From the monthly archives:

August 2003

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.)

Irish prosperity and social networks

by Chris Bertram on August 26, 2003

As I said in an earlier post, I’m a bit reluctant to say much of substance about Ireland because, as a mere ten-day visitor I’m bound to get a lot wrong and there are participants on this blog who will notice! So I’ll just restrict myself to two of the many things I found myself thinking about apart from the extraordinary civility and kindness of the Irish people we encountered (as opposed to the harrassment, hurry and rudeness of normal English life – on the English, see Theodore Dalrymple passim).

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Pick Me! Pick Me!

by Kieran Healy on August 26, 2003

Ever wish you could easily see every post a particular CT author has contributed? Me neither. But capitalism is all about the creation of new needs in the mind of the consumer so that afterwards market researchers can give PowerPoint presentations saying this new feature “satisfied a clear demand amongst CT customers.” So now, over there in the left sidebar, you can just click the ∞ symbol next to each contributor’s name to see a list of the titles of all their posts from newest to oldest.

In phase two of the rollout of this technology, we will charge a $10/month subscription fee to users. We are convinced this is an exciting and viable business model and that the world is ready for pay-to-list services of this sort, particularly given that CT is the dominant player in the burgeoning market for eclectic left-leaning quasi-academic online commentary. Prospective investors should see Confidential IPO Memos #7 (“Yglesias Graduates, Sells Out”), #15 (“Semi-Daily Journal Accounting Scandal Ready To Break”) and #27 (“Marshall‘s Head Falls Off When Hand Is Removed“).

Fast Food Explanation

by Henry on August 25, 2003

I wasted part of my holiday reading one of the more dreadful books I’ve come across recently, Catherine Salmon and Donald Symon’s _Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality_ (published in Weidenfeld and Nicholson’s “Darwinism Today” series). It’s a grandiose title for a rather slim volume, which purports to apply Darwinian theory to the understanding of ‘slash fiction,’ fan-written stories in which various characters from popular fiction have passionate sex and declare their undying love for each other (Kirk and Spock are favourites, and have their own subgenre). Not that fan fiction mightn’t be an interesting subject of study, but you won’t find many insights in Salmon and Symon’s mercifully short monograph.

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Rorty Sporty

by Tom on August 25, 2003

If you’ve ever put in hard time trying to make sense of the writings of Richard Rorty, you’ll probably get some harmless giggles out of this deliciously silly poem that Norman Geras has managed to acquire, Bob Woodward-style, from a poet who wishes to remain anonymous. Here’s a taste:

Richie Rorty, Richie Rorty,
Naught he hadn’t read, it seems.
Heidegger and Nietzsche brought he,
Both, to feature in his schemes,

Next to others not so warty:
Caught he Dickens, Proust and Yeats,
Kundera and Orwell. Sought he
To cavort with them as mates.

Since I’m at it, I recall that the Philosophical Lexicon provided us with this useful definition:

a rortiori, adj. For even more obscure and fashionable Continental reasons.

Decline and fall

by Henry on August 25, 2003

Via “David Langford”:http://www.ansible.demon.co.uk/cc/cc143.html, a comprehensive and rather wonderful accounting of the various reasons advanced for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

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Flight risks

by Henry on August 25, 2003

I’ve just returned to the US after a long holiday in Ireland, and had an interesting, if unpleasant, experience on my way back. When I tried to check in to my American Airlines flight at Heathrow, the ticket agent, and then her supervisor, refused to give me a ticket. US immigration authorities require that all non-visa travellers to the US have a return or onwards flight to be allowed to enter the country. I had an onward flight to Toronto, where I teach and work, but for some reason, the American Airlines people wouldn’t accept it. At first, they claimed that I needed to have a return flight to London, and London alone to satisfy US immigration requirements. Then they changed their story, and claimed that because I was going to be returning to the US later (my onward flight was a return from Washington DC to Toronto), US immigration authorities wouldn’t accept it. I strongly suspect that the real reason was that I had an electronic ticket, and they weren’t very familiar or comfortable with them. Certainly, when I went through US immigration, the official had no problems whatsoever in letting me through.

So far perhaps, unsurprising – another instance of heightened security measures, twitchy airline employees etc. The interesting bit is what comes next. The American Airlines supervisor tells me that each time someone gets sent back by US immigration officials, American Airlines has to pay a $3000 fine. However, they’ll let me get on the plane on one condition – I have to buy a fully refundable one-way ticket back to London. This is to satisfy US immigration authorities that I have a return flight so that they don’t fine the airline – but as soon as I pass through immigration, I can go to an American Airlines desk, and get the ticket torn up and refunded. In other words, the airline was abiding by the letter of US immigrations regulations as it understood them, but flouting these regulations’ intention – and requiring me passively to cooperate with what it was doing if I wanted to board the flight. The airline supervisor gave me to understand that this was their standard practice.

This policy is obviously very problematic for travellers – I’d have been stuck in London if I hadn’t had a credit card with enough of a limit to pay for this temporary ticket. I was able to buy it in good conscience because it was clear that the airline was wrong in its interpretation of US immigration requirements – my original onward flight to Toronto would have sufficed perfectly well for US immigration authorities, so that I wasn’t seeking to evade the law in doing what American Airlines told me to do. But the airline’s policy says something more profound about current US aviation security policy. In part thanks to the unwillingness of the US administration to expand federal government employment, US authorities are relying more and more on airlines and other private actors to act as gatekeepers for them, threatening whopping fines if the airlines don’t cooperate. But sanction-and-control only goes so far because airlines, like other business actors, are motivated by the bottom line. Thus, in many situations they’re going to comply with the formalities of the regulations, so as to minimize their legal exposure, but look for ways to circumvent the intentions of the rule, so as not to turn paying customers away. I suspect that this isn’t only true of airlines – I’d be interested to know more, say, about banks’ compliance with Treasury rules on money flows, where I imagine that there might well be similar legalistic dodges and evasions.

