From the monthly archives:

September 2008

GMU sued for Zotero

by Henry Farrell on September 30, 2008

Via “David Levine”:, it appears that George Mason University is “being sued”: for over 10 million dollars by the owner of EndNote (which happens to be Thomson-Reuters).

The complaint states, “Dr. Daniel J. Cohen, Associate Professor, Department of History and Art History, and the director of GMU’s Center for History and New Media, developed Zotero, which is a freely distributable, open-source software based research tool that allows users to gather, organize and analyze sources, including citations, and freely share the results with others.” The Center for History and New Media release “a new beta version of Zotero to the general public” on July 8. Reuters adds, “A significant and highly touted feature of the new beta version of Zotero, however, is its ability to convert – in direct violation of the License Agreement – Thomson’s 3,500 plus proprietary .ens style files within the EndNote Software into free, open source, easily distributable Zotero .csl files.”

Now, I’m obviously not an intellectual property lawyer (fwiw the “Wikipedia article”: on reverse engineering, which may or may not be reliable but is certainly more reliable than me, suggests that suits over interoperability are of dubious legal merit). But I am an academic, and thus part of EndNote’s core end-user market. And I say that, regardless or not of whether it’s legal, this is a bullshit move on Thomson-Reuters’ part. There are a lot of academics out there who have used EndNote in the past and created styles for the journals that they submit to etc. EndNote’s owners are clearly worried that these academics will be tempted to move their styles from EndNote to a software package which in my view (and I’ve used both) is clearly superior. This is a no-brainer. There is _no significant innovation or value-added_ to EndNote’s specific file format. Nor is there reason to believe (given the existence of Zotero) that protecting this file format and EndNote’s purported intellectual property rights over it will encourage innovation in this particular marketplace. On the broad social merits, Reuters’ attempted shakedown is indefensible.

Nor is this as trivial an issue for academics as it might seem. As Scott has “suggested”: “in the”: “past”: Zotero and projects like it are at the heart of an effort to bring something like the semantic web to academia. Zotero combines bibliographical database management with social tagging and other fun stuff – it is gradually becoming a platform through which academics can share metadata and other interesting things with each other. Which means that this battle is likely to have long term consequences in determining whether or not new forms of academic collaboration are likely to be controlled by academics themselves, or take place through some kind of commercially controlled intermediation, with all the forms of stupidity that are likely to go along with that.

For my part, I’m going to refuse to use Reuters’ software in future, strongly discourage graduate students from buying EndNote, and try to get this message out to my colleagues too (at least those of them who aren’t using Zotero or some BibTex client already). If I taught any classes where Thomson printed relevant textbooks, I would be strongly inclined not to use these texts either. I encourage you to do the same (and, if you’re so minded, to suggest other possible ways of making it clear to Reuters that this kind of behaviour is intolerable in the comments). People have argued that the music industry has screwed up badly by suing its customers – whether that’s true or not, makers of academic bibliography software should be told that suing universities for what appear to be entirely legitimate actions is not likely to do their reputations any good.

NB- post corrected shortly after publication for bone-headed error.

More untimely stuff about disability

by Michael Bérubé on September 29, 2008

<i>Cross-posted at <a href=””>some obscure blog</a>.</i>

I recently spoke at <a href=””>this conference</a>, which was (a) historic and très cool and (b) something I’d been fretting over for months.  (Janet and Jamie came with me, and Nick and his girlfriend Rachel joined us on Saturday.  Fun for the whole family!)  I had a fairly easy assignment: a twenty-minute response to Martha Nussbaum on the opening night.  I’m familiar with some aspects of her work, and I assigned a good chunk of <a href=”″><i>Frontiers of Justice</i></a> to my disability studies seminar last spring, so the opening few paragraphs of my response simply pointed out that few philosophers have taken up the challenge of cognitive disability so thoroughly and satisfactorily as she.  I briefly summarized Nussbaum’s critique of John Rawls and the social contract tradition; here’s a snippet from that critique.

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Things to do in the New Year

by Eszter Hargittai on September 29, 2008

Happy New Year! And now back to our regularly scheduled political programming (NSFWish):

Republican talking point whack-a-mole, yet again

by John Q on September 29, 2008

The argument by talking point style that characterizes all sections of the political right in the US has been evident as usual in relation to the financial crisis, so I guess it’s time to play whack-a-mole yet again. The most prominent points I’ve seen are

* It’s all the fault of the Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to lend to low-income borrowers. Quite a few people have pointed out that many of the subprime loans weren’t required under CRA. More to the point, given that the market structures in the bubble made mortgages a fungible asset, the CRA was a nonbinding constraint. It’s clear that many more subprime loans were given out in the bubble years than were required under the Act and that the excess was greatest in the areas where the bubble was worst. The CRA had no effect at all under these conditions.

