From the monthly archives:

September 2005


by John Quiggin on September 29, 2005

From today’s NYT

“Even though DeLay has nothing to do with Frist, and Frist has nothing to do with Abramoff, how does it look? Not good,” said William Kristol, a key conservative strategist and editor of The Weekly Standard.

Unfortunately for Kristol’s rhetorical exercise, the relation “has nothing to do with” is not transitive, a fact of which he is presumably aware, given this choice of example.

From the previous para in the same story

the string of ethical issues so close together – including the indictment and continuing investigation of the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was close to Mr. DeLay … is a source of anxiety in Republican circles.

Lotteries in Admissions to Academies

by Harry on September 29, 2005

When I first started arguing for lotteries in admissions to oversubscribed schools, I was ridiculed on 2 grounds — that it was wrong and that it was politically unfeasible — ridiculous, in fact. I disagreed that it was wrong, but thought it worth having the argument. I agreed that it was politically unfeasible, but saw it as worth arguing for, on the grounds that making the argument helped to show up the ways in which other methods for allocating children to oversubscribed schools did not give choice to parents but to school (or LEA) officials. Apparently I was wrong:

Ministers have given their support to the allocation of places at over-subscribed schools by lottery. An academy in south London is one of a number of schools now allocating some of its places to children in the area on a random basis. The arrangements are seen as a way of breaking social segregation, particularly where better-off families buy up homes near popular schools.

Left vs Right vs Cactus

by Kieran Healy on September 29, 2005

As the “Left vs Right”: infighting continues, I wanted to mention that “my department”: is hiring this year, and also point out that Arizona is the ideal location for all your Left vs Right needs. We got “libertarian cowboys”: and new age “crystal-and-vortex”: types, cranky Michigan republicans and Minnesota democrats (also cranky) down for the winter, “patio men”: and “mountain bike people”:, “property developers”: and “mariachi bands”:, “chollas”: and “chilis”:, “religion”: and “science”:, “warthogs”: and “javelinas”: Also great views. (See left. More on “my homepage”: And even some “skiing”: Enough to keep everyone happy.

Saddam trial

by John Quiggin on September 29, 2005

Gary Bass in the NYT comments on the possibility that Saddam could be sentenced to death and executed for a 1982 massacre of about 100 villagers, without ever being brought to trial on the main array of charges against him, including killing political rivals, crushing the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq in 1991, invading Kuwait in 1990 and waging the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, including gassing Kurdish villagers at Halabja. As Bass says,

 A thorough series of war crimes trials would not only give the victims more satisfaction but also yield a documentary and testimonial record of the regime’s crimes.

But looking at this list raises a more basic question. Why hasn’t Saddam been charged with any crime more recent than 1991?[1]. In the leadup to the war, and in its aftermath, it was routinely claimed that Saddam’s regime, at the time it was overthrown was among the most brutal dictatorships in the world. Even among opponents of the war, hardly anyone doubted or doubts now that the regime often practised murder and torture. Why then aren’t there any charges covering this period? Presumably both documents and witnesses are more readily available than for a crime committed more than twenty years ago.

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Left vs Right Pt CCLXI

by Kieran Healy on September 28, 2005

Via “Volokh”: we come across the latest in a “long”: “line”: of nonsense about whether the left or the right has a monopoly on virtue _x_ or vice _y_. (Surely that should be vice _x_. Never mind.) This time it’s “Ann Althouse”: chancing her arm:

bq. To be a great artist is inherently right wing. A great artist like Dylan or Picasso may have some superficial, naive, lefty things to say, but underneath, where it counts, there is a strong individual, taking responsibility for his place in the world and focusing on that.

To which one can only say, piffle. In point of fact, _exactly the opposite_ is the case. It’s obvious that to be a great artist is inherently _left_ wing. And why? Because although a great artist like Mozart or Pollock may have some superficial right-wing things to say about their purely individual genius and how they want to forge in the smithy of their soul the uncreated conscience of their race, underneath, where it counts, there is a goddamn parasite constantly sponging off of friends with real jobs and looking for handouts from the Emperor Joseph II, Peggy Guggenheim, the local Arts Council or what have you. QED.

