From the monthly archives:

February 2006

Why Design Matters

by Kieran Healy on February 28, 2006

Microsoft redesigns the iPod package. Hey, it’s funny, so it “must be true”:, right? (Actually in this case that’s correct.) Via John Gruber.

Looks like the site is getting killed right now. “Try this link”:

The Mrs

by Eszter Hargittai on February 28, 2006

On occasion, I get emails in which people address me as Mrs. Hargittai. I’m not suggesting that people need know my personal history or preferences. However, if you are going to contact someone in a professional context and they have a Ph.D. and they teach at a university (both of which are very clear on their homepage where you probably got their email address in the first place), wouldn’t you opt for Dr. or Professor?

Most of the time when someone contacts me and says “Dear Dr. Hargittai” or “Dear Professor Hargittai” the first line of my response is: “Dear X, please call me Eszter.” So the status marker that comes with these is not what’s of interest to me. Rather, I’m intrigued by how gender ties into all this and would love to hear how male junior faculty get addressed in such situations.

Today, I received a message that had an interesting additional component:

Dear Mrs. Hargittai,

Professor Name-of-one-of-my-senior-male-colleagues recommended that I get in touch with you.

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If it’s funny, must it be true?

by John Holbo on February 28, 2006

So far as I know the following fallacy has no name: ‘if x is funny, there must be a grain of truth to x.’ It’s sort of like affirming the consequent, but for ‘it’s funny because it’s true’. If you see what I mean. (You have to think of ‘it’s funny’ as the consequent.) It’s part positive ad hominem. Rather than proving what he says is true, the speaker generates a sense of himself as a clever, sharp, perceptive person. The audience then infers that there must be something clever, sharp and perceptive about the position taken. But mostly the fallacy works because funniness is next to truthiness. The mechanisms of stand-up comedy and propaganda are not fully distinct. What makes you laugh has a certain kinship to that which causes the crowd’s madness. When you put it that way, it’s darn obvious what I am talking about. You have read something Mark Steyn wrote in the last several years, I take it? As Hume writes:

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by Harry on February 27, 2006

Kieran might have opened a Pandora’s Box here. I am, more or less, obssessed with old children’s TV shows, so my own kids get to watch a great variety. It is easy to watch a region 2 DVD in the US if you have a DVD-Rom and an S-video outlet from your laptop (there is, to my surprise, no PAL/NTSC problem), so I order DVDs from the UK, and they watch them on our TV (though, as my 9 year old points out, this is slightly ridiculous, since my laptop screen is as big as our TV screeen. I’ll devote a couple of future posts to the joys of nostalgic children’s tv, but first I have a question. Why is Champion, the Wonder Horse available only on region 2, PAL, DVD through, but Larry The Lamb available only on region 1, NTSC, DVD through (you can get it through the UK site, but it ships from the US)?

Iranian Oil Bourse

by John Q on February 26, 2006

I got an email asking me about the Iranian Oil Bourse, which is causing great excitement among the Peak Oil crowd. Here’s my draft response. Comments appreciated.

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Well Thank Christ for That

by Kieran Healy on February 25, 2006

You Passed 8th Grade Math

Congratulations, you got 10/10 correct!

Via Pharyngula. I have to say that having “None of the Above” as the second option out of four on Q7 caused me some concern.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

by John Q on February 25, 2006

This NYT piece about America’s emptiest county starts off with the usual stuff about closed-down schools and vanished churches. Then, without any warning, it segues into a story about Libertarians plotting to take over the county and legalise cannibalism (no, really!).

As they say, read the whole thing.

