, but you can get an idea by comparing actual election outcomes to the predictions of a good fundamental model. So I hauled out Alan Abramowitz's model, which has a good track record, and looked at how winning candidates performed compared to the baseline of what the model predicted for them.

[...]

According to this, Hillary Clinton did way better than any winning candidate of the past three decades, outperforming her baseline by 2.4 percent. Without the Comey effect, she would have outperformed her baseline by a truly epic amount.

Now, was this because she ran a good campaign, or because she had an unusually bad opponent? There's no way to tell, of course. Donald Trump was certainly a bad candidate, but then again, no one thinks that Dole or Gore or Kerry or McCain were terrific candidates either.

Bottom line: we don't have any way of knowing for sure, and this is an inherently subjective question. But the evidence of the Abramowitz model certainly doesn't suggest that Hillary Clinton ran an unusually poor campaign or that she was an unusually poor candidate. Maybe she was, but aside from cherry-picked anecdotes and free-floating Hillary animus, there's not really a lot to support this view.
Drum acknowledges that this is a subjective question. Still and all, we're semi-gobsmacked by what he says about Candidate Trump in that passage.

Drum notes that Clinton outperformed the (necessarily crude) Abramowitz predictive model. He acknowledges that this may have happened because Clinton had "an unusually bad opponent" in Candidate Trump.

He goes on to say that Donald J. Trump "was certainly a bad candidate." But he says that Kerry and Gore and McCain were no great shakes themselves.

People! In a wide array of (subjective) ways, Donald J. Trump was the most god-awful candidate in our political history! At several points, he engaged in such bizarre extended behavior that people debated the possibility that he was trying to lose.

Judged by a somewhat objective measure, he currently has the lowest approval ratings of anyone elected president in the past three million years. By a fairly wide margin.

It has widely been said that a President Clinton would have horrible approval ratings now too. But it's a simple matter of fact that President Trump stands much lower than any elected candidate in the history of poling. This suggests the possibility that he was an historically horrible candidate.

Let's get clear on the way this works. If Candidate A runs a truly awful campaign, Candidate B can run a bad campaign and still outperform predictions. Is that what Candidate Clinton did? We don't see any real point in trying to figure that out.

We do see an unpleasant point in thinking about the Comey matter. Yesterday, Michael Tomasky wrote a piece about Comey's lack of fear of Democrats when he began his interventions last July. Drum links to, and agrees with, Tomasky here.

Comey staged the first of his intervention on July 5, 2016. Aside from Democrats, we can think of other people he had no need to fear when he made this fateful decision. They have names like Tomasky and Drum—and like Kornacki and Maddow.

A basic pattern has been acted out here, especially in Tomasky's piece and Drum's reaction to it. More of this misery tomorrow, with links to the silent past of our liberal intellectual leaders.

When Comey started down that road last July, Barney Fife would have known to nip it in the bud! Following Tomasky's line of reasoning, Comey may have understood that our big liberal stars were never going to do that.

At any rate, that's what happened. The same thing had happened again and again in the previous twenty-five years.

Long ago, Candidate Clinton got demonized in this way. The liberal silence, our lack of fight, politely persisted last summer.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt?

TUESDAY, APRIL 25, 2017

Part 2—Stopped before reaching Kyoto:
Who the heck is best-selling author Jim Holt? By the norms of Internet information collection, it's remarkably hard to find out.

In this essay for New York Magazine, Holt revealed that, in the summer of 68, he, unlike Jackson Browne, was 13. This would mean that he was born in 1954 or 1955. You can work out his current age from there.

Meanwhile:

Based upon a few passages in his 2012 book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, it seems That Holt grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, the city of seven hills. Beyond that, his biographical profile is remarkably fuzzy.

We'd say the standard version of Holt's bio is offered in the blurb promoting his TED Talk. In its overview, TED also provides an upbeat account of Holt's book:
TED: In his 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt creates a narrative out of one of the biggest questions we can ask—and how modern scientists and philosophers are asking it. Can answers be found in many-worlds theory, in quantum mechanics, in a theology? Traveling around North America and Europe, he talks to physicists, including David Deutsch; philosophers, including Richard Swinburne; and the novelist John Updike. Why? Because as he tells Vanity Fair, "To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry."

