From the monthly archives:

December 2010

The end of Kodachrome

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2010

As mentioned in comments to a post the other day, Kodachrome is coming to an end on Thursday. The New York Times has a nice article about it. Of course this isn’t the end for film, or even of slide film (there’s still Velvia and a few other options). Kodachrome was always an unusual and capital intensive process. I was struck by the following sentence from the article: “At the peak, there were about 25 labs worldwide that processed Kodachrome.” That’s a very very small number for the _peak_ . There are probably still many thousands of labs that will develop colour print (C41) film and probably dozens even in the UK that will handle the more common transparency process (E6). Still, RIP.

UPDATE! – “More from NYT”: , with pictures!

Kindle, Kraken and Page Numbers

by John Holbo on December 30, 2010

I got an iPad for X-Mas so – finally! – I can get in on this e-book thing. I bought Quiggin’s Zombie Economics. Also, Mieville’s Kraken. Now I’m thinking about writing: Krakenomics: How Really Big Things Can Drag Down You, And Everyone You Love, To The Very Bottom, And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It, Probably. “Chapter 1: Shit Creek and the Paddle – Learning To Love Learned Helplessness”. Or something like that. But I’m too lazy to write it, so you write it. Also, I haven’t even read the Mieville yet, so what do I know?

But I’m thinking about quoting our John in something I’m writing (yes, on Zizek). But I can’t footnote a Kindle edition. No pages. What will the world come to? Bibliography has gotten a bit old and odd in the head in the age of the internet, but the existence of pages themselves is kind of a watershed. On the one hand, there’s really no reason why a text that can be poured into a virtual vessel as easily as it can be inspirited into the corpse of a tree should have to have ‘pages’. Still, it’s traditional. Harumph. I suppose I’m going to have to use Amazon’s ‘search inside’ or Google Books and pretend I read the paper version, as a proper scholar would. Or just email John Q. and ask.

What “lump of energy” fallacy?

by Chris Bertram on December 29, 2010

Brad DeLong has just posted “a couple of links”: to articles that attack “an article by David Owen in the New Yorker [subscription required]”: Owen’s article relied heavily on the claim that increased energy efficiency doesn’t really deliver the hoped-for environmental benefits, because of something called the “rebound effect”. Here’s an explanation of that effect “by James Barrett”: in one of the linked pieces:

bq. In essence the rebound effect is the fact that as energy efficiency goes up, using energy consuming products becomes less expensive, which in turn leads us to consume more energy. Jevons’ claim was that this rebound effect would be so large that increasing energy efficiency would not decrease energy use….

Owen’s critics say that although the rebound effect is real, whether it is large enough to have the effects Owen claims is an empirical matter, and they are sceptical. Basically, they argue that the increase in energy consumption is not just down to lower prices but also to greater wealth, house size, etc. and so without greater efficiency, we might be consuming a whole lot more energy than we actually are. Basically: it all depends on the facts, and the jury’s out.

Ok, so now let’s do a little substitution in that sentence quoted earlier.
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Cognition and Comic Sans

by Kieran Healy on December 29, 2010

Here’s a paper that will provoke a wave of denial in type nerds everywhere. Short version: setting information in hard-to-read fonts, including Comic Sans Italic, led to better retention amongst research subjects because of “disfluency”. When you have to work harder to read it, you remember it better.

Abstract: Previous research has shown that disfluency – the subjective experience of difficulty associated with cognitive operations – leads to deeper processing. Two studies explore the extent to which this deeper processing engendered by disfluency interventions can lead to improved memory performance. Study 1 found that information in hard-to-read fonts was better remembered than easier to read information in a controlled laboratory setting. Study 2 extended this finding to high school classrooms. The results suggest that superficial changes to learning materials could yield significant improvements in educational outcomes.

In the meantime, you can pry this Scala Regular from my cold, dead hands.

