From the monthly archives:

July 2007

Progressives and eugenics

by Henry Farrell on July 31, 2007

This is a pretty weird post from “Ross Douthat”:

Ezra writes that it’s “very unfair” to apply the word “eugenics” to, say, the contemporary trend toward the elimination of Down’s Syndrome by selective abortion, because “traditionally, the term has been used to denote efforts to direct or encourage breeding by high status, socially dominant individuals in order to select for their characteristics, and discourage breeding by low status individuals (criminals, the insane, blacks, etc) in order to wipe their characteristics from the gene pool. For Ross to conflate that with parents who decide to abort infants with medically disastrous genetic mutations is a real stretch.” First of all, Down’s Syndrome is not a “medically disastrous” genetic mutation, unless you take an extremely broad definition of the term “disastrous.” Second, while the means of “traditional eugenics” were obviously very different from what’s emerging now – involving state power rather than parental choice, and selective breeding/sterilization rather than prenatal genetic screening and abortion – the ends were the same: the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process.

Does Ross _seriously_ believe that people who have abortions because their foetus appears likely to have Tay-Sachs syndrome or Downs syndrome are doing so because their “end” is “the genetic improvement of the human species?” Can he even realistically contend that the genetic improvement of the human species crosses most people’s minds when they are making this kind of decision?? This claim seems to me to be ridiculous on its face, regardless of your underlying position on whether abortion is a good or bad thing.

What’s going on here, as best as I understand it, is something like the following. There’s a long-standing label in US politics called “progressive,” which used to mean something like “social democrat or non-revolutionary socialist.” As vaguely-left Democrats have increasingly become disenchanted with the term ‘liberal’ and its milksop connotations, they too have begun to embrace the term “progressive.” However, for them, it doesn’t mean ‘social democratic, but instead something like ‘vaguely pro-union liberal with balls’ (or ovaries depending … you get my drift). This in turn has led critics on the right to start harking back to some of the old-style socialist progressives’ sins, and to try to hang them around the necks of Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and company.

Here, Ross has been trying to assert in a series of posts that there is some sort of continuity between ‘old’ progressives’ views on eugenics, and ‘new’ progressives’ views on abortion. Which is kinda nonsensical. The modern liberal position on abortion isn’t rooted in the imperative towards genetic improvement of the species, or anything like it. It’s rooted in a particular notion of individual rights. That’s why they call it ‘choice’ rather than ’embrace your genetic duty by destroying imperfect foetuses for the benefit of mankind.’ The old-style eugenics of H.G. Wells, Swedish social democrats, Anglo-American family planners etc has _nothing to do_ with modern liberalism, or with liberals who have started to call themselves progressives. Instead, if it’s an embarrassment for anyone, it’s an embarrassment for social democrats like myself, who have some real continuities with that older tradition (although hopefully not with that particular part of it).

Only The Stones Remain

by John Holbo on July 31, 2007

In 1980. The Soft Boys, of course. The Only Band That Mattered.

Or possibly, Elvis Costello, “Peace, Love and Understanding”.

In other, less consequential 1980 news: XTC, “We’re Only Making Plans For Nigel”; Boomtown Rats, “I don’t like Mondays”. Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket”. Devo, “Whip It”. Talking Heads, “Once In A Lifetime”; The Cure, “A Forest”.

UPDATE: by popular request, The Young Marble Giants, “Collasal Y”.

(I just felt like my claptrapese joke had spent enough time at the top of the page.)

Words Worth Saving

by John Holbo on July 30, 2007

Josh Marshall: “The whole letter is written in a hyper-specific sort of pseudo-constitutional claptrapese to disguise the fact that what’s being said is complete nonsense.”

I think we should save that neologism for later use. It should be pronounced to emphasize etymologic ambiguity, as one might sing:

“It flew through the air with the greatest of ease/The daring young meme in the fine claptrapese.”