No Compassion

by Henry on September 28, 2005

My friend, Jim Johnson, who teaches political theory at Rochester, has just started a fascinating new blog. “Politics, Theory and Photography”: aims, as its title suggests, to explore the intersection between political theory and photography. Jim has a particular take on this, which springs from a vigorous disagreement with Susan Sontag and others who write about photography as a means towards creating compassion between the subject of the photograph and the person looking at it. He thinks compassion is a bad idea.

bq. compassion, as Hannah Arendt rightly notes, is de-politicizing and I think it is a major mistake to identify the aim of documentary photography as eliciting compassion in viewers. How is compassion de-politicizing? Two ways. First, insofar as it demands that we identify with the suffering of some other, compassion collapses the space for argument which is a basic medium of politics. Second, compassion focuses resolutely on individual suffering and so cannot generalize to the large numbers of people who are subject to war, famine, dislocation and so forth. What photographs might more properly aim for is establishing solidarity. But that would require rethinking many of the conventions of documentary practice.

Jim has written a “long paper”: on this topic, but he’s using the blog to do things that would be difficult or impossible to do in a conventional academic article. The blog mixes together photographs and commentary so that his claims and arguments don’t just emerge abstractly from argument with other writers, but concretely, in dialogue with the work of real photographers. It’s a really nice example of the new uses to which blogging can be put.

Making a Success of Grad School

by Kieran Healy on September 27, 2005

Let’s say you’ve already read Tim Burke’s “Should I Go to Grad School?” and pushed on past the short answer. (“No.”) Then it’s time to read Fontana Labs’ “Twelve-Step Guide”: to life while you’re there. Your experience of a graduate program will depend in part on each of (1) The field you’re in, (2) The quality of the program, (3) Your own attributes, (4) The strategy you pursue. Once you go down the chute and find yourself in a particular setting, (1) and (2) are exogenous in the short run, and at the beginning you have no real sense of the social structure of the field anyway. So FL’s advice sensibly emphasizes the difference between undergraduate and graduate education and what that should mean for your approach to it. To boil it down to a one-line characterization: in academic environments, expectations are high and monitoring is low (but decisive when it happens). Many grad-student pathologies spring from a failure to deal with this problem.

The singularity and the knife-edge

by John Quiggin on September 27, 2005

I’ve been too busy thinking about all the fun I’ll have with my magic pony, designing my private planet and so on, to write up a proper review of Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near. The general response seems to have been a polite version of DD’s “bollocks”, and the book certainly has a high nonsense to signal ratio. Kurzweil lost me on biotech, for example, when he revealed that he had invented his own cure for middle age, involving the daily consumption of a vast range of pills and supplements, supposedly keeping his biological age at 40 for the last 15 years (the photo on the dustjacket is that of a man in his early 50s). In any case, I haven’t seen anything coming out of biotech in the last few decades remotely comparable to penicillin and the Pill for medical and social impact.

But Kurzweil’s appeal to Moore’s Law seems worth taking seriously. There’s no sign that the rate of progress in computer technology is slowing down noticeably. A doubling time of two years for chip speed, memory capacity and so on implies a thousand-fold increase over twenty years. There are two very different things this could mean. One is that computers in twenty years time will do mostly the same things as at present, but very fast and at almost zero cost. The other is that digital technologies will displace analog for a steadily growing proportion of productive activity, in both the economy and the household sector, as has already happened with communications, photography, music and so on. Once that transition is made these sectors share the rapid growth of the computer sector.

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Give or take a billion

by Eszter Hargittai on September 26, 2005

Inspired by this post on Digg, I started running searches on Google to see what would yield a really high number of results. A search on “www” yields results “of about 9,160,000,000”. This is curious given that according to Google’s homepage, the engine is “Searching 8,168,684,336 web pages”. Perhaps they are extrapolating to sites that they are not searching. Or perhaps those “of about” figures are not very accurate. In general, those numbers are hard to verify since Google won’t display more than 1000 results to any query. The figures may be helpful in establishing relative popularity, although it’s unclear whether the system can be trusted to be reliable even to that extent.