Partisan centrism

by Henry Farrell on December 28, 2010

_Mirabile dictu,_ Clive Crook writes an “op-ed on partisanship”: that is largely unobjectionable.

bq. Just before Christmas, a group of self-styled moderates launched a campaign against “hyper-partisanship”. The group calls itself No Labels. “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America,” says their website.

bq. … I have another suggestion. No Ideas. Or how about: No Point? Would that be dull enough? Washington’s partisan warriors of left and right ridicule moderates as unprincipled or clueless or both. Splitting the difference does not give you the right answer, they say. Once in a while, in fact, it might – but in general the partisans are right about this, and the No Labels crowd is the proof. In a system that requires opposing sides to deal with each other – and a divided Congress is one such system – a polite exchange of views certainly helps. But there is no reason to think that the mid-point between fundamentally irreconcilable positions has any merit, even if you can say what the mid-point is, which you usually cannot.

bq. US centrists, if any still exist, need some policies and a willingness to defend them, not rules of etiquette. The middle is not an ideology-free zone, where you see “what’s best for America” the moment you take off your partisan goggles. Nothing is resolved by asking: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Centrism needs an ideology, too – the more strident, the better. Without one, it is empty. It is No Labels. What does such an ideology look like? Strange to say, but the US might need to look to Europe to remind itself. The classic form, and the template for subsequent variants, is the celebrated “social market” model of West German chancellor Ludwig Erhard and his disciples, which produced Germany’s postwar economic miracle: in a nutshell, it is social insurance plus economic liberty. It is a fundamentally pro-capitalist worldview, with an ambitious though narrowly defined role for government.

I imagine that defending such an ideology, in terms “the more strident the better,” would suit Crook far better than the plague-on-both-your-houses-but-really-on-the-vile-leftist-extremists stuff that he has shovelled out in enormous quantities in past op-eds. Crook is not, and never has been a commentator aloof from politics. He is, baldly speaking, an ideological hack. But as Max Weber “tells us at length”:, there is _nothing inherently wrong_ with being a demagogue or ideological hack if you are a politician in a democratic state. It is notable that Weber singles out journalism as a particularly important form of political practice.

bq. To take a stand, to be passionate–ira et studium–is the politician’s element, and above all the element of the political leader. His conduct is subject to quite a different, indeed, exactly the opposite, principle of responsibility from that of the civil servant. … The honor of the political leader, of the leading statesman … lies precisely in an exclusive personal responsibility for what he does, a responsibility he cannot and must not reject or transfer. It is in the nature of officials of high moral standing to be poor politicians, and above all, in the political sense of the word, to be irresponsible politicians. In this sense, they are politicians of low moral standing, such as we unfortunately have had again and again in leading positions. … Since the time of the constitutional state, and definitely since democracy has been established, the ‘demagogue’ has been the typical political leader in the Occident. The distasteful flavor of the word must not make us forget that not Cleon but Pericles was the first to bear the name of demagogue. … Modern demagoguery also makes use of oratory, even to a tremendous extent, if one considers the election speeches a modern candidate has to deliver. But the use of the printed word is more enduring. The political publicist, and above all the journalist, is nowadays the most important representative of the demagogic species.

If one is engaging in demagogic journalism, it is much better to do so openly and forthrightly than to waver back and forth as convenience dictates between directly ideological attacks on one’s opponents and pretenses that one is above it all. The guff at the end of Crook’s piece about Democrats “flirting with straightforward anti-capitalism” is much easier (for me at least) to take as standard partisan rhetoric than as pronunciations from on high. Crook has directly and frankly identified himself with a partisan position, albeit one on behalf of a party that does not yet exist. And he is (as a good partisan should), doing his best to make the case for his own party by doing down its electoral rivals.

And while I am not sure that Crook’s partisanship could ever be fully realized (I do not know that there is sufficient political basis to create a US political party on its basis with even a limited degree of mass appeal), it still seems to me to be one that could appeal to a significant chunk of the intelligentsia. It is plausible that people, ranging from, say, Brad DeLong on the left to, say, Bruce Bartlett on the right could plausibly sign up to something like German Christian Democracy even if they would quite possibly have many other reasons to fight amongst each other like cats and dogs.

The military failure machine

by John Q on December 27, 2010

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the NYT putting forward the heretical idea that the US should spend less on the military and more on diplomacy and education. The argument is obviously right as far as it goes, but it leaves one big question unasked. An obvious reason for the focus on military spending is that Americans have massive confidence in their military and much less in their education system, particularly the public school systems.

Yet judged by results, the opposite should surely be the case. Why is this so?

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by John Holbo on December 27, 2010

Well, X-Mas was wonderful and several members of Belle’s family even came to Singapore for the season. But now several folks have gotten sick and, frankly, the house looks like Santa’s sleigh attempted an emergency landing inside the triage tent of a field hospital. Plus I have a paper to write and a course to prepare. How’s by you?

