From the monthly archives:

May 2004

Paradoxes and infinity

by John Q on May 31, 2004

Following up my three-way classification of paradoxes,[1] I want to argue that paradoxes involving infinity are always of type-3, that is, the result of ill-posed problems or inappropriate ways of taking limits. (Much the same position is defended in the comments thread by Bill Carone). In fact, I’d argue for the following general principle, applicable to all models relevant to human decisionmakers.

Whenever a result, true for all finite n, is strictly[2] reversed for the infinite case, the problem in question has been posed incorrectly

To defend this, I rely on the premise that we are finite creatures in a finite universe. If a mathematical representation of a decision problem involves an infinite set, such as the integers or the real line, it is only because this is more convenient than employing finite, but very large bounds, such as those derived from the number of particles in the universe. Any property that depends inherently on infinite sets and limits, such as the continuity of a function, can never be verified or falsified by empirical data. Since we are finite, any result that is true for all finite n is true for us.

[click to continue…]

The perils of knowledge

by Chris Bertram on May 31, 2004

On Saturday night we went to a performance of Sheridan’s “The Rivals”: at Bristol’s “Old Vic”: , which has some claim to being the oldest working theatre in Britain (a claim that is carefully qualified to exlude some rivals, though). A very enjoyable evening, complete with a reminder that anxieties about the corrupting effects of new media (internet, the telephone etc) had been fully awakened by the 18th century. Libraries were identified as the cause of moral decline in this exchange between Mrs Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute:

bq. Mrs. Mal. There’s a little intricate hussy for you!

bq. Sir Anth. It is not to be wondered at, ma’am,—all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I’d as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!

bq. Mrs. Mal. Nay, nay, Sir Anthony, you are an absolute misanthropy.

bq. Sir Anth. In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece’s maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

bq. Mrs. Mal. Those are vile places, indeed!

bq. Sir Anth. Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.

George Formby

by Harry on May 31, 2004

Last week was the centenary of George Formby’s birth. You can hear about his life in a sweet bio-documentary by Russell Davies (probably only for the next couple of days) called (misleadingly) George on George. The best bit concerns Beryl Formby (George’s wife and manager) who, when the South Afrcan Prime Minister phoned her to complain about George’s enthusiam about playing to mixed audiences and apparent colour blindness, shouted “Why don’t you just piss off you horrible little man”, and slammed the phone down. If only more had been like them.

George Formby

by Harry on May 31, 2004

Last week was the centenary of George Formby’s birth. You can hear about his life in a sweet bio-documentary byRussell Davies (probably only for the next couple of days) called (misleadingly) George on George. The best bit concerns Beryl Formby (George’s wife and manager) who, when the South Afrcan Prime Minister phoned her to complain about George’s enthusiam about playing to mixed audiences and apparent colour blindness, shouted “Why don’t you just piss off you horrible little man”, and slammed the phone down. If only more had been like them.

A Government of Laws and not of Men

by Kieran Healy on May 30, 2004

Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor whom Richard Nixon attempted to fire in the “Saturday Night Massacre”: has “died at the age of 92.”: I use a video about those events in my social theory class, when we read “Weber”:, because it nicely illustrates Weber’s views about authority and “bureaucracy”:

As the video goes on, you can draw an organizational chart of the official relationships between the main players — Nixon, Agnew and Haig in the White House; Cox, “Elliott Richardson”:, “William Ruckleshaus”: and “Robert Bork”: at the Justice Department — and see how Nixon’s efforts to fire Cox were, in effect, an effort to act like he was the King rather than the President. Nixon didn’t have the authority to fire Cox even though he had the authority to fire Cox’s superiors. After Attorney General Richardson and his deputy Ruckleshaus had refused Nixon’s demands and themselves been fired, Robert Bork — then Solicitor General and third in line at Justice — agreed to do the job. Weber’s analysis of office-holding is nicely illustrated in Richardson’s refusal: “Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfilment of these duties _and for the execution of the corresponding rights_ … When the principle of jurisdictional ‘competency’ is fully carried through, hierarchical subordination — at least in public office — does not mean that the ‘higher’ authority is simply authorized to take over the business of the ‘lower.’ ” In the video, Bork is interviewed about his decision and in his defence says “Cox had done nothing wrong, but the President can’t be faced down in public by a subordinate official.” When paired with Cox’s famous statement that night — “Whether ours shall be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people” — you get a perfect articulation of the difference between “traditional and legal-rational authority”: in a democracy.

The interesting thing is that you don’t have to stop there. Because it’s clear from the video that Richardson’s great personal integrity (Nixon called him a “pious son of a bitch”) carried him through Nixon’s efforts to pressure him, and the following day Richardson got a standing ovation from the staff at Justice as he formally announces his resignation. So two other Weberian ideas — that office-holding is a vocation, and that charisma can persist in bureaucracies — are also relevant.