Tyler Cowen’s Secret Blog

by Kieran Healy on July 30, 2007

Tyler Cowen has a “secret” blog and he made a deal with his readers: pre-order my book and I’ll send you the URL. Don’t link to it, and don’t tell anyone. Inevitably, now, we have this request from this guy:


YES I KNOW HE’S SHOUTING. I haven’t pre-ordered Tyler’s book, because pre-ordering things is for suckers. Nor have I been in touch with Tyler. So he didn’t send me the link. But I read Tyler’s secret blog, because it is trivially easy to find it using Google. It took me about 90 seconds when I looked for it. So now I have an interesting dilemma.

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A hard day’s cargo cult science

by Daniel on July 29, 2007

Good news readers! I’ve gone mad! I don’t know what it was that tipped me over the edge but I’m now a signed up 27%er and I’ve decided to start applying my new grasp of the scientific method! After all, our scientific institutions are being destroyed by the leftist politicised science of global warming and the Lancet study, and that’s just not on. Luckily my cheerful attitude and can-do approach to statistics survived my trip to the dark side so I’ve been hard at work all morning applying the sort of tenacious scientific critique that my new status as a crazy person allows me to carry out with no qualifications whatever.

I started with the UK Census. I’ve always thought that there were maybe a few more, or possibly less, ethnic minorities in Camden than the census said, so I phoned them up and asked for the data. The woman on the end of the line pointed me toward their website and noted that there was quite a lot of county-level data there which might be helpful. I explained that no, I wanted the data, by which I meant the actual census forms. They won’t release the data! Really! I shouted that this was a fundamental building block of the scientific method, and that her sinister refusal to hand over the forms to any random person who asked was the equivalent of the Catholic Church burning Galileo[1]. While she was on the line, I asked for the last month’s death figures for Central London – after all, since she’s the central registering authority for births and deaths, she ought to have them at her fingertips as they must magically update every time a hospital morgue writes a certificate. I think she was in tears by the time she slammed the phone down, so Advantage: Blogosphere!

Next on to the Dow Jones Industrial Average people. Did you know that there are three entire missing days from their figures, which suspiciously enough[2] just “happen” to be September 12-15, 2001???????Q? I suppose we are meant to assume that this “missing cluster” was selected at RANDOM!!!!11! Some chance. Clearly the leftist MSMs of Dow Jones International censored these numbers, because they would have added so much to the variance of the DJIA that we could no longer be sure that it wasn’t 36,000! Perfidy! Wal-Mart are releasing their Q2 earnings numbers next week, or at least I should say “releasing” their “numbers”, because as I found out, when you go down to Bentonville demanding a look at the till rolls, you don’t even get let into the car park. Scientific method, my ASS!

Stay tuned for more science, readers, because until this case of Red Bull runs out, I am going to be a blogoscientific force of nature!

[1] Galileo was not actually burned, but I am now a right wing crazy person, so this kind of factul nitpicking no longer bothers me.

[2] The fonts are a lot more fun on this side of the political divide too.

One endless Rathergate

by John Q on July 29, 2007

The rightwing blogosphere, with assistance from the usual MSM types like Howard Kurtz has spent the last week or two trying to discredit a soldier, Scott Beauchamp, who wrote a “Baghdad Diary” for The New Republic, which included various examples of casually callous behavior on the part of US soldiers (nothing on the scale of Abu Ghraib or other proven cases).

For the wingers, this is a continuous pattern. Before this, there was a flap about a report that failures by contractors were resulting in troops in the field not getting adequate food. Before that, it was the Jamil Hussein case, a months-long brawl with AP arising from a report by a stringer about attacks on mosques. Before that, it was reports from Lebanon of ambulances being hit by Israeli fire. And so on.[fn1] There’s too much of this to try and give comprehensive coverage, and I’m not interested in debating the details, but a search on Instapundit will usually get you started.

The Beauchamp case fits the general pattern pretty well. First, the wingers claimed that the Diary was a fabrication and that “Scott Thomas” was the creation of a writer who’d never been near Iraq. Then, when it became evident he was a real person, they rolled out the slime machine to discredit him. Then they engaged in amateur forensics to discredit particular items in his account (acres of screen space have been devoted to the question of whether the driver of a Bradley fighting vehicle can run over a dog). Then they got to the central point – true or false, material like this is bad for the cause and shouldn’t be printed.

