From the monthly archives:

November 2009

I know that there is some competition, but David Kopel’s “explanation”: of the minaret vote as perhaps the only plausible response that solid Swiss burghers could make to secret conspiracies and sweetheart deals between their government and the “Islamonazis of Tehran” surely ranks as the most flat-out insane Volokh Conspiracy post ever. If I were one of the saner Volokh conspiracy contributors (there are several), I would be considering as rapid and public an exit as possible to avoid reputational contamination.


by Harry on November 30, 2009

Talking of political philosophers’ job descriptions, Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (UK) has been out for a while now, but only just reviewed in the NYT (by Jonathan Rauch). It has the virtues that Sandel has honed over the years (and were notably absent from his first, influential, book): he has the remarkable ability to keep things clear and complex at the same time, and resists the temptation to repeat himself for the sake of the ungenerous or slow-witted reader. Rauch is right that the chapter on Kant is a gem, but equally striking is the chapter on Rawls which is accurate (as the earlier book wasn’t always), fair-minded, and to the point (and even, at the end, inspiring). The Economist review says, that he nudges the reader toward Aristotle, by being harder on the consequentialist and Kant-inspired accounts of justice, but that’s not really my read of the book: unless his experience has been radically different from mine, he believes that his students (and, probably, many of his readers) are unduly reluctant to incorporate a concern with personal virtue into their judgments and the book attempts to overcome that bias, putting the different accounts on a more level playing field. Every page makes some real world or literary reference that will be familiar to the non-philosophical reader. A couple of social scientist friends have recommended it to me as something to recommend to other social scientists as an excellent introduction to the field. (Update: See also George’s typically excellent critical review here).

But more to the point, his TV show is almost all up online now, free.

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Artificial Meat

by Jon Mandle on November 30, 2009

I don’t know how I missed the breakthrough in fish stick technology mentioned so casually in this article from the Sunday Times:

SCIENTISTS have grown meat in the laboratory for the first time. Experts in Holland used cells from a live pig to replicate growth in a petri dish.
The advent of so-called “in-vitro” or cultured meat could reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year by farm animals — if people are willing to eat it.
So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.
They initially extracted cells from the muscle of a live pig. Called myoblasts, these cells are programmed to grow into muscle and repair damage in animals.
The cells were then incubated in a solution containing nutrients to encourage them to multiply indefinitely. This nutritious “broth” is derived from the blood products of animal foetuses, although the intention is to come up with a synthetic solution.

The Dutch experiments follow the creation of “fish fillets” derived from goldfish muscle cells in New York and pave the way for laboratory-grown chicken, beef and lamb.

The Vegetarian Society reacted cautiously yesterday, saying: “The big question is how could you guarantee you were eating artificial flesh rather than flesh from an animal that had been slaughtered. It would be very difficult to label and identify in a way that people would trust.” Peta, the animal rights group, said: “As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection.”

That’s the “big question”? I’m guessing that Dr. Kass will find this even more repugnant than the public licking of an ice cream cone.

Minarets in Switzerland

by Kieran Healy on November 30, 2009

I hadn’t been following the story of Switzerland’s efforts to ban the construction of minarets. Switzerland has about 400,000 muslims and — though there are many mosques — precisely four minarets. The referendum succeeded by a comfortable majority. As you can see from the poster, the rights of women under Islam were pointed to as a reason to support the ban. The Guardian reports that the pro-ban SPP

said that going to the European court would breach the popular sovereignty that underpins the Swiss democratic model and tradition … It dismissed the arguments about freedom or religion, asserting that minarets were not a religious but a political symbol, and the thin end of a wedge that would bring sharia law to the country, with forced marriages, “honour” killings, female genital mutilation and oppression of women … The prohibition also found substantial support on the left and among secularists worried about the status of women in Islamic cultures. Prominent feminists attacked minarets as male power symbols, deplored the oppression of Muslim women, and urged a vote for the ban.

The Times reports that there’s some evidence that more women were in favor of the ban than men, too. One can only suppose that, having waited until 1971 to give women the vote in Federal elections, and in some parts of the country until 1990 in Cantonal elections, the Swiss are now making up for lost time making good on their commitment to feminism.

Copenhagen commitments

by John Quiggin on November 29, 2009

While Australia has been transfixed by the meltdown of the Liberal (=conservative) party over climate change, there have been a string of positive developments around the world, which make a positive outcome from Copenhagen, leading over the next year to an intermational agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, much more likely than it seemed two years ago, or even six months ago. Among the most important developments

* Obama’s commitment to a 17 per cent (rel 2005) target, which essentially puts the Administration’s credibility behind Waxman-Markey
* China’s acceptance of a quantitative emissions target, based on emissions/GDP ratios, but implying a substantial cut relative to business as usual
* The change of government in Japan, from do-little LDP to activist DPJ
* EU consensus on the need for stronger action
* Acceptance of the principle of compensation for developing countries, and acceptance by countries like India that they should take part in a global agreement and argue for compensation
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Happy Birthday, Alan Simpson.

by Harry on November 27, 2009

Alex’s mention of Hancock reminds me that Alan Simpson, half of the greatest comedy writing team in the English language ever, is 80 today. If you’re English, celebrate by watching this. If you’re American, you can watch this instead (and thank Galton and Simpson for having a deeper understanding of American culture than the network bosses who persistently rejected Redd Foxx as the star). Happy Birthday, Mr. Simpson,and thanks.

