From the monthly archives:

February 2005

Belated Friday Fun Thread: Oscar edition

by Ted on February 28, 2005

Thoughts on the Oscars? I’ve got a few under the fold.
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Nick Cohen, blogger

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2005

As various people have noted, the “Observer has started a blog”:http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/observer/ (or perhaps a “blog” ). Nick Cohen, darling of the pro-war lefties is, naturally, “one of the contributors”:http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/observer/archives/2005/02/26/so_this_is_blogging.html — and recommends his favourite blogs. Many of Cohen’s recent column’s have included fulminations against the “pseudo-left” , a term which designates those who take a different view to his own on such matters as Iraq and Sheikh Qaradawi. I’m always suspicious of people with the capacity the exhibit great moral indigation against imbeciles who are stupid or venal enough to espouse positions similar to those that they themselves have only just abandoned (John Gray is another good example). Unsporting it may be, but I’d like to take this opportunity to link to “one of Cohen’s columns on Afghanistan”:http://observer.guardian.co.uk/waronterrorism/story/0,1373,582309,00.html (a war that, btw, I supported). The tone of outraged moral superiority is the same, but was, at that time, directed against different targets. Plus ça change ….

Locke in modern English

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2005

bq. To understand political power correctly and derive it from its proper source, we must consider what state all men are naturally in. It is a state in which men are perfectly free to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and themselves, in any way they like, without asking anyone else’s permission – all this subject only to limits set by the law of nature. It is also a state of equality, in which no-one has more power and authority than anyone else; because it is simply obvious that creatures of the same species and status, all born to all the same advantages of nature and to the use of the same abilities, should also be equal ·in other ways·, with no-one being subjected to or subordinate to anyone else, unless ·God·, the lord and master of them all, were to declare clearly and explicitly his wish that some one person be raised above the others and given an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

The latest of Jonathan Bennett’s “renderings of the classics of early modern philosophy”:http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/ into modern English is now out on the web: the “Second Treatise of Government”:http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/f_locke.html . In my experience it is a work that students find especially opaque in the original, much as I love the archaic language. (Sceptics might be interested to read “Bennett’s rationale”:http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/f_why.html for his project.)

Not the kind of bottle I need

by Kieran Healy on February 28, 2005

Inside the top of the “Jones Soda”:http://www.jonessoda.com/ I just opened it says “Take Charge of Your Life and Decisions.” I’m wondering whether doing this is compatible with accepting advice from a soft-drink bottle.

Mother Drive-By’s

by Belle Waring on February 28, 2005

Via Making Light, an amazing series of posts and threads from Chez Miscarriage. The most interesting one is the thread in which Chez solicits tales of “mother drive-by’s”, horrible, critical comments from other mothers on parenting. It will take ages to read them all, but I couldn’t turn away.

Some are truly, unforgiveably evil: “At the funeral for my 16 year old daughter who took her own life. My mother in law asked how we could have let Marrissa die.”

Or this:

“I was out and about with my then two year old Sara, who has Down Syndrome. A complete stranger asked me about her “condition”. I told him she had Down’s. He made some “tsk, tsk” noise and told me that I should have had an abortion, and how she would be a drain on society, and then walked off. My jaw was completely on the ground by that point and the tears were not far behind.”

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Crabwalk

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2005

I’ve just finished Günter Grass’s “Crabwalk”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0156029707/junius-20 , which which I read partly because it dovetails with some other stuff I’ve been reading (such as Sebald’s “Natural History of Destruction”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375504842/junius-20 ) and partly because I have to give a presentation to my German class about a recent book I’ve read. I figured that if I chose a German book there’s be plenty of on-line material to help me work out the relevant vocabulary.

There’s been “much blogospheric concern”:http://hurryupharry.bloghouse.net/archives/2005/02/14/thousands_of_neonazis_march_in_dresden.php recently about the resurgence of the German far-right, and that’s very much Grass’s concern. One of the favourite themes of the neo-Nazis is Germans-as-victims and Grass’s underlying thought is that the embarassed silence of the German mainstream about the fate of the refugees from Germany’s lost eastern provinces has gifted the extremists a monopoly of that issue. The novel is centred around the sinking of the “Wilhelm Gustloff”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KdF_Ship_Wilhelm_Gustloff on 30 January 1945. The ship, a former pleasure cruiser, was carrying as many as 10,000 people when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. Nearly everyone on board perished and it therefore ranks as one of the worst maritime disasters even. The narrator protagonist Paul Pokriefke is a cynical journalist whose mother, a survivor, gave birth to him on one of the lifeboats. His estranged son, Konrad, is a neo-Nazi obsessive who runs a website devoted both to the ship and to the assasinated Nazi functionary after whom it was named. Paul tells us of the sinking itself, of his difficult relationship with mother (a DDR loyalist who cried when Stalin died) and son, and of the assassination of “Gustloff”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Gustloff himself in Zurich in 1936 by a Jew, “David Frankfurter”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Frankfurter .

