Illusions

by Brian on August 27, 2003

I imagine most readers have seen Edward Adelson’s checkershadow illusion, because it’s done the rounds of a few blogs. If you haven’t seen it it’s worth looking at, because it’s really quite remarkable.

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Conferences

by Henry on August 27, 2003

Following the good advice on conference going from various parties, I’m off myself for the next couple of days to the annual American Political Science Association conference, where I’ll be sharing a “panel”:http://www.apsanet.org/mtgs/program/program.cfm?event=1414118 with Dan Drezner. Intermittent blogging in the meantime, dependent on access to Internet, and on whether I’m enjoying myself too much to blog (yes, you can have a good time at political science conferences).

Hitchensian nastiness

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2003

Christopher Hitchens has a review of Robert Dallek’s John F. Kennedy biography in the Times Literary Supplement. Hitchens doesn’t exactly hold back from laying into the Kennedy cult, and I would have expected him to be highly critical of Kennedy’s record in office. I have to say, though, that I found the manner of Hitchens’s revelling in Kennedy’s physical ailments somewhat arresting. I won’t go through the whole catalogue here, but Hitchens’s judgement is this:

bq. Obviously, a good deal of “spin” is required to make an Achilles out of such a poxed and suppurating Philoctetes. The difference was supplied by family money in heaping measure, by the canny emphasis on a war record, and by serious attention to the flattery and suborning of the media.

And when I read the following, I was somewhat shocked:

bq. But the furthest that Dallek will go [in agreeing with the Hitchens view that Kennedy’s ailments made him unfit to be President] here is to admit – following Seymour Hersh’s earlier book The Dark Side of Camelot – that Kennedy’s back-brace held him upright in the open car in Dallas, unable to duck the second and devastating bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald. This is almost the only connection between the President’s health and his fitness that is allowable in these pages, and I presume that it is its relative blamelessness which allows the concession.

“Relative blamelessness”? I’m not sure where the “relative” comes into play here. It must mean something like “somewhat blameworthy, but not as blameworthy as some of Kennedy’s other disabilities.” It is, at any rate, a poisonous phrase which would certainly attract Hitchens’s disapprobation in other, all too easily imagined, contexts.

UPDATE: The link above has now become non-functional. The curious had better consult the print edition.

Stats, stats, stats…

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2003

I’ve just wasted spent an entertaining half-hour or so at www.nationmaster.com, a stats site that allows you to compare nations on just about every dimension, generate graphs etc. I started looking for comparative stats on the UK and Ireland (interesting, Ireland has a higher GDP per capita but scores lower on the Human Development Index). Anyway, there’s lots to play with, though I’m not sure how reliable it all is. Spain seems to be – by a mile – the robbery capital of Europe and North Korea has the world’s highest military expenditure as a percentage of GDP. The “Probability of not reaching [the age of] 40” list makes interesting and sobering reading: you have to get as far as the 35th country in the list (Haiti) to find anywhere outside Africa.

Conference Advice

by Kieran Healy on August 27, 2003

Dan Drezner blogs some advice for attendees of academic conferences. His suggestions are fine, but I have some of my own.

First, some general perspective for those of you who are lucky enough not to have to go to these things. Attending an academic conference is like being a teenager again. This is why they can be so awful. You hang around trying to attach yourself to a group — preferably the cool kids, but in the end any group will do — and then these groups hang around waiting for something to happen. Groups exist in a permanent state of failing to decide what to do. Where should we go to dinner? Are we still waiting for someone? I heard there was a good party in the Berkeley suite. Where’s Ann, wasn’t she here a minute ago? As with teenagers, attendees secretly (and falsely) believe that other groups are having a much better time. Thus, they scan the area (e.g., the hotel lobby) in case the present group needs to be ditched for an apparently more interesting one. Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years. (I think some of the following suggestions come from a forwarded email I read years ago. They’ve stood up to empirical testing.)

  1. Arrange to meet people in advance. Don’t rely entirely on bumping into people by accident.
  2. If you have the option of going to dinner with some people now or hanging around a bit longer in the vague hope of eating with some more famous people later, go to dinner now.
  3. When you have the opportunity to introduce Bigwig A to Nobody B, do it in that order. Say “Bigwig, do you know Nobody?” rather than the other way around, because otherwise Nobody is forced to stammer “Well, uh, yes of course … um…”
  4. When talking to someone you do not know, always assume they are a faculty member, even if they do not look old enough to drive. Grad students will be flattered. Prickly professors will not get in a huff and use you in an anecdote later that evening.
  5. Be careful what you say in elevators. (I find this rule applies in life generally.)

Reporting Hutton

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2003

The Hutton inquiry seems to mark the total dissolution of any boundary between reporting and commentary. (Perhaps this is the counterpart, on the journos side of the dissolution of the boundary between information and spin on the government’s side). A prime example is surely this report of yesterday’s evidence in the Guardian. The report places fantastic weight on one word in one sentence, a word which admits of another quite reasonable and sensible interpretation. To whit:

bq. The dramatic last-minute call to come up with new evidence was contained in an email from an unnamed intelligence official. It said Downing Street wanted the document “to be as strong as possible within the bounds of available intelligence”.

The word “strong” is taken by the Guardian’s reporters as a synonym for – to use the current parlance – “sexy”. But “strong” might just as well mean something like “robust” in this context. It also seems reasonable that the government should wish that its briefings be the opposite of “weak”. (I don’t mean to single out the Guardian especially here, almost every report extrapolates an angle from the tiniest detail.)