From the monthly archives:

April 2005


by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2005

Moves are afoot to get the AUT decision for a partial boycott of Israeli institutions reversed, and for local associations — including my own — to repudiate and refuse to implement the national decision. So far, I haven’t met a single British academic who will admit to supporting the decision which was passed by a very narrow majority after a rushed and unsatisfactory debate by delegates who had mostly failed to discuss the issues with their colleagues in universities across the country. Sadly, but understandably, their vote has been interpreted as being indicative of the attitudes of British university teachers. I hope that impression can be correctly quickly. Meanwhile, a blog called “Engage”: has been started around the campaign to reverse the decision.

Academics and athletics

by John Quiggin on April 27, 2005

Via Rafe Champion at Catallaxy, I found this NYRoB review of a book Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values on the vexed topic of sport in US colleges. Bowen and Levin view the US system, where colleges use all sorts of inducements to recruit students who will play in their sporting teams, as entirely deplorable, and spend a fair bit of time on its various pernicious effects, but don’t really seem to have much of a solution. The reviewer, Benjamin DeMott has a more favorable view, pointing among other things to the fact that sports provide a route to college for working-class kids who wouldn’t otherwise get in, but doesn’t have a very effective response to the central point made by Bowen and Levin about the negative effects of a group of students who are mostly well below the average in ability, not academically motivated and are effectively employed full-time in their sporting careers in any case. Proposals to restore the ideal of the amateur student athlete have gone nowhere, and it seems unlikely that the radical approach of getting large numbers of colleges to pull out of the game altogether will do any better.

I’d like to suggest an alternative that is probably still too radical, but would not challenge the existence of college sports, and would overcome at least some of the problems aired by Bowen and Levin along with many others. College should recruit athletes as they do now, but let them defer all their classes for the four(?) years they play for the college team (unless they get cut earlier on). At the end of that time, a minority will make it into the professional leagues and big money, and won’t need a college degree. The rest will no longer have sporting commitments or the illusory hope of sporting riches. At this point, the college should give them their deferred education, with an explicit recognition that they are likely to need more help than the average student.

This seems like an improvement all round to me, but no doubt there’s lots of things I haven’t thought of, so I’ll let better-informed readers set me straight.

Fetishizing the Text

by Kieran Healy on April 27, 2005

A post over at the “Valve”: asks, _inter alia_, “Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not? … Do you have a stationary and/or a pen fetish?” Scott McLemee at _Inside Higher Ed_ “chimes in”: with a column about his own writing habits:

The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two … all will be written there, in longhand. … My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. … In my own experience, though, writing is … a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. … So the penchant for haunting stationary stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.

The implication is that, unlike the printed page and the ink-filled pen (or mechanical pencil), composing prose on a computer is different — perhaps efficiency-enhancing but somehow also inferior — and, more importantly, not subject to fetishization in the way that the pen-and-ink method is. But a moment’s reflection shows this to be wrong. Or, in my case, far too much time spent getting manuscripts (scholarly apparatus, tables, figures, indexes and all) to produce themselves automatically and beautifully shows this to be wrong.
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by Henry on April 26, 2005

There’s a very disturbing report in the Nation, about a memo in which Alan Brinkley, the provost of Columbia University, suggested that the university consider punishing graduate TAs who went on strike. The key paras:

In addition, the University should consider taking other measures to discourage teaching fellows from abandoning their instructional responsibilities. These will vary depending on whether the teaching fellows are still on the five-year funding plan or teaching in a later year of study. Students in their first five years of study could

1) Be required to teach an extra semester or year within the five-year period in order to meet the teaching requirements for their degree;
2) Lose their eligibility for summer stipends; and
3) Lose their eligibility for special awards, such as the Whitings.

Students beyond their fifth year of study could be told that

1) They are jeopardizing their chances of receiving further instructional assignments;
2) Those teaching in the Core will not receive the summer stipends normally given to preceptors who are reappointed to teach in the subsequent year.

It’s not at all clear that these threats were either made to the students or acted upon, but Brinkley should still be ashamed of himself. Punitive action against students exercising their right to strike would be flat-out illegal, had the administration-stacked NLRB not reversed its decision that graduate students had the right to organize. It’s certainly quite repugnant to the ideals of the university. This is a sorry day for Columbia.

(via Inside Higher Ed).

