From the monthly archives:

August 2009

Signing Off

by Conor Foley on August 31, 2009

We had a new addition to the family at the weekend, which is going to make it quite difficult for me to post anything more in the near future.

Picture 036

Daniel Foley arrived at 5.15 am on Saturday 29 August. He weighs just over 3 kg and is about 51 cm. Despite his size, the birth was quick and completely natural. Daniel slept through the first night from 9.30 pm – 5 am and then gurgled a bit to tell us he wanted to be fed. He is huge, healthy, has blue eyes and seems very peaceful. He is already breaking many Brazilian and Irish hearts.

Thanks for having me here. Crooked Timber encapsulates the best traditions of blogging and debate. I have discovered to my cost that there are some truly dire political websites out there and there is something profoundly depressing about watching those who want to cram all of the world’s complexities into a single, simplistic ideological viewpoint. I hope my son will grow up to understand the values of liberal diversity, listening to other viewpoints, critical inquiry, human compassion and honesty. I hope that his world will also be more peaceful than the one that we have lived through in recent years.

A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!

The Problem Being ???

by Henry on August 30, 2009

The “Washington Post”: cites worries among intelligence officials:

A. B. “Buzzy” Krongard, the third-ranking CIA official at the time of the use of harsh interrogation practices, said that although vigorous oversight is crucial, the public airing of once-classified internal assessments and the prospect of further investigation are damaging the agency. “Morale at the agency is down to minus 50,” he said.

… Krongard, one of the few active or retired CIA officers with direct knowledge of the program willing to voice publicly what many officers are saying privately, said agency personnel now may back away from controversial programs that could place them in personal legal jeopardy should their work be exposed. “The old saying goes, ‘Big operation, big risk; small operation, small risk; no operation, no risk.’ ”

“If you’re not in the intelligence business to be forward-leaning, you might as well not be in it,” Krongard said.

‘Forward-leaning’ in this context being a rather transparent euphemism for being ‘willing to break the laws forbidding torture of captives.’

There is of course a case that relatively low ranking CIA officers should not be prosecuted for torture while the high officials that ordered them to torture, or provided flimsy legal justifications for torture (or perhaps indeed encouraged them to go beyond the guidances provided) get off scot free. But I think that the pragmatic case that these officers should be prosecuted is a stronger one; on two grounds.

First, and most obviously, bringing these cases to trial may lead to the uncovering of new evidence. The most obvious defense open to these officers is that they were indeed only following legally mandated instructions – and it seems at least plausible to me (as a non-lawyer) that a judge will be more likely to allow discovery on potentially exculpatory evidence for these officers than for other potential plaintiffs, such as those who were in fact the victims of this torture. This is of course screwed up – but it is (as best as I can tell) part of the legal culture of this country. This evidence might perhaps (not very likely, given politics – but then I would not have predicted Holder’s decision a month ago) lead to the prosecution of high level officials who were more directly involved in creating the policies in question and possibly encouraging their underlings to go beyond even these policies.

Second, the more cautious that low-ranking CIA officers are about breaking the laws criminalizing torture in future, the better. I _want_ them to be worried that they will be hung out and left to dry by their political masters if they break the law. This will give them a strong rationale to say no, the next time that they are asked to, and at least partially reshape the incentive structure in benign ways. There is something rather obviously fucked up about a political culture in which high ranking officials can make the opposite claim – that we want intelligence officers to be able to break the law by torturing people, and that not giving them this license ‘lowers morale.’ But you would not know that from reading the _Washington Post._

Three weeks ago Megan McArdle was annoyed. Have you ever noticed how health care reform proponents act as though there’s deep wisdom in reminding us that there is going to be rationing one way or another? “This is one of the things that most puzzles me about the health care debate: statements that would strike almost anyone as stupid in the context of any other good suddenly become dazzling insights when they’re applied to hip replacements and otitis media.” I – and otherspointed out that there were problems with McArdle’s use of the word ‘ration’. Without missing a beat, McArdle has moved on to being impressed by the deep wisdom of the thought that (envelope please): there is going to be rationing one way or another. She muses about the ironic circumstance that no one wants to utter the r-word and – long story short – ends by suggesting that reformers are particularly remiss in this regard. They want the fact that there is going to be rationing, one way or another, to be invisible. Have you ever noticed this about health care reform proponents?

Silly reformers. [click to continue…]

Saving the cat

by John Quiggin on August 28, 2009

Quite a while ago, I raised a question about the practical implications of the “rapture” doctrine, held by large numbers of evangelicals.

