From the monthly archives:

May 2011

800 Characters or More

by adam_mcgovern on May 31, 2011

In thoughts on the diminishment of the aura of the artifact at a time which tends toward mass-distribution and miniaturization of the image, the sound, the movie and the text to the dimensions of personalized entertainment devices, not as much consideration, even now, is given to the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction. The countrywide apparition of Chaplin at the start of Sunnyside is a spontaneous projection showing that at this early stage in the progression of both his career and the mass-media canon there already were as many “Chaplin”s as there were perceptions of and perspectives on him.
“Image control” is a buzzword of modern PR, but any image by its nature is ephemeral, and disperses and refracts in the way Chaplin’s personality does at the beginning of the book. Not only does the work “have a life of its own,” but the maker himself is out of his own hands. [click to continue…]

Unfair exchange?

by John Q on May 31, 2011

Ten years or so ago, the Australian dollar was worth about 50 US cents on foreign exchange markets. I bet a small amount with a colleague that within five years, $A would have achieved parity. My reasoning was simple, elegant and wrong. By most estimates, the Purchasing Power Parity exchange rate[1] is around $A1.00 = $US0.70, so the Australian dollar was undervalued by around 40 per cent. It seemed to me that, within five years or so, the deviation should have not only been corrected but overshot in the other direction, giving a rate near parity.

I should have considered more carefully the saying, apocryphally attributed to Keynes, that the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. If deviations from PPP corrected within five years, speculators would bet on this happening, and the deviation would not be sustained at all. So, if PPP is false, it must stay false for long periods.

And that’s what’s happened. The Australian dollar has been above parity for some months now, and shows no sign of falling.

That raises some interesting questions. I’ll put up a few over the fold, and maybe update them as I go

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Everything Is On The Table?

by John Holbo on May 30, 2011

Via the Corner, a spot of TV talking head with Eric Cantor.

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “As Republicans, we’re not going to go for tax increases. I think the administration gets that. But we’ve also put everything on the table as far as cuts.”

Imagine what the response would be if this were flipped around. Imagine a Democrat emitting the following, as a bold deficit reduction plan: “Everything is on the table … we’re not going to go for spending cuts. I think the Republicans get that. But we’ve also put everything on the table as far as tax hikes.” No one would say such a Bizarro Norquist thing, of course, because no one on the Democratic side is as bizarre as Norquist. But if someone did, it would be perfectly obvious the person saying this thing wasn’t concerned with deficit reduction. The idea that someone unwilling to contemplate spending cuts – anywhere – was a deficit hawk would not pass the laugh test. As Cantor’s statement does not. [click to continue…]

[Colleagues in the United States are used to the phenomenon where academic lectures and reading lists get pored over by Republican politicians and “operatives” keen to undermine academic freedom and redbait intellectuals. But it is sad and shocking that in the UK, Denis MacShane MP, who was elected to Parliament as a Labour Party candidate, has recently indulged in the same kind of thing. The Association of Political Thought has now issued a statement about MacShane’s behaviour and it is to be hoped that he now does the right thing, and issues a full apology to the scholar concerned, Anne Phillips. I was very pleased to be able to add my name to the list of signatories. CB ]

Denis MacShane and the LSE reading list: a statement from the Association of Political Thought

During the debate on Human Trafficking on 18 May 2011 (Hansard Col 94WH) Denis MacShane MP, quoting from the list of essay titles for an academic political theory course at the London School of Economics, accused a distinguished professor, Anne Phillips FBA, of being unable to tell the difference between waged work and prostitution, and of filling the minds of students ‘with poisonous drivel’. Fiona McTaggart MP agreed, accusing Phillips of holding ‘frankly nauseating views on that issue’. 

The ineptitude of this exchange – which is now forever on the official record – is extraordinary. Students are asked why we should distinguish between the sale of one’s labour and the sale or letting of one’s body. That condones neither the latter nor the former. It encourages students to reflect on how to draw an important line between things appropriate and things inappropriate for market exchange.  Asking such questions, far from being ‘nauseating’, is central to public debate about policy and legislation.  If Members of Parliament cannot tell the difference between an essay problem and an assertion of belief how can we trust them to legislate effectively?

Parliamentary debate is a cornerstone of our constitution and political culture. However, using the privilege of a Parliamentary platform ignorantly to traduce the reputation of a teacher of political theory is a dereliction of office.

[signatories below the fold.]
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That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.

Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.

And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.

At this point, GMU has no appealing options.