* If regulation were the problem, how come the hedge funds haven’t been affected? In fact, it was the failure of Bear Stearns hedge funds that signalled the spread of the crisis beyond the subprime mortgage market. And the main reason hedge funds haven’t yet been hit by the crisis of the past few weeks is that they don’t allow redemptions except at stated dates (for most of them it will be next Tuesday. Perhaps there won’t be a problem, but that’s not what the markets think. In any case, those making the claim seem to be unaware of the redemption restrictions.

Betting on yourself

by John Q on September 28, 2008

Robert Waldmann of Angry Bear has a fascinating post exploring the possibility that sharp movements in the value of Lehman senior debt could be explained by the possibility that Lehman had sold Credit Default Swaps on itself. Since a CDS is insurance against the possibility of default on debt, this is a no-lose bet for Lehman. If the firm survives, they collect the premiums and pay nothing and, if it doesn’t the losses are borne by the creditors. And, as Waldmann points out, it’s not crazy to buy such a CDS, since it will retain some value in bankruptcy. If you’ve already sold a lot of Lehman CDS yourself, there’s a significant hedging benefit. So both parties benefit, and the losers are the existing bondholders. Waldmann has an interesting optimization exercise to show that optimal (for Lehman) use of the CDS option could explain the collapse in the value of Lehman bonds.

Thinking about this, I’m more and more convinced that Warren Buffett’s description of derivatives as financial weapons of mass destruction applies in spades to CDSs.

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Political philosophy and the Paulson plan, a dialogue

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2008

Pancho: So what does political philosophy have to say about the banking crisis?

Lefty: Excuse me?

Pancho: Well, millions ruined, pensions and savings binned, an appeal to taxpayers to save the banks? It all seems rather, um, well _distributive_… I’d have thought you could give us some policy advice?

Lefty: Well I don’t really do that kind of thing, I do ideal theory.

Pancho: What’s that when it’s at home?

Lefty: I’m mainly concerned with devising optimal principles of social regulation under conditions of strict compliance, this is far too messy for me …

Pancho: Go on, have a go!

Lefty: OK well, since you insist …. Luck egalitarianism might be a good starting point.

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Paul Newman has died

by Henry Farrell on September 27, 2008

Obituary “here”:

My Friends

by Kieran Healy on September 26, 2008

Let me be clear. As I say, inaction is not an option. We have got to shore up our economy. This is crisis moment for America, really the rest of the world also, looking to see what the impacts will be if America were to choose not to shore up what has happened on Wall Street because of the – the ultimate adverse effects on Main Street and then how that affects this globalization that we’re a part of, in our world. So, the rest of the world really is looking at John McCain, the leadership that he’s going to provide through this, and if those provisions in the proposal can be implemented and make this proposal better, make it make more sense to taxpayers, then again, John McCain is going to prove his leadership. … But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Um, helping the – it’s got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reigning in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we’ve got to see trade as opportunity not as a competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today. We’ve got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.

Thank you, and on to your Debate Thread.

Classroom Advocacy

by Brian on September 26, 2008

My university (Rutgers) is fairly actively encouraging students to register to vote. And I’ve occasionally done a bit to help, hosting students who do a spiel on voter registration and personally encouraging students to vote.

Now I think this is all a good thing. Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters, so doing our little bit to help democracy is being on the side of the good. It’s not exactly related to the courses we’re teaching, but spending 45 seconds before class is officially scheduled to start encouraging voter registration, or putting voter registration ads on course management software as Rutgers has done, seems far from an abuse of official positions.

Still, voting isn’t the only good thing in the world. It seems to me that voting in the upcoming election for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin is pretty close to a moral requirement. (For those who are eligible to so vote. I of course won’t be voting for Obama, because that would be illegal, and undemocratic.) But it seems it would be seriously wrong for either Rutgers, or for me, to use our positions of authority to promote voting for Obama. And I think this isn’t a particularly controversial position.

But it’s a little hard to say just exactly why it’s OK for Rutgers (and me) to do what we’re doing, and not do what we’re not doing. Below the fold I have a few thoughts on this question.
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But the seizure and the deal with JPMorgan came as a shock to Washington Mutual’s board, which was kept completely in the dark: the company’s new chief executive, Alan H. Fishman, was in midair, flying from New York to Seattle at the time the deal was finally brokered, according to people briefed on the situation. Mr. Fishman, who has been on the job for less than three weeks, is eligible for $11.6 million in cash severance and will get to keep his $7.5 million signing bonus, according to an analysis by James F. Reda and Associates. WaMu was not immediately available for comment.