One thing that Grass gets absolutely right is the atmosphere of internet chatrooms. The son, Konrad, is forever engaged in hostile-but-matey banter with a “Jewish” interlocutor “David”. Not only are their identities not quite what they seem but he gets the adolescent faux-enemy-I-hang-out-with thing. I won’t say more about this, because I don’t want to spoil the denoument for anyone.

I’m not sure that Grass ends up telling us all that much about the neo-Nazi phenomenon. What he does get across though is a sense that the commitment of all of his protagonists to anything like a liberal democracy is fragile and contingent. Certainly a book worth reading for both its literary and historical interest, though the translation is occasionally clunky.

The Gates

by Jon Mandle on February 26, 2005

The Gates! Count me as a moderate supporter. It’s hard to talk about The Gates — the Christo and Jeanne-Claude installation in Central Park — without sounding pretentious. Like this: “Our memories of this experience are how the artwork changes us — perhaps the most powerful force of art, that the changes made are not in the site, but in us.” I can’t really say that I’m so different than I was a week ago. Sure, I guess they made me think, but that’s something I try to do anyway. The whole thing is just asking for parodies (this is my favorite) and mockery (like this).

But I like them. Let me just say, there are lots of ’em. There’s no location — on the ground, at least — where you can take in all of them, so there is always a sense that you’re only seeing a very small part of a much larger work — most of it stays out of reach. At the same time, each gate is made on a human scale and is not at all overwhelming. When the wind blows and creates a wave in one after another, the effect is quite beautiful. And together they highlight the different elevations of the park that wouldn’t be so obvious with out them — especially where one path passes on a bridge over another. They call attention to the topography of the park itself and not as much to themselves as you would expect given their construction site orange saffron color.

As my family walked through them, we stopped at a playground so my daughter could play on the swings. There were some young teenage boys hanging out there, smoking and trying to be cool. One of them asked if we knew where the art was supposed to be. My wife pointed to the gates and replied, “That’s it, all around.” They thought this was terribly funny, and one said: “I could do that in my bedroom.” To which the only possible reply was: “You must have some bedroom.”

Iraqi election futures

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2005

In the weekend edition of the Australian Financial Review (reproduced here), Justin Wolfers writes about a betting market on the Iraqi election turnout, run by the Irish betting exchange Tradesports. The bet turned on whether turnout would exceed 8 million and was roughly even money before voting began. The price of the contract rose sharply on early reports of turnouts over 70 per cent, then fell back again when to around even money when it became clear these reports had little basis. The final official turnout was about 8.4 million.

Readers will recall that something very similar happened in the US election when early exit polls favored Kerry. Modifying an old aphorism to say that “two striking observations constitute a stylised fact”, I think we can now say pretty safely that political betting markets display the wisdom of crowds who read blogs.
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Numa Numa New York Times

by Kieran Healy on February 26, 2005

The NYT has an “article”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/26/nyregion/26video.html?ex=1267160400&en=1d48bf539f85dc0e&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland about Gary Brolsma, the “Numa Numa”:http://www.google.com/search?q=numa+numa guy. If you haven’t seen the video, “go watch it”:http://www.albinoblacksheep.com/flash/numa.php and come back in a minute.

Now tell me what you think of the article’s summary of the story:

There was a time when embarrassing talents were a purely private matter … But with the Internet, humiliation – like everything else – has now gone public. … Here, then, is the cautionary tale of Gary Brolsma, 19, amateur videographer and guy from New Jersey, who made the grave mistake of placing on the Internet a brief clip of himself dancing along to a Romanian pop song. Even in the bathroom mirror, Mr. Brolsma’s performance could only be described as earnest but painful.

Utter bollocks. Mr Brolsma’s performance could only be described that way by someone with no capacity at all to recognize good comedy. The video is hilarious and, to anyone with eyes in their head, was supposed to be. It’s not earnest, it’s deadpan. I am sorry to say that Americans are renowned for their inability to grasp this distinction. Despite the article’s efforts to draw a parallel, it’s obviously a real performance, not a private bit of wish-fulfillment maliciously released into the wild like the “Star Wars Kid”:http://www.jedimaster.net/ video. The guy’s friends agree:

His friends say Mr. Brolsma has always had a creative side. He used to make satirical Prozac commercials on cassette tapes, for instance. He used to publish a newspaper with print so small you couldn’t read it with the naked eye. “He was always very out there – he’s always been ambitious,” said Frank Gallo, a former classmate. “And he’s a big guy, but he’s never been ashamed.” … “He’s been entertaining us for years.”

Sadly, the Times will not be diverted from its dumbass interpretation. It should come as no surprise that Brolsma “is distraught, embarrassed. His grandmother, Margaret Telkes, quoted him as saying, just the other day, ‘I want this to end.'” You would too, if you were getting shoehorned by the NYT into a “fat kid makes ass of self on internet” story:

The question remains why two million people would want to watch a doughy guy in glasses wave his arms around online to a Romanian pop song.

Because it’s funny, you gobshites! And it’s _meant_ to be! I’d bet that if Brolsma weren’t overweight, the Times wouldn’t have had as hard a time seeing this.

