From the monthly archives:

August 2008

East Coast Bias

by Brian on August 22, 2008

Obama’s VP Candidate will be, presumably, announced today. On political grounds I’d prefer the candidate to be Kathleen Sebelius, but on historical grounds I sort of hope it will be Brian Schweitzer. Since Obama is “finishing his pre-convention tour in Montana”:, it might be too. Here’s why I’d prefer it on historical grounds.

In the lower 48 states of the US, there are four time zones, dividing the country up into roughly equal areas from east to west. In the early years of the country pretty much all of its population lived in the two easternmost time zones, the Eastern and the Central. (Actually in the very early years there probably weren’t such things as time zones, but the people lived in what are now the Eastern and Central time zones.) Even today, if “this information”: is correct, about 77% of the population live in those two time zones. So you might expect that the Democratic Party would have taken a fair time to have someone run on its Presidential ticket who was either born outside those time zones, or lived outside those time zones.

The first Democratic candidate (for either President or Vice-President) to be born outside the two easternmost time zones was Adlai Stevenson (1952, 1956), who was born in Los Angeles. Barring a major surprise, Barack Obama will be the second.

The first Democratic candidate (for either President or Vice-President) to be living outside those two time zones when they are nominated is, I believe, yet to be determined, because there haven’t been any yet. [click to continue…]

Making a House a Whole

by Kieran Healy on August 22, 2008

At present I’m in a part of Ireland where internet access is about as common as sunshine and clear skies. This means I have only belatedly come across Matt Yglesias’s call for technical assistance from my wife, in her capacity as a trained professional mereologist, to help resolve the thorny question of whether John McCain’s luxury double-condo in Phoenix counts as one house or two. My understanding is that mereological relations are somewhat flexible, and it’s quite acceptable for the same material object to be two condos and one home. Nevertheless, I am a mereologist by marriage only, so my views should not be taken as representing the opinions of a trained and licensed professional. I do think that this issue opens up the possibility of a new kind of political philosophy, though.

Discounting Sunstein

by John Quiggin on August 22, 2008

David Weisbach and Cass Sunstein (h/t Nicholas Gruen) have written a piece for the AEI Center for Regulatory and Market Studies[1] weighing into the debate about climate change and discounting, promising “A Guide for the Perplexed”. But their treatment of the topic is only like to add to the perplexity of anyone interested in resolving the issues.

Shorter Weisbach-Sunstein: If ethical considerations suggest that the most appropriate discount rate is 1.4 per cent, but the market rate of return is 5.5 per cent, it’s best to use the 5.5 per cent rate in evaluating climate change policies.

As a hypothetical statement this is broadly correct. Weisbach and Sunstein illustrate the point by considering someone choosing between an investment yielding a 10 per cent increase in value over 2 years and the alternative of putting money in the bank at 6 per cent, which is clearly superior.

The problems arise for the reader who tries to plug in real numbers. According to today’s New York Times the rate of interest on 10-year Treasury bonds is 3.84 per cent. Assuming (optimistically) that the Fed manages to hold inflation at 2.5 per cent over the next years, that’s a real rate of 1.34 per cent, almost exactly equal the rate quoted as justified on ethical grounds.

So to restate Weisbach and Sunstein with real numbers:If ethical considerations suggest that the most appropriate discount rate is 1.4 per cent, but the market rate of return is 1.3 per cent, it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

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NATO, the EU and Russia

by Henry on August 21, 2008

“Clive Crook”: has a post riffing on two columns by Thomas Friedman and David Ignatius which seems to me to get things wrong (or at the least, my interpretation of the relevant history is rather different).

Friedman concentrates on the error of Nato expansion, and the consequent humiliation of Russia, which has now come back to bite us. … The risks of humiliating Russia after the Wall came down were perhaps given too little weight. The dilemma was certainly understood by advocates of Nato enlargement, and there were attempts at outreach through various forms of partnership between Russia and and the alliance, though perhaps this seemed like adding insult to injury. But bear two other points in mind. One, Nato was not enlarged all the way, out of concern for Russia’s reaction: Ukraine and Georgia have been sort of promised membership, but with no timetable. Two, the question was, what were we to say to Poland, Hungary, and then-Czechoslovakia, desperate for release from Russo-Soviet imperium and for the protection of the West? Remember also that the success of their post-socialist transition to market economics was very much in doubt. This was a finely balanced argument.