Philip who?

by Chris Bertram on November 27, 2009

My post yesterday was about how politicians seize on the academic research the suits their agenda rather than being disposed to listen to good arguments. Dog bites man, you might think. A similar phenomenon is at work in the elevation of minor academics who can give a bit of intellectual sheen to some political project or other. I was astounded, watching Newsnight a couple of evenings ago, to hear someone touted as a major British political philosopher. After all, I’ve taught the subject, in Britain, for over twenty years, and I’ve never heard of him. Of course, I might just be ignorant, and he might be a previously overlooked genius. Step forward Philip Blond, formerly a theology lecturer at the University of Cumbria and now being promoted as the philosophical voice behind David Cameron’s “new” Toryism. A brief perusal of what’s available on the web doesn’t suggest to me that I’m missing anything. But I’m often wrong, so I’m open to correction.

6 Best Fantasy Novels

by Henry on November 26, 2009

Via Tyler Cowen, Lev Grossman of _Time_ and _The Magicians_ (which I liked quite a bit, up to the end, but didn’t love) provides his personal list of the “six best fantasy novels of all time”: I’ll observe that any list of ‘best novels’ which includes one series consisting of short stories plus one to three novels, depending on how strictly you define the term (Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series) and one short story collection (Kelly Link’s _Magic for Beginners_ ) has some oddities – but since I like both of these series a lot, I shan’t raise a fuss. A thread on best fantasy novels seems like a good Thanksgiving occupation for those so inclined, so here are my 6, in no particular order.

(1) John Crowley, _Little, Big_
(2) Gene Wolfe’s _Book of the New Sun_ (critics may cavil that it is in fact Dying Earth SF, but under Michael Swanwick’s argument that fantasy, unlike science fiction, has mystery at the heart of its universe, I contend that they are wrong).
(3) Paul Park’s Romania quartet.
(4) M. John Harrison, _The Course of the Heart._
(5) China Mieville, the Bas-Lag books.
(6) Michael Swanwick, _The Iron Dragon’s Daughter_

I’ll note that this list is in many ways dull and predictable – none of these choices are likely to surprise anyone tolerably well read in the genre. But canons can have useful social purposes – they point towards books that are central to the conversation the genre is having with itself. Others should feel free to be more adventurous.

3QD Competition

by Henry on November 26, 2009

“3 Quarks Daily”: are running another competition, this time for best political post, with Tariq Ali as final adjudicator. Those so inclined should get over there and nominate. NB that this is not an implicit bleg to nominate CT posts – if you really want to, go ahead, but the major social benefit of competitions like this is to uncover posts and posters that would otherwise be unlikely to get much public attention. While CT’s readership is respectable rather than enormous, I suspect that most of the web-savvy people who would be inclined to like CT have probably already been exposed to it. Hence, any benefit that we receive is likely to be proportionately much less than would accrue to other, smaller blogs which don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve.

Ray Davies

by Jon Mandle on November 26, 2009

Okay, so he’s 65 and perhaps his voice isn’t what it once was – actually, I’m not sure his voice was ever what it once was – I haven’t seen him play live for probably 25 years, so I can’t really remember too well. But oh, those songs! He’s touring in support of a new cd called “The Kinks Choral Collection”. Some of his gigs have been with chorus, but I saw him the other day without – around 45 minutes of just him and the incredible Bill Shanley on guitar, followed by a full-on band blow-out. Amazing stuff from throughout his career – early and late Kinks along with his recent solo albums. He certainly was in fine spirits – he kept cracking himself up with lots of funny stories and interaction with the audience – and did I mention that the songs just don’t quit, although, no, he didn’t play “Thanksgiving Day.” Looks like he’s headed back across the Atlantic next month – Cambridge, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, and London. Definitely worth seeing.

