From the monthly archives:

December 2007

Last day to give a laptop & get a laptop (U.S. & Canada)

by Eszter Hargittai on December 31, 2007

OLPC A few hours left for those in North America to participate in the One Laptop Per Child program. $399 plus shipping pays for two of these special laptops: one for a child in a lesser developed nation and one for you.

While most of my research is about pointing out that simply offering access to devices will not get people connected effectively and efficiently, gaining access to digital media is an important first step in the process.

Here’s a review by a 12 year old (not part of the target audience though) and a video review by David Pogue. I would’ve offered my own review, but I didn’t order it in time to get my hands on it by today’s deadline.

Photo credit: mike3k on Flickr

Pakistan after Bhutto links

by Chris Bertram on December 31, 2007

Just an update with links to the discussions and articles that have struck me as most interesting. First up, Tariq Ali, who often spouts nonsense concerning geopolitics but is here writing about something he knows and cares about. “In today’s Independent he deplores the dynastification of Pakistan with the naming of Bhutto fils as PPP leader”: . He also had an interesting piece in the Guardian which “has been republished”: by International Viewpoint. Second, Jemima Khan, who comes across as “well-informed and perceptive in the Telegraph”:;jsessionid=JVEB3HN4QLUATQFIQMGSFFWAVCBQWIV0?xml=/opinion/2007/12/30/do3003.xml . And finally, “a whole raft of discussions at The Immanent Frame”: . Feel free to add more links in comments.

Recent BBC Radio Drama

by Harry on December 30, 2007

Radio 4 has given us an embarrassment of riches recently, and due to the remarkable snowfalls here I’ve had ample time to listen (while shovelling our over-long driveway). Still online, and well worth a listen are Simon Bovey’s dark mystery, The Iceman and Robin Brooks’s witty tribute to M.R. James, A Warning to the Furious. Best of all is a repeat of Marcy Kahan’s 20 Cigarettes, which was a 2007 Tinniswood award nominee, and deservedly so. (Kahan is the writer of the brilliant Noel Coward comedy/mysteries, and also wrote the screenplay for the excellent, but apparently not-yet-on-DVD Antonia and Jane). Find an hour for 20 Cigarettes if you can.

Pottery Barn Rules?

by John Holbo on December 30, 2007

I’m reading Ted Honderich, Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? [amazon]. It’s good, but schizophrenic. He shifts gears, lurchingly, between sober, seminar-style logic-chopping and indignant broadsides. I don’t really mind, because obviously that’s what blogs are for. Still, this is a book.

I had picked up, second-hand, that Honderich dubbed Roger Scruton ‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’. Now I’ve got the specific quote that summons the quip. Scruton (from The Meaning of Conservatism):

There is a natural instinct in the unthinking man who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on him, and unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy, seeks fulfillment in the world that is to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born. This instinct, which I have attempted to translate into the self-conscious language of political dogma, is rooted in human nature.

What’s most odd is the bit about ‘not lodging blame where there is no remedy’. I take it this is a mis-expression of the idea Rousseau (?) gets at with ‘the nature of things does not madden us, only ill-will does’ (quoted in Berlin?) But really Scruton is saying something quite different, articulating an addled Pottery Barn Rule: break something badly enough and you don’t have to buy it. (Or good old, ‘owe the bank $100, it’s your problem, owe the bank $100 million and it’s the bank’s problem’.) Could it really be that there are two sorts of ‘unthinking men’: those who cause problems they can’t solve, and those who don’t blame them for it?

Science, and anti-science, in action

by John Q on December 29, 2007

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

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Benazir Bhutto

by Chris Bertram on December 27, 2007

“Terrible news from Pakistan”: , which, no doubt is the prelude to more appalling violence and loss of life. Whatever else can be said about Benazir Bhutto, it showed tremendous courage to return to Pakistan and to contest the elections when her assassination was always likely. It seems wrong to try to say much more than that at present.

Staggering Costs

by Kieran Healy on December 26, 2007

Via Atrios, the Big Dig is just about done:

bq. When the clock runs out on 2007, Boston will quietly mark the end of one of the most tumultuous eras in the city’s history: The Big Dig, the nation’s most complex and costliest highway project, will officially come to an end. Don’t expect any champagne toasts. After a history marked by engineering triumphs, tunnels leaks, epic traffic jams, last year’s death of a motorist crushed by falling concrete panels and a price tag that soared from $2.6 billion to a staggering $14.8 billion, there’s little appetite for celebration.

