From the monthly archives:

October 2007

Josh Glenn, who I interviewed last week about his book Taking Things Seriously, may have solved the puzzle of what “little nameless object” is produced by the factories that secured the family fortune of a wastrel in Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors.

Normally this would merit a short item in Notes and Queries or The Explicator. But in this case, the proposed solution to “the Woollett Question” appears as an article at Slate.

Next challenge: Figure out what the stolen “little object” was in Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore.

How Not to Be a Hypocrite

by Harry on October 31, 2007

A long strand about the hypocrisy of parents who use school-quality considerations when buying a house opposing vouchers has annoyed Megan McArdle. (Laura replies here). I don’t entirely understand why. In the thread Megan is so incensed by, both voucher opponents and voucher supporters seemed to be arguing in good faith and with good humor. Laura is a bit mischievous, to be sure, but her readers expect that, and there’s nothing on the thread that justifies Megan’s tone.

Before elaborating, here’s a plug for my friend Adam Swift’s excellent book How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed which treats this topic in great detail and should be much more widely read (Swift is interested in the parents who use private schools while believing that private schools should be prohibited, but the structure of thinking of voucher opponent who uses school quality considerations in house buying is very much the same, I think).

Are people who buy houses on school-quality grounds necessarily hypocritical if they also oppose vouchers?

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DeLong, Scott and Hayek

by Henry Farrell on October 31, 2007

“Brad DeLong”: has a review of James Scott’s _Seeing Like a State_ which I found pretty useful in clarifying some of my disagreements with him (Brad, not Scott). What he sees as a fundamental problem in Scott (that Scott is a Hayekian in denial, and that his denial of his intellectual heritage leads him erroneously to claim that markets are harmful to human freedom) I see as pointing to an important, but underplayed set of themes in Scott’s argument. Which is to say that I would have liked Scott to develop the reasons why he disagrees with Hayek more explicitly, but I think that they are clearly present in the book, and are in some respects at least, compelling. [click to continue…]

Leopard Oddity

by Kieran Healy on October 31, 2007

So naturally I upgraded to Leopard a few days ago. Generally a smooth process, with the occasional headache (reinstalling stupid HP printer drivers, grr) balanced out with the occasional pleasant discovery not hyped beforehand (Terminal now aware of the Keychain, hurray). But here’s something that looks like a bug a slightly counterintuitive feature in OS X’s otherwise very nice PDF-handling abilities.

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And yet more on freedom of speech

by Henry Farrell on October 30, 2007

The brouhaha over freedom of speech below reminds me that I never got around to blogging about Bruce Barry’s very interesting book _Speechless:The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace_ (Powells, Amazon) which I read over the summer. I was sent it as a freebie because it has a chapter about blogging in the workplace, but found that I was grabbed by the general discussion of how few rights Americans have at the workplace. This is something that I had known in a general sort of way but hadn’t experienced personally (academics, at least tenure-track academics in good institutions, typically have it a lot better than most), and that was really brought home by Barry’s extended arguments and plethora of real-life illustrations. The book starts by discussing the experience of Lynne Gobbel, an Alabama factory worker.

Gobbel had a John Kerry bumper sticker. Her boss informed her that the owner of the factory, Phil Geddes, had demanded that she remove the sticker or be fired; he also told her “you could either work for him or John Kerry.” Geddes had on a previous occasion inserted a flyer in employee paycheck envelopes pointing out the positive effects that Bush’s policies as president were having on them. “It upset me and made me mad,” said Gobbel, “that he could put a letter in my check expressing his political opinion, but I can’t put something on my car expressing mine.”

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More on freedom of speech

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2007

I’m glad to see that my friend Martin O’Neill has devoted “his New Statesman column”: to the topic this week. A sample:

bq. Any plausible commitment to the values of a democratic society will minimally involve the thought that there should be a degree of political equality. Citizens should not only be equal before the law, but should have an equal opportunity to influence the outcomes of democratic deliberation. If we are to have government of the people, for the people and by the people – in Abraham Lincoln’s phrase – then we need to take seriously the thought that the people’s voices need to be heard. The political philosopher John Rawls, in defining his principles of justice for a democratic state, talks about the significance not only of ensuring that citizens have equal basic liberties (such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to vote), but of further ensuring equality in the fair value of the rights and liberties involved in political life. Without such commitments to the fair value of our rights and liberties, invoking democratic ideals can look like an empty charade, devoid of genuine substance. In other words, if we take democracy seriously, we need to walk it like we talk it.

bq. But what would be involved in delivering a truly democratic society, in which citizens’ democratic rights were not merely a charade – all form and no substance? Well, one thing it would certainly involve is some restrictions on the ownership of the media, so that it could no longer be the case that the content of public political debate is decided by the private interests of a few rich proprietors, like The Sun’s Rupert Murdoch.

