From the monthly archives:

November 2008

Bloggingheads on Mumbai Attacks

by Henry Farrell on November 30, 2008

I have a Bloggingheads on the Mumbai attacks with Sumit Ganguly, an expert on Indian politics at University of Indiana. Since Sumit, unlike me, knows a whole lot about the background and likely consequences, the format is more like an interview than a dialogue. Click below to see it (or “here”: for the home site).

Highly specialized instrument

by Chris Bertram on November 30, 2008

To Bristol’s Victoria Rooms last night for a fine performance of Mahler 6 by the University Orchestra. The moments when the hammer strikes in the final movement were visually, as well as musically, dramatic. Chatting afterwards, I learnt that the conductor had made a special trip to west London, to collect the hammer and its accompanying table. It is a great big mallet like-thing with a very long shaft. It turns out that there’s a special Mahler 6 hammer, there’s only one in the country, and orchestras hire it as necessary. So you couldn’t perform two Mahler 6s on the same evening in different parts of the UK, at least not with _the hammer_. Does each country have a dedicated Mahler 6 hammer as the UK seems to?

Can’t imagine “how we missed this”: the first time around …

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. ”President Summers asked me, didn’t I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?” Ellison said. ”To which I laughed nervously and didn’t reply.”

Via “Josep Colomer”:

Looking through my wardrobe …

by John Q on November 29, 2008

… I have a lot of T-shirts, almost none of them bought in clothes shops. They celebrate or advertise defunct sporting teams, (mostly) unsuccessful political campaigns, obsolete versions of operating systems and long-gone folk music festivals. What’s in your wardrobe?

As part of a minor project aimed at eliminating the cliche “the very real concerns of the white working class” (the latest weaselly codeword for people who want to gain the political benefits[1] of playing anti-immigrant politics while avoiding any of the costs) from British political life through a campaign of sustained mockery and invective, I had an article up on the Guardian blog last week. A digression that I probably should have edited out of it, but in fact liked so much that I not only left it in but am posting it here now, concerned the sunset of what was once an important subsector of the British social work profession in places like Kilburn and Camden Town:
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It depends what ‘worst’ means

by John Holbo on November 28, 2008

Victor Davis Hanson: “George Bush is neither the source of all our ills nor the “worst” president in our history.”

It says something that even Bush’s die-hard defenders implicitly concede that assessing his legacy is going to be a matter of wrangling over the semantics of ‘worst’.

Full disclosure: I’m married to a woman who is descended from James Buchanan, so it may be that I am over-eager to see the mantle of ‘worst’ pass to another family line, freeing my offspring from the stain of shame.

The Alaska Mink

by John Holbo on November 28, 2008

I can’t believe I beat Josh Marshall to this one. Check out this preview page for #3 of the new Top 10 run. To the right, in the center panel, see an elongated Don Young with ‘AK Mink’ – Alaska Mink – on his spandex. (See this old TPM post for backstory.) Also, Newt Gingrich is there. Of course I know all this because like a sensible person I listened to the John Siuntres Word Balloon podcast interview with Gene Ha, the artist for Top 10.

If you don’t know: Top 10 was an Alan Moore-authored series now being written and drawn by two of the original artists, Zander Cannon having shifted to writing. And so this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that Alan Moore is famous, and everyone has heard of Watchmen and V for Vendetta and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But I like a lot of other Moore work as much, if not better. [click to continue…]

Global Voices

by Eszter Hargittai on November 27, 2008

Global VoicesI’m embarrassed to note that seemingly we’ve never written about Global Voices on CT before. It’s a global citizens’ media project that focuses on areas of the world often ignored by mainstream media in the US and Europe. Just recently, I was talking to its co-founder Ethan Zuckerman about how at times of sudden events in otherwise less covered areas, interest in the site peaks. This may be one of those times. They are posting and linking to information about the events in Mumbai that may be of interest to those looking for additional resources.

This sounds scary

by John Q on November 26, 2008

I haven’t had time to digest the implications of this story which has been around for at least a month, but only now seems to be attracting attention (I’ve seen it in a few different places today). Apparently, short sellers in the US Treasury bond market are failing to deliver the securities they’ve sold. As long ago as 1 October, the shortfall was more than $2 trillion by one report. Via Felix Salmon, here’s Helen Avery in Euromoney.

I’m not an expert on this stuff, but it seems to raise the question of whether bond markets can or should continue to exist in their current form. Maybe the US and other Treasuries should be selling bonds directly, and offering repurchase options to provide liquidity, perhaps using the banks they’ve already part-nationalised to handle the mechanics.


by Harry on November 24, 2008

If you had any doubt that we were back in the seventies, the I learned today from the BBC iplayer, that they have resurrected Terry Nation’s apocalyptic series Survivors. Even the leading characters have their original names (though I gather there are major plot differences). Here’s the script for the first episode. Here’s the website, and here’s the blog. The brilliant original is on DVD , and should please any of your older relatives for Christmas. Now, can we have 1990 and Doomwatch back please? (Oh, and I know that the BBC wiped almost all of Doomwatch, bloody vandals, but if they didn’t wipe 1990 it would be nice to have that on DVD too).