A longtime contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the New Yorker, Holt has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, humor, logic, truth and bullshit, among other topics. Holt studied mathematics at the University of Virginia, and was a faculty fellow in the philosophy department at Columbia. He is now at work on a book about free will, weakness of will, self-knowledge and happiness.
Holt has written on bullshit, among other topics. Let's fill out that basic bio:

It's often said that Holt got a master's degree in math at Virginia, then went to Columbia to study philosophy. That "faculty fellow" designation may mean that he was a graduate teaching assistant. We've seen no claim that he received a degree from Columbia, or that he was an actual faculty member.

Somewhat comically, TED quotes Holt's interview with Vanity Fair—an interview which paired him with a young English major one year out of college. As we noted yesterday, the young journalist started the session by telling Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what the Sam Hill he was talking about in his book. Holt pretended that this meant that he had "failed" in his book.

Somewhat cynically, we'd wonder if that young woman's statement didn't mean that Holt had actually succeeded in his basic mission. Leaving such speculations to others, we'll note that the Vanity Fair interview gives us some sense of who Holt may actually be.

As we all await Professor Trump's war, we'll also suggest that the interview may give us a tiny peek behind a significant cultural curtain. The foolishness behind that curtain has led us to our current degraded state.

In the summer of 2012, Vanity Fair had tasked Linda Christensen, one year out of Princeton, with interviewing the seer. As we noted yesterday, she quickly said she had no idea what the fuck Holt was talking about in his new book.

But uh-oh! Being well-mannered and well-employed, she quickly added words of mandated praise. In this initial back and forth, we're peeking behind a curtain:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.

HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.

CHRISTENSEN: That’s not a total negative. It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics—but why the fixation with being and nothingness?

HOLT: To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry...
It wasn't Christensen's fault that she'd been handed this assignment, for which she had no apparent qualification. Indeed, having been handed this absurd task, she proceeded as best she could.

That said, we see an intriguing juxtaposition as the interview starts. His interlocutor told Jim Holt that she didn't have the first fucking idea what he was talking about. That much said, so what? She quickly added words of high reassurance:

"It’s certainly an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments in cosmology, philosophy, physics, and mathematics," the young scribe unknowingly said. This joined the introductory appraisal she had penned:

Jim Holt had "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today," the young scribe had unknowingly said.

Stating the obvious, this young journalist had no way of knowing whether those judgments made sense. But so what? Having said the book was "over her head," she went on to praise its "complex arguments," having already certified its author's "invaluable" status.

This pattern is widely observed when people like Holt write books of this type. Journalists know they've been assigned to applaud, and so they proceed to do so. A standard group assessment thereby gathers steam.

Our view? Holt's book is, at heart, a giant pile of heavily self-referential bullroar. Again and again as we plow through its text, we're struck by the author's sophisticated humblebragging and by his truly spectacular nonsense.

The intellectual namedropping performed in the book has surely established world records. Other music men play this game, but Holt is a grand past master.

In 1988, Michael Kinsley described the 39-year-old Al Gore as "an old person's idea of a young person." In similar fashion, Holt's book might be seen as an untutored journalist's idea of "an impressive whirlwind of complex arguments" compiled by an "invaluable" guide.

(As we'll note before the week is done, Holt's is precisely the type of book the New York Times will inevitably name as one of the year's ten best. They crowned Holt's book in 2012, did the same thing last year.)

Good God, this book is awful! But before we look at a bit of its text, let's ponder the glimmerings we can glean from the rest of that Vanity Fair interview.

Poor Christensen! Having no idea what Holt's book was about, she was forced to engage in small talk about the process by which it had joined the great chain of being.

As TED tells us, Holt had "travel[ed] around North America and Europe," talking to physicists and philosophers in the course of compiling his book. Early on, Christensen briefly tried working with that:
CHRISTENSEN: How much of this scavenger hunt for answers had you planned out before you began research?

HOLT: In 2009, I thought the journey was going to end up in Kyoto. I ran out of traveling money, actually.

CHRISTENSEN: Why Kyoto?

HOLT: It turns out that the Kyoto school of Buddhism makes Heidegger seem like Rush Limbaugh—it’s so rarified, I’ve never been able to understand it at all. I’ve been knocking my head against it for years.

[...]