While we are on the subject of sf and various verb tenses and implied points in time at which it may be proper, or not, to locate narrative action, I see that the thrilling sequel to The Incredible Change-Bots is coming soon! Read the thrilling preview to the thrilling sequel while you await it’s release. Incredible Change-Bots 2: the Vengeful Return of the Broken! Or buy the original, which is reasonably priced (although it’s probably too late to buy it as a stocking-stuffer).

Wikileaks: A Modest Defence

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2010

Gideon Rachman wrote a somewhat arch “article”:,s01=1.html#axzz182N9peXP last week, suggesting that the US should give Julian Assange a medal for “inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy.” I wasn’t really convinced by his argument (I am far from sure that he was fully convinced himself), but “this Bloomberg piece”: perhaps suggests a more convincing justification.

bq. Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow newspaper controlled by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and billionaire Alexander Lebedev, said it agreed to join forces with WikiLeaks to expose corruption in Russia.

bq. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which publishes secret government and corporate documents online, has materials specifically about Russia that haven’t been published yet and Novaya Gazeta will help make them public, the newspaper said on its website today. “Assange said that Russians will soon find out a lot about their country and he wasn’t bluffing,” Novaya Gazeta said. “Our collaboration will expose corruption at the top tiers of political power. No one is protected from the truth.”

I’ve been reading Evgeny Morozov’s “forthcoming book”: on how the Internet _doesn’t_ release magically sparkling freedom-and-democracy ponies that transform autocracies into thriving civil societies etc, which has an interesting discussion of Russia. As Morozov notes, there is relatively little active censorship of the Internet in Russia. Instead, authorities rely on friendly websites that they can rely on to pump out useful disinformation. They can also lean on Russian’s widespread (and partially justified – if I had been the victim of Sachs, Shleifer & co’s experiments in creating a market in a vacuum, I would not have warm fuzzy feelings myself) distrust of information and policy prescriptions from the West, to prevent alternative accounts from leaking through from international media. The result is a country where the government is usually able to shape public debate with a high degree of success. Alternative viewpoints are not so much censored as shouted down.

But Wikileaks – precisely because the US government hates it so vociferously – arguably has much better street-cred than any number of Western-funded civil society grouplets. It doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a US front group . The plausible result is that Russians may be more inclined to trust it than foreign funded media, or, perhaps, domestic news sources which are too obviously biased in favor of the government.

None of which is to say that such trust would be entirely justified if it is given. Precisely because Wikileaks seems independent, it is likely to present irresistible temptations to e.g. intelligence agencies as a laundry-shop for information and disinformation. Nor, for that matter, is Lebedev devoid of political self-interest. But if Wikileaks succeeded in either becoming a major news source in itself, or of transferring some of its legitimacy to news sources which relied on information from it, it would help inject a little diversity into Russian public debate. Not that the US government should be giving it medals still – this would obviously be self-defeating. But to the extent that the US wants to see some opening up of kleptocracies like Russia, it might, in the long run, tacitly end up preferring a world with Wikileaks to one without it.

The Christmas sermon

by Daniel on December 22, 2010

Another year over, and what have we done? Once more, I muse philosophically on matters of risk and return, at annoying length (at least I cut out the footnotes this year). But first, perhaps, a little quasi-seasonal story:

The Great Homeopathic Cocktail Bar
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Two weeks ago I noted that G.K. Chesterton had written a novel that is, as it were, the limit case of sf. A futuristic exploration of the hypothesis that nothing much will change, scientifically. I just noticed that, in What’s Wrong With The World (1910), he offers a bit of theory on the subject.

The modern man no longer presents the memoirs of his great grandfather; but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great-grandson. Instead of trembling before the specters of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn. This spirit is apparent everywhere, even to the creation of a form of futurist romance. Sir Walter Scott stands at the dawn of the nineteenth century for the novel of the past; Mr. H. G. Wells stands at the dawn of the twentieth century for the novel of the future. The old story, we know, was supposed to begin: “Late on a winter’s evening two horsemen might have been seen—.” The new story has to begin: “Late on a winter’s evening two aviators will be seen—.” The movement is not without its elements of charm; there is something spirited, if eccentric, in the sight of so many people fighting over again the fights that have not yet happened; of people still glowing with the memory of tomorrow morning. A man in advance of the age is a familiar phrase enough. An age in advance of the age is really rather odd.