The real mistake, to my mind, was in taking too long to admit the Eastern Europeans to the European Union–and that in turn owed everything to the fact (a grave mistake in its own right) that the EU had deepened its political integration too fast and too far. A shallower economic union, rather than a United States of Europe in progress, would have been able to embrace Poland and the others more eagerly. As it was, the only fast-acting institutional support for the East European reformers was Nato, a military alliance explicitly created to confront the Soviet Union, and implicitly still aimed at Russia. Friedman accuses the Clinton and Bush foreign-policy teams of “rank short-sightedness” in all this. He makes a good point, but the error was not as clear-cut as he says.

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Dark Knight

by John Holbo on August 21, 2008

Man, what if McCain gets elected? (Also, I listened to a Jonah Goldberg bloggingheads thing and it was terrible.) Oh, but I a had great idea for a superhero duo. There’s a terrible accident – a tornado rips through a trailer park – and this is, for some strange reason, the origin story for Double-wide (he’s a bruiser type) and Airstream (his sexy, flying partner). They fight crime in a small town in Georgia. Who should their arch-enemy be?

Right. The Dark Knight. My Valve colleague, Bill B., points me to David Bordwell grousing about superhero films, and generally saying smart things. Oddly enough, given my love of superheroes, I agree almost right down the line. Oh, I enjoyed Dark Knight well enough. But the ending was dumb, the Harvey Dent subplot handled clumsily. The only reason it made sense to me that he was Two-Face was that he was clearly named Harvey Dent and had half his face melted off. Other than that, I didn’t see the resemblance. Ledger’s Joker was, as all sensitive souls agree, vastly entertaining. I would have watched him read the phonebook. Well, for a few minutes anyway. But, while I doubt anyone else would have been better for the role, I don’t actually think it was such a tremendously impressive outing. it isn’t that hard to prance around in clown make-up, barking mad. Insane clowns could be the new Rain Man prestige role. Oh, it takes physical presence and a certain bone structure and face-to-lip ratio. I’m glad someone finally decided to put Frank Miller’s joker up there on the screen. And, of course, the Dark Knight is Miller’s, too.

Everyone knows that. But certain things follow which, it seems to me, have not been noted. First, the praise of Nolan has been a bit off-target. [click to continue…]

We ain’t no delinquents

by Henry on August 19, 2008

Hilzoy “comments”: on David Brooks’ latest “column”: about how John McCain is a decent man being forced by the sad realities of the American political system to run a negative campaign.

Compelled? No choice? I don’t think so. For one thing, there are lots of ways in which McCain could campaign without lying or impugning his opponent’s patriotism. Some of them might even win. If McCain’s advisors can’t think of a single one of them, that shows only their limited imaginations.

But let’s pretend, just for the sake of argument, that they are right to say that the only way to win, this year, is by taking the low road. Would that mean that they have to take it? Of course not. That means you have a choice between honor and ambition; between running a decent campaign and a sordid one; between being a candidate the country can be proud of and being a candidate who contributes to the degradation and trivialization of political discourse.

You would have no choice only if you assumed that your own ambitions were more important than your honor.

To enlarge on this point a little: isn’t it _particularly_ incongruous for a self-described conservative pundit to invoke the “Gee Officer Krupke”: defence? You know, all that honor and integrity stuff – how the choices we make reflect our innate character rather than our environment and all that. I imagine that if we saw an actual principled conservative assessment of some of the tactics that have been used by McCain in the last several weeks (flat out lies, claims that his opponent cares more about winning the election than the lives of American troops and so on), it would arrive at rather different conclusions …

Herr Professor Daddy? I didn’t think so.

by Eszter Hargittai on August 19, 2008

I love my MommyAnyone who thinks male and female professors are treated equally by students is clueless. Just recently I came across a couple of examples that are very illustrative of this point. A friend of mine told me that her undergraduate advisees gave her a photo of themselves in a picture frame that says: “I love my Mommy”. (Apologies for the pathetic illustration accompanying this post, but given the time I put into it, I’m posting it.) Then just a few days later, I came across the following note on Twitter:

A friend of mine just bought this (as a gag) for her diss. director

Yes, click on the link. I’ll tell you where it leads, but you’ll appreciate it better if you see the image. The link is to a children’s book called “My Beautiful Mommy”. Raise your hand if you’re a male professor and students have given you similar gifts “as a gag”. No one? Shocking.