Adjustable rate mortgages

by John Quiggin on February 26, 2005

A striking development in the US economy in the last few years has been the growth in adjustable rate mortgages. This raises a couple of questions. First, if you’re thinking about buying a house, is better to go for adjustable or fixed-rate? Second, what does this mean for the economy as a whole?
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Iran

by Ted on February 25, 2005

I recently wrote about seeing Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, speak about the nuclear threat from Iran. At the time, he mentioned that he would be publishing a piece with Ken Pollack on the subject. I see, via Belgravia Dispatch, that it’s out.

The authors argue that the West cannot force Iran to stop their weapons program; they rule out a full-scale invasion, targeted bombing, or wishful thinking about a coup. But a combination of incentives and sanctions that provide Iran with significant economic benefits for nuclear compliance can make butter more appealing than guns. It’s a serious and detailed piece, well worth printing out and reading.

How likely is it that the Bush administration will pursue this path? I doubt that anyone has any better ideas, but after their pointed rejection of the comparable North Korean framework, it’d cause a bit of whiplash.

Absolute

by Ted on February 25, 2005

Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money has an interesting (and to me, convincing) case against Justices Thomas and Scalia, regarding California’s unofficial policy of bunking new inmates by race for the first 60 days. The court found, in a 5-3 decision, that the practice must stop unless it can meet the “strict scrutiny” standard. “As a result, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals must now scrutinize the 25-year-old policy for hard evidence that it is necessary and works — a burden that will be hard to meet.” Thomas and Scalia dissented.

Says Lemieux:

The big problem is that it is egregiously inconsistent with (Thomas’s) previous reasoning in affirmative action cases, in which both he and Scalia (who joined Thomas’s dissent here) have argued that the “Constitution” is color-blind, with no exceptions.

Here’s Thomas in Grutter v. Bollinger. If segregation can, in extreme cases, be defensible, then surely the Court should defer to university officials (as well as the United State military and many Fortune 500 corporations) who deem that simply considering race as one factor among many accomplishes crucial goals, right? The answer, of course, is “no”…

Not only do Thomas and Scalia find that the “color-blind” Constitution permits state-mandated racial segregation, they don’t even believe the policy should be subject to strict scrutiny. “The Constitution is color-blind….unless you’re a prisoner, in which case racial classifications don’t even require heightened scrutiny” is a risibly untenable position.

Personally, I’m more than a little uncomfortable with racial segregation of prisoners, and it’s not obvious to me how the policy would reduce violence. However, I’m willing to accept that California’s prison officials know more than I do, and would have been willing to give them leeway; I’m making the assumption that the prison system showed evidence of the policy’s effectiveness to the circuit court. Luckily, I’m not philosophically wedded to colorblindness as an absolute good.

Moore Brothers

by Belle Waring on February 25, 2005

Because I love them so much, I want to throw the Moore Brothers a little CT whuffie. They are so awesome. Now they’ve gone in a more folk direction, but my favorite album is the rocking Thumb of the Maid album, a one-off from 1998. (I’ve talked to them about it, and for some reason they think of this as a partial failure, when it’s actually their best album. Go figure.) Thom Moore’s Spitting Songs is also amazing, and a few of the best songs are reprised on 2004’s Now Is The Time For Love. I’m trying to think how to describe their style, and it’s difficult. I once read a review that compared them unfavorably to Guided By Voices, and I was like, WTF does Guided By Voices have to do with anything? They have that family member harmony going on, the one that makes the Carter Family send chills up your spine. Funny lyrics: “took her to the beach/she thinks it’s Berkeley Bowl.” Also, the song “Hey Twelve”, which I assume is a joke about Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen”, and is one of the great songs of all time. My friend Daniel had the (I think brilliant) suggestion that they should take over from Phish on the continuous concert circuit, but they don’t actually sound anything like Phish. Anyway, despite my faults as a rock critic, you just have to take my word for it that they are great. You can listen to lotsa streaming mp3’s on their site. Go send them some love. (Also, did I ever tell you that you should love the High Llamas? That seems relevant somehow.)

Another pointy-headed post about the issues

by John Quiggin on February 25, 2005

After a longer break than I’d planned, I’m back for the second and final instalment of my series on the efficient markets hypothesis and its implications for Social Security reform and other issues. The first instalment is here.

Last time, I pointed out that, under the strong assumptions needed for the efficient markets hypothesis to hold, the diversion of social security funds to personal accounts makes no difference at all, since everyone can already choose their optimal portfolio, borrowing if necessary to finance equity investments. A more realistic version with borrowing constraints or high borrowing costs implies that either private accounts or diversification of the holdings of the Social Security Fund can be beneficial, and also that a range of other government interventions will be beneficial. (See also Matt Yglesias

In this post I want to look at the case I think is actually relevant, namely, where the efficient markets hypothesis is violated in so many ways as to be a poor guide to economic policy of any kind.
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Gresham’s Law and Blogging

by Henry on February 24, 2005

Two slightly worrying posts that suggest to me that the linked economy of the blogosphere might be more fragile than we would like. First, Brad DeLong gives us an economist’s take on Technorati’s “recent difficulties”:http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000292.html.
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