Ayers on Fresh Air

by Harry on November 24, 2008

Terry Gross had Bill Ayers on Fresh Air last week. The page is here, or you can cut straight to the show.

As I indicated in my comments on The Company You Keep, I am not pre-disposed to be sympathetic to Weather or its members, being inclined to see the turn to violence in a liberal democracy as not only elitist and self-indulgent, but also reckless about the effects on other people on the left. I am not a pacifist, and understand that sometimes violence is legitimate if there is a prospect of it preventing something much worse; the idea that a campaign of violence by a small group of leftists could have contributed to ending the Vietnam War seems as fantastic to me. My own political formation took place much later (I’m younger even than Obama), but none of my friends who were politically active on the far left in the 60’s and remain active today have a good opinion of Weather, and their views of the matter lead me to suspect that had I been around then my disposition to them would be more actively hostile than it, in fact, is.

But during the campaign I was struck, and rather impressed, by the discipline with which Ayers refrained from taking advantage of the moment for his own ends.

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Goodbye to the G-8

by Henry Farrell on November 24, 2008

“Gideon Rachman”: says what I’ve been thinking.

In fact, I would even argue that the G8 was quite well-placed to see off the upstart G20 – were it not for one thing. Next year it will be presided over by that one-man wrecking crew, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy. Berlusconi has a “sense of humour” that makes him a uniquely disastrous chair for international organisations. His presidency of the European Union in 2003 was catastrophic. He caused uproar in the European Parliament by comparing a German politician to a Nazi concentration-camp guard. In an official photo, he made the sign of the cuckold’s horns behind the head of a Spanish minister. He opened a summit designed to discuss the future of Europe by suggesting to his fellow leaders that they discuss women and football instead. Then he turned to the chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, and suggested that he should open the discussion since he had been married four times. Amazingly enough, Schroeder did not see the funny side.

Not that any of this is likely to hurt his domestic approval ratings or anything (the public persona he has constructed for himself is quite extraordinary), but it certainly should be interesting to watch from a safe distance.

Netflix Weirdness

by Kieran Healy on November 23, 2008

There’s an article on the Netflix Prize in the Times today. You know, where Netflix made half of its ratings data available to people and offered a million bucks to anyone who could write a recommendation algorithm that would do some specified percent better than Netflix’s own. What tripped me up was this sentence about one of the more successful teams:

The first major breakthrough came less than a month into the competition. A team named Simon Funk vaulted from nowhere into the No. 4 position, improving upon Cinematch by 3.88 percent in one fell swoop. Its secret was a mathematical technique called singular value decomposition. It isn’t new; mathematicians have used it for years to make sense of prodigious chunks of information. But Netflix never thought to try it on movies.

Can this possibly be true? I’d have thought that just about the most obvious way to look for some kind of structure in data like this would be to do a principal components analysis, and PCA is (more or less) just the SVD of a data matrix. PCA is a quite straightforward technique (evidence for this includes the fact that I know about and use it myself). It’s powerful, but it’s not like it’s some kind of slightly obscure method that isn’t ever applied to data of this kind. And there’s a whole family of related and more sophisticated approaches you could use instead. If you’d asked me about the prize before I read this article, I would naively have said “Well, it’s this effort to get people to help Netflix do better than I guess anyone could using something like bog-standard PCA.”

Maybe the article just got written up in a way that misrepresents the contribution of the team who introduced the method to the data. Or maybe I am misunderstanding something. I guess I should page Cosma and see what he thinks.

Center-Right Nation?

by John Holbo on November 23, 2008

A little something about the whole ‘Obama needs to be cautious because this is still a center-right nation’ thingamajig. (Hilzoy derides it; Sirota has been tracking it; Ramesh Ponnuru questioned the intelligibility of the proposition. No doubt you’ve noticed some of this discussion going around.)

Way back two years ago, I blogged a review of Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s Right Nation. Here was my verdict: “The authors basically have a Louis Hartz ‘liberal consensus’ argument. Do a change-all ‘liberal’ to ‘conservative’. Which is really a substitution they ought to think through a bit harder. Since they cite much of the same evidence Hartz cited for his thesis way back when.”

Consider “Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans” by Arthur ‘vital center’ Schlesinger, written in 1956, anthologized in The Politics of Hope [amazon]. He takes a Hartzian view. “In a sense all of America is liberalism.” That’s the first line, establishing a certain ‘who’s your daddy?’ dominance. Then what follows is ostensibly more moderate: [click to continue…]

Print, pixels and prescriptivism

by John Q on November 23, 2008

This post on a question-begging argument in favour of carbon taxes and against an emissions trading scheme, naturally raised (!) the question of whether the correct interpretation of a phrase like “begging the question” is determined by the predominant usage or by its original derivation as a technical term in logic or maybe by some other criterion such as the efficiency of communication.

That set me thinking and I turned to the usual research tools Wikipedia and Google to look at how this phrase and a couple of other standard items for debate (“aggravate” and “metholodogy”) are actually used.

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