From the monthly archives:

April 2004

Making learning languages fun

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2004

I’ve been going to evening classes to try to get my German up to speed for a few weeks now and I feel I’m making a bit of progress. If I watch the “Deutsche Welle”: news I can more or less work out that Schroeder is unbelievably pissed-off with Blair over the Euro referendum but can’t say so for diplomatic reasons. I’ve also been renting German movies such as “Lola Rennt”: (terrific but not so useful for language) and “Was tun, wenn’s brennt?”: (Funny, though comedies about terrorists making bombs out of fertilizer have a decidedly retro feel these days.) Anyway, after reading “Learning French through Blaxploitation”: over at Ishbaddle, I may have the learning-by-casual-osmosis strategy the wrong way round. Watch DVDs in English and turn the German subtitles on? Anyway, I’m interested in hearing about language-learning strategies that are fun at the same time (and if anyone can throw in German movie recommedations too, that would be a plus).

Nielsen Hayden Isms

by Kieran Healy on April 25, 2004

In a bold commercial move, you “Patrick”: and “Teresa”: Nielsen Hayden now have a “Cafe Press Store”: where you can buy various Nielsen Hayden wit and wisdom on mugs, shirts and aprons. Weirdly, though, I remembered one of the reified sentiments — a superb phrase I will doubtless be using at a later date — backwards from the version for sale. The mugs and shirts say “Just because you’re on their side, doesn’t mean they’re on your side.” But my brain had transposed it to “Just because they’re on your side, doesn’t mean you’re on their side.” The first warns against the danger of _giving_ support to people who will betray you in the end or turn out to be driven by interests very different from those you imagine. The second warns against the danger of _accepting_ support from people you don’t know, whose views happen to overlap with yours one area but in fact are part of some bizarro ideology you want nothing to do with. Not so different, I suppose, but I clearly thought the second version was more compelling somehow.

Three points on this. First, it’s actually quite common for great quotations to be edited and rearranged in the process of becoming part of the culture. But I think we can safely say that this is a case of my wonky[1] memory rather than some general push from the _conscience collective_. Second, I think I’m going to buy the “Nutbar Conspiracy Theorist” jersey once I get back to the U.S. And third, I think we need some CT merchandise. Perhaps a version of the “full lineout”: Or just our banner. Or some of the pearls of wit that flow like, um, honey from our, uh, wellsprings of, erm, knowledge. (Any nominations for favorite CT quotes?)

fn1. In the English rather than the American sense.

By Definition

by Jon Mandle on April 25, 2004

Classically, when philosophers teach deductions, we trot out examples like the following: “If Jim is a bachelor, then it follows from the definition (or meaning) of ‘bachelor’ that Jim is an unmarried man.” The conclusion is supposed to follow deductively from the premise about Jim and the definition of “bachelor.” But there’s more: although we could imagine the premise about Jim being false, it’s supposed to be impossible to imagine a bachelor that’s not an unmarried man – that’s supposed to be the additional force of saying “by definition.”

Governor Mitt Romney says that a 1913 law requires that same-sex marriages in Massachusetts be limited to residents only. Here’s his argument:

Our current laws, as they exist, limit same-sex marriage to people from jurisdictions where such marriage would be legal,” Mr. Romney said. “And our understanding is that same-sex marriage is only legal in Massachusetts. And therefore, by definition, only people who reside in Massachusetts or intend to reside in Massachusetts would be able to be married under this provision.”

My question: “by definition” of what? Certainly not “marriage” which he recognizes can – and does – change as the law changes.

Extra credit: will a man who is not a resident of Massachusetts, but who marries a man who is a resident still be a bachelor?

Scottish and Welsh Higher Education

by Harry on April 25, 2004

Chris’s post on higher education in the UK has reminded me of an idea I devised when I was experiencing the regime of UK Higher Ed. Numerous UK academics are dissatisfied with their working conditions in exactly the way that Chris’s correspondent is, though not all of them would feel comfortable decamping. If I were a member of the Welsh Assembly or Scottish Parliament I would be very tempted to capitalize on this. I’d try to get a long-term commitment for funding a small new academic institution in whichever country I was in, which would provide an elite undergraduate and graduate education to a small number of students (at first), and would, by providing much happier working conditions and slightly better incomes, provide a magnet for high-quality academics in English institutions (whom I would pursue aggressively).

