From the monthly archives:

March 2008

Media Blitz

by John Holbo on March 22, 2008


So many publications have expressed such overwhelming interest in the perspectives of those of us who opposed the Iraq War when it had a chance of doing good that I have had to permit multiple publication of this article in most of the nation’s elite media venues – collecting, I am almost embarrassed to admit, a separate fee from each. Everyone recognizes that the opinions of those of us who were right about Iraq then are crucial to formulating sane, just policy now. It’s a lot of pressure, so please forgive anything glib or short you read herein: between articles, interviews, think-tank panels and presentations before government agencies and policy organs I’m not permitted to mention, I’m a little frazzled …

Sometimes I think the other question is almost more interesting: What the fuck were those other people thinking? Alas, answers to that one are hard to come by, since understandable shame has closed many mouths. So my own side of the story will have to suffice.


by John Holbo on March 21, 2008

Apparently Amazon’s Kindle is selling well. So says their front page. I’ve always wanted an eBook reader I could really want. [click to continue…]

I have to say: Victor Davis Hanson should probably stop trying to write about the difference between right and wrong. (I know, I know. But this one is unusually terrible.) In response to the Obama speech, he objects that ‘racism is a universal wrong’. Furthermore, because there should be an “absolute sense of wrong and right that transcends situational ethics, context, and individual particulars”, it is not acceptable to attempt to mitigate charges of racism by pointing out parallel wrongs committed by others, or by adducing facts about the background of the racist; or by arguing that the racist has done good things, which ought to be weighed in the balance. Last but not least, it is apparently necessary to ‘disown’ all racists, regardless of prior personal attachment or loyalty.

Now, to note only the most obvious, flagrantly salient consequence of this rigorous refusal of ‘situational ethics’: Hanson has just provided an argument that Wright was absolutely right to damn America (right?) And the fact that Hanson is not saying so himself therefore gives me a chance to pull a serious face and say I am very sorry to see him falling prey to moral relativism and, if I may say so, kneejerk victimology. It must be all the rap music. [click to continue…]

Thank you Mr Mankiw

by Daniel on March 20, 2008

Greg Mankiw, in the New York Times, demonstrating the deft common touch for which Harvard economists are famous:

No issue divides economists and mere Muggles more than the debate over globalization and international trade. Where the high priests of the dismal science see opportunity through the magic of the market’s invisible hand, Joe Sixpack sees a threat to his livelihood.

Next week, presumably, Greg Mankiw writes on the subject of “Why is it that economists have so little influence in politics?”
[click to continue…]

The Washington Post has a “story”: today on the problems of US terrorist watchlists. The emphasis of the story is on the nightmare that these lists generate for people who have names similar to those of people on the watchlist, and the difficulties that they have in getting off. There’s an interesting parallel debate happening in Europe at the moment, but it’s about a more profound question – are these terrorist lists, as they currently stand, a violation of human rights? And where there is disagreement over them, whose laws should apply? [click to continue…]

Belgium no longer exists

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 19, 2008

… at least, that was what Bart De Wever, the leader of the small Flemish nationalist party, said in “an interview in La Libre Belgique”: He doesn’t deny that when Belgium was founded, in 1830, it corresponded to what the francophone elite wanted. But these days, he argues, the media are divided, the culture is divided, public opinion is divided. There is no longer a unified society.

Whether or not that is true, the latest news is that Yves Leterme managed to reach an agreement on a new government yesterday. But what a government, and what an agreement! The coalition includes the three major parties (liberals, social democrats, and Christian democrats) and is asymmetrical, since the francophone social democrats are taking part, whereas the Flemish social democrats are not. This is highly notable, since until now federal governments have, to the best of my knowledge, never been asymmetrical in this way. But more worrisome, the agreement they reached is regarded by commentators from across the spectrum as extremely vague and weak. There are no details on the budget, yet there is an agreement on taxcuts (a demand from the liberals) and on an increase of the social benefits (a demand from the social-democrats), in addition to a commitment not to create a budget deficit. Perhaps they do believe in manna from heaven after all. Nothing is said about the Flemish demands to regionalise the social security system, employment policies and other responsibilities they wanted to transfer from the national to the regional levels. Nothing is said about how they will solve the problem with Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, without which future elections will be unconstitutional.

So no surprise that most media commentators ask: how long will this government last? De Standaard “summarizes”: the situation aptly: “No team, no programme, no budget, no leader.” And even if this government lasts longer than when the first real decision needs to be taken, what will it contribute to solving “the profound problems that are haunting this country?”:

The early days of a better nation

by Henry on March 19, 2008

I’ve been thinking most of today about Barack Obama’s speech on race and American society; while we’ve tried to avoid too much horserace type commentary here in the last couple of months, I don’t think that this fits well under horse race politics. Before the speech, if you’d asked me which candidate I’d support if I could vote, I’d have said Obama. After the speech, it’s quite different.

