From the monthly archives:

May 2009

Periplum Plug-in for Google Earth

by John Holbo on May 22, 2009

Here’s the link. (This is, obviously, a follow-up to this post.)

Redefining Plagiarism

by Henry Farrell on May 21, 2009

“Groklaw”: points out some interesting characteristics of the Terms of Service for Wolfram Alpha:

As Wolfram|Alpha is an authoritative source of information, maintaining the integrity of its data and the computations we do with that data is vital to the success of our project. … f you make results from Wolfram|Alpha available to anyone else, or incorporate those results into your own documents or presentations, you must include attribution indicating that the results and/or the presentation of the results came from Wolfram|Alpha. Some Wolfram|Alpha results include copyright statements or attributions linking the results to us or to third-party data providers, and you may not remove or obscure those attributions or copyright statements. Whenever possible, such attribution should take the form of a link to Wolfram|Alpha, either to the front page of the website or, better yet, to the specific query that generated the results you used. … Failure to properly attribute results from Wolfram|Alpha is not only a violation of these terms, but may also constitute academic plagiarism or a violation of copyright law. Attribution is something we expect you to give us in exchange for us having provided you with a high-quality free service. The specific images, such as plots, typeset formulas, and tables, as well as the general page layouts, are all copyrighted by Wolfram|Alpha at the time Wolfram|Alpha generates them.

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Michèle Lamont on Philosophers

by Harry on May 20, 2009

A colleague (in Philosophy) just sent me this interview with Michele Lamont about How Professors Think (which just arrived in my mailbox but I still haven’t read). The book is based on interviews of academics who serve on funding panels, and teases out the differences between several disciplines in how they think of their standards and apply them, among other things.

It’s all worth reading. I was particularly struck by this:

Philosophy is a problem discipline, and it’s defined as such by program officers. Philosophers do not believe that nonphilosophers are qualified to evaluate their work. Perhaps that comes out of the dominance of analytic philosophy, with its stress on logic and rigor. Philosophers think their discipline is more demanding than other fields. Even its practitioners define the discipline as contentious. They don’t see that as a problem; argument and dispute are the discipline’s defining characteristics.

All that conflict makes it difficult to get consensus on the value of a philosophy proposal — or to convince people from other disciplines of its merits. The panels I studied are multidisciplinary. Nonphilosophers are often frustrated with the philosophers. They often discounted what philosophers had to say as misplaced intellectual superiority.

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Diamond’s Vengeance

by Jon Mandle on May 19, 2009

Around four years ago, there was some controversy about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (and, I gather, a PBS documentary based on the book). Various bloggers at – a group anthropology blog – for example, here and here and elsewhere – attacked Diamond for various reasons, up to and including calling him racist. Brad DeLong replied by accusing the critics of being “positively green with envy at Jared Diamond’s ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique.” Henry discussed the flap here, here, and here, writing: “I strongly suspect that the ‘Diamond=racist’ claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s.” And he linked to Tim Burke, who here and here offered a critique of Diamond that was more – shall we say – nuanced (and interesting!) than the one at

Now there’s a new controversy. About a year ago, Diamond published an article in the New Yorker called “Vengeance Is Ours.” Abstract is here – full text available to subscribers only (I think) from that link.
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Planning for Pandemics (repost and update)

by John Q on May 19, 2009

As governments and the WHO wrestle with the decision on whether to divert resources from the production of seasonal flu vaccines to develop a vaccine against H1NI (swine) flu, I thought I’d repost this piece from 2005, suggesting an expansion of vaccination against seasonal flu, in part to expand production capacity to prepare for problems like this.

Thinking a little more, and with the idea of global public goods in mind, it seems obviously in the enlightened self-interest of developed countries to go beyond domestic vaccination programs and contribute both vaccine supplies and organisational resources to encourage routine vaccination in poor countries, as well as ensuring a further expansion of production capacity.