CHRISTENSEN: But you didn’t end up working from there, in the end.

HOLT: I found the Café de Flore in Paris to be a very convenient base from which to operate. It’s where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness and hung out with Simone de Beauvoir during the war, and Descartes is buried right across the square. And Leibniz, when he was in Paris, was also right across the street.
We're sparing you Holt's fuller thoughts on the Kyoto school. We're giving you the tiniest taste of the book's high culture foppishness, along with a taste of the nonstop intellectual namedropping to which we have alluded.

At the Café de Flore, Holt was operating right across the street from the place where Leibniz once had been! Concerning Holt's reference to "traveling money," this exchange raised a basic question for us about this piddlerich book:

Who in the world paid for all the hard traveling Holt performs in the book? For all the trips to Paris, and to Oxford and/or Cambridge? For all the fancy meals Holt describes himself consuming? Not to mention the bottles of wine!

Given the worthlessness of this book, why was there any money to fund this manifest nonsense? Presumably, we can feel blessed that the money ran out before Holt reached Kyoto. But given the glimpses Holt provides of his own background; given his relatively light prior output; we're curious how a high-livin' grab bag of nonsense like this ever got funded at all.

Christensen didn't ask. Instead, she proceeded to a standard question, triggering an incorrect answer:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly): Bone to pick: your list excludes women.

HOLT: It wasn’t meant to be that way! I was going to include a Harvard physicist who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive. But then I alienated her by writing an insufficiently favorable review of a book of hers in the Times. So I never asked her—it would have been too gelid an atmosphere.
Poor Christensen! She tried to throw in a type of question which was standard even in 2012. For her trouble, she received a tone deaf remark about a Harvard physicist "who’s not only a woman but she’s extremely attractive."

Holt seems to refer to Harvard's Lisa Randall, high school classmate of Brian Greene. Given Holt's review of Randall's book, any such conversation would have been too "gelid," the VF scribe was told.

Christensen didn't complain. With the book's actual contents off limits, she took one more side trip:
CHRISTENSEN: The book is just as much a personal journey as it is one of science—what made you want to include autobiographical elements into your analysis?

HOLT: Of course, there was a certain amount of death intruded into the book—first of all, one of the philosophers almost killed me—but also my dog dies while I’m in Austin. It’s the best part of the book—it’s really sad. And then later, my mother dies towards the end, and it’s kind of tacky to exploit the death of one’s mother, but I saw not only a self but the self that engendered my own being flicker out of existence. Contemplating the question of why the world exists makes one contemplate the precariousness of one’s own existence.
"One of the philosophers almost killed me?" As we'll likely explain in a later installment, this is a humblebrag, of a type which pervades this book.

That said, Christensen gets credit for noticing the constant self-reference in this high philosophical work. The best part of his book concerns the death of his dog, the invaluable philosophe says. It was really sad.

Can that possibly be the best part of this deeply sophisticated book? Tomorrow, we'll look at some actual text from Holt's "detective story." We'll be peeking behind a cultural curtain as we take this step.

Tomorrow: Spectacular nonsense of the type the New York Times runs to reward

Sheryl Sandberg's superb op-ed!

MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2017

That was their father:
Have we ever read a better op-ed column than Sheryl Sandberg's transplendent essay in today's New York Times?

With co-author Adam Grant, Sandebrg has written a book about resilience. In hard copy, her column appears beneath these headlines:
How to Build Resilient Kids, Even After a Loss
I needed to find ways to help my children after their father's death
We think it's a stunning column.

Two years go, Sandberg's husband unexpectedly died. Their children were seven and ten.

In her column, Sandberg describes the things she did, after seeking advice from Grant and others, to help her children cope. We were struck by this all the way down:
SANDBERG (4/24/17): One afternoon, I sat down with my kids to write out “family rules” to remind us of the coping mechanisms we would need. We wrote together that it’s O.K. to be sad and to take a break from any activity to cry. It’s O.K. to be happy and laugh. It’s O.K. to be angry and jealous of friends and cousins who still have fathers. It’s O.K. to say to anyone that we do not want to talk about it now. And it’s always O.K. to ask for help. The poster we made that day—with the rules written by my kids in colored markers—still hangs in our hall so we can look at it every day. It reminds us that our feelings matter and that we are not alone.