I’ve lived in the US for the last four years as a permanent resident, and been quite happy here. Hearing Obama speak made me feel for the first time that I genuinely want to become a citizen of this country and a part of the larger project that he talked about, regardless of specific disagreements I might have. You hear a lot of guff in politicians’ speeches about how great America is; Obama seemed to me to be challenging America to be great, which is a very different and much riskier thing, as well as something I find much more compelling and attractive. Obviously, I’m only speaking for myself here (other CTers’ mileage may vary widely), and I’m not going to talk about it any more, but I felt it would be dishonest if I said nothing (which would be the easier option for an academic, I think; we’re not supposed to talk about sincere personal commitments without some degree of ostentatious sighing, display of jaded skepticism etc).

The Brick Moon

by John Holbo on March 18, 2008

Tonight’s selection goes with last night’s. Late 1860’s US SF. Ergo, for fun, another Lulu edition.

"No," said Q. bravely, "at the least it must be very substantial. It must stand fire well, very well. Iron will not answer. It must be brick; we must have a Brick Moon."

Along with The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Three Little Pigs, Edward E. Hale’s "The Brick Moon" (1869) is one of the three great brickpunk classics of world literature.

Sandemanian technopreneurs look to the bold, bricks & mortar future, with a flywheel-launched, satellite-based global positioning system; but learn valuable life lessons instead.

Brick. It’s awesome stuff.

"The Brick Moon" was originally serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. And there is an interesting thematic connection with the Steam Man, above and beyond the nigh simultaneous publication. Apparently the inspiration for the Steam Man was – the BigDog of its day – this. "However, by observing carefully the cause of failure, persevering and perfecting the man-form, and by substituting steam in place of the perpetual motion machine, the present success was attained." Words to live by.

As I was saying, in "The Brick Moon", our protagonists are likewise weaned off unreal dreams. "Like all boys, we had tried our hands at perpetual motion. For me, I was sure I could square the circle, if they would give me chalk enough." Then, having put away childish things, they are soon enough hyrodynamically flywheeling tons of bricks into the lower atmosphere.

Here’s a free PDF.

Arguably, this version of the three little pigs is even better.

If you are more old school, here’s Gilgamesh: "Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around, examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly. Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick, and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?"

Brick. Awesome.


by Kieran Healy on March 18, 2008

I’m pretty sure I last saw one of these while playing Half-Life 2, but now it appears to be walking around New England somewhere. Just look at how it reacts about 40″ in when the guy gives it a kick.

An outing for trolls and sockpuppeteers

by John Quiggin on March 18, 2008

We’ve had a few more offensive trolls and sockpuppeteers than usual (that is, more numerous and more offensive) recently, and it seems to be time to make an explicit statement of our policy in this respect. You can read the comments policy in the left-hand sidebar. We’ve just added the following:

We respect the preference of many genuine commenters for pseudonymity and will protect their privacy. However, this respect does not extend to those who abuse pseudonymity to launch personal attacks on posters or other commenters, post racist or sexist comments or employ sockpuppets. We will, if appropriate, publish the identity of such abusers and share their identifying information with other sites.

There’s nothing new here, and we’ve acted on this policy in the past. But it seems like a good time to spell it out.


by Henry on March 17, 2008

A request for help from Italian speakers (esp. those familiar with Sicilian dialect). I’m currently finishing writing my book, which has a chapter on the internal norms of the Sicilian mafia (this adds some much needed savour to my copious discussions of the somewhat less colorful norms governing manufacturers of packaging machinery). One of my key sources is a qualitative database that Diego Gambetta has put together of various interesting bits from the confessions of _pentiti_ and other sources. Among which is this very intriguing bit from former senior mafioso Tommaso Buscetta (my translation)

Whatever is recounted by a man of honor in the presence of two other men of honor must always be truthful. He who breaks this rule, given that he has the option of not speaking, is liable to the most serious penalties, and to losing his life. In this case, the man of honor who has broken this rule comes to be referred to as a “trageghiaturi.”

The problem is that I have no idea what a trageghiaturi might be. Nor does my Italian dictionary, or a Google search help (but it’s not inconceivable that this could be a mistranscription). Anyone have any idea what it is? Your reward, should you choose to claim it, will be a grateful acknowledgment in the final product …

The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies

by John Holbo on March 17, 2008


I’ve been making books. I need your help. (Do you like my cover design?)

Allow me to quote editorial matter from my new edition (which you can download for free in a moment, keep your pants on.)

Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840-1916) was an educator and journalist, best known for his prolific authorship of over a hundred ‘dime novels’, under his own and more than a dozen noms de plume. Ellis’ The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) is considered perhaps the first ‘edisonade’ (the term is John Clute’s): tales of young American inventors whose ingenuity gets them into, and out of, adversity. Ellis’ Steam Man was prodigiously knocked-off, first by Harry Enton, author of Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains; which spawned a regular ‘story paper’ series. When Enton gave it up,  Luis Senarens (then aged just 14) took over. The steam man became electric; the youthful protagonist, Frank, acquired an extended family and many new inventions and adventures, populating the weekly Frank Reade Library. Known as ‘the American Jules Verne’, Senarens corresponded with the French Verne, who, inspired by American sources or not, put a ‘steam elephant’ in The Steam House (1880).

