From the monthly archives:

August 2005

Got any lifehacks?

by Eszter Hargittai on August 29, 2005

I am guest-blogging over at Lifehacker this week while regular editor Gina Trapani takes a breather. Lifehacker is part of Nick Denton‘s Gawker Media empire that has managed to make money out of blogging. (We’re not all in it for the $s as you can tell by the lack of ads on CT, but it’s nice to know that some people who don’t necessarily have other main sources of income are able to pull it off.) CT readers are probably most familiar with Gawker’s Wonkette, but there are about a dozen Gawker sites at this point addressing all sorts of topics.

Lifehacker focuses on ways to make your life more productive. Many of the posts feature downloads (e.g. Firefox, Flickr), shortcuts and pointers to helpful Web sites. There is a whole category of advice pieces as well ranging from how to deal with various situations at work to ideas for getting things done more effectively.

If you have any lifehacking tips, please send them along to me this week by writing to

Six Feet of Water in the Streets of Evangeline

by Kieran Healy on August 28, 2005

“The whole of New Orleans is being evacuated”: as “Hurricane Katrina”: moves toward the coast. It’s been known for a long time that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane under just the right (meaning, very, very wrong) circumstances. The city is located in a bowl-shaped depression with water on three sides, and under the “worst-case”: “outcome”:, if it flooded severely it would be tremendously difficult to get rid of the water. There’s a scholarly literature on the danger. “One government report says”:

bq. New Orleans is the most vulnerable major city on the Gulf Coast and perhaps in the entire United States. Had Hurricane Georges not taken a last minute turn to the east in 1998, major portions of New Orleans would have flooded. It would likely have been one of the worst disasters of the century in terms of loss of life and damage. Additionally, Louisiana has extensive infrastructure of oil and gas facilities, chemical plants, and hazardous, industrial and residential landfills. Most of these facilities are in flood prone areas and within the confines of levee systems protecting housing and other structures from flooding. Even in areas where mitigation strategies have been engineered (i.e., levee, drainage, and pumping systems), such designs are unable to capture and control all storm water runoff from occasional extreme rain events.

“Another, from LSU,”:, tries to map the likely range of flooding from a category 2 or 3 storm. It’s not pretty. Hopefully things won’t go so badly, of course. But then again it might be the biggest thing to hit the region since the “Great Mississippi Flood”: of 1927.

_Light Relief Update_: In the “CNN story on this event”:, the mayor of New Orleans is quoted as saying “About 70 percent of New Orleans is below sea level, and is protected by a series of levies.” I’m sure our “libertarian friends”: would heartily endorse this statement, but I don’t think the transcript quite conveys the mayor’s meaning.

An para-historical two-fisted tale

by John Holbo on August 28, 2005

Odd googlenews hit of the day.

In the history of the atlantology and classic archaeology and philology it is for the first time made a paleographical and lexicographical study and medieval revision of texts of Plato through the trascripciones of manuscripts and codices written in Greek and Latin. For the first time, the oldest translations of the Timaeus like the one of Chalcidio (Century IV) and the translations to Latin of books of the Timeo and the Critias to the Latin of famous medieval philosophers Marsilio Ficino (s. XV) and Iano Cornarius study and consult in a study on Atlantis (s. XVI).

If you still have doubts, check out the ‘more info’ link at the bottom. First, this reassuring message.


Then … the music.

[As to why I was checking googlenews for info on Plato and Atlantis: mind your own business.]

Reality TV, Iraqi style

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2005

The NYT has a great story on “how Western-style reality tv is spreading to Iraq”: .

bq. Reality TV could turn out to be the most durable Western import in Iraq. It has taken root with considerably greater ease than American-style democracy. Since spring 2004, when “Materials and Labor” made its debut, a constellation of reality shows has burst onto TV screens across Iraq. True to the genre, “Materials and Labor” has a simple conceit at its heart – Al Sharqiya, an Iraqi satellite network, offers Baghdad residents the chance to have homes that were destroyed by the war rebuilt at no cost to them.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

Ask Jane

by Maria on August 27, 2005

As I was sucking back my daily dose of Starbucks and Ask Amy this morning and feeling amiably distant from all things European, I came across a problem that Amy described as Dickensian. The dilemma – a comfortably-off American couple with no grandchildren who wish to lavish affection and a college fund on their cleaner’s daughter – is in fact more accurately in the mode of Jane Austen. Then, scrolling down the page, I found another letter to Amy from no less a personage than the president of the Jane Austen Society of North America who congratulated Amy for recommending Emma to a previous reader. If Amy had taken her own advice, and read Mansfield Park before she advised the petitioning would-be grandmother to get counseling, she might have answered differently.

