From the monthly archives:

May 2008

New book on uncertainty

by John Q on May 19, 2008

Sorry for putting up a second plug in successive posts, but it seems as if, after the usual delays, quite a few things of mine are coming out that might be of broader interest than most of my academic work. I’m a contributor to a new book, Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Gabrielle Bammer and Mike Smithson. It’s discussed in this piece on the ABC website, which talks about Rumsfeld and ‘unknown unknowns’, a topic I’ve talked about before (here at CT and here on my own blog).

There’s lots of interesting views of uncertainty, in all sorts of fields, from statistics to jazz. You can watch a slowTV video (parts 1 and 2) or hear a more complete podcast of the book launch, with a public lecture on uncertainty and intelligence (in the CIA sense) by Michael Wesley.

One thing that is, unfortunately, certain is that the price of the book will be far too high for all but the keenest readers, so you’ll probably have to wait for it to reach the library if you want to read it – there’s not even “Search Inside” on Amazon.

"Uncertainty and Risk: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (The Earthscan Risk in Society Series)" (Earthscan Publications Ltd.)

You can, however, get 15 per cent off the UK price (save ten quid!) with this flyer

updateHere’s an extended ‘teaser‘ (4.4 Mb) with TOC and one chapter. More to come at the website of the book.

Becoming Drusilla

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2008

I first became aware of Dru because she was a member of the Bristol Flickr group, and I was looking to buy a camera. What better way of deciding than to look through other people’s photos, and see what the ones I liked were taken with? So there was Dru, a slightly mumsy, middle-aged woman with a young daughter and a Morris Traveller. In other words, extrapolating from the various signifiers, I’d formed an impression of what Dru must be like. Then I met her, at one of our monthly get-togethers, in the Royal Naval Volunteer. And then she spoke. “Bloodly hell!” I thought to myself, “you’re a bloke … or used to be.” A very quick update of my mental image of Dru took place.

It isn’t very often that people I know have their biography published. In fact, through not paying attention again, I’d failed to notice that Dru’s was coming out. Only when a friend send me “a link to the Guardian”:,,2275803,00.html , with the question “Is this Flickr Dru?” did I catch on. Well, “Becoming Drusilla”: isn’t so much a biography as the record of a friendship, and what happens to it when one of the parties announces their desire to change sex.
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by Kieran Healy on May 18, 2008

The first time I saw this, I honestly was waiting for a punchline at the end like, “Ponies – Free to Everyone”, or “Perpetual Motion Machines – Perfected”, or “Flying Cars – In a Range of Attractive Colors”. But it never comes, because it’s a real ad. Amazing.

Old research

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2008

This week I received my copy of “The Capability Approach“:, a fat book that contains a large number of essays on… yes, good guess. It’s primarily written by social scientists or interdisciplinary oriented scholars — hence not so much the more philosophical side of that literature. Sometimes I feel very happy and satisfied, perhaps even a little proud, when I see a book to which I’ve contributed a chapter. For instance, that was the case last September when Jude Browne’s splendidly edited “The Future of Gender“: came out. That volume contains many excellent essays on issues of gender and sexual difference by interesting thinkers, and I felt my own chapter was decent enough. Sadly, I do not have such feelings about my chapter in The Capability Approach. The simple reason is that that chapter was written in 2001, and analyses certain limitations of the capability approach for the analysis of gender issues. Yet in the 6 years and 8 months between sending that chapter to the editors and its ultimate publication, I think very little of what I wrote in that article is still original or not by now broadly appreciated. The literature on the capability approach has developed at an incredibly fast pace, and the arguments in that chapter are… well, a little old. Academic publishing is a slow business – often too slow. Anybody a worse experience than those 6 years and 8 months?

Money Ruins Everything

by John Q on May 17, 2008

Dan Hunter and I have a paper coming out in the Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, which economic and technical innovation is increasingly based on developments that don’t rely on economic incentive or public provision. The main examples, obvious enough for readers here, include open source software, blogs and associated technical and social innovations, and wikis. Abstract and links to SSRN over the fold.
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Percy Gloom and Hieronymus B.

by John Holbo on May 17, 2008

I haven’t been doing enough comics blogging. But I just read a couple titles that seem to go together:

Percy Gloom [amazon], by Cathy Malkasian. You can visit the book site here.  Not too much there.

… And

Hieronymus B., by Ulf K. [amazon]. Top Shelf has a generous preview.

I really liked them both while feeling that both could be better. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on it.

Let start with the visual basics. We have two somewhat hapless protagonists – characters to whom things happen, mostly, rather than characters who do things. They are both prematurely aged children/innocently child-like old men. They both have big round heads and little bodies. I’m starting to think that Charlie Brown is an archetype. The bald-headed kid who gets the football yanked, but who somehow salvages some degree of philosophic dignity. Maybe there is something Charlie Brownish inherent in the comics medium. A simple circle face on a stick body. It really doesn’t get more iconically economical than that. Chris Ware, anyone?

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Still Dead

by John Holbo on May 16, 2008

A few commenters have complained that they misread my post title, below, as concerned with Prediction Markets in Republican Spain, which would have been a far more inventive topic. We apologize for the inconvenience but have nothing to add to prior work in this field.