Happy Thanksgiving!

by John Holbo on November 26, 2009

Ezra Klein has a bloggingheads diavwossname in which he makes – among other points – pretty much the same point he makes at the end of this column. Namely, a good diet isn’t a function of not eating a huge amount on Thanksgiving. It’s a matter of eating a little better consistently. But then he goes on to note that it’s surprisingly hard to get people really to get this, never mind actually doing it. (The major problem not being convincing people they can enjoy Thanksgiving, but making them appreciate that minor bits of diet discipline can make a major difference.) If so, it seems to follow that people are more clueless about diet than exercise. Because very few people think it makes sense to get up one morning, notice you haven’t exercised for years, and try to fix that by going to the gym for 8 hours. You could injure yourself pretty bad, true. Apart from that, one day won’t matter. But somehow the diet fix (the quick make or break) seems to have a certain fetishistic appeal. That carton of Ben & Jerry’s killed my diet! No weight-lifter ever thinks skipping bench-press for one day caused his pectorals to shrivel. Bodies don’t work like that. Or are there people out there so luckless in the metabolic department that whenever they gain a few pounds, even from a single big meal, their body sort of ratchets up and locks at that level? I do recognize that people have metabolic ‘set points’, and some folks are less lucky in that regard. Are there metabolic types such that every higher weight becomes a set point? If so, I feel sorry for you. For the rest: Happy Thanksgiving! Eat a lot! (It’s fun, and sociable!)

But you knew that already.

So what do you think: are significant numbers of people more confused about how eating works than are confused about how exercise works, in that they mistakenly believe in the quick make or break strategy?

Immigration and “impact”

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2009

The British government recently changed its immigration policy. Well, I say it changed it, but perhaps what it did or, worse, “signalled”, was to intensify its existing policy. Immigration to the UK from outside the EU is, henceforth, to be driven by the needs of the labour market. People will only be allowed in if they compensate for some skills shortage. Indeed, the committee which advises the British goverment on immigration policy is now composed exclusively of economists whose role is to tell politicians and bureaucrats when “UK plc” needs computer programmers or nurses. Of course these won’t be the only immigrants, since the UK remains a signatory of the UN Convention on Refugees, and the British government will not be able to evade its obligations in all cases of people fleeing persecution. And there will be some illegals who get through and, for one reason or another, will be able to avoid deportation.

British policy is therefore, like the policy of many other countries, based on the idea that sovereign states have the right to exclude whoever they like and that they can therefore limit inward migration to people who can benefit “us”. There’s no thought given to the rights human beings have to freedom of movement, to the benefits of allowing people to escape poverty and build new lives. No, this is our place, and we’ll let in those whom we choose to. The poor, the huddled masses, can get stuffed.

I’ve been thinking about these issues from within political philosophy for a while now. I’m not an “open borders” advocate in a completely unqualified sense, but, compared to current policy, I am as near as makes no difference. Compare me then to some other, hypothetical academic, who argues in favour of the current policy, or that Britain is “too crowded”, or that the right of freedom of association that citizens have implies the right to exclude would-be immigrant foreigners. Now there may be some intellectually respectable arguments that can be put on such lines (though I doubt it). It isn’t hard to see whose research is more likely to be picked up by politicians and cited as a rationale for what they want to do. Which brings me to the issue of “impact” and to another decision of the British government. Henceforth, research in the UK will be funded not just for its intrinsic quality but also for the benefits it is expected to bring to the wider society. Ministers and higher-education funding bureaucrats have been keen to point out that they don’t simply mean economic benefits and commercial spinoffs. No, they also want to reward research which makes a difference to public policy. Of course, I’d love it to be the case that senior politicians and civil servants read work in political philosophy and theory and, convinced by good arguments, adjust their ideas accordingly. But the cynic in me says that this isn’t what happens. Rather, the attitude that politicians have to research is to latch onto it when it supports the view they already hold and to ignore (or punish) it when it tells them something uncomfortable. Research that supports tighter border controls (or harsher drug laws) will have “impact” and research that favours more immigration or legalizing weed won’t. And the money will follow.


by John Quiggin on November 26, 2009

For anyone interested, the Liberal (=conservative) Party of Australia is imploding, in real time, on Twitter

The issue: climate change.

Update: Five shadow ministers, including the Senate Leader and Deputy Leader have resigned. All climate delusionists, who make up about half the party. Turnbull (current leader, moderate in politics but not in temperament) has announced he’s staying on, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. At least for tonight, both camps have retired to plot.

Contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake

by John Quiggin on November 26, 2009

In this Newsweek piece, Sharon Begley suggests that a failure of the Copenhagen climate talks may not be such a bad thing, but hastens to add

Seeing the failure of Copenhagen as something short of Armageddon is not contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake.

It’s good to see that reflexive contrarianism is falling into disrepute. Maybe one day we’ll see political reporters writing something like “I may not be ‘savvy’, but I call a lie when I see one”.

The Visual Display of Stupid

by Kieran Healy on November 25, 2009

Fox News Pie Chart

I’d almost be happier if this turned out to be some kind of fake. But in the meantime, while you may think of it as a badly flawed and unfair pie chart, I prefer to see it as actually just an extreme version of a genuine pie chart.