La Mal Babe Sans Merci

by Scott McLemee on November 20, 2007

Over at Brainiac, Josh Glenn discusses the theme of “the intellectual, slightly mysterious rock-and-roll woman,” as a recent book calls it, running throughout songs from the Boston scene over the years. All those smart but fragile girls that Jonathan Richman sang about with the Modern Lovers, for example.

Josh suggests that there is a strain of hipster misogyny in this: the revenge of the sophomore spurned, no doubt. And he reads Mission of Burma’s “Academy Fight Song” as a response to that kind of thing –its lyrics “written from the point of view of a cool, educated young woman who was sick and tired of the obsessive attention paid to her by a would-be boyfriend….”

This seems plausible. But it would not be the first song from the Boston scene to approach this archetype (or whatever it is) from the inside. I’m thinking here, of course, of “Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess” by Ultimate Spinach.
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“God” might be great

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2007

A real conversation among analytical philosophers:

A: You know Hitchens’s _God is Not Great_ — doesn’t that title convey an existential commitment?

B: Not necessarily, “God” might be the name of a fictional character.

A: Well, the name of several different fiction characters actually.

B: Yes, but some of those fictional characters _are_ great ….

Standing up to Martin Amis

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2007

I’m just back from Arizona (big thanks to Kieran and Laurie btw), where I had a great time. My purpose in going there was to deliver a paper on “public reason and immigration” and a couple of conversations I had on the trip concerned how some Americans see the European issue. In both of them (one with a grad student, one with the guy next to me on a plane) my interlocutor referred, in almost identical terms, to Europe’s problem with immigration by “fundamentalist Muslims”, and seemed to believe that this was an accurate depiction of the Islamic population of Europe. Meanwhile, back home, my partner had arranged for a Muslim colleague to accompany her to watch Bristol thump Stade Francais in the Heineken cup. Needless to say, the woman in question is about as distant as it is possible to be from the Muslims who feature in the imagination of my two conversation partners. At Heathrow, I bought a copy of the Guardian to read on the bus, and was reminded by Ronan Bennett’s excellent article, that such blanket stereotyping is also practised by many people here in the UK, who don’t have the excuse of lack of familiarity. When the stereotyping is done by a major British cultural and literary figure and is mixed with a strong dose of sadistic revenge fantasty, it is all the more deplorable. But as Bennett points out, Martin Amis has largely got away with it and a lot of the commentary has been more critical of Terry Eagleton for calling him the bigot that he is. (Chris Brooke at the Virtual Stoa also linked the other day to some more on-the-money kicking of Amis, in which the great writer’s grasp of the history of technology is examined.)

Disciplines and deterrence

by John Q on November 20, 2007

The NY Times has an interesting piece on statistical studies of the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty. For those who want to get straight into fact-free debate, the bottom line is that the evidence is too weak to allow a firm conclusion one way or the other. What’s interesting to me, though is the way in which debates within different disciplines proceed, and the lags in transmission between them. Here I think the NYT story, while excellent in many respects, is quite misleading, presenting a story of deterrence-hypothesis economists facing off against legal critics.

That was pretty much the way things stood in the 1970s, after the publication of Isaac Ehrlich’s study in the American Economic Review claiming that one execution deterred 7 or 8 homicides. Ehrlich used multiple regression analysis (quite difficult and computationally demanding in those days, and correspondingly highly regarded) in an attempt to control for other factors affecting homicide rates and isolate the effect of the death penalty.

Over the next decade, economists learned a lot about the limitations of regression analysis. With limited amounts of data, it’s impossible to avoid mining the data for patterns which are then used to fit the model. And if you try enough specifications on weak data, you can get just about any result you want. A classic exposition of this point was Ed Leamer’s 1983 article “Let’s take the con out of econometrics” which pointed out the fragility of regression analysis on time-series data and picked, as an example, the deterrent effect of the death penalty.
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