From the monthly archives:

June 2009

Helprin has got a point after all

by John Holbo on June 24, 2009

To punish myself for panning Helprin’s book without reading, I decided to go back and reread the excerpt at least. And that old op-ed. And I’ve decided: there’s more merit here than I had realized. Let me lay it out for you. (But first, ask yourself: wouldn’t you rather be reading Squid and Owl? Isn’t that a more healthful use of your time?) [click to continue…]

Digital Barbarism: Afterthoughts

by John Holbo on June 24, 2009

Henry and a few others suggested I was a bit hard on Douthat for not being hard enough on Helprin. Douthat may be guilty only of the venial sin of obligatory civility in the face of a bad book, not the mortal sin of Higher Broderism. (Although one hopes the critic’s motto is not ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’) It really was his last paragraph that set me off, and it’s worth saying why. I’ll leave Helprin and even Douthat mostly out of it. [click to continue…]

Academics Need Not Apply

by Henry on June 23, 2009

“Felix Salmon”: quotes _Economist_ American business editor (and former CT guest-blogger), Matthew Bishop.

This columnist once heard Mr Welch tell a chief executives’ boot-camp that the key was to have the compensation committee chaired by someone older and richer than you, who would not be threatened by the idea of your getting rich too. Under no circumstances, he said (the very thought clearly evoking feelings of disgust), should the committee be chaired by “anyone from the public sector or a professor”.

But it is more or less along the same lines. “Inside Higher Ed reports”:

Elsevier officials said Monday that it was a mistake for the publishing giant’s marketing division to offer $25 Amazon gift cards to anyone who would give a new textbook five stars in a review posted on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. … Here’s what the e-mail — sent to contributors to the textbook — said:

“Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card. If you have colleagues or students who would be willing to post positive reviews, please feel free to forward this e-mail to them to participate. We share the common goal of wanting Clinical Psychology to sell and succeed. The tactics defined above have proven to dramatically increase exposure and boost sales. I hope we can work together to make a strong and profitable impact through our online bookselling channels.”

.. Cindy Minor, marketing manager for science and technology at Elsevier … called the request for five star reviews “a poorly written e-mail” by “an overzealous employee.”

Douthat On Digital Barbarism

by John Holbo on June 23, 2009

Matthew Yglesias goes way too easy on Ross Douthat’s book review of Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto [amazon].

Let’s start with the book itself. It is, I gather, a grossly metastasized, page-wise, rewrite of his shockingly ignorant (it was widely and correctly noted at the time) NY Times op-ed from a couple years back, “A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn’t Its Copyright?”. And why exactly does it follow that terrible ideas deserve book deals, one might ask? (Here’s the exhaustive wiki-buttal that op-ed inspired.)

Larry Lessig wrote a long review of Barbarism last month, which he followed up here. Having not read Helprin’s book – and I even read Jonah Goldberg’s book, sweet heaven help and forgive me! – I’m not in a position to add anything except that Lessig’s response leaves me in little doubt that Helprin has contrived to learn nothing from that initial op-ed debacle. He still has no idea whatsoever what the other side’s views are, let alone what the grounds for them might be. (I guess there’s something inadvertently apt about the ‘barbarism’ in his title, if it’s true that the term derives from some Proto-Indo-European speaker’s sense that foreigners are just going ‘bar-bar’, not actually saying anything.) [click to continue…]

Coconut Records

by John Holbo on June 23, 2009

I think the new Coconut Records album, Davy, is Beatlesesque (but less utterly brilliant), Elliott Smithish (but less pained), Weezerlike (but less New Wave ironic-astringent) – and several other things I can’t quite put my finger on – power pop jingle-jangly loud-soft goodness and wholesomeness and not excessive smartypantsness. It’s somewhat better than the new Bishop Allen album Grrrr (just for comparison purposes to something obscure in the general vicinity.) Coconut Records is a solo project by Jason “you saw him first in Rushmore” Schwartzman, formerly of the band Phantom Planet. I mention all this because Amazon has <em>Davy</em> on sale for $1.99 for the next several hours or so. [UPDATE: sale’s over. Sorry.] (Here’s the myspace page.)