Bait and switch

by John Q on February 24, 2006

Lawrence Kaplan (with Irving William Kristol) selling The War over Iraq

The United States may need to occupy Iraq for some time. Though the UN, European and Arab forces will, as in Afghanistan, contribute troops, the principal responsibility will doubtless fall to the country that liberates Baghdad. According to one estimate, initially as many as 75,000 US troops may be required to police the war’s aftermath, at a cost of $16 billion a year. As other countries’ forces arrive, and as Iraq rebuilds its economy and political system, that force could probably be drawn to several thousand soldiers after a year or two. After Saddam Hussein has been defeated and Iraq occupied installing a decent democratic government in Baghdad should be a manageable task for the United States. (pp19-20) quoted here

Lawrence Kaplan presenting “The Case for Staying in Iraq” in TNR

The administration intends to draw down troop levels to 100,000 by the end of the year, with the pullback already well underway as U.S. forces surrender large swaths of the countryside and hunker down in their bases. The plan infuriates many officers, who can only say privately what noncommissioned officers say openly. “In order to fix the situation here,” Sabre Squadron’s Sergeant José Chavez says, “we need at least 180,000 troops.” Iraq, however, will soon have about half that. An effective counterinsurgency strategy may require time and patience. But the war’s architects have run out of both.

Maybe if Kaplan, Kristol and others had told us this in the first place, there wouldn’t have been a war.

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Shorter Port Management Ownership Controversy

by Belle Waring on February 24, 2006

Poetic justice as fairness. Thanks, I’ll be here all week. Actually, my first thought, on hearing that the UAE company had edged out Singapore’s hometown PSA was, “shit, they should have had Singapore do it!” Say what you like about Singapore’s idosyncratic form of government, they a) run the most kick-ass port in the world and b) can really be counted on to deliver efficient government services, without either the corruption which plagues such services in other SE Asian nations, or the general how-can-I-make-this-person’s-life-worse attitude which often seems to prevail in such places as, oh I don’t know, say the Washington, D.C. DMV? On the question of whether it’s a good idea to allow a UAE state-owned company to control (in whatever attenuated way) our port security, I’m kind of of two minds. On the one hand, if some other foreign company would otherwise be running the show, and if the same US, union-member stevedores will be doing the actual work, then maybe its not that big a deal. On the other hand, it seems that the US actually had to refrain from bombing bin Laden (pre-9/11) at some falconing retreat because a good portion of the “emirs” who make up the Emirate in question were there too. I don’t know why that makes me feel dubious…On the gripping hand, I have a perverse sense of pleasure as I watch Bush twist in the wind of the very anti-Arab, our-oceans-no-longer-protect-us bullshit the rest of us have had to hear for the last 5 years. Enjoy! (Unlike during the cold war, where naiads festooned with the stars and stripes were on constant call to toss back offending ICBM’s from their dophin-pulled-seashell mobile tactical units.) But his latest defense is, “I didn’t know anything about it.” Whaaaa? “The president is a sock-puppet moron” is supposed to be a snide criticism, not an exculpatory point. In general I am confused and await further information. Matthew Yglesias rightly notes that the alert citizen will have learned not to trust the administration to make S’mores without plunging half the nation into a sticky-sweet inferno of death. Death that’s sandwiched between Graham crackers! Food for thought.

Vote Bérubé!

by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2006

Horowitz has now given us the opportunity to “vote for the worst of the worst”: , and Michael Bérubé is way out in front. Keep the votes pouring in and expose this dangerous radical as the dangerous danger he is to apple pie and all that.

I must confess: since I can’t really tell the difference between the method these folks used and the method these folks used, I should probably just stop having intuitions about the universe since “often deviates from intuitive reasoning, leading to some surprising effects” isn’t the half of it. Because, granting that they did what they did, my intution is that they can go on to develop infinite improbability computing, relying on the fact that their experiment cannot be scaled up to cause the scaled-up algorithm not to run, thereby producing the answer. Am I right (or am I right or am I right?)

Here’s a link to the Nature paper. (above link via boingboing.)

A minor hermeneutic dispute has broken out concerning the proper interpretation of my last post. I hope this helps.