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Red and Blue America

by Kieran Healy on April 25, 2004

Via “Kevin Drum”: comes this comment from political scientist “Hans Noel”:, quoted in the Washington Post:

bq. “Most people say they are ‘moderate,’ but in fact the country is polarized around strong conservative and liberal positions.” [Noel said, and the article continues] … As it becomes more difficult to reach across the party line, campaigns are devoting more energy to firing up their hard-core supporters. For voters in the middle, this election may aggravate their feeling that politics no longer speaks to them, that it has become a dialogue of the deaf, a rant of uncompromising extremes.

Noel is pushing the attractive idea that polarization feeds on and reinforces itself. (Attractive from the point of view of elegant social mechanisms, I mean.) And Kevin can’t see a way to break the cycle. Red and Blue America is the latest version of the Culture Wars thesis. However, while it’s clear that the chattering classes — at least their representatives in the media — have become more polarized over time, I’m not sure I believe that everyone else has.

My main evidence for this comes from a 1996 paper by Paul DiMaggio, Bethany Bryson and John Evans called “Have Americans’ social attitudes become more polarized?” (JSTOR link, institutional subscription required).[1] They used a long time-series of “General Social Survey”: opinion data and measured how skewed the distribution of public opinion on a wide range of questions was, and whether that changed over time. Respondents to opinion questions are generally given a statement and asked to choose a place on a five- or sometimes seven-point scale ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree.” If polarization was happening, you would see more and more people at the extreme ends of the scales and fewer in the middle. But DiMaggio et al found that, with the exception of questions about abortion, the distribution of opinion had not become more skewed. Across a wide range of issues, there were about as many people in the middle in the early 1990s as there had been in the early 1970s. I don’t know of sample-based research that rebuts this finding. At the same time, as an “an update”: by John Evans demonstrates, more recent data suggests that such polarization as does exist is being driven by the political system: “it seems clear that members of the public who are involved in politics are becoming polarized on moral issues.”

fn1. Full disclosure: Paul was my Ph.D advisor and John and Bethany are friends of mine.

There’s only one Danny Murphy

by Chris Bertram on April 24, 2004

A chink of hope in an otherwise dismal season as Danny Murphy becomes the first player to score a league penalty for an away team at Old Trafford since 1993.

Taxation and conscription

by John Q on April 24, 2004

A while ago, I made the observation that

since most libertarians envisage a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence, reliance on conscription would be almost inevitable. From the libertarian viewpoint, any form of taxation constitutes slavery[1], and fairness is not a proper concern of policy, so there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.

I was speaking in the context of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, but the issue has come up again in relation to contemporary debates about the draft. Julian Sanchez has a very good discussion of the issues from a libertarian viewpoint, rejecting Nozick and arguing that rights over property are derivative of, and potentially far more qualified than, rights over one’s own labour.

My own view is broadly similar to Julian’s. Conscription may be justified in the kind of total war situation that also requires “conscription of wealth”, but not as a cheap way of filling the military.

fn1. Nozick is clear on this, and a lot of other libertarians say much the same thing, though usually more foggily. As noted below, however, it’s always a mistake to refer to “the” libertarian viewpoint.

Culture Matters

by Kieran Healy on April 24, 2004

There’s often a strong temptation to think that only other people have culture, a mistake of the same kind as thinking only other people speak with an accent. The odd beliefs and attitudes of foreigners are best explained by reference to their culture, whereas our own actions are generally rational and defensible on their own terms. This fascinating story is about the Japanese hostages recently released in Iraq and their subsequent reception on their return home. It’s a reminder that culture matters and an invitation to the comparative sociology of culture. Thanks to my friend Marion Fourcade-Gourinchas for the pointer. Incidentally, you really should read Marion’s terrific article on Politics, Institutional Structures and the Rise of Economics.

The Interregnum

by John Q on April 24, 2004

I’m looking ahead to the June 30 “handover” of power in Iraq with increasing trepidation. As this NYT story indicates, the handover is shaping up to be a complete sham (more on this from Nathan Brown, guest commentator for Juan Cole). Anybody silly or corrupt enough to join the new “government” will be in the same position as the Iraq governments of the British Mandate/Treaty period, taking responsibility for policies dictated by a foreign occupying force, while having no effective power over anything that matters.

