From the monthly archives:

December 2008

Where is the love?

by Maria on December 22, 2008

Ugh, I feel ill. I had been mellowing on Pope Benedict. It’s hard (not to mention wrong) to keep hating on someone you pray out loud for every Sunday. But now he comes out with this: ‘saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour is just as important as saving the rain forest from destruction’.

“(The Church) should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed,” the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican’s central administration. “The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less.” The Catholic Church teaches that while homosexuality is not sinful, homosexual acts are. It opposes gay marriage and, in October, a leading Vatican official called homosexuality “a deviation, an irregularity, a wound”. The pope said humanity needed to “listen to the language of creation” to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work”. [click to continue…]

Applying Philosophy

by Harry on December 22, 2008

Anyone who’s going to be at the Eastern Division APA meetings this year shouldn’t miss the Society for Applied Philosophy session “Applying Philosophy” with Virginia Held and Adam Swift. It’s on the Monday morning at 11.15 am. Any session at the APA faces a lot of competition (as you can see from the full program here). But questions about what it means to apply philosophy, especially normative philosophy often arise around here, and I think there is still enough uncertainty about, for example, what non-ideal theorising amounts to and how it relates to ideal theorising, that the session should be excellent, not just for the presentations, but for the ensuing discussion, if enough people attend.

Amazon’s price discrimination

by Eszter Hargittai on December 22, 2008

[UPDATE: An email from Director of Strategic Communication at Amazon, Craig Berman states the following (quoted with permission), which I thought was important to note here: “Amazon is a marketplace of many sellers, and while sellers are free to set their own prices for items they list, every customer pays the same for every individual offer.” I’m happy to hear that there is no price discrimination per se. Prime Shipping is a shady product though and I don’t recommend enrolling in it.]

Amazon's price: $17.13Amazon is quoting me a higher price than it’s quoting my friend, on the same product. I knew this was theoretically possible, of course, but I didn’t realize online stores engaged in these practices much these days. After all, is it really worth annoying customers when they find out? After a bit of experimentation, it seems to me that what’s going on here is that those with a Prime membership are being quoted a higher price. Ouch. So the thanks I get for paying for the Prime membership and shopping at Amazon a lot is higher prices. No thank you. [click to continue…]

A dramatic turn in the Belgian political crisis

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 22, 2008

Ever since the last elections in Belgium, in June 2007, there have been events and background conditions, which have led to a political crisis. We’ve discussed that ongoing crisis here at CT at length (“one”: “two”: “three”: “four”: “five”: “six”: So it is super-ironic that the Belgian government fell last Friday, not because of the communautarian tensions, but because of a chain of events that is linked to the global financial crisis.
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Black Swans and Dark Matter

by John Q on December 22, 2008

There’s been a lot of talk about the idea that the GFC (the in-group shorthand for ‘global financial crisis’) is an example of a ‘black swan’, that is, an event that would be treated as impossible on the basis of induction from past experience, and hence that could not be encompassed by formal models of the kind used by risk managers. All this talk has of course been great for Nicholas Taleb who has a book with this title. It’s good in a lot of ways, but I found it ultimately insufferable in the continuous repetition of the message that only Taleb was smart enough to see all this. ( To be fair, Taleb predicted a global financial crisis, and didn’t simply claim it in retrospect as an unpredictable Black Swan).

I spend a lot of my time working on how to think about unforeseen contingencies and I’m not at all convinced that the GFC should be described in this way. Of course, the models used by the risk managers in investment banks didn’t include this as a possibility; if they had, the implication would have been that all sorts of much-desired deals should not go ahead. But as I pointed out a while ago, very simple models based on well-established principles predicted that the bubble economy would end badly.

The crisis then, involved something more like dark matter, the ‘missing’ matter in the universe that must exist if it is to work as it does, but can’t at presented be detected. Given that risk can’t easily be made to disappear*, it was obvious that the risk associated with lending of all kinds (most obviously, mortages offered to people with no capacity to repay) was being borne by someone, and probably someone who was unaware of it.

The big problem for the Cassandras (and we were certainly both correct and disregarded) was that it was easy to see that the bubble could not continue and much harder to foresee how it would end – it’s one thing to say that dark matter must exist and another to work out what it is really like. Like Brad and Brad, I expected that the problems would emerge first in the form of a run on the US dollar, given that holders of US dollar assets were receiving very little compensation for the obvious risk of large capital losses. In fact, the US dollar actually rose in the early stages of the meltdown, though it has been falling more recently.