I think my only quarrel with Martin concerns him picking on the _Sun_. Some of Murdoch’s other outlets, especially the _Times_ contain much more pernicious garbage these days, but it gets a pass for being a “quality” paper.

Hitler Hitler Hitler

by Kieran Healy on October 30, 2007

Norman Podhoretz’s nuanced approach to arguing questions of foreign policy.

Tintin in America: Advice for Librarians

by Harry on October 29, 2007

Tintin is apparently set to appear in a movie at some time in the unspecified future. I’m indifferent to this myself — the black and white cartoon from the 60’s was good enough for me, and the BBC radio drama adaptations are unsurpassable. But it should not be a matter of indifference to school librarians, for whom it is will create some major headaches.

Why? Tintin will suddenly be popular in America, and there’ll be lots of enthusiasm about the books. Librarians will buy them in job lots, without looking at them carefully, and will be especially attracted by the title Tintin in America. When it arrives, they’ll see the cover, and have to figure out what to do.

Now, having got into trouble myself for giving Tintin books to the child of right-wing Republican gun-toting conservatives, who accused me of being politically incorrect (me? I ask you), I’m aware both that I have a tin-ear with respect to certain cultural values, and that a cover like this might cause offense across the board.

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Record numbers of Americans are travelling abroad for medical treatment to escape the American healthcare system – with 100,000 patients expected to fly out this year _for cosmetic surgery alone_, more than the sum total of “Britons seeking any type of services in foreign lands.” And by the end of the decade 200,000 American “health tourists” will fly to one hospital in Thailand alone on current trends to avoid extortionate costs, according to a “new report”:

_und so weiter_.

For original, see “here”:

Loafing with LaRouche

by Scott McLemee on October 29, 2007

As you may recall, the economy was supposed to have collapsed as of two weeks ago today. Right now, you should not be able to afford a loaf of bread with a wheelbarrow full of $1000 bills.

I understand that bread baskets have been sent to headquarters in Virginia by ex-members. The sarcasm is tinged with philanthropy. LaRouche’s true believers are in serious trouble; their economy is collapsing, anyway. The group is being forced to come up with money for the IRS, and facing renewed investigation by the FEC, in the wake of events described by Avi Klein in a major article appearing in the new issue of Washington Monthly.
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A good recipe for cookies?

by Eszter Hargittai on October 29, 2007

A few weeks ago the Berkman Center for Internet and Society posted an interesting contest: create a short informative video about Web cookies and have the chance to win up to $5,000 and a trip to DC where the video would then be shown at the FTC’s Town Hall workshop on “Ehavioral Advertising“.

I’m afraid we’re past the deadline for submissions and I apologize for posting about this so late (life intervened and I got behind on a bunch of things). I wanted to post about it nonetheless, because I think it’s an interesting initiative and the resulting videos are available for viewing.

I was very intrigued by this contest given my interest in improving people’s Internet user skills. What would be a good way to communicate the concept of a Web cookie to folks who have little technical background? I haven’t looked at all of the submissions, but the ones I’ve seen I find are still too technical and are likely only comprehensible to those who already know at least a few things about Internet cookies. Alternatively, the clips are too vague and so likely have limited utility for that reason. I was a bit surprised and disappointed that people didn’t do more with the cookie analogy. Some of the videos have related cute/amusing components, but not incorporated in a particularly effective way. However, note that I have not watched all of the submitted videos so I may have missed some gems. Feel free to post links to ones you think are especially informative. I think the timeline for submissions was a bit short (I know there were particular logistical reasons for this), which may have prevented more people from getting involved and may have limited the amount of effort that could go into creation of the entries.