It is amusing to imagine all sf novels written in the future tense, as if their authors were squabbling prophets.

Kissinger and Realism

by Henry Farrell on December 21, 2010

Stephen Walt “argues”: _contra_ Michael Gerson that Henry Kissinger’s remarks on the Soviet Union, Jews and gas chambers have nothing to do with foreign policy ‘realism.’ While I’m all for kicking Michael Gerson at every possible opportunity, I think that he’s closer to the truth on this specific question than Walt is.

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Cathy Malkasian’s Temperance

by John Holbo on December 20, 2010

Here’s another best of 2010 comics entry for you. Cathy Malkasian’s Temperance [amazon] is like Franz Kafka’s The Castle meets Little House On the Prairie and goes drinking. No, it’s like rewriting Pinocchio as several Flannery O’Connor short stories, including (but not limited to) “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and “Good Country People”. No, that’s not it either. Good thing there’s an 18-page preview from Fantagraphics (pdf). And here’s a very interesting interview with the author. She talks about how, in a strange way, this whole phantasmagoric nightmare tale is a meditation on the virtue of moderation. Strangely, that seems right.

A couple years ago I reviewed Malkasian’s first book, Percy Gloom, and said I liked it but felt the author could do even better. Well, I think Temperance is better. It’s not as funny. Percy was funny. But it feels – full and complete – whereas Percy felt like it wanted to be bigger and more serious, but wasn’t, and was sort of trying to compensate for that with the funny bits. Looking back, I notice that I said Percy Gloom – the character, an ‘aspiring cautionary writer’ – was a cross between Kafka’s Hunger Artist and Elmer Fudd. I probably should have added that he’s also a cross between Charlie Brown and the protagonist of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. If they went to Oz. At any rate, I am consistent in my sense that, somehow, Malkasian is Americanizing the Kafkaesque. Or perhaps I am merely so impoverished, adjectivally, that I fall back on that last refuge of the inarticulate scoundrel: ‘Kafkaesque’. Anyway, it’s weird as hell. This stuff.

Urasawa’s Pluto

by John Holbo on December 19, 2010

I haven’t made a proper top 10 list, but – were I to do so – the project would be greatly simplified by the consideration that Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto [amazon] series – eight volumes – would leave me with only a few slots still to fill. This is translated manga, credited as Urasawa x Tezuka, because Urasawa is re-telling/re-envisioning a classic Astro Boy story arc, “The Greatest Robot On Earth”, from the 50’s. The original was typically silly and fun, yet earnest, in that early Tezuka way. You can get a nice reprint of that here [amazon] – but read the Urasawa first, because it is retold as a mystery, and reading the original will actually give away the surprising overall arc too soon.

The original version is a series of robot fights – some bad humans are making trouble for the robots, forcing them into this – and there is a great deal of goofy botheration about who has more ‘horse-power’. What Urasawa works wonders with are the original characters. Mont Blanc, the nature-attuned, Swiss mountaineering poet-robot. Epsilon, the effeminate, male, mothering, superstrong, solar-powered, pacifist Australian robot. North No. 2, the post-traumatically stressed, six-armed, piano lessons-wanting Scottish butler robot. Gesicht, the troubled, German Europol detective robot. Brando, the down-to-earth, life-loving Turkish family man/ fighter robot. Heracles, the Greek, honor-loving fighter robot. And Atom and Uran (Astro Boy and sister). And Pluto (I’ll let that one be a surprise). And the old Astro Boy cast. And – these weren’t in the original – ‘Dr. Roosevelt’, and his sinister Teddy avatar. And that other one, the Hannibal Lecterish robot stuck in his cell, behind all the barricades, impaled on that pole. It’s fantastically clever the way it is reworked, while keeping the basic plot and characters surprisingly true to the original – fun, thrilling, with wonderful moments of Ursprunglichkeit springing up amidst bells and whistles and evil humans and zeronium alloy. [click to continue…]

Harry The Hipster

by John Holbo on December 18, 2010

Here’s a nice photo from the Library of Congress, in the William Gottlieb collection:

[Portrait of Toots Thielemans, Adele Girard, and Joe Marsala, Onyx, New York, N.Y., ca. 1948] (LOC)

They have a series of New York in 1948 photos up just now. Ooh, this one’s nice.

Hey, let’s listen to Harry the Hipster while we’re at it.