$14.8bn is an awful lot of money to spend on a road project to reconfigure the infrastructure of a large city by putting a chunk of the Interstate underground. As Duncan says, it’s slightly less than two months worth of U.S. government spending in Iraq.

Can we stop with the pink and the bows already?

by Eszter Hargittai on December 25, 2007

Shortly after I found the great blog outside the (toy) box, its author decided that she couldn’t maintain it, not right now anyway. I completely understand her decision, but it’s still a bummer. There’s some great writing there about parenting, gender issues, and consumerism, and her voice will be missed.

WNBA for her - pink! - ughSo here’s a post along similar lines inspired by my stroll down 5th Avenue in Manhattan yesterday. One could probably write a whole book about the experience on that one street Christmas Eve, but I’ll just restrict myself to the NBA store. I’m more of a college basketball fan than an NBA fan, but I like basketball enough in general to have been intrigued by the store and so I went inside. (Yeah, clearly this isn’t a generic anti-consumerist post.) There’s tons of merchandise likely about any NBA team of interest. Naively one might think that most sports and fan gear could be gender neutral. But no, there is a separate “NBA for her” pink section, because how could a girl or a woman possibly appreciate a green or orange jersey, right? In addition to that pink section, I was really annoyed by the gendering of some playful items. I thought it would be cute to buy a little plush basketball as a gift for a child. Then I thought: hey, let’s support women’s basketball so I’ll buy the one that says WNBA instead of NBA. WNBA toy with bow - can't just let it be, can they?But the WNBA balls all had a bow! Why can’t a little plush basketball with two eyes, two hands and two feet not have a bow even if it is supposed to be female? Uhm, and why does something that supports WNBA have to be female anyway? Or would somebody like to critique me for assuming that the bow and big eyelashes are supposed to represent a girl?

I find this all so stupid and frustrating. Needless to say I walked out of the store not having spent a penny.

Naughty and Nice

by John Holbo on December 25, 2007

Belle found this one in her stocking this morning. I think Santa selected wisely.


Russell says all names are really just disguised descriptions. So why shouldn’t that be a perfectly grammatical title? We haven’t read it yet, but the series sounds intriguing: [click to continue…]

Andrew Glyn is dead

by Harry on December 24, 2007

Via Chris Brooke comes the sad news that Andrew Glyn has died, apparently from a brain tumour that was diagnosed only recently, and was inoperable. The only obit I can find so far is at Socialist Unity blog. I realise that a good number of our readers must have known him, so I’m sorry to be the one who brings the news. I didn’t know him, but our circles intersected a good bit, and mutual friends and acquaintances always spoke very warmly of him. So I always imagined I would meet, and enjoy chatting with, him someday.

Witness: Five Plays from the Gospel of Luke

by Harry on December 22, 2007

It has always been a bit difficult for me to take Peter Firth seriously. Its not his fault. Tess of the dUrbevilles was a set book for my A-level English syllabus, and serendipitously Polanski’s Tess was released while we were studying it. I went with a friend who was, in fact, dating a teacher at the time (but would occasionally get me to go out with her as cover, which I was happy to do). Unfortunately, as Angel Clare appeared on screen she shouted out “Ooh, look, its Scooper from the Double Deckers”, to my mortification, but the delight of the rest of the audience (several of whom said “Oh, yeah, look, so it is”). (Recognise him?) The phrase comes into my head pretty much every time he comes on screen in MI-5/Spooks, which is inconvenient at best, beating out even the wierdness of seeing him teamed up with Jenny Agutter again after so many years.

Fortunately, you can’t see him on the radio. All last week he appeared in a series of wonderful and moving radio plays about the life of Jesus, based on Luke’s gospel (Firth plays Peter). I nearly skipped them, thinking “well, I know the story, what’s the point of listening again”. What a mistake that would have been: brilliant writing, acting, and producing, with an all-star cast (Firth, in particular, is excellent). I was rivetted. If you have five 45 minute breaks in the next few days, this is the only way to use them. The first play will go offline Monday, the second on Tuesday, and so forth, so you’d better get listening. Better than anything the TV writers who are on strike were producing when they weren’t. And if you’re lucky nobody will shout “Oh, listen, its Scooper from the Double Deckers”.