An interesting aside about how YouTube posts videos (assuming I understand this correctly, but I haven’t explored this aspect in depth so feel free to correct me): it seems that the creator of the video has little say over what becomes the thumbnail image for the clip. As far as I can tell, the frame is taken from the middle of the video, which is not always ideal as it’s not necessarily the most informative segment.

Prins and Rayner on Kyoto

by John Q on October 29, 2007

Not surprisingly, this Nature article by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner entitled Time to ditch Kyoto, has attracted plenty of attention. I’m responding quickly and therefore somewhat brusquely. I’ll try to write something more considered a bit later.

Before giving a detailed response, let me observe that a reader with limited time need only look at the following few sentences

In September, the United States convened the top 16 polluters. Such initiatives are summarily dismissed by Kyoto’s true believers, who see them as diversions rather than necessary first steps. However, these approaches begin to recognize the reality that fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world’s emissions.

This argument is premised on the assumption that the Bush Administration, representing the world’s largest source of emissions (though China is catching up fast), sincerely wants to do something about climate change and called the September meeting with this purpose in mind. If anyone believes this, I have just become aware of a business opportunity from Nigeria in which they may be interested.
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Alan Coren Remembered

by Harry on October 28, 2007

The News Quiz tribute to Alan Coren will be here for the rest of this week. That unpleasant (and unfair) joke about the Beatles dying in the wrong order rears its head with respect to former editors of humourous magazines.

Constitutional Foot Tapping

by Jon Mandle on October 27, 2007

Larry Craig, who has withdrawn his intention to withdraw from the Senate and now intends to finish his term, is trying to withdraw his guilty plea for disorderly conduct. According to this AP story, his lawyers intend to argue: 1. that “Minnesota’s disorderly conduct law is unconstitutional as it applies to his conviction in a bathroom sex sting”; 2. that “the judge erred by not allowing Craig to withdraw his plea”; and 3. that “the judge who sentenced Craig to a fine and probation never signed anything saying he accepted the guilty plea.” These last two seem pretty trivial, but the first point is serious. The AP story is never exactly explicit concerning the constitutional issues at stake, but it helpfully points out that “an earlier friend-of-the-court filing by the American Civil Liberties Union argued that Craig’s foot-tapping and hand gesture under a stall divider at the Minneapolis airport are protected by the First Amendment.” That sure seems right to me, but is that actually the argument that Craig is going to make? Recall that his explanation at the time [pdf] and (as far as I know) since has been that there was absolutely, positively, really and truly no speech involved – he just happens to have a “wide stance when going to the bathroom” and that he “reached down with his right hand to pick up a piece of paper that was on the floor.”

Facebook profiling

by Henry Farrell on October 27, 2007

Republican Internet consultant Patrick Ruffini “points”: to this “fascinating resource”: for figuring out the raw numbers of liberal, moderate and conservative Facebook users interested in a specific issue. Don’t try to create a flyer or whatever – just go to the “targetting” section, type the topic that you are interested in into the keywords section, and see how the numbers change whether you click Liberal, Moderate and Conservative (there’s further microtargeting of cities etc available too). For example, about 2,520 self-declared liberal Facebook users declare blogging as one of their interests, as opposed to 1,320 moderates and 1,100 conservatives. 5,180 liberals show the good taste to declare My Bloody Valentine as one of their favourite bands, as opposed to 1,120 moderates, and only 340 conservatives. Less obviously, the number of liberals (7,300) and conservatives (7,580) who like bluegrass music is about the same1. Obviously, treat these numbers with extreme caution; there is _no way_ that Facebook users are a random sample of the population 2, but still, this promises much idle entertainment.

1 It occurs to me on re-reading this post that I’ve phrased this in a misleading way – obviously, if you wanted to make a serious point about this, you’d weight the absolute numbers or provide the odds ratios or whatever.
2 For one, the liberal-conservative ratio is skewed to liberals among Facebook users as compared to the ratio in the general population – there are just over 2.8 million self-identified liberal Facebook users and 2.18 million conservatives. Most survey evidence that I am aware of suggests that there are considerably more self-identified conservative Americans than liberal Americans (although the numbers of self-identified conservatives is dropping).