See now I’m thinkin’, maybe it means you’re the vicar. And I’m the second half of the show. And Mr. 9 millimeter here, he’s the Plymouth Herald protecting my righteous ass ‘like hell’. Or it could mean you’re ‘like hell’ and I’m the Plymouth Herald and it’s the second half of the show that’s the vicar. Now I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re ‘like hell’. And I’m the vicar. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the second half of the show.


by Henry Farrell on February 23, 2006

“Patrick Nielsen Hayden”: touts Robert Charles Wilson’s _Spin_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: ) as “one of the finest science fiction novels of the last decade” and he’s right; I finished the book yesterday, and was enormously impressed. I’ve been a fan of Wilson’s work for a long time,1 but as Patrick says, this is on a different level to his earlier work, good though it is. Its conceit is classic science fiction – the earth is suddenly and mysteriously enshrouded by a barrier which blocks off the stars. Inside the barrier, time passes far more slowly than in the outside universe; one year on earth is the equivalent of one hundred million years outside. A single generation is likely to see the death of the solar system. But Wilson doesn’t treat this set up as a classic SF problem to be “solved” (as in Poul Anderson’s somewhat similar but more conventional _Tau Zero_). Instead, he wants to examine how people react when they are forced to think in cosmological time,directly to confront the fact that just as they are mortal, so too is their species, their world, their sun and even the stars in the sky. It’s a wonderful, subtle book, a love-song to scientific curiosity, with some clever, canny things to say about the deep currents driving contemporary debates over science in the US (Wilson’s a Canadian, and comes at this from outside). Strongly, no _vehemently_ recommended.

1 I’ve a particular fondness for Wilson’s _Darwinia_ which begins when Cork disappears to be replaced by an alien jungle inhabited by feral predators. Skeptics might fairly ask how anyone could tell the difference.


by Kieran Healy on February 23, 2006

“It’s”: available on DVD. Astonishing.

Nearly Doing the Right Thing

by Kieran Healy on February 23, 2006

Raw material for a short paper in moral philosophy, to be written by someone who is actually a moral philosopher.

*Case 1*. A woman “loses her expensive camera”: while on holiday in Hawaii. Some time later:

I got a call from an excited park ranger in Hawaii that “a nice Canadian couple reported that they found your camera!” … “Hello,” I said, when I reached the woman who had reported the camera found, “I got your number from the park ranger, it seems you have my camera?” We discussed the specifics of the camera, the brown pouch it was in, the spare battery and memory card, the yellow rubberband around the camera. It was clear it was my camera, and I was thrilled. “Well,” she said, “we have a bit of a situation. You see, my nine year old son found your camera, and we wanted to show him to do the right thing, so we called, but now he’s been using it for a week and he really loves it and we can’t bear to take it from him.” … “And he was recently diagnosed with diabetes, and he’s now convinced he has bad luck, and finding the camera was good luck, and so we can’t tell him that he has to give it up. Also we had to spend a lot of money to get a charger and a memory card.”

They have no intention of returning the camera. The camera owner says at least send me the memory cards plus $50 and we’ll say no more. She gets a package in the mail. A note inside reads “”Enclosed are some CDs with your images on them. We need the memory cards to operate the camera properly.” She calls the camera-thief back, angry, and is told “You’re lucky we sent you anything at all. Most people wouldn’t do that.”

*Case 2*. An Irishman and his Azerbaijani wife adopt an Indonensian boy. After a while, “they decide that it’s not working out”: (apparently they had “trouble bonding”) and they “dump him”:,,2091-2003949,00.html in an orphanage in Jakarta. This one seems to have worked out OK for the boy, as the Irish High Court just ruled that the parents must support him financially till he is 18 and he has full succession rights to their estates.

I’m wondering why the people in each case thought their actions were justified. Also, we normally think that it’s better to have at least made an effort in the direction of doing the right thing than not to have bothered, or actively done the wrong thing right from the beginning. But in these cases the initially worthwhile actions (calling the camera owner; adopting the child) make the subsequent bad faith seem that much worse. We’re taken by surprise as the story veers off in the wrong direction.