But I have added a new category, ‘the water pitcher is still broken’, for future usage. (I expect that discussions of the Republican party, in the months to come, may fall naturally under this heading.)

I’m reading an interesting book, Eye For An Eye, by William Ian Miller [amazon]. (I don’t know anything about him. I just grabbed this off the shelf.) It’s a discussion of lex talionis style justice systems – a somewhat unsystematic ‘antitheory’ of justice, the author styles it. Lots of quoting from Old Norse stuff and Babylonian stuff and ancient what-not. Very colorful. Here’s a bit that’s interesting, in a subsection on “Paying Gods in Bodies and Blood”. Maybe Kieran will have something to say.
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Liberal Neutrality Conference

by Jon Mandle on May 15, 2008

Two weeks ago, May 1-3, McGill and the Centre de Recherche en Ethique de L’Universite de Montreal (sorry about my pronunciation) co-sponsored a conference on “Liberal Neutrality: A Re-Evaluation.” Papers are here, and my notes are below. Take this for what it is – impressions and imperfect summaries from an audience member. (I was there for the first two days, but not the third.)
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Render unto Caesar

by Maria on May 15, 2008

BBC news reports that a bust of Julius Caesar has been found in the Rhone. It’s a rare (unique?) contemporary representation, and none too flattering. Who knew there was a Roman ‘realist’ style?

It’s driving me crazy because he reminds me of someone. On first glance, he looks like a Ferengi. It’s certainly a far less noble countenance than your average Julius Caesar. But on second and subsequent glances, he becomes very endearing, and not just in a Short Man Syndrome kind of way. (Dear God, he doesn’t look like Nicolas Sarkozy, does he?) You can really see that this needy little jerk had the smarts to survive Sulla and the gumption to cross the Rubicon. Well worth a look.

Way back in January I speculated about how Republicans would spin McCain as their candidate, given the violent opposition to him as ‘unconservative’, a maverick liberal. I proposed a few possibilities, of which the first has been more or less borne out: McCain as unconservative is down the memory hole. I think we all pretty much expected that, although it will be interesting to see whether, as McCain is forced to try to swing towards the middle in the general, any of that is dredged back up again. Will he be undermined by his own base? (I doubt it.)

But one thing I’ve noticed, in the months since, is that – in an electoral environment in which Republican stock could hardly be lower, and Democratic stock is looking good – there is a great deal of clutching at the brass ring of ‘conservatism’ on the right. No real urgency to claim the mantle of ‘liberalism’ on the left. Republicans are sure they want to be ‘conservative’, above all, even though many admit they aren’t sure what that would even mean at present. And even though they are standing behind a candidate who was, until recently, not a conservative, in their eyes. They have a meta-desire for there to be such a thing as conservatism. [click to continue…]

House size doubles?

by John Q on May 14, 2008

It’s regularly stated that the size of the average (new) American home has doubled since 1950, and implied that this increase has continued fairly steadily over the intervening decades. This seems a bit surprising given that (on standard measures) real wages for large groups of workers have not increased since the 1970s. Some, but not all, of the story can be explained by the fact that a fixed stock like housing takes a long time to adjust and so would continue to improve in response to the big increase in both income and equality that took place from the 40s to the 70s. And of course, the top quintile of the income distribution is doing well, and they have a big influence on the market.

But that still leaves a puzzle I think. Here’s one little piece. As far as I can tell, the statistical basis for the statement comes from the National Association of Home Builders and compares the houses being built today with those built by Levitt and others in the 1950s. But not everyone lives in houses. To get the full story you’d need to take account of apartments (I haven’t looked at this).

Even more important, though, are manufactured homes (aka trailers). There are about 8 million of these up from essentially zero in the 1950s. They constitute about 8 per cent of the housing stock now (housing around 19 million people), which must imply a substantially larger proportion of homes built each year. Although they can be quite large, most are a lot smaller than the average home built on-site. Taking manufactured homes into account would substantially lower the size of the average new home. It would also fit the income data, showing rising inequality, a lot better.

Cato Unbound is “currently carrying an interesting contribution from Leif Wenar”: on how to combat the “resource curse”. Leif proposes a two-stage strategy for attacking the problem of kleptocrats who use the state monopoly of violence to extract resource revenues whilst their population lives in poverty. The first step is to prosecute (in American, and presumably also European courts) traders in goods stolen from peoples by their rulers. The second step is to go after stolen natural resources that get incorporated into manufactured goods elsewhere (say in China) and then imported into the US. Here Wenar advocates a tariff on those goods, the proceeds of which would be paid into a fund to be held for the benefit of the people whose resources have been stolen, with the fund to be disbursed to them when their government meets minimally acceptable standards.

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Geuss on Rorty

by Chris Bertram on May 14, 2008

Leiter “has linked already”: , but I guess that not everyone who reads CT also reads Leiter, and it would be a great pity if anyone were to miss “Raymond Geuss’s reminiscences of Richard Rorty”: .

Quokkas safe

by John Q on May 14, 2008

Australia is well known as a sophisticated modern nation, prominent in scientific and cultural endeavors of all kinds, and not characterized by marsupials in the main street, top paddock or other incongruous locations. That’s why I hasten to forestall the rumors that Western Australian Opposition leader Troy Buswell may have done something inappropriate with a quokka. Sad to say, all the other rumors are true.