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The real world

by Eszter Hargittai on December 19, 2008

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to go to DC and meet with some people on the Presidential Transition Team. I got to talk about my research on Internet uses and skills with people who seemed genuinely interested in what we know about this topic and how it might apply to future initiatives. It was an exciting experience.

It is great to see an administration again that cares about information technologies (see related comments in Obama’s weekly address from two weeks ago). However, it’s important to realize that achieving a knowledgeable Internet citizenry is not simply a technological problem and thus cannot be resolved by a solely technical solution. There is plenty of research now that shows how mere access to the Internet does not level the playing field when it comes to achieving universal Internet literacy. Rather, coupling technical access with education about uses is an important part of the puzzle. Of course, even if one accepts all this, solutions are far from obvious. I got lots of really good questions from the people in the room and was thrilled by the conversation.

Afterward, walking down the hall, I saw on the doors the names of lots of people who have been in the news recently. It’s wonderful and encouraging to see the number of smart and knowledgeable people on this team.

Conor Cruise O’Brien Has Died

by Henry Farrell on December 19, 2008

The “Irish Times”: has the story, although it concentrates on his not-especially successful political career rather than his intellectual contribution. I found his later work (both books and newspaper journalism) to be very nearly unreadable, less because of its sometimes reactionary politics than because of how badly it was written. There was plenty of choler and spleen, but little real humour. But his earlier books – I’m especially fond of _States of Ireland_, which really remade the debate over Irish national identity – are still a joy and a delight to read. His best writing was liberal in the most expansive sense of that term, clearly thought through, open to its own contradictions, generous where generosity was warranted, and witheringly accurate where it wasn’t (he had a near Galbraithian facility for cutting through the bullshit with a pungent description).

Homeschooling Research and Scholarship

by Harry on December 18, 2008

A new web resource called Homeschooling Research and Scholarship has just come online, courtesy of Rob Kunzman of the Indiana University School of Education. He’s gathered together a vast array of academic resources concerning homeschooling because, as he says:

while many homeschool organizations and advocacy groups provide information and analysis, there are few places to go for a less partisan perspective.

Below the fold are the three key points he asks all journalists to read before starting to use the resource (I’ve cut some bits out, so its still worth reading his page). Can I suggest that responsible people might also link not to this post, but to Rob’s site, both to spread the word and to improve his google rating (if it really works that way) and, (very) eventually, public discourse about homeschooling.

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A Tragic Sense of Life X-Mas!

by John Holbo on December 18, 2008

I know, I know: it’s been two days since my last Haeckel post. Well, worry no longer! My X-Mas cards got a link from the University of Chicago Press! They just put out a new biography of Haeckel that is, I gather, more of a general intellectual history of the reception of evolutionary theory in the second half of the 19th Century, doubling as an attempt to burnish a somewhat tarnished reputation: The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought [amazon]. Here’s a TLS review – or rather, a longer version of one – that is, effectively, a thumbnail biography in itself.

All well and good, you agree: but surely there is more to life than German X-Mas jellyfish imagery? Yes, indeed! ASIFA has posted a wonderful series of Einar Norelius illustrations from a 1929 Bland Tomtar Och Troll (a Swedish x-mas annual of fairy and folktales). For example, here’s some sort of Aquatomten admiring a bunch of jellyfish. (Or maybe the guy’s just drowning.)


You see: there’s also Swedish X-Mas jellyfish imagery. So I added another card image to my flickr set, to add variety. (Not my best work, admittedly. But I only have so much 100-year old Swedish holiday card stock in my ephemera file.)

Robbing Gordon to pay Gordon

by John Q on December 18, 2008

I wrote a piece for the Centre for Policy Development on Public Private Partnerships which was also picked up by the Canberra Times. This bit may be of interest to UK readers

The British government, which has nationalised or bailed out large parts of the banking sector is now suggesting that banks may be forced to lend to private investors in public projects under the Private Finance Initiative. In effect, the government will be lending money to itself, while paying the costs of a series of complex transactions (some of them highly vulnerable to exploitation) along the way.