It’s an effective way to teach this bit of Weber, because he isn’t the most charismatic writer in the world himself, and although the students have heard of Watergate, the details of the constitutional crisis that culminated in the Saturday Night Massacre are new to them.

by Ted on May 30, 2004

About two weeks ago, Boston City Counselor City Councilor Chuck Turner (Green Party) and Nation of Islam representative Sadiki Kambon held a shameful press conference. They distributed photographs, allegedly of American soldiers raping an Iraqi woman, and said “The American people have a right and responsibility to see the pictures.” The pictures were fakes, taken from a pornographic website, and it was extremely irresponsible and offensive to make such a serious accusation without a more careful double-check. (This is assuming that they made an honest mistake.)

The Boston Globe ran a story about this press conference. Here’s the link. The story is 316 words long. By my count, 191 of those words are a sceptical discussion of the authenticity of the photographs. Here are those 191 words:

The images, depicting men in camouflage uniforms having sex with unidentified women, bear no characteristics that would prove the men are US soldiers or that the women are Iraqis. And there is nothing apparent in the images showing they were taken in Iraq. Unlike the photographs widely publicized last week, the images appear to have been taken outdoors in a sandy area with hills in the background.

A woman who answered the phone at Nation of Islam’s US headquarters in Chicago declined to give further information about the photographs, Muhammad, or his whereabouts. Local Nation of Islam minister Don Muhammad did not return messages left at his place of business.

A spokesman for the US Department of Defense, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Yoswa, said the department could not confirm the authenticity of the photographs.

“I would caution that there are many fake photos circulating on the Internet,” Yoswa said.

Turner and Kambon said they don’t know where or when the photos they distributed yesterday were taken. But Turner said they came from a “very legitimate person.”

“We cannot document their authenticity,” he told reporters. “But you have the ability to do that.”

The Globe ran a photo with this story. They did not run any of the pictures that Turner and Kambon handed out. Instead, they ran a photograph of Turner and Kambon holding a posterboard with four of their pictures. In this photo, pornographic details are visible, with only a little imagination. With a moment’s reflection, it seems obvious that the editors made an error in running this picture. Here’s a scan of it: if in doubt, don’t click.

This photo was run in the early edition of the paper. In later editions, the photo was shrunk to obscure the details in the photo, and finally dropped. They apologized for running the photo the next day. Here’s the apology.

My take is that the Globe made a legitimate choice to cover an incendiary story about the accusations made by a local politician, expressing scepticism as they did it. They also made a serious error in judgement by running this photo, which was compounded by their decision to shrink it, instead of remove it, when they realized that they had made a mistake. I’d think that we can question the judgement and attention to detail of these editors without calling them un-American.

Like I said, that’s my take. For an opposing point of view, here are exerpts from ten Instapundit posts which have referenced the subject.

[click to continue…]

What would de Tocqueville think ?

by John Q on May 30, 2004

Tim Lambert has more details on yet another Astroturf operation, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, recently in the news for attacking open source software and also a shill for the tobacco industry.

A point of interest for me is that I don’t think you really need detailed evidence in cases like this (though of course, its handy to have the kind of chapter and verse Tim provides). Unless it’s devoted to the life and works of de Tocqueville, an outfit with a name like the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution is bound to be bogus.

[click to continue…]

Hostages vs Hardware

by Kieran Healy on May 30, 2004

Before I went to graduate school I worked for a year at an oil refinery — “Ireland’s only refinery”:, in fact — in East Cork. Reading reports about the “hostage crisis in Khobar”:, I wonder why the terrorists went after the oil workers rather than the refineries they work at. After all, if you’re prepared to plan and execute a heavily-armed attack like this, you could do a lot more damage if you just broke into the plant. Oil refinery hardware is just lots of open-plan exposed pipes, tanks and towers filled with flammable liquids. Popping a few RPGs in the direction of a kero tank or “butane sphere”: could have spectacular consequences. In the “fractionation towers”: the crude has helpfully been vaporized for you in advance. Instead, though, these guys hole up with 50 oil workers in a residential compound and basically wait to get themselves killed. Why? Hostage situations haven’t been reliably successful for hostage-takers since the 1980s. The CNN reports cite the terrorists as saying they are out to get “Zionists and crusaders” who are in Khobar to “steal our oil and resources.” Maybe they hate the workers but love the refineries? Who, exactly, are they trying to send a message to here? Do they think that killing foreigners will garner support whereas the destruction of a refinery would turn Saudi opinion against them?

*Update*: Just as I was finishing this post, I discovered that inquiring minds like “Billmon”: want to know the answer to this question as well.