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“Able Danger” and data mining

by Henry Farrell on August 27, 2005

“Laura Rozen”: on revelations that Able Danger contractors lost their jobs after fingering Condoleeza Rice and William Perry as part of a web of relationships between China and US defence/security types.

bq. Able Danger’s data mining results seemed more all over the board, a kind of tinfoil hat producing adventure better left to freepsters and google?

Not necessarily so. There’s a lot of confusion about what data mining can and cannot do. Both its proponents (who want to get fundng for it), and its opponents (who want to conjure up images of Big Brother) have an interest in hyping up its capabilities. The fact that Able Danger or other data mining programs may throw up false positives doesn’t mean that data mining isn’t potentially useful. The _most_ that data mining can do (and should be expected to do) is sometimes to highlight interesting and non-obvious relationships that might otherwise have escaped people’s attentions. In the words of Mary DeRosa’s “CSIS report”: on data mining and counter-terrorism (the best thing I’ve read on the topic), data mining may provide a set of ‘power tools’ for law enforcement and intelligence, which may suggest interesting further lines of investigation. Inevitably, however, it’s going to provide a lot of entirely spurious leads (indeed, if it doesn’t provide some dead-ends, its filters are probably set too narrowly). Thus, it shouldn’t be treated as providing smoking gun evidence the one way or the other – all that it does is to analyse sets of relationships in a network of actors, and highlight some relationships that might otherwise have been non-obvious.

So the important question isn’t whether Able Danger and related programs came up with some network connections that seemed on the face of it to be ridiculous (although in the unlikely event that the Able Danger people portrayed Rice as some class of a Manchurian candidate it would obviously be a serious problem). In order to figure out the underlying merits and defects of Able Danger, we’d need to have a lot more information than seems to be publicly available at the moment. How good was Able Danger _overall_ at filtering out the wheat from the chaff? What was the overall ratio of false positives to genuine positives? Was the data mining exercise that spat out Atta’s name (assuming that the Able Danger people are telling the truth) one of a whole bunch of data mining exercises, most of which came up with garbage? Did the specific exercise that came up with Atta’s name highlight him as playing a central role in the network, or at least a role that merited further investigation, or did it have him on the periphery of the network? At the moment, we simply don’t know enough to evaluate – instead, we seem to be in a wilderness of mirrors, with “conflicting leaks”: from pro- and anti-Able Danger types, all with their own agendas. The quick take as best as I can make out – if Able Danger singled out Atta as one of a small group of individuals who merited substantial further investigation, then the Pentagon has a problem. If Atta’s name was one of hundreds or thousands, the rest of whom were mostly false positives, or if the network analysis didn’t highlight Atta as someone who merited further investigation, then the Pentagon’s decision to close down the program is far more easily defensible _ex post_.

Robert Trivers

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2005

Don’t miss the “Guardian’s profile of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers”:,12084,1556482,00.html . A nervous breakdown after reading too much Wittgenstein, friendship with Huey Newton of the Black Panthers and the following priceless comment on Richard Dawkins: “My first wife, a wonderful woman, used to refer to Dick as the Selfish Gene, just because of the way he acts. ” Definitely worth a look.

Sartorial Munich

by Chris Bertram on August 26, 2005

I’m back from a few days in Munich, which I’d recommend as excellent value to visit. (I suspect there’s an oversupply of hotel rooms in advance of next summer’s world cup.) It rained nearly the whole time I was there, but that didn’t stop me from visiting some excellent art galleries: the wonderful “Alte Pinakothek”: , the goodish “Neue Pinakotek”: and the sinister and intruiging “Villa Stuck”: . Of course I also managed to consume a large number of excellent sausages and quantities of “Dunkles Weißbier”: ! All of which brings me on to a less flattering observation on Germany and the Germans, namely, that the Germans may well be the worst dressed of the major industrial nations. Admittedly, the competition is stiff from us British and from the Americans, but I think the Germans may win on grounds of sheer uniformity. It is possible to sit and watch a string of people of all ages and sizes walk past all dressed as follows: dark denim jeans, dark denim jacket, trainers (sneakers). The monotony is hardly broken by the occasional deviant who leaves the denim jacket behind for a regulation black leather one. Since “Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef”: is now dubbed into German — so much for Chirac joking with Schroeder about British cuisine — I can’t help wondering whether the Germans aren’t in line for some British or American clothing-and-lifestlye fascism TV: “Trinny and Susannah”: or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”: perhaps. But perhaps they already get those shows and are showing a laudable determination to resist.