The same goes, I think, for more extensive use of antivirals like Tamiflu, which apparently have the nice property that the flu virus does not develop resistance to them.

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Nicholas Winton is 100

by Harry on May 19, 2009

I prevaricated. [Update 1] Do you congratulate someone who has avoided the limelight? Or do you risk providing it? In the end, if he didn’t want it, he should have avoided it more successfully. Anyway, many happy returns to him.

[Update 1] JQ says I vacillated. He’s right.


by Henry Farrell on May 19, 2009

Via “P.Z.”: (but put under the fold so as to protect the delicate sensibilities of CT’s readership).
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TMI… seriously!

by Maria on May 18, 2009

In other cool things about L.A., I have to admit the non-mortal earthquakes are pretty great. I’ve sat through two of the 5+ richter ones and was about 4 miles from last night’s epicenter. The most striking thing is that in the first few seconds of an earthquake, a completely random explanation for it pops into my mind. The first time around I got quite irate that our upstairs office neighbours were thumping around making such racket that the building swayed. Last night, although I live 2 miles from the freeway, I instantly thought ‘wow, that’s one big truck passing by. Or maybe it’s a tank?’.

It turns out that’s not an unusual reaction. Human brains are very good at rationalising the immediate aftermath of a disaster into business as usual. But, contrary to popular belief, not panicking isn’t all that successful a survival strategy. A book I read last year ‘The Unthinkable; Who Survives When Disaster Strikes’, says much of the planning around plane crashes, fires, etc. assumes that the first thing people will do is panic and run around doing stupid things that impede their escape. In fact, the most common and dangerous reaction is to just go limp, stay passive and assume that the nightclub fire is really not all that bad or that you should sit in your crashed plane seat until help arrives. Or that the hostage situation is all a terrible misunderstanding. That’s a very good way to die.
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Rise of the Romulans

by Henry Farrell on May 17, 2009

So I’ve been thinking that I ought to do more posts on stuff that is happening in Italy, Germany and France but that isn’t being covered well in the English language newspapers. Such as, for example, “this story”: about how Italy’s minister of defence, Ignazio La Russa, has gotten into trouble for saying some offensive things about the United Nations, and the UNHCR representative in Italy (who has been critical of the Berlusconi government’s nastiness to aliens). But I’m being distracted from this high minded mission by La Russa’s quite extraordinary resemblance to a left-over special effect from classic Rodenberry-era Star Trek. It’s juvenile of me, but there you go. I’m figuring him for a Romulan-Klingon hybrid, but I’m not really a Star Trek buff (haven’t seen the show in two decades or so), so am prepared to bow to superior wisdom should such exist out there on the Interwebs …


Going Dutch

by Henry Farrell on May 16, 2009

So, because I was in Europe last week, I didn’t post to my bloggingheads with Dan Drezner, talking about the joys (and limitations) of the European (for which read Dutch – EU member states differ dramatically in their provision of social services) welfare state. This was all riffing on a “piece in the NYT”: which talks about the kinds of stuff that insurance covers in the Netherlands.

insurance covered prenatal care, the birth of their children and after-care, which began with seven days of five-hours-per-day home assistance. “That means someone comes and does your laundry, vacuums and teaches you how to care for a newborn,” Julie said.

I thought that this sounded _great_ myself, having gone through the ‘oh my god, they’ve sent us home with a baby and what the hell are we supposed to do now’ panic with our firstborn. Dan, not so much. Matt Yglesias and Matthew Continetti discussed the same article a few days later. Diavlogs below …

Maddow interviews Duelfer and Windrem

by Jon Mandle on May 15, 2009

On her show last night, Rachel Maddow provided a genuine service. [tip: TPM] She reviewed Bush Administration claims about the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq (with clips) and ran that alongside a time line concerning the use of torture. This took about six minutes. Then she interviewed Charles Duelfer, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, who says that “Washington” suggested using stronger interrogation techniques against an already cooperative Iraqi official, and Robert Windrem, who reports that two sources confirmed to him: 1. the suggestion was to use waterboarding; 2. it came from the Vice President’s office; 3. the purpose was to find a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.