Recipe Corner: Staffordshire Oatcakes

by Harry on December 17, 2008

Talking of made up family traditions, Staffordshire Oatcakes a la Brighouse Mothersname household are a nice light-ish alternative to regular pancakes. I was first served them as a teenager by the Leek, Staffs, native parents of a friend of my sister’s; then completely forgot about them until coming across them in a children’s story several years ago. You’re supposed to use half medium oatmeal (scottish oatmeal in the US) and half regular flour, but I prefer to use oat flour with just a couple of spoons of medium oatmeal for texture. I make them when my eldest has friends over for sleepovers and they are always popular; I make the batter the night before, and its all ready to cook in the morning. You can serve them with butter and syrup (Golden Syrup is best, but maple is fine); or, for a light lunch, with grated cheese on top (fold the pancake to melt the cheese, gruyere is best).

1 teaspoon dried yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups oat flour and 3 tablespoons of medium/scottish oatmeal
2 cups water and 2 cups milk
(or 4 cups of liquid, with milk and water in whatever proportion you want, really).
2 tablespoons of melted butter

Dissolve the yeast and sugar into the liquid, and leave covered for 10 minutes.
Add all the other ingredients except the butter, and whisk thoroughly so there are no lumps.
Leave in a mixing bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for at least an hour (overnight is fine; 2 days is fine, frankly) in a not-too-warm place.

Just before cooking, mix in the melted butter. Cook like pancakes on a moderate griddle in butter. Serve immediately (or keep them in a hot oven, but don’t stack them, please). You can add more flour, or more liquid, any time you want, to get the consistency you prefer; this recipe should make the consistency a bit thicker than crepes.

Wild Rumpus

by Henry Farrell on December 17, 2008

“Ari”:, over at _Edge of the American West_, comes across a site “saying”: that the Wild Things were Jewish.

The original concept for the book featured horses instead of monsters. Sendak said he switched when he discovered that he could not draw horses. The Wild Things (except “Goat Boy”, of course) were named after (and are presumably caricatures of) Maurice’s aunts and uncles: Aaron, Bernard, Emil, Moishe and Tzippy.

Moishe doll

Maybe this is common knowledge to lots of folks; I did know the story about the horses. But it reminds me that when I was reading _Where the Wild Things Are_ to my son two nights ago, I spotted that the moon in Max’s bedroom is three quarters full in the early illustrations, changes to a full moon when he begins his travels, and remains full when he returns to his bedroom, and (presumably) normality, linear time, and all that good stuff. Suggestions about what this is supposed to mean (and other _WTWTA_ trivia) welcome in comments.

“Bush-Era Culture” (Shudder)

by Scott McLemee on December 17, 2008

At the blog newcritics, Chuck Tryon points out something I would have missed otherwise, given the need to avoid national news magazines in the interest of anger management:

Newsweek, of all places, has a fascinating intellectual exercise in which they ask several of their film and media writers to name one popular culture text that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.” Obviously, the idea of capturing the zeitgeist of eight often turbulent years with a divided electorate and a fractured media landscape is an impossibility. No single text can encompass the tragedy of September 11, the war in Iraq, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and collapse, and our news media’s often vacuous response to all of these events. But the Newsweek writers offer some interesting choices, ones that collectively seem to move toward capturing some sense of Bush-era culture.

I tend to think Battlestar Galactica wins, hand’s down. (Per earlier item.) See the rest of Chuck T’s entry here.


by John Q on December 17, 2008

That’s the new target interest rate announced by the US Federal Reserve today (with a margin of up to 25 basis points). It’s also, following the $50 billion Madoff fraud and the increasingly widespread suspicion that the entire bailout scheme has been operated to promote the interests of Goldman Sachs at the expense of its competitors and the general public, an upper bound for the credibility of the global financial system. And it’s a pretty good estimate of the probability that we’re going to avoid a recession worse than any since the Great Depression.

Without a household name like Citigroup or GS going bust, it’s hard to convey the seriousness of the latest news in an environment where we are already inured to financial cataclysms. But it seems pretty clear that the last couple of days spell the end for both hedge funds (many of which have lost a fortune with Madoff and all of which are subject to invidious comparisons with his decades-long Ponzi scheme) and money market funds, which can’t possibly cover their costs given a funds rate of 0.25 per cent.

Cooking with Campbell’s Soup

by Maria on December 16, 2008

Most families have their own cooking lore, developed through accident and necessity into an unimpeachable canon of family food. The culinary canon of my childhood seems quaint, now that I live in California. Orange juice was a Christmas day treat. Corn on the cob was a summer treat (though we bought it frozen – in fact, I never saw a cob with the leaves around it until I was 18 and came to America for the first time). We competed for second helpings by gnawing off every bit of flesh till the cob was as bald as a loofah.
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