Green Day

by Jon Mandle on April 26, 2005

Last week, Michael Bérubé wrote that “Nick Lowe’s ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ is the most perfect pop song ever written.” A fine choice, I must say. Bérubé heroically rejects a distinction between ‘rock’ and ‘pop’: “We do not think that the former category is inhabited by edgy artists and assorted Culture Heroes whereas the latter is inhabited by Tommy James and the Shondells.” But, he continues: “Still, it remains true that if a song has too much fire and/or grit and/or passion in it, it exceeds the “Cruel to Be Kind” standard in obvious ways.”

Now certainly they often exceed “Cruel to Be Kind” by a considerable margin along the dimensions of fire and grit and passion, but I was still surprised that in some 193 comments – many bringing up excellent contenders – nobody mentioned the premier “hard pop” band of the last decade: Green Day. A few random notes on the concert I saw last night follow below.
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Union dues

by Henry on April 26, 2005

Joseph Braude suggests (free registration or bugmenot required) that the Bush administration should support trade unions in the Arab world, as an intermediate step towards democratization.

In light of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, it’s hard to fathom why the United States would even consider ignoring a secular movement in the Gulf with reasonable goals and thousands of members. … The Gulf unions, by contrast, according to the American labor official, desire logistical support and training from the United States–a sentiment you don’t hear very often from the traditional Arab labor headquarters in Damascus. To be sure, the Bahraini unions are–and the Kuwaiti unions are about to become–members of the Damascus-based establishment. All the same, their eagerness for American partnership is an opportunity to plant the seeds of meaningful political change. … What can the United States do for these unions in practical terms? In countries where there are no unions, the U.S. government should demand to know why–well before a free trade agreement is signed. Laws restricting public assembly–which exist in many Gulf states–ought to be eased in any country wishing to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. But the right to assemble is only the first step in a long road that should lead to the rights to strike and collectively bargain–which either don’t exist or are severely constrained in all Gulf states. And it’s not just the U.S. government that has a role to play. In countries where unions are already active and feisty, like Bahrain and Kuwait, American labor unions should lend support to their counterparts by offering advice and tactical training.

Sounds like a good idea – but one which I suspect this administration won’t pursue (I’d be very happy to be proved wrong on this).

And this 2002 article by Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers fits very nicely with the Nathan Newman post on minority union representation that I blogged about last week.

Dent on Rousseau

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2005

I was very pleased to get a copy of Nicholas Dent’s new “Rousseau“: in the post today. It appears in the Routledge Philosophers series edited by Brian Leiter. There’s an endorsement from yours truly on the cover, saying that is is “The best general introduction to Rousseau’s life and thought in English…” I think that’s true. Highly recommended.

(BTW this is a completely different book from his earlier Rousseau: An Introduction to his Psychological, Social and Political Theory, which was published by Blackwell and is also excellent.)

Exit, voice, loyalty II

by Maria on April 26, 2005

Just by the by, commenters on last week’s Exit, voice, loyalty thread who wanted to be deleted from the baptismal register of their churches may be interested in a 2003 ruling by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner. A man contacted the parish priest asking to have his name removed from the baptismal register, saying he had been enrolled in the church against his will and did not want the church to keep any of his personal data.

The priest found no record of the baptism – the man was living in Holland and seems to have had bad information – but suggested that a reasonable solution would in any case be to add a note to the record saying the man no longer wished to be associated with the Catholic church. The Data Protection Commissioner agreed, finding the priest’s suggestion both appropriate and considerate, and noting that the register was a factual statement of an event. Which seems fair enough from the data protection point of view, but probably no consolation to people baptised as Catholics who do not wish to be counted as such.

As to myself, I figure I’m better off inside the tent, pissing in. I did perform an act of protest, though. The day after Benedict XVI’s election as pope, I took out my shortest skirt, pulled on my highest heeled FMBs, and flounced the mile and half to work. It was one just as (in)effective as anything else I could think of and made road-crossing surprisingly easy.