[For Alex: here’s a link to a picture of Gabriel Cornelius von Max’s “Monkeys as Judges of Art”: from the Neue Pinakothek.]

Agenda for Justice

by Henry Farrell on August 25, 2005

Nathan Newman is spearheading a new initiative, “Agenda for Justice”:, which deserves attention and support. The core idea is to create and implement a progressive agenda at the local and regional levels that would be worthwhile in itself, and that might eventually serve as a platform for national level reform. It covers some of the same territory as David Sirota’s “Progressive Legislative Action Network”:, but seems to me to have a more specific set of aims, with a focus on work, trade union rights and family support.

Blogging arxiv

by Henry Farrell on August 24, 2005

Sean Carroll “reports”: that the “arxiv”: pre-print series has started to integrate itself into the blogosphere; this strikes me as a Very Big Deal indeed for academic blogging. Non-physicists may not be familiar with arxiv (I know that I certainly wasn’t before I started getting interested in network topology) – it’s effectively replaced journal publication as the primary means for physicists to communicate with each other. Journal publication is still important – but as an imprimatur, a proof of quality, rather than a way to disseminate findings to a wider audience. arxiv has now introduced trackbacks – people visiting the abstract of a paper on arxiv can see what blogs have commented on the paper, and read what they have had to say. Furthermore, arxiv has “rss feeds”: of recent papers, classified by subject matter, making it much easier to keep up with new publications in a subfield.

This seems to me to be the nucleus of something like the new approach to academic publishing that John Holbo has advocated, in which blogs and bloglike tools become an integrated part of academia, creating conversation around interesting recent papers, filtering the good ones from the not-so-good ones etc etc. I can see potential problems down the line (trackback spam, attempts to game the system etc) – but the promise that this holds for physicists (and for non-physicists when we get around to creating arxiv equivalents) seems to me to be nothing short of extraordinary.

Update: It appears as though “Jacques Distler”: had a lot to do with this.

McGowan on Nussbaum-Butler

by Henry Farrell on August 24, 2005

A recommendation: John McGowan’s second “post”: at on the Martha Nussbaum-Judith Butler controversy is really worth reading – an example of what academic blogging should be like (the “first”: is pretty good too). Lucid, measured and thought-provoking – highly recommended.

Google World

by Eszter Hargittai on August 24, 2005

I am back from a five-stop two-week trip and am finally catching up on CT and various things Web. I missed the discussion John started a few days ago about Google. Instead of adding to that thread, I’ll add a whole post. To think of Google as just a company focusing on search is outdated, in my opinion. Google is becoming much more than that. Since the beginning they have been an expert at using network analysis to their advantage. With the various services they are rolling out, they can use that ability not only in the realm of search, but in the realm of building profiles of their users.

The title of this post does not refer to a new Google program. Rather, it’s what I suspect the company is aiming at overall. That is, they are introducing (whether through internal development or buyouts) new services constantly, many of which suggest that they have their eyes on doing much more than providing search. Today, they launched Google Talk so now they are in the instant messaging market. For Google Talk, you need a Google Account, which is the same as your GMail account if you already have one. If you don’t, you may consider getting one since now they offer over 2.5 gigabytes of storage. Of course, you may never need that amount of space for email (although I learned a long time ago never to say never when it comes to storage space) in which case you may just want to use it as a backup for files.

One of the great features about GMail is that it checks for new email regularly (several times a minute) so as long as you stay logged on, you can get regular email updates. Of course, as long as you stay logged on, Google can track all of your online activities connected to its services, which include searches run on its search engine. Not only do they have information about all of your emails, they also know what searches you run and what results you choose.