Dave and I had a tradition at the dinner table with our kids in which each of us would share the best and worst moments of our day. Giving children undivided attention—something we all know is important but often fail to do—is another of the key steps toward building their resilience. My children and I have continued this tradition, and now we also share something that makes us feel grateful to remind ourselves that even after loss, there is still so much to appreciate in life.

[...]

Since my children were so young when they lost their father, I am afraid that their memories of him will fade, and this breaks my heart all over again. Adam and I also learned that talking about the past can build resilience. When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history—where their grandparents grew up, what their parents’ childhoods were like—they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of mattering and belonging. Jamie Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, has found that expressing painful memories can be uncomfortable in the moment, but improves mental and even physical health over time.

To keep Dave’s memory alive, I asked dozens of his closest family members, friends and colleagues to capture their stories about him on video. I also taped my children sharing their own memories, so that as they grow up, they will know which are truly theirs. This past Thanksgiving my daughter was distraught, and when I got her to open up, she told me, “I’m forgetting Daddy because I haven’t seen him for so long.” We watched the video of her talking about him, and it gave her some comfort.

Talking openly about memories—not just positive ones, but difficult ones, too—can help kids make sense of their past and rise to future challenges.
Whenever we read an essay like this, we think of the millions of kids who don't get this kind of parenting. Sandberg reminds us of those kids too, early in her column.

Just yesterday, we were thinking about the way children (and adults) want to know the history of their family members, especially their parents. We were thinking about the emotional power of Big Fish, the Tim Burton film in which a young man tries to find his way through the persistent tall tales of his evasive father, who is dying.

Our own sainted mother was extremely reticent about discussing her personal history. On the rare occasion, she would let a random anecdote fly:

The time she skated so far up the Merrimack that she couldn't get home till long after dark. The time she was halfway down the ski jump and spotted her mother off to the right, glaring angrily at her.

The time she thought the ballplayer had stood her up on a date, until it turned out that he had just played in the longest game in major-league history! (We assumed this referred to the Red Sox.)

The time Casey Stengel told her he liked her because his wife was named Edna too! (We assumed this would have been in the 1950s, when Stengel was with the mighty Yanks, after our mother had married our father.)

How did our mother and father meet? We'd never heard the story until our older half-brother, now deceased, told us maybe fifteen years ago. The story he told us was very familiar to us and very believable. Almost surely, our mother would have been someone a gent would have noticed.

Children want to know about their family histories. About a year ago, we were lucky enough to be sitting at a dinner table when a relative of ours (by marriage) suddenly told everyone, including his then 9-year-old daughter, about the first time he saw her mother.

(It happened in the D.R. The 9-year-old's father was coaching the Dominican national track team, on loan from God in the form of Fidel. The 9-year-old's mother was in the D.R. working for UNICEF.)

His daughter, our great niece, is easily one of our all-time most favoritest people. We thought her eyes grew extremely wide as she listened, with great interest, to this sudden story about her mother and father in the years before she was here.

"That was your mother," Paul Simon said. In the case of Sandberg's column, that was their father. We don't know when we've encountered so much decency and so much wisdom on an op-ed page.

Two long stories short: A few years ago, we decided to fact-check our mother's story about that "longest game." Had there actually been an extremely long MLB game in Boston during the relevant years?

Sure enough! On June 27, 1939, the Boston Braves (then called the Boston Bees) and the Brooklyn Dodgers battled to a 23-inning tie at Braves Field. We'd always assumed that she meant the Red Sox. But if we might borrow from Don Corleone, it was the Braves all the time!

We checked to see who was on the Braves' roster. Manager of the 1939 Bees?

Who else? Casey Stengel!

(You can see him colorized here.)

BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Assigned to interview the savant!

MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2017

Part 1—The semi-comical functioning of our rather fraudulent world:
A funny thing happened, five years ago, in the suites at Vanity Fair.

Jim Holt, whose name won't ring a bell, had written a recognizable type of book. For unknown reasons, Vanity Fair assigned Lauren Christensen to interview him about it.

The fruit of that session can be squeezed here. Before the Qs-and-As began, readers were handed this overview:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): New Yorker Jim Holt has established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today, as an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. With his latest book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, out today from Liveright, Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain...
Was it true? Had Holt "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today?"