How the news is made

by Chris Bertram on August 25, 2003

I guess at some level we all recognise the syndrome, but Ian Jack’s account of how the news get manufactured (especially by the Sunday papers) is well worth a look. Jack is the former editor of the Independent on Sunday, so knows whereof he speaks:

bq. The political editor is furiously sucking a paper clip. “Well, we could do a little ring-a-round of back-benchers who might not support the new Europe bill.” “And you could talk to that madman X [an alienated cabinet minister]”, says the deputy editor. “He’s bound to say something original.” And so the great hole – the lead story hole – on the front page is filled. The deputy editor, an excellent re-writer, “hardens up” a few of the political editor’s softer and more equivocal sentences. Headline type which really should be held in reserve for something significant, such as the sinking of the Titanic, reads: MAJOR IN NEW BATTLE OVER [something or other]. The first paragraph begins “A beleaguered John Major is this weekend facing one of the gravest crises of his political career.” The political editor looks wryly at the page proof and says, “That’s what you call a scoop of interpretation” The deputy and I (who, unlike the political editor, never need meet politicians) defend the choice of words: “one of” not “the gravest”, so that’s OK, and some clever use of the passive and conditional tenses further down, “It is believed” rather than “One embittered madman who wishes to remain anonymous thinks”, “may” rather than “will”, and so on.

Of course, Jack’s experience of all this is pre-blogosphere. In these newly enlightened times, if the story concerned some appropriate subject it would be referred to by Glenn Reynolds as evidence of something (European anti-semitism; French perfidy….) and then spun into a whole geopolitical theory by Steven Den Beste. And who is to say that “Secret EU plan to slaughter firstborn” wouldn’t get picked up by Samizdata!(Story first linked by Slugger O’ Toole).

Trivia

by Kieran Healy on August 25, 2003

At the risk of sounding like Eugene Volokh, and inspired by a post from John Quiggin, I can think of three bands who take their names from William Burroughs’ writings. Name them and be entered in a prize drawing for the paperback edition of The Best of Crooked Timber, vol 2.

Take the Money! Open the Box!

by Kieran Healy on August 25, 2003

Brad DeLong wonders why Dan Weintraub seems least inclined to support the candidate for Governeror of California about whom most is known. On Dan’s own admission, McClintock and Simon are liars, Schwarzenneger is an unknown quantity and Bustamente has a known program that at least holds together. And yet Dan leans towards McClintock (whom he knows is lying) or Arnie (about whom he knows nothing). Brad says:

bq. A normal person, if offered a choice between candidates (McClintock, Simon) who are lying to you, a candidate (Schwarzenegger) who refuses to say what he would do both because he has no clue and because he thinks “people do not care about the numbers and figures,” and a reasonably-smart guy who understands what the tradeoffs are and has a set of ideas about what to do with them–as I said, a normal guy would choose the clued-in candidate who is not lying to him.

bq. But, as I said, Dan Weintraub is strange. The clued-in candidate who is not telling lies is to be avoided at all costs … Anyone have any idea why Dan Weintraub is such a strange guy?

Well, no. But there’s a neat experiment by Eldar Shafir that I want to tell you about, which may possibly be relevant.

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Nickel and Dimed redux

by Chris Bertram on August 24, 2003

Jon posted last month about the controversy surrounding the adoption of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed at the University of North Carolina. I notice the latest issue of the Progressive has a column by Ehrenreich about her experience of the argument, and how it was for her on North Carolina talk radio.

France’s heatwave

by Chris Bertram on August 22, 2003

The latest figures from France suggest that there were up to 10,000 excess deaths in France’s recent heatwave. Chirac has called an emergency cabinet meeting and there will be an inquiry into the state of France’s medical services. As always, some kinds of people died more than others:

bq. Half the victims are believed to have died in old people’s homes, many operating with fewer staff during the August holidays. Many hospitals had closed complete wards for the month and were unable to offer sophisticated, or sometimes even basic, treatment to victims. About 2,000 people are thought to have died in their homes from the effects of dehydration and other heat- related problems while neighbours and relatives were away.

I’m a bit surprised that no-one covering this in the media has yet called on Eric Klinenberg whose analysis of the Chicago heatwave 1995 – in his book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago – showed that what was at first thought of as a natural disaster had complex social causes. (UPDATE – thanks to Chris K for the link – big media in the form of today’s IHT have a piece by Klinenberg )

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Internal liquidation

by Chris Bertram on August 22, 2003

John Kay has a good column (from yesterday’s Financial Times) arguing that the crisis on Britain’s railways and in the US electricity supply industry exemplify a more widespread failing affecting both public and private sectors: boosting revenues whilst neglecting the underlying assets

bq. … modern business depends on intangible factors that, for good reasons, are not measured on the balance sheet. Security of supply is one. But the loyalty of employees, the trust of customers and the quality of service are also assets that require investment and depreciate if not well maintained. Reducing these investments enhances earnings. Media companies could focus on producing clones of already successful works – and it would be a few years before their bored audiences turned away. Financial institutions could replace their customer service staff by sales people and call centres. And drug companies could reduce costs and obtain synergies through mergers – and today find their pipelines of new drugs narrower than they have ever been.