From the monthly archives:

January 2006

God in his Heavens

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2006

I learned yesterday via a local newspaper report of the existence of the “Vatican Observatory”:http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/VO.html which, surprising as it may seem, is exactly what it sounds like: the astrophysics research division of the Catholic Church. While its “headquarters”:http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/Headq.html are at Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s Summer home) in Italy, it’s based here in Arizona at the “Mount Graham Observatory”:http://mgpc3.as.arizona.edu/. There, a bunch of Jesuits operate the “VATT”:http://clavius.as.arizona.edu/vo/R1024/vatt-observer.html, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. I think that’s just fantastic — like something out of Phillip Pullman. Is it too much to hope for the Vatican Superconducting Supercollider, which would once and for all resolve the question of how many angels would be killed if a stream of particles were smashed into the head of a pin?

What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2006

I missed this over the weekend, but here’s Garrison Keillor tearing a strip off of Bernard-Henri Lévy and his book about America. (The San Francisco Chronicle “liked it a bit better”:http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/01/29/RVGHUGQ7341.DTL&type=books, but only a bit.) Based on Keillor’s review, it sounds like BHL has a case of the disease that Bruce McCall brilliantly parodied in his travelogue “In the New Canada, Living is a Way of Life.” That article (which I’ve “talked about before”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2003/01/13/how-peculiar/) is written in the prose characteristic of the cultural tourist/feature writer touring around Russia, c.1982 for _Readers Digest_: serious, curious, with an outsider’s eye for paradox and an uncanny ability to miss the point altogether.

_Update_: I should add that I’m not taking Keillor’s review as gospel here. I’m a big fan of cross-national comparative work, but it’s hard to do it right. Keillor is pretty snide, and the substance of his criticism (that people over here are just ordinary, decent, straight-talking folks, working hard and doing the best they can, etc, etc) is itself a typically American trope. There’s a sub-Tocquevillean comparison to be made here, if we stretch things a bit. Lévy is a French writer and minor philosopher who behaves in the flamboyant manner of a major American media celebrity, while Keillor is a minor American media celebrity who would prefer to be taken seriously for his writing and down-home philosophy. So naturally they hate each other.

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Freedom and necessity

by Henry on January 30, 2006

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up on my Terry Pratchett in the wee hours and came across a passage in _Going Postal_ (“Powells”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/s?kw=terry%20pratchett%20going%20postal , “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=ur2&tag=henryfarrell-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&path=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fgp%2Fproduct%2F0060502932%2Fsr%3D1-1%2Fqid%3D1138645666%2Fref%3Dsr_1_1%3F%255Fencoding%3DUTF8 ) which has some bearing on the perennial debate over whether or not “Pratchett”:http://www.nataliesolent.blogspot.com/2003_10_12_nataliesolent_archive.html#106651083158570151 “is”:http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/004798.html “a”:http://www.theadvocates.org/celebrities/terry-pratchett.html “libertarian”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Futurist_Society. The villain of the book, an unscrupulous pirate of finance capital who has dubbed himself Reacher Gilt, is defending himself before the autarchical ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari.

bq. “Don’t patronize me, my lord,” said Gilt. “We own the Trunk. It is our _property_. You understand that? Property is the foundation of freedom. Oh, customers complain about the service and the cost, but customers always complain about such things. We have no shortage of customers at whatever cost. Before the semaphore, news from Genua took months to get here, now it takes less than a day. It is affordable magic. We are answerable to our shareholders, my lord. Not, with respect, to you. It is not your business. It is our business and we will run it according to the market.”

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Wherein the author feels like Brad DeLong

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2006

Any society that can make _both_ John Tyler Bonner’s “The Ideas of Biology”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0486424197/kieranhealysw-20/ and “The Evolution of Complexity”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691084947/kieranhealysw-20/ available to me for two dollars each on sale has to have something going for it. On the other hand, Kevin Trudeau’s “Natural Cures ‘They’ don’t want you to now about”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0975599518/kieranhealysw-20/ still cost eighteen bucks, and rather more copies of it were available.

Bloggers and journalists

by Henry on January 29, 2006

I was at the bloggers-meet-journalists lunch a few days ago which “Matt Stoller”:http://www.mydd.com/story/2006/1/28/1527/04347 and others have been talking about, and even tried to say something, but was shut down by the moderator, who thought that I was going to say something else altogether. What struck me (and what I was going to say) was that the journalists there didn’t seem to understand how the blogosphere worked at all. My half-assed explanation of why is as follows …