All of this, of course, is an attempt to replicate the one undoubted triumph of the blogospheric right, Rathergate. For those who somehow missed it, Dan Rather and CBS fooled by a bogus memo purportedly from Bush’s National Guard commander, and Rather eventually lost his job as a result.

As I said, I’m not interested in, and won’t debate, the details of these stories. The main question is: How anyone could imagine that this kind of exercise can have any value?

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The Last Typing Wife

by Kieran Healy on July 29, 2007

Question: what is the latest — i.e., most recent — example you know of an academic’s first book where, in the acknowledgments, the author thanks his wife (or some other person’s wife, as in “the redoubtable Mrs Elizabeth Arbuthnot”) for typing and retyping the manuscript with great patience, forbearance, accuracy, and so on? The acknowledgments to academic books are a mini-institution with pretty clear rules that change only slowly over time and show a high degree of homogeneity, particularly for first books. Up until a certain point, the endlessly patient and also busily typing wife was a fixture in them. But no longer. How precisely, I wonder, can her extinction be dated?

My hypotheses are: (1) The typing wife disappeared earlier than the typing employee, but (1a), The typing employee has also now disappeared. (2) Things must have been in decline for a long time (typewriters are not exactly a new technology, and then women started going to graduate school on their own account), but the big drop-off comes some time in the 1980s, as cheap computers and word-processors arrive. I suspect specimens continued to appear into the 1990s, however. (3) The typing wife may have disappeared from acknowledgments faster than actual wives doing actual typing disappeared in practice. (4) I expect variance across fields due mostly for reasons of technological affinity. But I’m not sure how fine-grained this is.

As evidence for (2), as an undergraduate in 1993 not in possession of a computer, and not lucky enough to be attending a university with any decent computing facilities, I along with almost all others hand-wrote all my essays and regular coursework. But it was a requirement of both my honours theses that they be typed, so I had to marry pay someone to do that. The following year, though, I had saved up and bought a powerbook and typed my MA paper myself. So it seems reasonable to think that academic books published around this time might still have phantom typists working away – though maybe by then it was people who took a typewritten manuscript and retyped it on a wordprocessor. But I want specific examples. So the main question is, in whose set of acknowledgments is the most recent typing wife to be found?

Blogathon 2007 is on right now

by Eszter Hargittai on July 28, 2007

Hundreds of blogs are being updated every half hour right now as part of Blogathon 2007. I recommend checking out these sites, their authors are working hard not only to bring you interesting content, but also to raise money for various important charities. There is a list of participating blogs here. The topics vary with some blogs focusing on a theme while others blogging in a more freestyle manner. There’s a blog looking at names from children’s literature and collecting donations for First Book, which disseminates books to children from underprivileged backgrounds. (Another participating blog collecting for this charity is Potterthon, perhaps of interest to some here.) This Book is For You is collecting donations for the American Library Association Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund and looking at related topics throughout the 24 hour period. A la cuisine is posting some very intriguing recipes (with pics) and collecting funds for the National Kidney Foundation in honor of the author’s good friend who just received a kidney transplant three days ago. Some people are running contests such as this man in Texas blogging from atop a forklift. His charity is Midland Fair Havens, which offers support to women with pre-teen children who are homeless or who are in danger of becoming homeless. The contests at hello, Yoshi! have readers/listeners guessing movie quotes (with the possibility of winning prizes). The choice of charity there is Susan G. Komen for the Cure. I could go on and on, there are lots of dedicated folks participating in this today.

I took part in Blogathon four years ago and it was a fun unique experience. If I wasn’t in the midst of moving and travelling right now I would have posted a note earlier about all this to encourage more people to participate. When I did it in 2003, I decided to do it in the grad student computer cluster in the Princeton Soc Dept so people could stop by easily and say hi. Over a dozen friends kept me company (and brought me food!) throughout the event. And I got to raise some money for Planned Parenthood from forty generous contributors.

It’s not that easy to stay up for 24 hours straight and blog in a coherent manner. Putting up a post every half hour means constant work. So show some of these folks some appreciation by reading their blogs and if inspired, consider donating to some of these very worthy charities.