Being able to scan your email (as they do for the purposes of displaying Google Ads) doesn’t only give them information about what topics you discuss, they also know with whom. They can develop very nice maps of people’s networks. Now that they have launched Google Talk they will also know which of your email contacts are strong enough that you also tend to contact them through chat (assuming you are using Google Talk for IMing). They will have more data on which to draw for a network map of your connections. And since the use of Google Talk requires a Google Account from both users, they can construct network maps of those people as well. So your network map is not just about your direct connections.

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Secret Shock Troops of the Gay Agenda

by Kieran Healy on August 24, 2005

Eugene Volokh has been “arguing”: that by pushing for a society where homosexuality isn’t illegal, repressed or stigmatized, gay people are out to convert those who might not have otherwise engaged in homosexual activity. In much the same way, I suppose, many 16 to 18 year olds are out to convert one another to various forms of heterosexual activity. The post is a good example of Volokh’s approach to the social scientific end of legal thinking: a bit of initial data followed by some big hypotheticals followed by a lot of speculation about the motives of some person or persons unknown. The end result is a very narrow argument (on one reading he’s just arguing that bisexuals are more likely to engage in homosexual sex if homosexual activity isn’t illegal or stigmatized), but one that’s nevertheless shot through with unpleasant undertones about the gay rights movement and its supposed efforts to “convert” ordinary decent people. The whole thing depends on equivocating between the narrow denotation of the word “convert” and its broad connotations.

Meanwhile, the NYT presents some doctor arguing that observing childbirth is “such a horrible experience”: that many men never recover from the trauma and lose their “romantic view of their wives.” Naturally this disgust and revulsion is the woman’s problem: “Women may want to consider the risks as they invite their partners to watch them…” Belle has already given this the “response it deserves”: (my advice: bring a bag of boiled sweets, lads, and you’ll be fine). But based on the reactions of “some people”:, the link to Volokh’s post becomes obvious. It’s not just gay people who are trying to recruit straight men to homosexuality, it’s also women, who entrap men in delivery rooms. By having sex with them 40 weeks or so earlier, and then putting them through this awful experience, they surely drive men away from a healthy heterosexuality. These heartless women may also be part-timing it as agents for secular Darwinism, as they show God-fearing men that while the Intelligent Designer might have done a nice job with the fine detail of mitochondria, He really was not paying attention in other departments.

This Is Why We Have The Word Kafkaesque

by Belle Waring on August 24, 2005

From the Washington Post today, a supremely depressing tale of 15 Uighur men trapped in Guantanamo:

All 15 Uighurs have actually been cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay twice, once after a Pentagon review in late 2003 and again last March, U.S. officials said….

Even after the second decision, however, the government did not notify the 15 men for several months that they had been cleared. “They clearly were keeping secret that these men were acquitted. They were found not to be al Qaeda and not to be Taliban,” Willett said. “But the government still refused to provide a transcript of the tribunal that acquitted them to the detainees, their new lawyers or a U.S. court.”

Let’s give the government some nano-credit in that it recognizes that these men will be imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese government if returned. But they’re still pretty badly overdrawn at the moral bank:

In the meantime, the men are still treated as prisoners. Sabin P. Willett, a Boston lawyer who volunteered to take the cases of two Uighurs in March, finally met with them last month, after he and his team went through their own FBI clearances. One of the Uighurs was “chained to the floor” in a “box with no windows,” Willett said in an Aug. 1 court hearing.

Relatedly, this account of prison life in Iraq is not one to inspire confidence:

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, the military said it has arrested more than 40,000 people…. The average incarceration at Bucca is a year. The military attributes the surge in detentions to an increase in combat operations and the inability of the nascent Iraqi justice system to handle the crushing caseload.

Many of the freed detainees express bewilderment at why they were held; even the U.S. commander who oversees Bucca, Col. Austin Schmidt, 55, of Fairfax, estimated that one in four prisoners “perhaps were just snagged in a dragnet-type operation” or were victims of personal vendettas.

“This is like Chicago in the ’30s: You don’t like somebody, you drop a dime on them,” Schmidt said. “And by the time the Iraqi court system figures it out, they go home. But it takes a while.”

Well, just 25%…

Childbirth Porn

by Maria on August 23, 2005

Belle is rightly indignant about fathers put off sex by witnessing the birth of their children, and asks if there is such a thing as childbirth porn. There is. Well, in the sense that Mills & Boon and other softly-softly girl-targetted erotic fiction can be called porn, there also exists an analogous form of childbirth porn. I should know.
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