Truly wonderful. Via “PNH”:, “mock-authoritative citation rules”: for public restroom graffiti, alien communications and much else besides. Suggestions for more such rules welcome in comments.

Gas shortage in Europe

by Eszter Hargittai on January 7, 2009

It’s unusually cold in some parts of Europe and temperatures are expected to be especially harsh this coming weekend. This makes the following even more unfortunate than it would be otherwise: due to conflicts with Ukraine, Russia has cut off gas supplies to several countries some of which rely on Russia for the majority of their needs and have enough supplies for no more than a few days. There isn’t a ton of good coverage* about this out there (yet?), you can read up on some of it here and here (although some information in English already seems outdated when I compare it to reports in Hungarian papers, which presumably have more accurate updates for at least Hungary). Hungary has already shut down numerous industrial plants and has taken other measures to lower usage.

Let’s say you are a country and calculate that you have enough supplies for about three weeks. Your neighbor only has enough for two days and asks for your help. What do you do? (Judging from some of the reports, this isn’t necessarily a hypothetical.)

[*] Feel free to post links to additional coverage that you find helpful. New stories came up as I was writing this post, I suspect/hope that more will be available. (Don’t assume I didn’t search in the right places, there was very little on this when I first started looking for it earlier today. The only reason I even knew to look was a mention by my cousin in an email and a phone conversation later with my Mom. They are both in Budapest so they are following the details and seem to have more to go on.)

R in The New York Times

by Kieran Healy on January 7, 2009

Funny to see the virtues of R extolled in The New York Times. Although I did wonder whether Professor Ripley spilled his tea when he read this effort at introducing Times readers to it:

Some people familiar with R describe it as a supercharged version of Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet software that can help illuminate data trends more clearly than is possible by entering information into rows and columns.

On second thoughts, though, I imagine no tea was spilled. It would take rather more than that. There is the required bit of stuffy huffiness from a spokesperson for the SAS Institute, too:

SAS says it has noticed R’s rising popularity at universities, despite educational discounts on its own software, but it dismisses the technology as being of interest to a limited set of people working on very hard tasks. “I think it addresses a niche market for high-end data analysts that want free, readily available code,” said Anne H. Milley, director of technology product marketing at SAS. She adds, “We have customers who build engines for aircraft. I am happy they are not using freeware when I get on a jet.”

R also gets some stick (though not in the article) from the computer science side of things for being fairly slow in comparison to some potential competitors. But it’s an exemplary open-source project and is now the lingua franca of academic statistics, for good reason. In day-to-day use for its designed purpose it’s hard to beat. The commitment of many of the core project contributors is really remarkable. In the social sciences R’s main competitor is Stata, which also has many virtues (including a strong user community) but costs money to own. I like R because it helps keep your data analysis honest, it has very strong graphical capabilities, it’s a gateway to understanding new work in statistics, and it’s free. Just take my advice and be sure to read the Posting Guide before you start asking any questions on r-help.


by Henry Farrell on January 7, 2009

A short but intensely felt recommendation for Felix Gilman’s first book, _Thunderer_ (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: combined with a query – why haven’t I heard about this book before? It’s _exactly_ the kind of sf/f novel that I like – a brooding, post-Mievillian fantasy set in a decaying city of uncertain extent and boundaries, with a keen ear for politics, character and language. But that’s not how it’s been marketed – cover, blurb etc suggest a generic quest fantasy of the more or less inept and badly plotted variety. I think this misses its core market (hell, I think I _am_ its core market) – people who are looking for a standardized post-Tolkien ripoff are liable to be quite upset while people looking for a more challenging read, who would have bought it, if they knew what it was about, won’t. I can sometimes understand these kinds of marketing decisions. For example, I’ve quite enjoyed Sarah Monette’s Mirador books, which are very nicely written indeed, but are marketed to the romance fantasy/mildly titillating slash market, this, presumably, being rather more lucrative than the literary fantasy market that folks like myself inhabit. But this seems downright odd to me – I don’t see what the publishers are getting by chucking it out into the generic fantasy market without some pointers that it should also be of interest to people who have different literary tastes (Monette’s books, in contrast, _have_ been cross-marketed as best as I can tell). Gilman’s book should be getting highly approving reviews in _Locus_, nominations for major awards etc, which could allow it to straddle the split between the more and less literary ends of genre but, to the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been, and I suspect Bantam/Spectra’s marketing folks are at fault. Or is there something relevant about the publishing trade that I’m just not getting here?

Moral arbitrage

by John Q on January 7, 2009

I’ve been planning for a while on a post motivated by the discussion of trolley problems a while back, but recent discussions have raised some more serious examples (the Iraq war, Gaza and so on).

Looking at the discussion, it seems as if nearly everyone is concerned about the (foreseeable) consequences of their actions, but there are a lot of claims that some consequences should be treated differently from others (intended vs unintended, direct vs intermediated by the predictable reactions of others, and so on).

To an economist, what this naturally suggests is the possibility of moral arbitrage.

[click to continue…]

This is a first

by Eszter Hargittai on January 7, 2009

I don’t like seeing you’re when your should be used and vice versa, but the following took it all to a whole new level: in a recent email I received, instead of your, the person wrote u’re. Yikes.

Unintended Consequences

by John Holbo on January 7, 2009

Over the past few years, a certain argument form has become fairly common: yes, I was wrong (about Iraq, financial stuff), but critics on the other side, even if they were right about the overall dynamics of how things went wrong, were substantially mistaken about the details. So – in the invincible words of Monty Python’s Black Knight – ‘let’s call it a draw’.

I predict that, for some strange reason, the folks who entered this characteristic defensive crouch will uncurl, re-affix rhetorical arms and legs, and become altogether more aggressive after Obama takes office. It will be argued that the stimulus package/health care reform/etc. will inevitably be afflicted with bad unintended consequences. But, for some strange reason, those who make this argument will not feel obliged to predict, in detail, exactly what things will go wrong. They will feel it is sufficient to sketch, in a broad way, why the dynamics of certain policy directions seem fraught with potential hazards.

I somewhat regret that I haven’t been bothering to document the argumentative trend of which I speak, so I suggest that we make a collective effort in comments: who has made the ‘yes I was wrong, but the critics didn’t get the details exactly right so it’s a tie’ argument? For future reference.

Those more inclined to monger twiddly philosophy angels-on-a-pinhead-type problems can, alternatively, tackle the following: the defensive crouch of which I speak seems to presuppose a broadly Russellian theory of the objects of thought. That is, you shift blame for unintended consequences by subscribing to a highly stringent theory of intentionality – of the objects of thought. The theory would seem to be this: you can’t really be thinking about X – e.g. any Bush-era debacle – unless you have in mind a definite description of X. So those who quite clearly heard the drumhoofs of financial apocalypse but mistakenly thought the first rider’s name was ‘The collapse of the dollar’ didn’t really hear that guy who was actually riding up. Alternatively, on a more Kripkean view of the determination of the objects of our thoughts, it seems that critics could have been warning about the very financial crisis that we actually suffered, even if they couldn’t, in advance, give an accurate definite description. So we have an ontological issue about the identity of apocalypses across possible worlds. Discuss. Preferably with Twin-Earth cases. And Larry Kudlow. If possible, you should fly the actual Larry to Twin-Earth and leave him there.