States, firms and the Internet

by Henry on September 26, 2005

“David Kopel”:,1299,DRMN_86_4105129,00.html argues, rightly, that there is something very nasty about the willingness of companies like Google and Yahoo! to knuckle under to authoritarian regimes such as China by banning words from search engines, snitching out democracy activists and so on. He’s also correct when he “claims”: that “the greedy and immoral policies of these corporations directly endanger Americans.” However, his claim that “[p]erhaps only consumer and shareholder pressure can persuade the American companies to change their evil ways” seems to me to be quite mistaken. Consumer and shareholder pressure simply isn’t likely to have much of an impact, when measured against the power of the Chinese government to ban these companies from access to a quite enormous and important marketplace. Nor does it seem likely to me that many large shareholders are likely to raise a fuss in any event. More generally, when firms weigh the power of consumers to use exit and protest against the ability of powerful states to impose heavy sanctions, and completely block access to important markets, they are usually going to do what the state(s) want them to do. The only solution that would have some chance of biting would be if the US passed legislation requiring US-based firms not to cooperate with Chinese government authorities on pain of substantial penalties, and enforced this regulation vigorously, transforming it into a battle between powerful states with big markets.

We’re going to see more and more of these problems cropping up. People used to think that the Internet would empower firms and other private actors against the state, helping the spread of democracy, free markets and all that. What we’re seeing instead is that firms and private actors have an interest in keeping powerful states happy, regardless of the impact on global prosperity, freedom and so on. This has always been the case – but it’s being exacerbated by the Internet. I’ve just written a “paper”: which talks about what this means for international politics (although it doesn’t discuss the particulars of the Yahoo! case).

Van Inwagen’s laugh test

by Chris Bertram on September 26, 2005

I’ve been engaged in some correspondence which began around the question of whether or not “Mark Steyn rejects Darwin”: , but which has switched into a discussion of the views of philosopher and metaphysician, “Peter van Inwagen”: . Specifically, the following passage from Van Inwagen’s essay “Quam Dilecta”:

bq. I remember reading a very amusing response made by David Berlinski to Stephen Jay Gould’s statement that modern science was rapidly removing every excuse that anyone had ever had for thinking that we were much different from our closest primate relatives. Berlinski pointed out that you can always make two things sound similar (or “different only in degree”) if you describe them abstractly enough: “What Canada geese do when they migrate is much like what we do when we jump over a ditch: in each case, an organism’s feet leave the ground, it moves through the air, and it comes down some distance away. The difference between the two accomplishments is only a matter of degree.” I am also put in mind of a cartoon Phillip Johnson once showed me: A hostess is introducing a human being and a chimp at a cocktail party. “You two will have a lot to talk about,” she says, “–you share 99 percent of your DNA.” I’m sorry if I seem to be making a joke of this, but…well, I am making of joke of this. I admit it. Why shouldn’t I? The idea that there isn’t a vast, radical difference, a chasm, between human beings and all other terrestrial species is simply a very funny idea. It’s like the idea that Americans have a fundamental constitutional right to own automatic assault weapons: its consequences apart, it’s simply a very funny idea, and there’s nothing much one can do about it except to make a joke of it. You certainly wouldn’t want to invest much time in an argument with someone who would believe it in the first place.

I’m not a scientist (or a metaphysician for that matter), but I’m not shy to ask the advice of those who are. So comments are open for general observations on the passage. I’d be interested to know, though, whether anything as unvarnished as that can actually be pinned on Gould (van Inwagen provides no reference). I can well imagine him saying that chimpanzees and humans have a great deal in common compared what they share with, say, sharks or spiders (but that’s a different claim). The other thing that occured to me is that it is rather rich for someone to propose a laugh test to rule out counterintuitive scientific generalization when they themselves believe that “only human beings and elementary particles exist”: . My correspondent has corrected me to say that my characterization of van Inwagen’s view is inexact and that he holds that not only human beings by anything else with a “unified consciousness” can exist. So God and the angels are in too. That doesn’t really diminish my sense that when it comes to claims that are, on the face of it, laughable, van Inwagen may be a man throwing stones in a glasshouse.

Scene from an Airport

by Kieran Healy on September 25, 2005

My brother was traveling through Toronto airport last week, and was running a little late. But he was also hungry, so he stopped to get a sandwich. The guy in front of him in the queue took a very long time to order. He began counting out his change very slowly. He asked things like “Is this a quarter?” My brother, increasingly impatient and not in a charitable mood, thought maybe it’s the guy’s first time in Canada, or maybe he’s just an idiot. The guy had an odd bag at his feet that was a mixture of leather panels and silver-lined parachute material. He wore an Irish flat-peaked farmer’s cap of the sort which, when seen on someone under the age of sixty, is guaranteed to annoy Irish people everywhere. These facts lent support to the second theory. Finally, the guy finished counting out his money, slowly gathered his food and his silly bag and turned around to leave.