Lowering the Bar

by Belle Waring on May 30, 2004

Thomas “Airmiles” Friedman, has had enough of pie-in-the-sky democracy-promotion, and is ready for some bracing realism:

We need to rebalance our policy. We still have a chance to do in Iraq the only thing that was always the only thing possible — tilt it in a better direction — so over a generation Iraqis can transform and liberate themselves, if they want. What might an Iraq tilted in the right direction look like? It would be more religious than Turkey, more secular than Iran, more federal than Syria, more democratic than Saudi Arabia and more stable than Afghanistan.

More federal than Syria? Frickin’ awesome! This reminds me of a joke of my grandmother’s on the difference between hell and heaven. In heaven, the cooks are French, the lovers Italian, the cops English, and the bankers Swiss. In hell, the cooks are English, the lovers Swiss, the cops French, and the bankers Italian. Airmiles’ list seems infernal: more democratic than Saudi Arabia? Less theocratic than Iran? Gosh, is such a country even concievable?

And what’s up with the only thing that was always already the only thing possible? To wit, a US-friendly, “democracy-minded strongman“, one imagines? (Now with 50% more mindfulness.) I tell you what: when I go around spending blood and treasure like water, I like a bit more value for money.

De te fabular narratur

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2004

I just read “a particularly egregious column from Jonah Goldberg”:,,482-1126901,00.html in the London Times. The Times is only freely available to people within the UK, so I thought I’d surf over to the National Review Online to see if the content was also posted there. I didn’t find the Times piece, but I did happen upon “Goldberg’s take on the Instapundit-Yglesias spat”: which concludes:

bq. Yglesias would improve his arguments if he stopped his recent habit of increasingly asserting bad motives on anyone he disagrees with.

Back to the Times, where Goldberg begins thusly a column aimed at critics of the administration’s Iraq policies in general and Anthony Zinni in particular:

bq. HERE we go again. It is time to blame the Jews. That seems to be this month’s explanation for the Iraq war. Obviously, this is hardly a new idea on either side of the Atlantic, particularly for readers of, say, The Guardian or Le Monde. But in America, the emphasis on the theory has reached almost French proportions

“[A]sserting bad motives on anyone he disagrees with” ?

Heavy Lifting

by Belle Waring on May 29, 2004

A recent post on our blog about whether any of the situations in the Alanis Morrisette Song “Ironic” were, in fact, ironic, has garnered unexpected interest. I looked at the lyrics more carefully, and I think perhaps half could be said to qualify in an extended sense, that is, they seem like dramatic irony. So: “rain on your wedding day” is unquestionably not ironic, it’s just somewhat unfortunate. But I’ll give her “death-row pardon two minutes late”, I guess, if we accept a certain notion of irony I outline below.

[click to continue…]

Physician, Heal Thyself

by Kieran Healy on May 29, 2004

“Glenn Reynolds”: responds to criticism from “Matt Yglesias”:

bq. Instead of blaming the messenger, perhaps a bit of soul-searching would be in order.

You said it, mate.

Professional Misconduct

by Kieran Healy on May 29, 2004

“Eugene Volokh”: has an interesting post about unsolved or unexplored issues in First Amendment doctrine. His topic is Professional-Client Speech:

bq. Many professional-client relationships — lawyer-client, psychotherapist-patient, accountant-client, even often doctor-patient — mostly consist of speech. Sometimes, of course, they involve physical conduct (surgery) or the submission of statements to the government (a lawyer arguing in court). But often they consist solely of two people talking with each other, one asking questions and the other giving advice. And yet this communication is often subject to speech restrictions and speech compulsions that would generally be forbidden in other contexts.

He gives five examples, including professional negligence, professional advice being dependent on a license (a prior restraint in other contexts), and banned sexual relations between professionals and clients (doctors, etc). “What should be the proper analysis be under the First Amendment?” he asks. I have no idea, of course, because I’m not a lawyer. But sociologically, these restraints are generally self-imposed should be seen as constitutive of professional authority in the first place. A professional association that endorsed this kind of lawsuit would be making a big mistake.

[click to continue…]

More Liberal Media Bias

by Brian on May 28, 2004

The CNN Report on “The Day After Tomorrow”: has, as its quoted scientific expert, “John Christy”: The same John Christy who has contributed to such balanced pieces of work as “Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths”: Yep, that’s our liberal media.

[click to continue…]

While I prepare my pro-McSweeney’s vicious battle raps, I leave you with:

The Making of the Autobiography with George W. Bush (An Excerpt) (via Radney Balko)

Pros and Cons of John Kerry’s Top Twenty Vice-Presidential Candidates (via Reason)

Daily Reasons to Dispatch Bush

My goodness, how I love the internet.