Link. Just imagine that WaMu was caught in a moment of uncharacteristic forthcomingness. Was inclined to wax metaphysical about the great comedy that is both Life and the Universe.

Free markets: a proposed trade

by John Q on September 26, 2008

Since the collapse of the US financial system became undeniable, I’ve been struck by the number of people insisting that this has no implications for free-market policies because the US (and particularly its financial sector) is not truly a free-market economy. [1]

In the spirit of market economics, I want to offer a trade to all such people. I will agree that
(a) the US is not a free-market economy, and its failures do not constitute evidence against the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization
(b) no other actually existing society is, or has ever been, a free-market economy, and no actual or conceivable events anywhere constitute evidence against the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization
(c) In discussion with parties to the agreement, I will not contest the claim that a pure free-market economy is the best possible form of social organization

All I ask in return is that the counterparties to the deal agree not to advocate, oppose, criticise, or comment on any policy or political position that might actually be implemented, to ensure that the purity of the free-market ideal is not compromised by actual experience.[2]

fn1. Since I haven’t checked, I’ll assume that this set of people has zero overlap with those I once debated who insisted that the supposedly superior performance of the US economy over social-democratic competitors demonstrated the superiority of free market economics.
fn2. I’m willing to make the same offer to Marxist-Leninists and (two for the price of one) to combine both offers for free-market Marxist-Leninists

Braised Chunks of Karl Popper Served in Heavy Sauce

by Henry Farrell on September 25, 2008

Scott is probably too self-deprecating to point to this excellently “funny and devastating review”: of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s latest effusion, but I’m not him, and hence have no compunctions. It’s impossible to pick out a favorite bit so I won’t.

What if they gave a presidential debate and nobody came?

by Henry Farrell on September 25, 2008

According to “CNN”:, McCain may be a no-show on Friday.

Graham says the McCain camp is well aware of the position of the Obama campaign and the debate commission that the debate should go on as planned — but both he and another senior McCain adviser insist the Republican nominee will not go to the debate Friday if there’s no deal on the bailout.

This reminds me of the famous episode of ‘Have I Got News For You” where the Right Honourable Roy Hattersley failed to turn up for the third time. They replaced him with a tub of lard.

Now McCain, unlike the RHRH, is pretty spry for a guy in his seventies. So a tub of lard probably isn’t apropos. But nominations are now open for objects, creatures or persons that might suitably replace the presidential-candidate-in-absentia. Keep it clean please.

Update: I just saw on MSNBC that David Letterman has already put in his entry for this competition. When McCain cancelled his appearance on Letterman tonight, phoning Letterman in person to tell him that he was rushing to fix the financial crisis (he lied; in fact, he was in a different CBS studio recording an interview with Kate Couric), Letterman invited Keith Olbermann instead. Awesome – I hope that the Presidential Debates Commission follows suit.

Psmith in the City

by Harry on September 24, 2008

For the (numerous) PG Wodehouse fans at CT, here’s a link to the first episode of Marcy Kahan’s dramatisation of Psmith in the City. It’s excellent: Kahan captures the feel of the text, without making it too wordy or quaint. And timely too (though I doubt there are many people currently in the City or on Wall Street who are starting work at 10, clocking off at 5, and feeling oppressed by such barbaric work hours).

The smartest guy in the room?

by John Q on September 24, 2008

One thing that really puzzles me about the great bailout plan is the almost universal acceptance that Paulson should be the one to run it, at least until the next Administration. More generally, I’m surprised by the kid-glove treatment he’s been getting in public discussion, even from people highly critical of the plan.

Let’s stipulate that he’s a smart guy. He wouldn’t have risen to the top in Wall Street if he wasn’t. And, of course, if having smart guys running the show was sufficient to ensure good outcomes, Wall Street wouldn’t be in its current mess.

Looking back at the record, plenty of people have observed that, at least in his public statements, Paulson repeatedly underestimated the severity of the crisis. And there’s nothing in the ad hoc shifts between cash infusions, bailouts and bankruptcies to suggest that he has much more of an understanding of what’s going on than anyone else. As Paul Krugman has said, he’s making it up as he goes along, just like the rest of us.

But the bailout plan is something else. The possibility of a meltdown like this has been talked about, increasingly seriously, for the last couple of years. Yet Paulson responds with a three page document saying “I need $700 billion, no questions asked”. Wasn’t there a contingency plan? Or worse still, was this the contingency plan?

Either way, Paulson should be sacked forthwith.