It was Michael Stipe. My brother said hello. Stipe said hello. Off he went. My brother said the only other thing that it occurred to him to say at the time was “Hey, how’s Thom Yorke? When’s the next _Radiohead_ album coming out?” But he felt this might not have been an appropriate question.

Rotten apples

by Henry on September 25, 2005

Scott Horton has an “indispensable post”: at Balkinization on the armed forces’ response to the torture scandals. One telling paragraph:

bq. Harvey and Schoomaker also claim that the reports reflect that the Army took a “critical look at itself” and that it “investigated every credible allegation of detainee abuse.” But the cumulative evidence shows that, although the investigators and staff took their work seriously, the focus of those higher up was on a whitewash. An excellent example of this can be found in the work of MG Fay, who before being called up was a New Jersey insurance executive best known for his fund-raising activities on behalf of the Bush-Cheney campaign. As it happens, I was in Germany in the spring of 2004 at roughly the same time that MG Fay was there interviewing soldiers and officers with V Corps MI units. Having some contacts with these units, I took the time to speak to a number of NCOs and officers to get a sense of just how Fay was conducting his investigation. What I heard was consistent and very disturbing. Fay repeatedly warned soldiers that if they were involved in incidents, they would be put up on charges. And if they had seen things and not reported them, they would be up on charges. Then he asked if the soldiers had anything to report. One soldier told me that when he began to describe an incident to Fay, he was stopped and told “Son, you don’t want to go there.” This process was constructed to stop soldiers from coming forward with evidence about what had happened — the opposite of a fair or critical inquiry. But I stress that among the twelve investigations conducted, the Fay/Jones report was one of the best. One wonders what it would have netted had proper investigatory technique been used.

Stopping the Trafficking

by Jon Mandle on September 24, 2005

Back in January, 2004, Nicholas Kristof wrote that the condition of Cambodian sex slaves had improved compared to the 1990s (it’s here, behind the wall):

“These days the girls are 17 rather than 13, fewer are beaten or physically imprisoned, and Cambodia’s success in fighting AIDS with condoms means that sexual slavery is not necessarily a death sentence.

“The progress in Cambodia is mirrored by strides elsewhere, from South Korea to Romania and the Dominican Republic. And most of the credit goes to the courageous members of grass-roots organizations – mostly women – who often put themselves on the line to defend the weak and powerless against overwhelming economic and political interests.”

Just kidding, of course! Actually, he wrote: “most of the credit goes to the Bush administration.”

Despite their, um, reluctance to promote the use of condoms, Kristof zeroed in on the most effective tool that the Bush administration used in its battle: “The new director of the trafficking office, John Miller, has bludgeoned foreign governments, telling them to curb trafficking or face sanctions.”

Now, according to the Washington Post:

President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington’s closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers.

In fact, back in June, the State Department listed 14 countries that failed to adequately address trafficking problems, but President Bush ruled that only Myanmar, Cuba, and North Korea were “barred completely from receiving certain kinds of foreign aid.” (Trade assistance and humanitarian aid, apparently, are excluded.) “The White House statement offered no explanation of why countries were regarded differently. [The State Dept. spokeswoman] also could not provide one.”

A year ago, when confronted with documentary evidence that the United Arab Emirates had lied about cracking down on the kidnapping and enslavement of young boys as young as 3 to be camel jockeys, John Miller reacted angrily: “I will tell you this. From what I know of the president and the secretary of state’s feelings about the slavery issue, the fact that a government is a friend or an ally is not gonna keep this government from speaking out.”

Naturally, President Bush struck the UAE from the State Department’s list. We’ll see whether Mr. Miller attempts to regain some of his credibility – by returning to his position as board chairman of the Discovery Institute.

Tell it to Judge

by Kieran Healy on September 24, 2005

I was trying to think of ways to legitimately work this photograph of Judge into a post, but there aren’t any, really. So here he is anyway, to remind us all of the virtues of carefully weighing your options and making wise choices. Suffice to say that Judge would not approve of torturing prisoners, invading other countries with a minimum of long-term planning, selling stock in insider deals, laggardly hanging about when people need urgent help, or crossing the road without first looking for a safe place and then letting all the traffic pass you. Pay attention to Judge. He knows whereof he speaks. Normal programming will resume shortly.