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MT Posts and comments

by Henry Farrell on April 23, 2004

We’ve been having some server problems which have disrupted the publication of both posts and comments. They should now be resolved – you should be able to comment again without receiving weird error messages. There will probably be further short term disruption in a few days, when we move to a new hosting provider – watch this space for further details.

Industrial policy for me but not for thee

by Daniel on April 23, 2004

I realise that this is about the fourth time I’ve had a hit-and-run shot at an Airmiles column, while crying off doing the proper Globollocks analysis for lack of time. I am a bit short of time at the moment, but the real reason is thatit’s so dispiriting; the general miasma of Globollocks overwhelms any specific instance. Check out today’s example.

Friedman believes that it would be a danger to the USA on a par with global terrorism if someone in India working for a US-owned firm were to invent something useful. Think I’m joking? Read the bugger. He actually uses the phrase “war for innovation”.

Apparently the USA isn’t bringing through enough research scientists. What’s the solution? Presumably the rush to global competition of the free market. Nope, sorry, wrong, the solution is massive amounts of government money. In the Airmiles world, agricultural subsidies are terrible, awful anticompetitive, protectionist. But massive subsidies to the science industry are imperative, because of globalisation or something.

Wretched analysis. Someone has told Airmiles that “basic research” is a phrase meaning “science that it’s OK to want a subsidy for”. And he’s taken it as the intellectual equivalent of a Sapphire Class Admiral’s Club pass to support the contention that we need to incentivise domestic private research to keep its facilities onshore. What about “Susie Smith at the pillow factory?”, who would also presumably like a say in how this tax-funded largesse is to be distributed? Scrwe her, apparently; her role in Friedman’s weightless globalised world is a source of funds and a punchline to jokes. What a piece of work.

Please Stand By

by Kieran Healy on April 23, 2004

We seem to be having some technical difficulties, possibly related to our SQL server. Rebuilds aren’t working properly and Movable Type is complaining it can’t find template modules that it should know perfectly well are there (because they are now and always have been).

Where do you go first?

by Eszter Hargittai on April 23, 2004

Ted’s recent post reminds me of a question I have been pondering recently due to a change in my media use habits. Where do you go first in the morning for an update on current events? I don’t necessarily mean just online, but in general? If online, what site(s) or lists? It used to be that I would just go to as a starting point and then take it from there often clicking on to some blogs (like some of the precursors of CT) to see what other items of news people found of interest. But starting with the New York Times doesn’t quite do it for me anymore. I haven’t developed a new system yet. For now, I often just start at whatever site I visited the night before. A friend of mine recently told me that he always starts at Talking Points Memo then he looks at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and finally checks out the BBC. That sounded like a good way to start the day. I’m curious, where do others go first?

How government is wrecking British universities

by Chris Bertram on April 23, 2004

A prominent philosopher in the UK emails to tell me that he has had enough and that he’s looking for employment in the US. The proximate cause of his frustration is the ridiculously complicated process that the Arts and Humanities Research Board (soon to be Council) imposes on us as a condition for distributing the pitiful funding that is available for research students. Increasingly, universities have to demonstrate that they are providing all kinds of “training” in order to access this money and this is part of a wider trend where government (or its arms-length agencies like the AHRB, HEFCE etc) seeks to regulate and micromanage activity within higher education by such conditionalization of funding. My correspondent draws attention to the recent review of “Business-University Collaboration” undertaken by former FT-editor Richard Lambert at Gordon Brown’s behest. Suprisingly, given Brown’s predilection for micromanagement and control across the public sector, one section of the report offers a trenchant exposition of the mess that the government has made as it has tried to subject higher education in the UK to its will.

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Pensions in the New York Times

by Daniel on April 23, 2004

I thoroughly recommend this article in the New York Times. While I have no particular opinions on the management of the Maine state pension fund (well, if you really needed one, I daresay I could get some for you cheap rate), it’s a nice and clear explanation of an interesting little part of an issue that I’ve always thought the plain man should be more interested in than he in fact is.