I can see the comments already: “If female profs are more caring then what’s wrong with students expressing their appreciation for that?”

First of all, students demand much more emotional work from female professors than they do of male profs. If the women don’t provide it, they are often viewed as cold bitchy profs that don’t care about students. Although I don’t know of any systematic studies of what types of topics students bring up during interactions with professors by gender, I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that female profs get approached much more by students wanting to talk about life issues than male profs. (More generally speaking, there is literature on how gender influences teaching evaluations, here are some older references.)

Second, there are plenty of ways to express appreciation that don’t involve putting the female prof in a mothering role, a role that certainly isn’t emphasizing her academic strengths and credentials. As my friend noted, a gift of this sort makes her feel as though her only contribution to the students’ success was in shepherding them through their projects and not in providing intellectual stimulation, helping them professionally, or contributing to the creation of new well-trained researchers. Maybe, just maybe, she’d like to be recognized for her intellectual contributions and the part of mentoring that involves the research aspects of her job. And while it would be neat if mothering was equated with all of those things, don’t kid yourself. Of course there is nothing wrong with being compassionate and caring, but it’s not what tends to be rewarded professionally in academia.

Those were the days…

by Eszter Hargittai on August 18, 2008

Those were the days... If, like me, you’re not quite ready to start a new work week then I recommend YearbookYouself as an amusing distraction. [UPDATE 8/19/08 5:37am CST: I’m sorry to say that it sounds like the site has not been able to handle its current popularity and does not seem to be responding to requests. I’d try to check back later as it’s very amusing. 8/19/08 12:26CST: Seems to be working again.]

When you click upload and then choose a photo, it’ll start uploading right away (don’t click upload again). Then you can resize, move and rotate the image. Note, however, that you can also do this once the photo has been matched with a style, which is a more efficient way of tweaking the final result.

[Thanks to Techcrunch.]

Grade Inflation

by Harry on August 18, 2008

You might want to check out my colleague Lester Hunt’s excellent new edited collection on Grade Inflation: Academic Standards in Higher Education, which is just out. It originated in a rather well-thought-out conference Lester organized back in 2004. My own contribution arose because he asked me to comment on Valen Johnson’s talk, based on his book Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education, and then sneakily inveigled me to contribute a self-standing chapter. The collection is great: genuinely diverse and thoughtful contributions from Clifford Adelman, David T. Beito, Mary Biggs, Richard Kamber, Alfie Kohn, Charles W. Nuckolls, Francis K. Schrag, John D. Wiley and Lester and me. Recommend it to your library, and to your Deans!

In the course of writing my own paper several things happened. I started off assuming (with no real evidence) that grade inflation was real and believing (for no real reasons) that it was bad; I discovered that there is no evidence of grade inflation (which doesn’t, of course, mean that it doesn’t exist) and that the reasons for thinking it would be bad if it did exist are pretty weak. Commenting on Johnson’s book, in other words, convinced me that his subtitle is entirely wrong (even though the book is, actually, terrifically good). It’s not the first time that I have changed my mind as the result of writing a paper, but it is the first that I’ve changed it quite so radically.

I developed, mainly through reading Valen Johnson’s book, a conviction that student evaluations are next to worthless for evaluating teachers. His book also convinced me that grade variation within departments exists and is bad, though not that there is much we can or should do about it.. Finally, I became more and more irritated with Harvey Mansfield’s piece in the Chronicle. So, below the fold, here’s a taster of the book, adapted from my chapter, and arguing specifically against Mansfield:

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Expert knows best

by Eszter Hargittai on August 17, 2008

A Ripened Melon - Chef's choiceI just had a deliciously sweet cantaloupe. How did I know how to pick it? My favorite* chef, Chef Susan aka Chef Q posted some advice on the topic recently. Not only is she an amazing cook and baker, she is also an excellent photographer so her posts are illustrated with helpful images. I forgive her for all the pounds I gained last year due to her cooking (hey, at least I finally started a regular exercise regime) and thank her not just for all the great meals I’ve had the good fortune to experience, but also the helpful material she shares online.