This ain’t your grandfather’s steampunk. It’s your great-grandfather’s steampunk. Isn’t that fascinating? Now my trouble starts. First, Senarens, although our focus will be Ellis. A 14-year old Cuban-American wunderkind who, apparently, wrote over 1500 ‘novels’ in his career and was admired by Verne. He’s like a cross between Daisy Ashford and Stephen King, with Latin flair. And what can I learn about him? Damned little. Wikipedia: his dates (1863-1939) and a ‘may not meet the general notability guideline’ note. That’s pitiful. And his stuff is completely unavailable. Oh, you can buy a few old issues of the Frank Reade Library on eBay. Go look. And there’s a bit around the web. But why hasn’t someone made a decent edition of the lot. (Apparently there was one in the recent past. But it’s totally unavailable.) My Frank M. Robinson Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an Illustrated History – nice book: out of print – has a few images, and not a lot of information to go with it. [click to continue…]

White knights

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2008

It’s just been announced that JP Morgan will buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share, implying a value of about $250 million. Given that the company headquarters is said to be worth about $1.2 billion, that gives the BS banking business a value of negative $1 billion. And that’s only after the Fed agreed to take on $30 billion worth of toxic waste from the BS portfolio, politely described as “less-liquid assets.”

Clearly, under any normal circumstances, a company like this would have been left to go bankrupt. The problem is that this would jam up the entire credit market because BS is a counterparty in a vast range of transactions with other banks. (We debated this issue a month ago with a number of commentators arguing that the problem of counterparty risk was not such a big deal).

Some light relief is provided by the announcement by Standard & Poors, the day before Bear imploded, that the worst was over. This will go down with Irving Fisher’s comment in late 1929, that the stock market had reached “what looks like a permanently high plateau”. But at least Fisher wasn’t being paid to judge the stock market. Surely it’s now time to kill off the quasi-official role of the ratings agencies, as Justin Fox has just argued in Time

Looking ahead, the limits of the white knight strategy employed in this case must be approaching. JPM will take a while digesting this mess, and Bank of America has already done its bit when it agreed to rescue Countrywide. The other big banks have their own problems. Any future maidens in distress will have to look directly to Uncle Sam for a rescue.

Update Readers used to the natural order of things might be concerned by the implication that with such a giveaway price, the top brass at BS might be forced to bear the financial consequences of events that were obviously beyond their control. Never fear. According to this Reuters report in the Guardian, while most employees up to junior executive levels will lose both their jobs and the shares they were encouraged to buy, with no “golden parachutes:

JPMorgan Chief Financial Officer Mike Cavanagh late Sunday said taking over Bear would generate about $6 billion in merger-related costs.
JPMorgan has not broken down those figures, but much of that will be earmarked for severance pay and potential exit packages for top executives like Schwartz.
A person familiar with the transaction told Reuters that roughly $1 billion of those costs would be earmarked for severance and retention.

Girls and money

by Eszter Hargittai on March 16, 2008

I bought some Girl Scout Cookies on a street corner yesterday. The box says: “The Girl Scout Cookie Program promotes financial skills such as goal setting, decision-making, customer-service and money management.” Okay, I buy it. I mean, literally, I have bought numerous boxes this season (and the last, and the one before that, etc.).*

But there was an interesting part of the experience this time that I thought was worthy of a note. Two girls were selling the cookies (with two women who were presumably their mothers behind them), but a little boy was next to them handling the money. The boy was clearly younger, probably the little brother of one of the girls. I think it’s great that he’s learning math and dealing with money. He should learn about things of that sort. But wait, wasn’t the purpose of this program to help girls learn such skills?

The incident reminded me of an anecdote in Babcock and Leschever’s book Women Don’t Ask:

Once, when their daughter was three, Linda stopped in a drugstore for something and the child saw a stuffed animal she wanted. “Do you have enough money to buy that for me, Mommy?” she asked. “Do girls have money, or is it just boys that have money?” Linda was horrified. Their family habits had unwittingly communicated to their daughter that men control money, not women. She and her husband now make sure that their daughter sees Linda paying for things frequently; they also bought their daughter a piggy bank so that she can have money of her own.

Again, I’m all for little boys learning about money and arithmetic, but the purpose of this program is that girls learn related skills. Given all the situations in everyday life where men are the default for handling money, it would seem important to emphasize girls’ exposure to it in the context of a Girls Scouts program.

To be sure, the girls were quite active in the selling process (attracting folks to the table, offering samples) so it is not as though they were passive observers. But if anything, this suggests that they were not shy to interact with the customers and thus could have been given the responsibility of handling the money. I only recognized these dynamics after I left the table. If I’d been paying more attention, I would have just handed one of the girls the money. Next time.

[*] No worries, I don’t eat most of these cookies myself, I give them to the students in my lab. I also try to make some healthier snacks available as well, but these cookies tend to be pretty popular.

A Primer on Irish Culture

by Kieran Healy on March 16, 2008

This should be enough to get you through the next couple of days.