Blair’s reasons for war

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2005

I see that “George” in the comments to Daniel’s post immediately below is contending, in a manner similar to that of various pro-war British bloggers, that Blair’s decision to go to war with Iraq was overdetermined. The claim is that, although WMD provided a sufficient reason to go to war, there were other “planks” to the case, also sufficient reasons, that were advanced at the time and which provided an independent case for the decision. We need to be careful here. There’s no doubt that the blogospheric supporters of the decision to go to war believed then and believe still that the nature of Saddam’s regime was such that it should have been removed. There are certainly Parliamentarians, such as Anne Clwyd, who took such a line. Indeed, there’s some merit in such a view though it needs to be balanced against a realistic assessment of the costs and risks of war. But it was not Blair’s view at the time. Blair stated clearly that the horrible nature of the Baathist regime would not be sufficient to justify the war and that Saddam’s regime could continue if he satisfied the UN on the WMD question. The money quotes:

bq. I detest his regime. But even now he can save it by complying with the UN’s demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully.


bq. it takes no time at all for Saddam to co-operate. It just takes a fundamental change of heart and mind. Today the path to peace is clear. Saddam can co-operate fully with the inspectors. He can voluntarily disarm. He can even leave the country peacefully. But he cannot avoid disarmament. One further point. The purpose in our acting is disarmament. But the nature of Saddam’s regime is relevant in two ways. First, WMD in the hands of a regime of this brutality is especially dangerous because Saddam has shown he will use them. Secondly, I know the innocent as well as the guilty die in a war. But do not let us forget the 4 million Iraqi exiles, the thousands of children who die needlessly every year due to Saddam’s impoverishment of his country – a country which in 1978 was wealthier than Portugal or Malaysia but now is in ruins, 60 per cent of its people on food aid. Let us not forget the tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured or executed by his barbarity every year. The innocent die every day in Iraq victims of Saddam, and their plight too should be heard. [Emphases added]

Clearly, in the passage above, Blair is offering the ghastly nature of the Saddam regime not as an independent justification for war but as a reason to given additional weight and urgency to the WMD case. People should not retrospectively pretend otherwise.

Two decisions, not one

by Daniel on April 25, 2005

I’ve just been watching the Newsnight item on the Attorney General’s advice furor, and it seems to me that this issue is a lot more clear cut than people are trying to make it. Blair keeps saying “look, I had to take that decision”. But there were two decisions taken in the first quarter of 2003, with the intelligence they had, the legal advice they had, and a UN resolution not coming along as fast as wanted. Those decisions were:

1. The decision to get rid of Saddam
2. The decision to sell decision 1 to the public by misrepresenting the evidence.

With regard to the first decision, there is a case to be made that it had to be done, and that it had to be done right then. As regular readers know, I don’t agree with this case, but it can be made forcefully.

But the second decision … well, there’s no defending it, is there? The war might have needed to be fought, but it didn’t need to be lied about. Tony Blair controls the British Army, not us. He could have fought that war on the basis of Saddam having to go. And it would have cost Labour votes, so he didn’t sell it that way; he took a gamble on the likely existence of WMDs and lost. So in other words, decision 2, was a decision that had nothing to do with saving the Iraqis; it was a decision to mislead the British public in order to help the Labour Party’s electoral chances. Somebody took that decision; very false claims were certainly made and they weren’t made by accident (or by mistake).

There’s no justifying that, is there?

This Year’s Model

by Daniel on April 25, 2005

A week late and a dollar short, I am now ready to unveil my election forecasting model. Gosh what fun it was to make; there really is no substitute for wading in and making a model if you want to learn about a dataset. I am not uploading it here, because the bloody thing is a 1MB Excel file and I suspect that the bandwidth consequences of this for CT would cost me my stripes. However, if you email me at daniel dot davies at gmail dot com, I’ll send it across to you if you like. Or alternatively, you can download the data yourself from Martin Baxter‘s site and produce your own version which may be safer from my trademark incomprehensible spreadsheet design and boneheaded calculation errors. Below the fold, the recipe for my model, the forecasts themselves, and a bit of psephological analysis which suggests why I think that the Liberal Democrats are really, really badly screwed.

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Lost in translation

by Henry on April 25, 2005

I saw The Interpreter last night, and had distinctly mixed feelings; it’s an interesting film, but not a very good one.(warning: spoilers ahead).
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One dimensional prose

by Henry on April 24, 2005

And while we’re on the subject of Thomas Friedman’s latest burblings, isn’t it about time that someone brought up Edwin Abbot’s classic novel, Flatland and its hero and narrator, “A Square?”

Economics and Literature

by Henry on April 24, 2005

One for Daniel Davies from a book I’m reviewing.