Duelfer doesn’t exactly say that he was told to find a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. But that’s the strong suggestion of his comments, and he doesn’t object when Maddow draws that inference. (He does object to the characterization of his being ordered to use more aggressive techniques. It was more of a suggestion – one which was not acted on.)

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Historic Compromises

by Henry Farrell on May 15, 2009

I was at a conference in Italy last week, where I read as much as I can about last Saturday’s meeting, brokered by Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s President, between the widows of Giuseppe Pinelli (who, after three days of interrogation without food or sleep, either fell to his death from a window in the Milan magistracy or was pushed) and Luigi Calabresi (the magistrate who was interrogating Pinelli, and who was himself murdered a couple of years later). This hasn’t gotten any attention in the English speaking press that I can see. Still, it was a very significant event in Italian politics – an attempt by some of the parties at least to draw a close to Italy’s ‘years of lead,’ in which leftist unrest, kidnappings and murders went together with brutal state repression and tacit state help for fascists who organized large scale terrorist bombings to create the enabling conditions for a coup.1 And it is particularly interesting to me because I’ve just finished reading Phil Edwards‘s fascinating account of one very poorly understood aspect of this period – “the birth of the Autonomist left”:, and its relationship both with terrorist groups (my term, not Phil’s) and the Italian Communist Party. This is, to say the least, a very well timed publication (although Manchester University Press’s decision to print it only in an expensive and difficult-to-find hardback edition, is arguably rather less well judged). [click to continue…]

Mysteries of life

by Henry Farrell on May 14, 2009

David Brooks “ponders the human condition”:

In the late 1930s, a group of 268 promising young men, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee, entered Harvard College. By any normal measure, they had it made. … And yet the categories of journalism and the stereotypes of normal conversation are paltry when it comes to predicting a life course. Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s … The men were the subject of one of the century’s most fascinating longitudinal studies. They were selected when they were sophomores, and they have been probed, poked and measured ever since. … captured … in an essay called “What Makes Us Happy?” by Joshua Wolf Shenk in the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic. … But it’s the baffling variety of their lives that strikes one the most. It is as if we all contain a multitude of characters and patterns of behavior, and these characters and patterns are bidden by cues we don’t even hear … There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute.

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Fraudulent journalist, c’est moi

by Michael Bérubé on May 14, 2009

In January 1995 I published a little essay that almost nobody liked.  Eh, that happens sometimes.  It was a review essay on the then-recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals, and I wrote it quite simply because the <i>New Yorker</i> asked me to.  I was a newly-tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I was surprised by the request; to this day it’s the only time I’ve written for the <i>New Yorker</i>.  And then, within about three months of the thing’s appearance, a whole mess of people decided to weigh in on the work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals.  Many of those people came to the conclusion that I had done a pretty piss-poor job of writing about the recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals; the general verdict was that I had basically written a press release, a puff piece on a bunch of lightweights and/or sellouts.  But some of those people weren’t responding to me at all; they had much more important figures to go after, like Cornel West.  And it wasn’t just my little essay they were responding to; my essay was bad enough, sure, but it was compounded by the appearance, in the March 1995 <i>Atlantic</i>, of a much longer essay by Robert Boynton.  That essay was about the work of a couple of <i>other</i> African-American intellectuals, and, like my essay, it drew a loose analogy between contemporary African-American intellectuals and the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, so clearly there was some kind of conspiracy afoot.

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Futures Past – Change You Can Believe In?

by John Holbo on May 13, 2009

First: why aren’t you reading more Squid and Owl? Last week we had assassination by siege engine and undersea regicide. Now we are off on a thrilling mock-Kipling romp. You are a fool not to click.

Next: even more of those psychedelic biology scans up. This one for example: [click to continue…]