[*] It’s actually a tie with my Mom, but she’s not officially a chef. Of course, that hasn’t stopped her from publishing a cookbook (see some of her recipes here).

Photo credit: Susan Beach

Special issue on ideal and non-ideal theories of justice

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 15, 2008

Political philosophers/theorists may be interested in the latest issue of “Social Theory and Practice”: , which is a special issue devoted to the debate on ideal and non-ideal theories of justice. This special issue is a selection of papers from a wonderful ECPR workshop which Adam Swift and I organised in Helsinki in 2007. There has been quite a bit of debate on this topic in recent years, and Harry and I have been mentioning in some of our posts that we should have that debate here too – Well, I wait till my copies have arrived. The journal sells single issues for a mere ten dollars (plus shipping for outside the USA); scroll down on “the journal’s homepage”: for instructions in case you’re interested.

To Serve Man

by Scott McLemee on August 14, 2008

Henry has written about Wendt and Duvall’s “Sovereignty and the UFO” at The Monkey Cage. And my column yesterday lauded both the timely urgency of the paper and the aesthetically satisfying way it resists counterarguments.

But after thinking it over a little, I believe a critique from outside the poli-sci orbit is necessary.

Wendt and Duvall seem to mount a radical challenge to the anthropocentrism of contemporary ideas of sovereignty. But in so doing, they are complicit with the lingering effects of Cold War ideology — for nowhere do W&D consider the work of Juan Posadas, who proved four decades ago (to his own satisfaction anyway) that flying saucers demonstrate the existence of communism elsewhere in the galaxy.
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Big government, big IT

by Daniel on August 14, 2008

Over at the Guardian website, I have another piece up about my general scepticism of both big government IT projects, and the possibility under our current political and economic system of not being deluged with big government IT projects. I filled it full of jokes because I’m not yet really sure what I believe about the underlying causal mechanism. There’s a half-joking suggestion that the business development offices of the major IT consultancies probably ought to be considered as a material interest group in any analysis of British politics; we’ve not yet reached the levels of a “consultancy/government complex” but we’re not far off.

But on the other hand, I might be committing a version of fundamental attribution error here. The sales process is an important part of the procurement of big, failed IT projects, but the proliferation of big failed IT projects isn’t really a result of successful selling – it’s a result of the fact that nearly anything new that the government does is going to require an IT element, and that government projects tend to only come in one size, “big”, and to very often come in the variety “failed”.

And a lot of the reason why these projects screw up so badly has to do with the fact that they have to reinvent a lot of wheels, duplicate data collection exercises, and integrate incompatible systems (useful rule of thumb: whenever you hear an IT person use the word “metadata”, as in the sentence “all we need to do in order to make this work is to define suitable metadata”, you can take it to the bank; this project is fucked). In Sweden, for example, they have a working education vouchers system not unlike the one I discuss in the article, but in Sweden they have a big central database linked to the national identity card system.

In the UK, we don’t have a big central identity card database, and the main reason for that is that we don’t want one. And so I find myself entertaining the hypothesis that the constant parade of halt and lame IT projects which is British administrative politics, is actually an equilibrium outcome.

I am also rather pleased that, after two years of removing my bad language, the website editors actually introduced a swear-word into this piece that I hadn’t originally put in there.

The spread and tweaking (?) of misinformation

by Eszter Hargittai on August 13, 2008

UPDATE (8/13/08 11:04am CST): Google’s cache of the original Information Age piece makes it clear that the report had been altered considerably without any indication of this. (See screen shot here in case link no longer works.) Take-away: Information Age made considerable changes to its piece without indicating this anywhere in the post. That seems problematic. [Thanks to Bigcitylib for finding the cached page.]

Have you heard?! Google removed cities in Georgia from Google Maps! Or so were the claims that started making rounds on the Interwebs yesterday so you may well have heard it. But did you believe it? This incident has been a fascinating example of how quickly some folks will believe and spread something without further reflection. To be fair, random tweets were not the only means by which this information started spreading, more established outlets posted about it as well (see some links below with additional context). Still, how likely was it that Google would do something like this?

