Support fund

by Henry on January 24, 2006

Via Robin Vargese at the excellent “3 Quarks Daily”:, the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at NYU have set up a “hardship fund”: , which will help defray “indispensable expenses such as health care, utilities, and rent for those who have lost their pay.” Need I say that this is an important cause, not only for the grad students at NYU, but at other universities too?

Quick survey: sites and services

by Eszter Hargittai on January 24, 2006

It’s been a while since we’ve had a survey around here. This one is on what sites and services you know about and use. It should take no more than 2.5 minutes (two and a half, NOT 25!). I’ll report back with results and why I am interested in this in a few days.

Take the survey. Thanks!

UPDATE 1/31/06: The survey is now closed. Thanks to those who participated. I will be posting results soon.

An ounce of inefficiency

by John Quiggin on January 24, 2006

Belle’s post on the fact that the US appears unlikely ever to go metric prompted me to try and put together some thoughts I’ve had for a long time.

When I lived in the US around 1990, I was struck by all sorts of minor inefficiencies that seemed to be sanctified by tradition. In addition to its unique system of weights and measures (similar to, but confusingly different from, the Imperial system I had grown up with), there was the currency, with no coin of any substantial value, thanks to inflation (this particular inefficiency was subsequently enshrined in the Save the Greenback Act), and the practice of quoting prices net of sales tax, so you always had to pay more than the marked price. And then there was a huge, but ill-defined, range of activities where tips were expected, apparently regardless of the quality of service. In all of these cases, Americans seemed much more willing to put up with day-to-day inefficiency in the name of tradition than Australians would be, and much more resistant to government action that would sweep such inefficiencies away in the name of reform.

Bigger issues like creationism can be fitted into this picture. As far as I can see, very few supporters of creationism (or intelligent design or what have you) have any desire to see it taught in university biology departments [there are a handful of exceptions, like Bob Jones, that are resolutely stuck in the pre-Civil War era on most things] or applied by oil geologists. Their big objection is seeing evolution stated as fact in museum displays or taught in high schools. Broadly speaking the position seems to be like that with the metric system – scientists are welcome to be evolutionists as long as they don’t try and ram it down the throats of our kids. Obviously, this is costly; as with metric and traditional measures, the two systems are bound to clash from time to time.

Then there’s the inefficiency that seems to be built in to the US system of government. When I lived there, I was subject to four different levels of government (town, county, state and federal) with multiple overlapping responsibilities, and procedures that seem designed to achieve maximal inconvenience for citizens (not to mention resident aliens!).

All of this of course, was set against the background of a general level of technology in advance of very other country in the world, and an economic system in which the pursuit of efficiency wasn’t much hindered by concerns about equity. At least for the upper-middle class to which I belonged, these things produced a very high standard of living.

How much do these minor inefficiencies matter? In one sense, I think, quite a lot. In another, they don’t matter very much at all, and can in fact be defended on cultural grounds

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