Net Migration in Ireland

by Kieran Healy on July 28, 2007

Irish migration flowsLike “Henry”:, I’m part of the last generation of Irish people to date for whom fleeing the country was a standard career path. I emigrated in 1995, coincidentally the year that the boom in immigration really began, and the era of significant net migration arrived. My usual impeccable timing, in other words. The scale of Irish emigration throughout the twentieth century is astonishing. From 1926 to 1961, the rate of emigration was sufficient to at least equal and usually significantly outweigh the natural rate of increase in the population, so that overall population numbers either stagnated or fell. Thus, despite the fact that the country’s “Total Fertility Rate”: was over _three_ until the early 1980s, there were fewer than 150,000 more people living in Ireland in 1979 than there had been in 1901. The government conducted 14 censuses between 1926 and 2006. Of these, only four have shown positive net migration from the previous census, and three of those periods are since 1990: 1971-79 (+14 thousand), 1991-96 (+2k), 1996-2002 (+26k) and 2002-2006 (+42k).

Thousands Are Sailing

by Henry Farrell on July 28, 2007

“Bill Sjostrom”: tells me via email that the “2006 Irish Census figures”: are out, and that 14.7% of respondents weren’t born in Ireland. This is one of the reasons that I don’t blog very much about Ireland any more; the country has changed dramatically since I left. I departed in 1993 at the tail-end of the economic slump, when no self-respecting immigrant would want to come near the country (over half of my university class emigrated as best I remember; I imagine that most of them have since gone back). According to Bill, 0.6% of Ireland’s population were born in the US; a pretty significant reversal of the previous trend. This picture from the “Irish Times”: suggests that changes are afoot in the North of Ireland too.

Northern Ireland

The caption reads:

The Free Derry Wall gets a coat of paint for the gay and lesbian Foyle Pride Festival. Members of the gay men’s health promotion agency the Rainbow Project painted the wall for the festival, which starts on August 13th.

Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries have used wall-slogans and murals (often quite detailed and extensive) as a means of marking off their territory and scaring off outsiders for decades. To have gay activists start doing ’em over in pink suggests that things are … a little different than they used to be.

Alice in Wonderland and the Lancet study

by Daniel on July 27, 2007

(Initial bad temper warning: I am a little bit cross as I write this, because I think that the distribution of the paper on the Michelle Malkin website was both silly (because the paper has huge flaws that a mass audience can’t possibly be expected to understand) and rude (because at the time when he gave permission for it to be distributed, David was soliciting comments, seemingly in good faith, from the Deltoid community, aimed at improving it before distribution). The Malkin link has meant that this paper has metastatised and I will therefore presumably be dealing with cargo-cult versions of it by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about from now to the end of time. I see that Shannon Love of the Chicago Boyz website is claiming to have been “sweetly vindicated”, FFS. Ah well, the truth has now got its boots on, and big clumpy steel toe-capped boots they are too. C’mon boots, let’s get walking.)
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Nielsening Haydens and Haydening Nielsens

by Henry Farrell on July 26, 2007

_Making Light_ has a fairly vigorous discussion about Wikipedia policies going at the moment, which has wandered onto the topic of whether people should or shouldn’t be able to decide what their names are for themselves, or whether some other (whether it be Wikipedia, a government agency or whatever) should be able to restrict their choices. “One comment”:
comes from someone whom I presume from their name is Japanese:

Toru Ranryu: To what extent are people entitled to choose their own name? Where I come from, to steal an expression from the Flamer Bingo thread, there are strict rules for how children obtain their names, as well as for when name changes are allowed and what names are acceptable. All of this is enforced by a no-nonsense government agency. Incidentally, under these rules it would not be allowed for Patrick Hayden and Teresa Nielsen to both take Nielsen Hayden as a last name. Are these rules repressive? Do they deny some fundamental freedom or human right? I don’t think so. From birth, your name is not what you call yourself but what others call you. There are ways in which you can change your name, basically by asking people to call you something else, but in the end the decision is always made by other people.