Davy is assisting me in the performance of various repetitive tasks today, by letting my mind clack happy through the CD racks of memory, trying to pin down all the little influences. And it’s well produced.

I also like the new Bishop Allen album Grrr pretty well. I mention that because I feel they have been unfairly abused by Pitchfork, which has gotta hurt. Grrr definitely deserves better than a pitiful 3.5. I give it a 7. “The Ancient Commonsense Of Things” is damn catchy. (Myspace page here.)

Economics as Sociology’s Other

by Henry on June 22, 2009

“Fabio Rojas”: is annoyed at how economists are not only the unwitting slaves of the ideas of defunct sociologists, but are in denial about it. On the one hand, I think that this is unobjectionably true (and I note in passing that Fabio is notably friendlier than many sociologists to economic theory). I was at a meeting of the International Society of the New Institutional Economics some years ago (which you would _think_ should be as sociology-friendly as an economics gathering could get), where Avner Greif gave a keynote address telling those gathered that game theory really was a subset of sociological inquiry, and that everyone should be reading Durkheim and Weber. The collective response to this claim could not readily have been described as enthusiastic.

But on the other, I find myself equally peeved by the ways in which sociologists react to economics and rational choice theory. [click to continue…]

Toward a Humanist Justice

by Harry on June 22, 2009

Toward a Humanist Justice, a collection of critical essays on the work of Susan Moller Okin edited by my friends Debra Satz and Rob Reich, has just been published. The essays were first presented at a conference in honour of Okin organized at Stanford shortly after her death (which we reported here), and the book includes essays by Alison Jaggar, Joshua Cohen, Cass Sunstein, Mary Lyndon Shanley, the late Iris Young, David Miller, and others. One of the big problems with collections like this, focused on a single person’s work and deriving from a conference, is that they can be very disparate. Unlike a volume conceived around a single theme or problem, it is very hard to discipline contributors, and the contributors themselves are invited to the conference for a variety of reasons which include deep personal connections to the subject of the conference, a consideration which is sometimes, and not wrongly, given more weight than consistent engagement with the themes of that person’s work. The difficulty arises when it comes to the volume, and the editors don’t dare to dis-include those papers which don’t really belong in a unitary collection (I hereby request any editors who ever feel awkwardness about dis-inviting me in such a situation – which I can envisage arising – to be frank with me without any fear of me being even mildly irritated). So it really is a delight to find no such problem with the volume – not only are the essays all on central themes in Okin’s work, but they are well written (or well edited, you can never be sure) and all that I have read are very good indeed.

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A 60 minute interview between rockumentarian Peter Curran and the boys, here, celebrating the release of their not-yet-posthumous, Back from the Dead. Unmissable.

Torture in the Algerian War

by Henry on June 20, 2009

Via “Arthur Goldhammer”:, this is a “very interesting post”:

The French military tortured systematically from the beginning to the end of the war, most spectacularly during the “Battle of Algiers” in 1957. They used all the classic methods: electricity, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual torture and rape. …The FLN’s use of terrorism — in particular their targeting of European civilians at popular clubs, bars, and so on in urban bombing campaigns — served as the rationale for this “exhaustive interrogation” of “suspects.” … The Algerian War was a war of independence, a war of decolonization. In that sense, it cannot and should not be understood as analogous to, or a direct precursor to, the United States’ “war on terror.”

As an American today, what I find really significant about the use of torture in the Algerian War is what it did to *France*, which underwent a profound crisis of democracy as it attempted to hold on to Algeria. … what torture did do was poison the public sphere: to conceal the fact that the military was torturing, French governments turned to censorship, seizure of publications deemed deleterious to the honor and reputation of the Army, paralyzing control over the movements of journalists, and prosecution of those who nevertheless continued to publish evidence that torture was going on. … The reason all the government censorship was necessary was that a small but incredibly passionate, intellectually high-powered anti-torture movement developed in France from late 1956. … historical comparison can function as illuminating intellectual practice. … cell phone cameras really changed the world. Because the main reason the French torture-defenders didn’t argue that stuff like simulated drowning was no big deal was because *they didn’t have to: they didn’t have to admit simulated drowning was happening AT ALL.* In the absence of certain forms of highly-circulated, red-handed visual evidence, like the Abu Ghraib photos in Bush-era America, “deny, deny, deny” (even if massive, overwhelming proof actually does exist) remains a plausible public-relations strategy. … Denial that these things happened at all, which will always be the first line of defense, is no longer possible. And that is encouraging, despite everything.