When I saw the post about it on the social news site Reddit yesterday (a post supported enough by readers of that site to make it onto a top page), I clicked through to look at the map. While interesting to note that the amount of information on Georgia was much less than many other countries, looking around on Google Maps made it clear that some parts of the map are simply less detailed than others. I also thought about the assertion for a moment. It didn’t sound very plausible. While Google may do all sorts of things that annoy various constituencies, it has been quite consistent in not wanting to block information even when people’s preference is that it would do so suggesting the claims to be unlikely. (Yes, I’m fully aware of some blocking in some specific cases on search engine results pages depending on local laws across the globe. Those are not incidents of this type though.) Short wrap-up: the details from the maps hadn’t been removed, they were never there to begin with. Interestingly, that idea did not occur to the many folks who reposted the information.

Here is an additional intriguing aspect to all this that I came across as I was looking at sites while writing this blog post. Might one of the reports about the incident been updated without any indication of an edit to the original report? I’m not making any accusations (it would be pretty ironic to do so in this post in particular), I’ll just post what I have found and welcome feedback. This Foreign Policy blog post about the Google Maps Georgia depiction references this piece in Information Age about the incident as follows:

As if Georgia didn’t have enough to deal with, yesterday the country’s cities and transportation routes completely disappeared from Google Maps. Reportedly wanting to keep its cyber territory conflict-neutral, Google removed all of Georgia’s details from its maps, making the war-torn nation look like a ghostly white blob flanked by Russia and Turkey. Georgia, though, isn’t the only country going blank on Google: neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan–who have their own ongoing terrorital dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region–are coming up empty too.

An NYTimes Bits post also links to that IA piece. [UPDATE: Just to clarify so people don’t misunderstand, NYTimes Bits linked to this as an example of incorrect reports.] (So you can see what these sites looked like when I linked to them, I have posted screenshots of the FP post, IA piece and NYTimes Bits post.)

However, curiously, the IA piece doesn’t refer to tinkering with the maps, rather, it suggests that such reports were incorrect:

Meanwhile, reports that the company removed details of Georgian civil infrastructure from its Google Maps were inaccurate, it said today.

“We have never had local data for those countries and that is why local details such as landmarks and cities do not appear,” a company statement said.

But would writers at both the Foreign Policy blog and the NYTimes Bits blog have linked to this piece as a source for the tweaking if all it had stated was that the reports were inaccurate? Curious. I’m left wondering if an update had been made to the IA piece without any indication of it.

In the end, the ruckus about Georgia’s depiction on Google Maps was big enough that Google decided to respond with a post not only on its LatLong blog, but also the Official Google Blog (with about half a million feed subscribers).

Postcode lotteries

by Chris Bertram on August 13, 2008

Martin O’Neill has “a characteristically interesting piece”: in the New Statesman, this time on QALYs (Quality Adjusted Life Years) and their role in the National Health Service decision to provide or deny expensive drugs to patients. Read the whole thing, as they say.

I had one quibble with Martin’s analysis. He writes:

bq. Littlejohns [the clinical director of NICE] has released a preliminary ruling, denying access to the drugs Sutent, Avastin, Nexavar and Torisel to patients with advanced metastatic kidney cancer. These patients will, on average, die months earlier than those with the same condition in other countries in Europe where such drugs are available.

But then later in the same piece:

bq. … if such decisions are made locally rather than nationally, we are thrown into the familiar problems of the ‘post-code lottery’. A patient in Nottingham may find herself denied treatment that is provided to someone in Newcastle. Allowing matters of life and death to depend on the good or bad luck of geographical location seems like the very opposite of finding justifiable policies.

Hmm. So in the first-quoted paragraph, Martin presents the supra-national geographical variation as a troubling datum, to which the adoption of a sensible national drug-evaulation policy is a response, whereas in the second, he presents sub-national geographical variation as a decisive reason for rejecting local discretion. But why not say that local variation is OK, just so long as it is backed up by good reasons, or, alternatively, that we should have European (or even global) standards that treat like cases alike?