This reminded me of a job talk that a candidate gave in my department last year, describing the politics of women’s surnames in Japan. As I remember (I may be mangling this), it’s impossible for a Japanese woman to keep her birth name for official purposes after marriage; if, say, she wants a passport, she’s obliged to get it under her husband’s surname. But divorce is extremely easy in Japan (you basically have to fill out a form to inform local officialdom and that’s it) so that women who don’t like this rule have taken to divorcing their husbands temporarily before travelling abroad, getting a passport under their birthnames, and then remarrying their ex-husbands on their return. To the extent that my memory isn’t garbling the candidate’s account completely, this suggests that Mr.(???) Ranyu’s views on names aren’t shared by some of his compatriots; it’s also a nice illustration of the lengths to which people will go to creatively reinterpret institutions so as as to undermine egregious official restrictions.

Illegal Inheritance

by Jon Mandle on July 25, 2007

For some time, Josh Marshall has been saying that President Bush won’t fire Alberto Gonzales because he wouldn’t be able to get a new Attorney General confirmed by the Senate who would be willing to keep all of the cover-ups in place. Evidence for this theory is mounting. But Bush won’t be able to keep him in office for ever.

Assume a new Democratic President is inaugurated on January 20, 2009. Focusing on the illegal wire-tap program(s) (as opposed to the other cover-ups), which of the following is most likely:

a. the illegal wire-tap program(s) will be dismantled and all evidence of them destroyed by the time the new administration takes office;
b. they will still be up and running, and the new administration will quietly continue them;
c. the new administration will quietly stop them;
d. the new administration will say that they are stopping them, but actually continue them;
e. the new administration will make a big show about stopping them (and actually do so);
f. the new administration will make a big show about stopping them and move to prosecute members of the previous administration for violating the law.

I can’t believe a. is a viable option, so how would a Democratic administration handle such an illegal inheritance? Is there a significant difference among the candidates? (Maybe I should have made a you-tube video asking this.)

Damned lies, etc

by Henry Farrell on July 25, 2007

Tyler Cowen is somewhat “suspicious”: of an FCC Commissioner’s statistical claims about broadband penetration. Given the FCC’s past form, a general suspicion of any statistics that it trots out on broadband penetration is entirely warranted. The FCC has generated copious statistics to support their claims that there is a thriving competitive market among broadband providers. However, as the General Accounting Office “points out”: (pdf) in polite governmental administratese, their numbers are a crock. They pump up the number of competitors in a given local market by including satellite (not a significant option for most consumers), lumping together data on specialized business services and consumer broadband, and failing to consider whether the fact that two cable companies operate in the same zipcode means that they actually compete with each other (their coverage areas may not in fact overlap). When these biases are corrected for, the GAO finds that the median number of providers for a given respondent is two, and 9% of respondents have no access to broadband at all. Given the near-total lack of resemblance between these figures and the reality that American consumers have to deal with, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that they were generated with the purpose of muddying debate.

Can Nothing Stop Computo!

by John Holbo on July 25, 2007

I present you with this week’s reason for thinking I read too many Legion of Super Heroes comics. I’m reading Crangle and Suppes, Language and Learning for Robots. (It’s part of the super popular ‘for robots’ series. My favorite being Wine Tasting For Robots.)


This book reports research that the authors have been doing together for the past decade on instructible robots …

In this book we explore the following two specific questions. What does it take for a robot to understand instructions expressed in a natural language such as English? What further challenges arise when the robot must learn from that instruction? The work we present falls naturally into three parts: theory, language performance, and learning. We briefly summarize each of these parts.

Part I on theory consists of four chapters. The first one sets forth our general ideas about instructible robots and how they are different from robots that operate autonomously. (xv)

Yes, but why do they have to be indestructible, I was asking myself?

I actually continued on like this for some time. You see, I had me a brief little thought about how it was probably going to turn out that they had some very abstract story about what a robot could learn, given an infinite amount of time. And somewhere along the line someone decided ‘indestructible robot’ was cute shorthand for this ideal limit; and I just never got the memo. Anyway. I think I need to get some sleep.

Likely culprit.