Do they install automatic watering systems for their gardens and arrange for unsaved neighbours to feed the cat? Or do they just pay into their IRAs as if they expect the world to last forever?

Now it appears, some enterprising atheists have set up a service addressing one of the problems I raised. In the event of rapture, they guarantee that , assured of being left behind, they will look after the pets of those who are taken up. (video here)

Some amateur voting theory

by John Quiggin on August 28, 2009

As I mentioned, I’m at a conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice. Attending a session on experiments in voting theory (some very interesting ones for which I will try to find links) I started thinking about a case for Instant Runoff/Single Transferable/Preferential systems (like many Australians I’m a big fan of this system which works well for us, with none of the disasters we’ve seen produced in the US and UK by plurality voting). For those interested, an outline of an idea is over the fold. It’s not my field, so I’m quite prepared to be told my argument is wrong, well-known or both.

Note 29/8 I initially put up this post with another, related, claim, convinced myself that this claim was wrong, and deleted it, leaving the post as a placeholder until I could do something better. The first few comments refer to this.

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Turning Japanese

by John Quiggin on August 28, 2009

I’ve been in Japan for the last few days, at a conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice where, among other things, we’ve had some interesting discussions on electoral mechanisms. Meanwhile, Japan appears to be on the verge of tipping out the almost-permanent LDP government.

But, as a (non-Japanese speaking) visitor, I can hardly tell there was an election on. I’ve seen no rallies or badges, only a handful of posters and one loudspeaker truck, with a decidedly non-strident woman’s voice issuing what may have been a political message. The English language media I have access to (Asahi Shimbun and so on) has been giving the election about the level of coverage I’d expect for a boring state election at home. I’ll give some very ill-informed thoughts over the fold, but can readers say anything from their own knowledge, or point to useful sources?

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by Conor Foley on August 27, 2009

I spoke at a seminar on UN peace-keeping a couple of weeks ago. Here is the text of my paper:

I lived in Afghanistan for a year and a half in 2003/2004 and returned there twice in 2008: the first time to do some research for the Overseas Development Institute on how humanitarian agencies were dealing with the deteriorating security situation and the second time for an evaluation of the Italian government’s justice sector reforms. I have written a Guide to Afghan Property Law and a chapter on Afghanistan in a book on UN peace-keeping missions, with particular reference to the restoration of housing, land and property rights. My own book on humanitarian interventions also has a chapter on Afghanistan.

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Incompetence as a Signalling Device

by Henry on August 26, 2009

“Scott”: has a great short piece at _IHE_ on Gambetta’s book on communication among criminals, which _inter alia_ summarizes Gambetta’s theory of the signalling benefits of incompetence in Italian academia.

bq. Gambetta argues that something similar takes place among the _baroni_ (barons) who oversee the selection committees involved in Italian academic promotions. While some fields are more meritocratic than others, he says, the struggle for advancement involves a great deal of horse trading. “The barons operate on the basis of a pact of reciprocity, which requires a lot of trust, for debts are repaid years later. …The most powerful figures in this system, says Gambetta, tend to be the least intellectually distinguished. … “… and this is what is the most intriguing, they do not try to hide their weakness. One has the impression that they almost flaunt it in personal contacts.” … Gambetta argues that the cheerful incompetence of the _baroni_ is akin to the mafioso’s way of signaling that he can be “trusted” within his narrowly predatory limits.

bq. “Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message _I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else._ In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity…. In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.”

The Impact Factor’s Matthew Effect

by Kieran Healy on August 26, 2009

Via Cosma, comes the following article:

Since the publication of Robert K. Merton’s theory of cumulative advantage in science (Matthew Effect), several empirical studies have tried to measure its presence at the level of papers, individual researchers, institutions or countries. However, these studies seldom control for the intrinsic “quality” of papers or of researchers–“better” (however defined) papers or researchers could receive higher citation rates because they are indeed of better quality. Using an original method for controlling the intrinsic value of papers–identical duplicate papers published in different journals with different impact factors–this paper shows that the journal in which papers are published have a strong influence on their citation rates, as duplicate papers published in high impact journals obtain, on average, twice as much citations as their identical counterparts published in journals with lower impact factors. The intrinsic value of a paper is thus not the only reason a given paper gets cited or not; there is a specific Matthew effect attached to journals and this gives to paper published there an added value over and above their intrinsic quality.