The Dead of Winter

by Kieran Healy on December 22, 2007

It’s the Winter Solstice. Ancient Celtic mummery is tedious — woo, I am teh Morrigan! — but that shouldn’t distract you from the fact that Newgrange is one of the wonders of the world, and never more than at this time of year. Here’s a reprint of an old post of mine about it.

Newgrange is a megalithic tomb in County Meath’s Boyne Valley, in Ireland. It is more than five thousand years old. Built around 3200BC, it is five hundred years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and about a thousand years older than Stonehenge. When it was rediscovered in 1699, it looked like an ordinary hill. It was properly excavated beginning in 1962, when archaeologists thought it was a particularly fine example of a passage grave, but nothing more. Then, Prof. M.J. O’Kelly of U.C.C. discovered the roof box, a small opening in the hill above the passage entrance, which led to a shaft that ran to the chamber at the center of the tomb. He had an idea about what it might be for. On the morning of December 21st 1967, O’Kelly sat in the central chamber and, as the sun came up, saw the first rays of the rising sun run down the shaft and strike the floor of the chamber.

Newgrange is a clock. The shaft leading out to the roof box is precisely aligned so that on the morning of the Winter Solstice the first light of day will run directly into the middle of the tomb. Or, at least, it was precisely so aligned. It is so old that changes in the Earth’s orbit have affected its operation. When it was built, the sun would have struck the back wall of the chamber, rather than the floor, and the light would have remained in the chamber for about four minutes longer than it does now. It was very accurate. The people who built Newgrange knew what they were doing.

A society — a civilization, if you like — is a hard thing to hold together. If you live in an agrarian society, as the overwhelming majority of people did until about two hundred years ago, and you are on the western edge of Europe, few times are harder than the dead of Winter. The days are at their shortest, the sun is far away, and the Malthusian edge, in Brad DeLong’s phrase, is right in front of you. It’s no wonder so many religious festivals take place around the solstice. Here were a people, more than five millennia ago, able not only to pull through the Winter successfully, but able also to build a huge timepiece to remind themselves that they were going to make it. It’s astonishing.


by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2007

Stuff elsewhere on the WWW that I would blog if I wasn’t catching a plane to Ireland in 4 hours …

“Mark Schmitt”: argues that Obama’s bipartisanship is actually a clever strategy for bringing change through.

“Ari Kelman”: gives tips to job candidates who’ll be attending the _American Historical Association_ meeting.

“Andrew Gelman”: crunches the numbers to show that while Democrats are gaining support over time from professionals, business owners are going more and more Republican.

Lots of interesting stuff from “Charles Taylor et al.”: on religion in the public sphere at the _Immanent Frame_.

The Department

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2007

What happens when a bunch of Harvard pol-sci grad students, with, in Dan Drezner’s “words”:, too much time on their hands, decide to make their own version of ‘The Office’?

It works pretty well (a) because _there really aren’t all that many differences_ between academic politics and the office politics of a paper manufacturer, and (b) because while scholars don’t necessarily make great actors, we _do_ have that ‘not quite comfortable in our own skins and trying to make meaningful conversation but having it filled with awkward pauses’ thing down cold.

A lot or a little ?

by John Q on December 21, 2007

A dollar is not very much money. A billion dollars is a lot of money. Twenty billion dollars is an awful lot of money.

For most people reading this (though not for Bill Gates or for the billion or so people living on a US dollar a day or less), these statements should seem pretty obvious.

But all of these can be (and have been used as) different ways of measuring the same thing. If every Australian receives, or pays, a dollar a week, the total amount is very close to a billion dollars a year. And if you have a cash flow of a billion dollars a year, and your interest rate is 5 per cent, the present value of that cash flow (the amount of extra wealth you would need to generate the flow) is twenty billion dollars.

It’s easy to stretch this gap even further. A dollar a week is about fourteen cents a day. And, if we looked at the US (about 300 million people), or the entire developed world (around a billion people, depending on your definition), the total would be that much larger. Fourteen cents a day for everyone in the developed world has a present value of one trillion dollars.

The fact that the same flow of money can be presented in such radically different ways, and that each of them is appropriate in certain contexts, is one reason public policy debates get confused.

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