Miracles of modern journalism

by John Quiggin on June 20, 2009

The sacking of Dan Froomkin by the Washington Post reminds me of something attributed (IIRC) to Auberon Waugh on being told that Randolph Churchill had undergone the surgical removal of a tumour that turned out not to be malignant.

It is a marvel of medical science that they could first locate the one part of Randolph that was not malignant, and, having found it, immediately remove it

More from the ever-growing Wapo fan club.

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xkcd rocks

by Eszter Hargittai on June 19, 2009

I don’t always get xkcd although often enough I think it’s quite funny and on occasion I think it’s just brilliant. Here’s one I’m surprised my students haven’t put on a T-shirt for me yet. And you might recall our CT discussion of this one. Today, Randall Munroe has added another to my collection of favorites, check it out. (I even forgive him for a slight misspelling at the end. I won’t get into specifics, because it would be a spoiler. See the first comment below for more. UPDATE an hour later: typo I write about has been fixed.:)

You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it

by Michael Bérubé on June 18, 2009

… as, for example, when the conversation is <a href=””>an exchange between Gail Collins and David Brooks</a> on “Guns, Gays and Abortion” that begins,

<blockquote><b>Gail Collins:</b>  David, can we talk hot-button social issues for a second? I know this is not really an area where you fly the conservative colors, but <i>you’re the go-to guy on how America lives</i>, and I’d like to hear your thoughts even if we can’t work up a fight.</blockquote>

This just makes me want to lie down on top of the <a href=””>Applebee’s salad bar</a> and never get up again.

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Utopophobia and Other Freedom Beefs

by John Holbo on June 18, 2009

Thanks for those podcast links to the talks from the Cohen conference, Harry. Very interesting. Let me talk briefly about one. David Estlund’s paper on “Utopophobia” – which, I see, is also available as a PDF download in draft form. The title gives you the right general idea about the topic: why are people hostile to utopian thinking – to ‘ideal theory’ in political theory and philosophy? To what degree is such hostility justified; to what degree unjustified?

It’s a good paper.

Let me begin with a mild expression of total difference of opinion. Estlund naturally addresses the concern that ideal theory is a waste of time because it’s useless. ‘It’s never gonna happen.’ He makes a comparison to higher mathematics, which is also generally acknowledged to be pretty inapplicable to anything that might be empirically real. He doesn’t push this analogy, so it’s not like weight is resting on it. Still, it seems to me so much more natural to say that ‘ideal theory’, if useless, is probably useless in the way a painstakingly-constructed model train system in your basement is useless – or that writing Mary Sue-style fanfic about the Form of the Good is useless. That is, it’s a rather indulgent, mostly harmless private make-believe sort of affair, but really not much like higher mathematics, honestly. I guess I’m impressed that you could be enough of a Platonist about it to presume the higher maths angle, in passing, with all the attendant implications of precision and purity and truth. (As someone who just wrote a book about Plato, part of me is happy that the old ways never die. But the part of me that is a die-hard later Wittgensteinian can only shake its head in wonder that the old ways never die. Back to the rough ground!)

Right. That’s out of the way. (You can’t refute an incredulous stare, nor does one count as an objection. We’re done.) Overall, it seems to me that Estlund says a lot of smart stuff that is relatively small-bore – stuff about how certain applications of ‘ought implies can’ can be fallacious. I found myself nodding and saying: ‘yes, I never noticed that before. It seems right.’ So: good. But these generally good points don’t feel large enough, in the aggregate, to cover the grand area staked out by the title: “Utopophobia”.

Estlund makes one good point that might be grand enough. But I think it needs amplification. And he leaves a really big point out. I’m going to use that as an excuse to tell jokes. [click to continue…]

John Ensign on Marriage

by Harry on June 16, 2009

Its good to see that John Ensign is consistent on the issues: voting for a constitutional ban on marriage for same sex couples, and taking direct action against the institution of marriage for opposite-sex couples.