That is a matter of judgment. The humor of the situation involves the person Vanity Fair picked to deliver this judgment.

At the time her judgment was rendered, Lauren Christensen was one year out of Princeton, where she had majored in English. Starting in June 2011, she had worked at Vanity Fair. According to she best positioned to know, she had worked in some or all of these capacities:
Assistant Editor to Aimée Bell, Deputy Editor
• Edited features, columns, and Spotlights across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections
• Coordinated an integrated monthly development process across all departments for incoming stories
• Directly aided contributing editors with story ideas, research, and editing
• Compiled the Vanity Fair books list for first serial and Hot Type considerations
• Pitched, researched, and wrote independent book reviews for both the print magazine and vanityfair.com
By this time, Christensen may have edited features, columns, and "Spotlights" across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections. She may have compiled the Vanity Fair books list for "Hot Type" considerations.

Now, through zero fault of her own, she was handed a new assignment. She was assigned to name the people who are invaluable fixtures in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today!

Question: in what world would an editor assign such a task to such a young, unqualified person?

Answer: in the world of our modern journalistic elite, after the curtain's drawn back! In the world of the music men who have helped create the world in which we all cringe today.

Nothing that happened in this comical instance was Laura Christensen's fault. Had deputy editor Aimee Bell made this rather unlikely assignment? We have no idea.

(In 1992, Bell, then 26, was reportedly "an editor of the Vanities section of Vanity Fair magazine in New York and is the books editor there." You can confirm those facts here.)

Whatever! Someone asked an English major one year out of college to engage in the act of judgment to which we have alluded. Understandably, when the Qs and As began, the Qs and As started like this:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly from above): Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain—highlights from our chat:

CHRISTENSEN: Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.

HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.
In truth, that was an excellent way for this young journalist to start. In his utterly bogus response, it was Holt who cast himself in the role of cosmic pretender.

At the time this piece appeared, the alleged success of Holt's new book hadn't yet been established. Holt is an elusive figure whose background is surprisingly hard to pin down. Even today, the leading authority offers only the short bio shown below, but the bio does start to establish the worldly success of his book:
Jim Holt is an American philosopher, author and essayist. He has contributed to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and Slate. His book Why Does the World Exist? was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013.

He hosted a weekly radio spot on BBC Wales called "Living in America, with Jim Holt" for ten years. He has appeared on William F. Buckley's Firing Line, NBC News with Tom Brokaw, and CNN. In 1997, he was editor of The New Leader, a political magazine. Holt lives in Greenwich Village, NY.
Is Holt "an American philosopher?" Only the recent college grads know for sure!

This bio does make the somewhat muddled claim that Holt's book "was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013." Under "Awards and Honors," it further notes that Holt's book was a 2012 finalist for a National Book Award.

(According to Nexis, the book appeared on the Times hard-cover bestseller list for three weeks during 2012, and for one week during 2013, never rising above number 23. During 2013, it appeared on the paperback bestseller list four times.)

In truth, Holt's book wasn't a giant best-seller, whether for 2012 or for 2013. That said, the leading authority doesn't mention another high honor received by Holt's book. Inevitably, in December 2012, the New York Times selected Holt's "existential detective story" as one of the ten best books of the year.

Should the Times have made that selection? That's a matter of judgment. That said, Christensen couldn't know this honor was coming when she received her assignment in the summer of that year.

Presumably, Christensen asked around concerning Holt, then voiced a conventional view. As an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, Holt had established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today. She herself didn't understand Holt's book. But it was what everyone said!

Christensen did something very right when she started her conversation in the way we've cited. She said she had no fucking idea what the fuck the invaluable fixer was talking about in his highly sophisticated book.

Did Holt know what he was talking about? We'll flirt with that question this week. In the process, we'll be starting a highly controversial conversation, one we expect to extend over several weeks.

At present, we're all waiting for Donald J. Trump to start his invaluable war. With our national discourse now a mere memory, we think it's time to take a peek behind the curtain and chuckle about the assortment of journalistic and academic frauds who have brought us to this darkly amusing point.

Who would ask a college kid to make an assessment like the one which landed in Christensen's lap? Music men would take that step—and none of Us would notice.

Tomorrow: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt? And what the Sam Hill has he said?

Later today: Drum on Comey