Words from the State of the Union Address

by Eszter Hargittai on January 23, 2007

Recall our pointer to the site showing tag clouds of presidential speeches since 1796 (now updated for 2007). The New York Times has done something similar with Bush’s State of the Union Addresses. It’s a neat tool, in addition to the terms shown by default on the right, you can select others or search for any term you choose above the diagram of the speeches. You also get to see the word’s context.

Princesses, Prada, product placement

by John Quiggin on January 23, 2007

I watched The Devil Wears Prada not long ago – as the name implies, it’s not short on product placement, though of course this is part of the fun. The central character, played by Meryl Streep, is the editor of a fashion magazine and the heroine/narrator is hired her assistant. Streep’s character is represented as an impossibly demanding princess – the first illustration of this being an imperious demand for Starbucks coffee, delivered in a paper (or maybe even styrofoam) cup. Even allowing for the needs of product placement, and the curiously high status of this coffee-shop chain in the US, this strikes me as way off the mark. Surely she should be demanding her own personal barista, freshly grinding exotic coffee beans, and delivering the product in brand-name china (compare the gangster-movie financier in Mulholland Drive who spits out the coffee with which his hosts have struggled desperately to please him).

But all this comes to the central contradiction of promoting luxury consumption, which Henry discussed not long ago. On the one hand, we want to read about and watch the luxury products of the rich and famous, and advertisers want to exploit this. On the other hand, if we could all afford to buy it, it wouldn’t be luxury consumption. There are ways around this – for example, Gucci makes its name with impossibly expensive clothes, but makes much of its profits by attaching its brand name, and the associated high markups, to lower-priced products like sunglasses.

Of course, I’m using “luxury” in a special sense here. Refrigerators were once available only to the wealthy, but they are valuable because they are useful. Now they are cheap and widely available (note that other items, like university education are going in the opposite direction), but this isn’t a problem. By contrast, the kind of luxury I’m talking about, represented most clearly by high fashion relies on exclusiveness for its value. In the end, this is a zero-sum game, which probably explains some of the oddities of fashion.

Martians and the Gruesome

by Brian on January 23, 2007

One of my quirkier philosophical views is that the most pressing question in metaphysics, and perhaps all of philosophy, is how to distinguish between disjunctive and non-disjunctive predicates in the special sciences. This might look like a relatively technical problem of no interest to anyone. But I suspect that the question is important to all sorts of issues, as well as being one of those unhappy problems that no one seems to even have a beginning of a solution to. One of the issues that it’s important to was raised by “Brad DeLong”:http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/01/the_meddling_id.html yesterday. He was wondering why John Campbell might accept the following two claims.

* There is an important and unbridgeable gulf between our notions of physical causation and our notions of psychological causation.
* Martian physicists–intelligences vast, cool, and unsympathetic with no notions of human psychology or psychological causation–could not understand why, could not put their finger on physical variables and factors explaining why, the fifty or so of us assemble in the Seaborg Room Monday at lunch time during the spring semester.

I don’t know why Campbell accepts these claims. And I certainly don’t want to accept them. But I do know of one good reason to accept them, one that worries me no end some days. The short version involves the conjunction of the following two claims.

* Understanding a phenomenon involves being able to explain it in relatively broad, but non-disjunctive, terms.
* Just what terms are non-disjunctive might not be knowable to someone who only knows what the Martian physicists know, namely the microphysics of the universe.

The long version is below the fold.
[click to continue…]

Bloggingheads again

by Henry on January 23, 2007

I’m on Bloggingheads “again”:http://bloggingheads.tv/video.php?id=187, this time with Mark Schmitt, for thems thats are interested to watch.


by Chris Bertram on January 23, 2007

There’s a somewhat “weird article in the Guardian today by Simon Tisdall”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1996355,00.html , which rather highlights a question that has been bothering me for a while. There’s been a rumbling debate in the UK for a while now about the possibility that the Scottish National Party might gain a majority in Scotland and then win a referendum on independence, thus ending the union. Tisdall cites possible Kosovan secession as an important possible precedent for this on no stronger grounds than the fact that, like Scotland, Kosovo has been an integral part of a larger entity for several centuries.

Most popular discussion of the Scottish case has simply assumed that Scotland ought to be able to secede if the nationalists win a referendum. But, whatever the merits of that view, it isn’t one that would draw much strength from recent work in political philosophy (so much the worse for political philosophy, I hear you say). Allen Buchanan’s article “Theories of Secession”, (PPA 1997) for example, argues for a remedial right to secede – that is a right, akin, to the right to revolution – to depart an entity if the seceding party has sought and failed to remedy a serious injustice of which they are the victims. Buchanan does not support a “primary right” to secede by national or other groups, partly on the grounds that to grant such a right would generate perverse incentives against many desirable policies, including ones favouring decentralized or devolved administration.

I think the disanalogies between Scotland and and Kosovo are pretty clear. Albanian Kosovans are the recent victims of sustained injustice and rights violations; modern Scots, who provide a good proportion of cabinet minister for the UK, who benefit from significant flows of revenues and who have their own parliament, are not. [1] Kosovans therefore meet Buchanan’s test for a remedial right to secede and Scots do not. Whether permitting Scottish secession would be a good or bad thing _prudentially_ is another question, but I can’t see that it would be _unjust_ to refuse such secession even if there were a majority for it in a referendum. Scottish secession, and the break-up of the UK, might have all kinds of desirable consequences, including for democracy and for the effective control of resources by people, especially if Scotland were to stay within the EU. But as a _right_ , inherent in the Scottish people and exercisable by a one-off vote? I’m not convinced.

fn1. I don’t deny, of course, that Scots have been the victims of serious injustice in the historic past, just that they are presently the victims of such injustice.

Last night Belle and I watched a classic war flick – 12 O’Clock High [wikipedia], with Gregory Peck as the stoical General Savage. It contains extensive and rather impressive real combat footage: formations of flying fortresses vs. German fighters with lots of planes going down in smoke and flames and frantic little stick figures trying to bail out safely, with apparently mixed results. Then dropping of bombs and large explosions. It suddenly struck me that it’s sort of weird to use real war footage in Hollywood entertainments.