“Monitoring, Rules, and the Control Paradox: Can the Good Soldier Svejk Be Trusted,” in Roderick M. Kramer and Karen S. Cook eds., Trust and Distrust in Organizations, New York: Russell Sage 2004.

One of the most fascinating and revealing forms of organizational sabotage is “working to rule” – precisely following rules while providing no voluntary effort beyond that required by the rules. An especially destructive form of “working to rule” involves applying the rules most carefully where they are least appropriate to the situation. This technique was perfected by Private Josef Svejk, a leading Czech cultural hero, and the eponym of Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel, The Good Soldier Svejk. … Svejk was taking advantage of a basic fact … it is simply impossible to specify in advance all the behaviors that the organization will require from its employees if it is to survive and thrive. This is the organizational manifestation of the phenomenon known as “contractual incompleteness” in economics (Coase 1937). … many organizational tasks simply do not lend themselves to outcome-based incentives. The rest of this paper discusses the alternative: close specification of desired behaviors by means of rules and commands, and sanctions to enforce those behaviors. In particular, I will argue that built-in inefficiencies may plague management by monitoring. The inefficiencies may be understood by picturing the monitoring relationship as a one-shot game with a Pareto-suboptimal equilibrium. … The paper will examine the nature of the “tit-for-tat” exchange that is capable of Pareto improvements in organizations in which labor contracts are based on monitoring of individual actions rather than measurement of individual outcomes. Furthermore, cooperation requires trust in that hierarchical superiors must yield some of their capacity for discovering and punishing shirking by subordinates.

A Voice on a Paper Cup

by Belle Waring on April 24, 2005

No one who has read the Gulag Archipelago or Sinyavsky’s A Voice From the Chorus can possibly read these words without a pang to the heart:

“It was just a short poem,” Badr recalled. “Something about how in life everything is possible and we should be patient because freedom is close at hand.” But it was enough to swell his heart with hope. “I was suddenly so happy,” he said.

Dost had smuggled the note to [his brother] Badr through an ingenious ruse. Every few days, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived with forms so prisoners could write brief letters home. They were given only 10 minutes, but that was enough to dash off other notes on hidden scraps of paper cups. Prisoners then passed the messages between wire pens on pulleys made of threads from their prayer caps….

Eventually, he said, the interrogators seemed convinced that he had not meant any serious harm. [he wrote a satirical piece in which he offered to match Clinton’s $5 million reward for bin Laden with his own 5 million afghani (US $115) price on Clinton’s head.] In February 2004, Dost said, he was transferred to another section of Guantanamo where he had access to as much paper as he wanted.

He continued to produce hundreds of poems, translated the Koran into Pashto and wrote a text on Islamic jurisprudence.

In the meantime, Dost said, he was taken before a review tribunal, a brief procedure that he described as a “show trial,” even though it ultimately resulted in his release. To date, U.S. military officials said, 232 Guantanamo detainees have been released and more than 500 remain in custody.

Often, Dost said, the guards conducted raids when officials suspected a detainee had issued a fatwa — an Islamic decree against them. Each time, all inmates’ writings were confiscated. Dost said he was assured that his work would be returned to him on his release.

But when that day finally came last week, Dost said, he received only a duffel bag with a blanket, a change of clothes and a few hundred papers — a fraction of his writings.

This parting blow, he said, struck him harder than all the humiliations of confinement. On Friday, as well-wishers swarmed into his home, he said his only thought was how to recover his work.

“If they give me back my writings, truly I will feel as though I was never imprisoned,” he said. “And if they don’t . . . “

Look, my country is better than this. Or this. Just. Stop.

I know I’ve related this before on my own blog, but my grandfather was an OSS spy in WWII. In one of the letters he sent home to my grandmother he describes how he met up with US ground troops who had just taken a French village controlled by a particularly awful German captain. He relates how his first impluse was to beat the shit out of the guy, knowing what he did about what the man had done. But he just gave him a cigarette instead. I don’t remember exactly what he said in the letter, but it was basically that the German was surprised at his mild reception, and my grandfather told him that was what happened when you were taken prisoner by Americans, and that we were better than them, better by a long shot. Anyone who thinks Osama bin Laden is more of a threat to the US than the Axis is welcome to come to East Hampton to get hit on the head with a lead pipe by my grandpa. He’s still pretty spry. Also, just stop.