I can understand how the people at the _Post_ would get upset at hundreds of commenters from Atrios’ or Kos’s comments sections showing up to make their objections heard – while they’re nothing on, say, the denizens of the slimepit at LGF, their manner of criticism can be … robust. I’m willing to believe that there were some commenters who didn’t make it through the moderation system, and who got hateful (Howell suggested that there were some pretty nasty sexual epithets in there, and I believed her). But even so, the incomprehension with which journalists responded to bloggers seemed to me to point to something more fundamental. Journalism and blogging have different internal systems of authority. Newspaper articles aspire to presenting a comprehensive, neutral and _authoritative_ judgement regarding the facts at hand in a particular matter. Of course, they don’t always succeed in doing this at all – hence the need for ombudsmen, correction columns etc. But even if this standard is often more honoured in the breach than the observance, it still is the basis for the journalistic claim to authority, and status. Blogposts are quite different – they’re arguments in an ongoing debate. They don’t aspire to any sort of finality or authoritativeness (and indeed they’re often updated in response to new arguments or facts). They comment on, and respond to, what others are saying.

The point is that they have very different – and clashing – notions of where authority and responsibility come from. Each newspaper article has the form of a discrete statement, which is supposed to be as authoritative as possible on its own ground. Each blogpost has the form of an intervention in an ongoing conversation – the blogger’s authority rests in part on her willingness to respond to others and engage in argument with them. A blogger who doesn’t respond to good counter-arguments is being irresponsible (of course many bloggers are irresponsible in this way; there isn’t much in the way of formal policing of this norm). These forms of authority are difficult to reconcile with each other, because the latter in large part undermines the former. If journalists start systematically responding to their critics, and getting drawn into conversations about whether or not they were right when they made a particular claim, then they’re effectively admitting that the articles they have written aren’t all that authoritative in the first place. They’re subject to debate and to revision. Thus, in part, the tendency for journalists like Jack Shafer to dismiss criticism from bloggers and their commenters as “organized riots” and lynch mobs. It’s a fundamental threat to their notions of where journalistic authority comes from. Thus also, I suspect, Howell’s reluctance to respond directly to critics like Brad DeLong, when it would obviously (to a blogger) be in her best interests to do so.

Comments are welcome – as I say, these are thoughts in the process of being formed (an intervention in an ongoing conversation if you like).

Goldsmith and torture

by Henry on January 29, 2006

Via “Orin Kerr”:http://www.volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_01_29-2006_02_04.shtml#1138553669, this Newsweek “story”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11079547/site/newsweek/ about Jack Goldsmith and his efforts to oppose the Bush administration’s claims to sweeping powers to authorize torture and to wiretap American citizens. It’s become more and more clear over the last few months that Goldsmith played a very honourable role behind the scenes – while he’s certainly a conservative, he appears to be one who’s prepared to stick to his principles when it’s politically difficult. When Goldsmith was appointed to Harvard Law School, some of his liberal colleagues “protested”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11079547/site/newsweek/, arguing that he might have been complicit in authorizing torture (others, more reasonably, were concerned about his theories of international law). At this stage, I believe that the former owe him a fulsome public apology.

Sony Bono, Mickey Mouse and John Clare

by Chris Bertram on January 29, 2006

I watched Peter Ackroyd’s BBC programme on the “Romantic poets”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/romantics/ yesterday and was rather taken with the account of John Clare. So I was googling around trying to find out more and, via the “Wikipedia entry”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clare , happened upon the extraordinary fact that much of Clare’s work is subject to a copyright dispute. Since Clare died in 1864 I wondered how this could be so. There’s a page of links on the whole dispute at the “John Clare page”, but the in-a-nutshell version is in “a Guardian article by John Goodridge”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4042964,00.html :

bq. Under the 1842 Copyright Act which was in force at Clare’s death, in the case of published works copyright endured for 42 years after publication or seven years after the author’s death, whichever was later. Thus three of Clare’s published volumes came out of copyright in 1871, and the fourth in 1877. For unpublished works, however, copyright was a very different matter. Under common law, an author, or after his death his personal representative, retained perpetual control over his work as long as it remained unpublished. This is particularly important in Clare’s case, since his four published volumes contained only about 10% of his total output – some 300 poems out of more than 3,000 he wrote in his lifetime. This common law “perpetual” loophole for unpublished material was written into the Copyright Acts of 1911 and 1956, and finally replaced in the 1988 Act with a finite, 50-year term of protection (made potentially extendable by a further 25 years in a 1996 Act). In Clare’s case, this could extend the copyright claim well into the middle of this century ….

There’s more, including the tenuous chain by which the copyright was passed on and the more recent purchase of the rights for £1 by a US academic.

In plain view

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2006

The New Republic has a piece by Paul Thacker pointing out that Fox News science columnist Steven Milloy is a shill for, among other corporations, Philip Morris and ExxonMobil. It’s behind a paywall but that scarcely matters, because the relevant facts have been on the public record for years. As usual, Tim Lambert has the most detailed coverage, but a search of Crooked Timber will produce plenty more, and most of the info has been in Milloy’s Wikipedia entry for some time. In this context, the claim by Fox News, reported by TNR, that they were unaware of Milloy’s corporate payoffs speaks volumes for their capacity as a news organisation. I guess when you can just make it up, you don’t need to use Google.

