Imagined Communities

by Maria on February 22, 2007

I’ve just spotted that Benedict Anderson has produced a revised version of Imagined Communities, his influential 1983 book about nationalism. Is it worth buying if you own the original? [click to continue…]

Trees, flowers, mountains, stones

by Henry Farrell on February 22, 2007

I’m teaching James Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ today (the only academic work I’ve ever read that made me want to dash off a fan-letter to the author), and on re-reading it spotted a passage that seemed possibly relevant to something I’ve sometimes wondered about. Scott is talking about how European states imposed universal last names on their populations, the better to tax and monitor them.

The legislative imposition of permanent surnames is particularly clear in the case of Western European Jews who had no tradition of last names. A Napoleonic decree “concernant les Juifs qui n’ont pas de nom de famille et de prenoms fixes,” in 1808, required Jews to choose last names or, if they refused, to have fixed last names chosen for them. In Prussia the emancipation of the Jews was contingent on the adoption of surnames.

Which may go some way to explaining the puzzle that I’m interested in – why so many Jewish last names of German (or perhaps Yiddish?) origin refer to natural phenomena, with endings such as berg (mountain), stein (stone), wald (forest), baum (tree), blum (flower) and so on. The Italian Jewish name Montefiore (mountain of flowers) is possibly an example of the same thing, but I don’t know whether it’s typical of a broader phenomenon or a singular aberration. If this is part of the story, I’d be interested to know whether these are names that 18th and 19th century European Jews chose for themselves, or were pressured to take by various German state authorities. Any historians of Jewish culture out there who know the answer?

New and Improved News

by Maria on February 22, 2007

Last week I posted rather breathlessly about the amount of content the BBC is putting online for free downloads. At the back of my mind, I had a little niggley thought which I chose not to pursue; wasn’t the BBC doing something a while back to get its whole archive online so that any member of the global public could rip, mix and burn? And hadn’t Cory Doctorow of EFF/BoingBoing been doing some work on this at some point?

That very day, a post on BoingBoing had the following to say;

“The BBC had so much promise a few years ago, back when it was talking about delivering real, world-class public value to license payers by doing the hard work of clearing the footage in the archive and letting the public remix it. Now that vision has been reduced to a sham — the BBC iPlayer, a steaming pile of DRM that restricts you to being a mere consumer of BBC programming, downloading it to your PC for a mere seven days.

For a minute there, the BBC seemed like it would enable a creative nation. Now it’s joining the jerks in Hollywood who think that media exists to be passively swallowed by a legion of glassy eyed zombie audience members. ”

The Beeb’s excuse is that it’s looking for an ‘open standards DRM’, an inherent contradiction if ever there was, and also that it can’t clear its archive. Doctorow points out the weakness of the latter claim; if BBC was so worried about past clearing archival footage, it would be working to “prospectively clear everything in its production pipeline, something that could have been done five years ago”. As he says, the BBC exists to make its content maximally available to the public.

BBC consultation on ‘on demand’ services here (boingboing link to it is broken). BBC Backstage podcast of a discussion on BBC and DRM here.

Russell Arben Fox on Abortion.

by Harry on February 22, 2007

Russell has a long, and typically thoughtful, piece explaining his attitude both to abortion and to regulation of abortion. A teaser:

I’ve probably called myself “pro-life” in the past, maybe way back when I was in high school or an undergraduate. But I have no specific memory of doing so, and I wouldn’t today. Part of this is, simply, because I’m not the hardline, simplistic, killing-a-fetus-is-murder opponent of abortion that I was raised to be. (Reading The Cider House Rules will do that to a person.) Do I still want to deter abortion, including–but not limited to–limiting abortion rights where I think best? Yes, definitely; the revulsion I feel towards the concept is still there. When I first learned about what an “abortion” was as a child, the mental image in my (ten-year-old, perhaps?) mind was of that of doctor wielding a butcher knife, stabbing a baby within a mother’s womb…and frankly, the straightforward medical facts of what an abortion involves don’t lead me to feel that that disturbing image is in any principled way flawed.

But while I would insist that is both impossible and irresponsible to pretend that such sentiments and feelings either could or should be excluded from political discussions, I also acknowledge that you have to be able to at least provide some reasoned account of the roots and parameters of one’s revulsions for political purposes; standing alone, they provide few details and fewer answers.

Go read it, and comment there.

What’s wrong with happiness measurement ?

by John Q on February 22, 2007

Over at Club Troppo, James Farrell summarises the main elements of the economic research agenda on happiness, and some of the standard objections to it. For those who came in late, and probably didn’t imagine economists ever thought about happiness, the crucial finding is that “Cross country data shows pretty consistently that on average happiness increases with income, but at a certain point diminishing returns set in. In the developed world, people are not on average happier than they were in the 1960s.”

The data that supports this consists of surveys that ask people to rate their happiness on a scale, typically from 1 to 10. Within any given society, happiness tends to rise with all the obvious variables: income, health, family relationships and so on. But between societies, or in Western societies like Australia over time, there’s not much difference even though both income and health (life expectancy, for example) have improved pretty steadily for a long time.

I’ve long argued that these questions can’t really tell us anything, and an example given by Don Arthur gives me the chance to put it better than I’ve done before, I hope.

Suppose you wanted to establish whether children’s height increased with age, but you couldn’t measure height directly.
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