The full paper has some more detail. Duplicates are defined as those papers published in different journals but which nevertheless have the same title, the same first author, and the same number of cited references. With this definition the authors find 4,532 pairs of duplicates in the Web of Science database across the sciences and social sciences. (This is a pretty striking finding in itself.) Remember that the impact factor of a journal is meant to be a (weighted) product of the number of citations to articles in that journal — i.e., a journal’s prestige is a function of the quality of the articles appearing in it. But here we see that, for the same papers, the impact factor of the journal affects the citation rate of the paper. The mechanism is straightforward, but it’s neat to see it shown this way.

(Appropriately enough, I have posted this at both Crooked Timber and OrgTheory. We’ll see which one gets the links and comments.)

The Market for Predictions

by Henry on August 25, 2009

Andrew Gelman and John Sides have a “very good piece”: at the _Boston Review_ on the reasons why journalists and pundits got so much about the 2008 presidential election wrong, with responses by Rick Perlstein, Mark Schmitt and others. In their response to the response, John and Andrew say:

bq. Will these efforts get political scientists invited to Joe Scarborough’s kaffeeklatsch? Probably not. The media ecology fetishizes novelty in reporting and certainty in commentary. And yet the academic study of elections shows that what is certain is almost never new, and what is new is almost never certain. We might only bore Fox & Friends with our scholarly qualifications and caveats, or simply look foolish trying to present our research in soundbites. [click to continue…]

Bookblogging: Failure of the Great Moderation

by John Quiggin on August 24, 2009

Another section of the Great Moderation chapter from my book. I’m getting a lot of value from the comments, both favorable and critical, so please keep them coming.

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Para Ingles Ver

by Conor Foley on August 23, 2009

I am reading two great books about Brazil at the moment. Teresa Caldeira’s City of walls: crime segregation and citizenship and Sarah Hautzinger’s Violence in the city of women: police and batterers in Bahia, Brazil.

The latter book tells the story of Brazil’s all-women police stations. Hautzinger spent some time living in a favela to research it and she remembers in her encounters with foreign journalists:

It became clear that they had hoped I would regale them with bloodcurdling brutalizing horrors, confirming their expectations of the exotic barbarity of Latin American men and the overall gravity of gender-based violence in Brazil that could necessitate all-female police stations. . . . This work approaches violence’s significance for gendered power relations as being far more complex than has been commonly recognized and advocates distinguishing between contrasting dynamics of violence as well as how they fit into global, national and regional historical processes. . . . Preventing violence requires more than punishment. . . . . Moreover criminalization-centered responses are inadvertently elitist, benefiting white and middle class women at the expense of poor and working class women and women of color who are more reluctant to involve police because of perceived bias.

Caldeira’s book is more difficult to summarize, but is basically about the impact that the rise in violent crime has had on Brazilian society as a whole. The following quote gives some idea of her approach:

The talk of crime promotes a symbolic reorganization of a world disrupted both by the increase in crime and by a series of processes that have profoundly affected Brazilian society in the last few decades. These processes include political democratization and persistent high inflation, economic recession, and the exhaustion of a model of development based on nationalism, import substitution, protectionism and state-sponsored economic development. Crime offers the imagery with which to express feelings of loss and social decay generated by these other processes and to legitimate the reaction adopted by many residents: private security to ensure isolation, enclosure and distancing from those considered dangerous
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Sunday picture

by Eszter Hargittai on August 23, 2009

Old postcards

My paternal grandmother, who was born in 1908 and died in 1988, used to have this collection of three postcards (?) up on her wall. I recently saw it at my parents’ place and requested that I take it with me so I could put it up in my home. It reminds me of my grandmother whom I loved dearly (and whom, as you can probably tell from the above dates, I knew for all too brief a part of my life). On the back, my grandmother wrote: Graz 1926-27. There is also some hard-to-read handwriting on the front that you can see on the image. Only recently did I stop to look at the pictures individually. For me, their entire meaning comes from my memories associated with them as a whole.

Various Visuals

by John Holbo on August 23, 2009

I like this Flickr set of album covers reimagined as Pelican paperbacks:


Also, I have an invented a test. First, view this image. Now check under the fold for the answer. [click to continue…]

Here’s something I didn’t post about last week because CT was so intermittent that I just didn’t get around to it. Megan McArdle responded to my critiques of her. Well, responded might be too strong. Reacted. She spends so much time speculating deeply about my apparently quite shallow motives that she doesn’t really get around to considering my argument. [click to continue…]