What seems to be happening here, as with the Abramoff scandal is that facts that have been in plain view for ages can now be fitted into a media narrative – Republican sleaze in general and pundits for hire in particular. Whereas evidence of these kinds of links has been ignored or brushed aside in the past, they can now be seen as part of a systematic pattern of corruption.

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Ten second posts

by Ted on January 27, 2006

* Do you suppose that Jonah Goldberg has been asked to supplement his upcoming book, The Hitlery Cut ‘n’ Paste Funtime Reader with a chapter explaining how the Nazis were ferociously opposed to domestic wiretapping?

* I was reading the back pages of Kung Fu Monkey when I came across this, in response to Rove’s old speech that accused liberals of treason:

Did you know that the definition of treason is quite specifically defined in the Consititution? Did you know it’s the only crime actually spelled out in the Constitution? DO. YOU. KNOW. WHY?

No. Of course you don’t. Nobody ever bothers to read the goddam thing.

Because the Founding Fathers had seen the charge of treason used too many times against the political opponents of the British Government. They knew, when the government gets nervous and breaks out the Big Evil Golf Bag of Shutting Up Questions, the first club out is the Treason Charge. They knew the first guy to yell treason was the bastard.

* I’m all for liberals making a fuss about unfair and inaccurate news. I agree that it distorts the news when media organizations get a tempest of feedback when they offend the right without a similar level of feedback when they offend the left. In other words, ditto. And this warms my heart.

But, let’s be realistic about what we’re doing. I can’t remember where I saw it, but one line sticks in my mind: “Conservatives get upset when the media do their jobs, while liberals get upset when the media don’t do their jobs.” Come on, guys. I like honest partisan pushback, and I’d like to see more of it, but it’s simply not the same thing as apolitical media criticism. If there is such thing as apolitical media criticism.

* What bothers me most about Mickey Kaus’s crusade against Brokeback Mountain is not the dumb-ass argument that people go to the movies simply to ogle the opposite-sex actors (hence the pathetic failure of Reservoir Dogs with male audiences), nor the implication that he just isn’t crazy about watching gay intimacy. A lot of people aren’t. What bothers me is his overriding resentment (or, given his professional persona, his faux-resentment) that imaginary liberals would fail to to treat his discomfort with respectful silence.

* Do you ever think that A** C****** will turn back into a mummy if thirty days pass without her name in the press? It would explain a lot.

Here we go again … this story has been making the news recently, about some types at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization. They have got some data from a site that tracks dollar bills and used it to make a statistical model of human travel, which will apparently save us all from bird flu.

I saw the news story in the Guardian and thought “I wonder if they will discover that the phenomenon they are studying is described by a power law?” … and the answer is yes they do.

I then thought “I wonder if they will more or less entirely ignore the existing literature on epidemics?” … and as far as I can see the answer is yes they do.

And finally I thought “It would be presumably too much to hope that there is a serious attempt made to test the power law model against alternative distributional assumptions” … and the answer is yes, it would be too much to hope.

They’re also quite naive about banknotes. At one point in the paper, they seem to believe that bank notes “exit the money-tracking system for a long time, for instance in banks”. Of course, banks don’t contain large piles of banknotes sitting around for months on end; the only bank notes you will find in a bank are the ones being stored in the ATMs and the tills, and these obviously turn over pretty rapidly. Furthermore, I would guess that the average human being makes fewer journeys to a banknote sorting centre than the average banknote (I suspect that several of the odd statistical properties that they found relate to the locations of sorting centres in the US). Humph.

People have been laughing at physicists for this sort of thing for quite a while now but with no noticeable effect. It’s all very laudable that they’re taking a bit of interest, but we still clearly haven’t conquered the hard-science arrogance problem yet …

Edit: Actually thinking about it, this is not an entirely worthless paper. If they are correct to claim that epidemic models use a diffusion process to model travelling humans (and there is nothing in the paper to make me think they have done an exhaustive literature search) then epidemic models are being silly and should stop. Human beings don’t diffuse – they go from one specific place to another. Otoh I seem to remember a lot of quite detailed modelling of SARS which certainly did take airline routes into account so I suspect that the diffusion assumption is really only found in toy models in basic-level textbooks.

Castles and Henderson, again

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2006

People who’ve been following the debate about global warming closely will be aware that the economic modelling used in projections of future climate change by the IPCC has been severely criticised by former Australian Statistician Ian Castles and former OECD chief economist David Henderson. The critique emerged in a rather confused form, with a number of letters and opinion pieces before finally being published in contrarian social science journal Energy and Environment. Responses, including mine, have been similarly partial and sporadic.

I’ve finally prepared a full-scale response to the main claim made by Castles and Henderson, that the use of market exchange rates, rather than “Purchasing Power Parity” conversion factors for national currencies, biases estimates of future emissions upwards. My conclusion is that although PPP measures are preferable in comparisons of national welfare, the biases introduced by using market exchange rates are not important in modelling emissions and will, on average, cancel out. You can read it all here.

Update: Ian Castles has sent a response which I’ve posted here. It doesn’t seem to me that Ian responds to my argument except to deny that the MER/PPP issue was the main point of the critique.

I should also note that Holtsmark and Alfsen (2004), whose paper I’ve just found, present much the same argument as mine.

“Our Audience Is Engaged With The Blog”

by Belle Waring on January 27, 2006

I have to agree with Scott Lemieux about the validity of self-reported incomes in responses to an online questionnaire. Is the “mean average” [sic] income of LGF readers actually over $105,000? Do Roger Simon readers really pull down a (mean, natch) average of $116,000? Why do I have a sneaking suspicion that user death2dhimmicrats5 claimed to be making…one BILLION dollars a year. Click through to the linked Dennis the Peasant post for more hilarity. A bewildered commenter there wonders:

In a prior career, my title was “Media Buyer”. If this is accurate it’s highly pathetic. With all their money, couldn’t PJM come up with $15k to put together a bitchin’ printed media kit? Media buyers like to have something tangible in their hands. And don’t they have a WebEX account? What the heck is going on?

I feel horrible for laughing at this because I have been a fan of LGF and Glenn and Roger for 3+ years. These guys are savvy at so many things, but this is a fiasco. How can this happen?

How, indeed? And if the Pajamas Media readers love The Blog so much, why don’t they marry it? Oh, wait, looks like they’re working on it.

Blue Force

by Ted on January 26, 2006

Please welcome Blue Force, a blog dedicated to progressive discussions of military and national security issues, with a special interest in electing military veterans.

This ought to hotten up the blood:

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Tim Russert, Peggy Noonan, or Fred Barnes?

I’ll be in a conference with all three next week. I’m not sure how much face time I’ll have with any of them, but there is a good chance I’ll be able to ask at least one question each.

So: what is the question you’d most like to ask each of those folks?

I’m looking for insightful questions that might set them back on their heels. They’ve thought of all the obvious ones and have their formulaic answers well rehearsed.

Let’s shake them up!

Comment over there, not here.

The Internationale

by Chris Bertram on January 26, 2006

Oh dear oh dear. The last person who ought to be educating the world on the Internationale is Jane Galt who gives “a rather literal translation of the French words over at Asymmetrical Information”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005684.html . The first time I sang the Internationale was on Mayday 1978 in Paris when I joined the UNEF contingent on the traditional march. The last time I heard it was when a colleague’s mobile phone rang. She told me, embarrassed, that she’d spent hours programming the tune in and that it had then gone off during a meeting with top university administrators, none of whom would have recognized it but for a BBC documentary about the end of the Soviet Union on the box the night before.

One important thing to get across to an Anglophone audience is that the British and American words are different (what do Australians and Canadians sing, btw?). “Wikipedia”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internationale has a reasonably accurate version of the British words but starts:

bq. Arise, ye workers from your slumber,
Arise, ye prisoners of want.

The version I learnt had “starvelings” for “workers”, “criminals” for “prisoners” (though I remember that being controversial) and, later in the verse, “conditions” for “tradition”.

Having picked up the the anthem by listening to my comrades, I also misunderstood the next two lines for my first year or so of singing it in English. These are are:

bq. For reason in revolt now thunders,
and at last ends the age of cant!

Yes, you’ve guessed it … I imagined this was a reference to the supersession of Kantianism by the Hegelian dialectic. “… at last ends the age of Kant!” Makes sense, doesn’t it?

The Army and Vietnam, part 4

by Ted on January 26, 2006

Last post from The Army and Vietnam by Andrew F. Krepinevich. This section describes both the Iraqification and the “oil spot” strategy, in which local forces take over security duty, and pacificed areas spread out and undercut the ability of the insurgents to draw strength from the local population. Eventually, this forces the insurgents back toward the borders and back into low-level harassment. It sounds as good as anything I could come up with. However, a strategy that heavily employs many small, light infantry units is inevitably in conflict with the goal of force protection, as these small units are vulnerable to IEDs and hit and run attacks.

It’s also interesting to note how the analogy with the Vietnam war breaks down with regards to Iraq. Iraqification is probably more difficult than Vietnamization because of the threat of ethnic civil war, and I don’t think that it’s accurate to talk about “guerilla bands that lie in wait just outside the populated areas” in Iraq. But, as always, I might be wrong.

(Comments on the last excerpt were especially good.)

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