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Melville, as Stimulant and Soporific

by John Holbo on May 27, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates really likes Moby Dick, apparently the first paragraph in particular.

But not everyone feels the same. Reminds me of that great scene in Bone, vol. 5, when they are being attacked by the Stupid Rat Creatures … [click to continue…]

Ghostwriters of Science

by Henry Farrell on May 27, 2011

Via Randolph Fritz, a “very interesting article”: about how extensive the pharmaceuticals ghostwriting industry is:

bq. The planning companies are paid to implement high-impact publication strategies for specific drugs. They target the most influential academics to act as authors, draft the articles, and ensure that these include clearly-defined branding messages and appear in the most prestigious journals. … There are now at least 250 different companies engaged in the business of planning clinical publications for the pharmaceutical industry … Current Medical Directions, a medical communications company based in New York, promises to create “scientific content in support of our clients’ messages”. … n a flow-chart drawn up by Eric Crown, publications manager at Merck (the company that sold the controversial painkiller Vioxx), the determination of authorship appears as the fourth stage of the article preparation procedure. That is, only after company employees have presented clinical study data, discussed the findings, finalised “tactical plans” and identified where the article should be published. … “We’ve never done ghostwriting, per se, as I’d define it”, says John Romankiewicz, president of Scientific Therapeutics Information, the New Jersey firm that helped Merck promote Vioxx with a series of positive articles in medical journals. “We may have written a paper, but the people we work with have to have some input and approve it.”

I used to think that political scientists were lucky, in that no-one cared enough about what we had to say to try to suborn our reputations via dubious endorsements. And then I read about the “Gadaffi and political science scandal …”:

Sunnyside IV: The Phenomenon of Fame

by robert_hanks on May 27, 2011

One of the snags with really great artists is that they feed the illusion that the past is comprehensible: reading Jane Austen or listening to Beethoven, I can register a different set of manners and assumptions without feeling that there’s something utterly alien going on. (Critics generally settle for the adjective “timeless”.) Watching Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, I’m always conscious of the chasm between then and now, how different modern times are from anything that went before. I don’t think this sense of strangeness has much to do with the question of whether we find him funny or not (the idea that Chaplin isn’t funny has fallen out of fashion in recent years, and I think it’s generally recognised that some of the time he’s very funny). But leaving aside Chaplin’s astoundingly deft comic shtick, the whole emotional world of the films seems primitive and impenetrable; I have trouble swallowing the Little Tramp himself as a sympathetic character, though the audiences a century back don’t seem to have felt any ambivalence.

I’m leading up to a proposition: that Chaplin has slipped out of our grasp. [click to continue…]

If you read this news story then you will probably want to sing along.

In my original post I, ignoring all of common sense and the experience of the entire internet, imagined that people would click through and read the linked Kevin Drum piece, and then perhaps click on the link there as well. I really don’t know what came over me; I must be out of practice or something. As was mentioned in comments to the previous post, Kevin Drum was responding to a NYT article in which it was suggested that hotel housekeepers receive unwanted sexual approaches fairly often in big hotels. It seems to be necessary to be very clear on this; I am merely suggesting that Kevin Drum’s indignant suggestion (that hotels refuse service to guests who repeatedly flash the staff) is indeed a reasonable one. Even threatening to do so would probably bring lots of men around, since it might be a little hard to explain to the boss why you suddenly can’t stay at the Mandarin anymore. From the NYT:

On top of that [their grueling, physically demanding jobs], they [housekeeping staff] have to be sexually accosted by guests? Sadly, yes. And more often than you’d think. It’s not an everyday occurrence but it happens enough to make this question all too familiar: “Mr. Tomsky, can you give the new girl Room 3501 until next Tuesday? That man is back, the one who loves to let his robe fall open every time I try to clean.” So, yes, we assign the room to the new girl.

Now I hate to say this, but I’m pretty sure this is the end of most actual stories along this lines, i.e., give it to the new girl. Per the NYT, though, it’s more like some awesome SWAT thing:

But not before hotel managers roll up to the room, flanked by security guards, to request that the guest vacate during cleaning, or at least promise to remain fully clothed or risk expulsion. Often it need not be discussed in detail: those guests who can’t seem to tie their robe properly usually know exactly what they’re guilty of. Typically, an unsolicited phone call from management inquiring if the service in their room is up-to-standard, and offering to send a manager to supervise the next cleaning, improves their behavior. I remember one exhibitionist guest, in New Orleans, cutting me off before I could get down to business:

“Sir, this is Jacob, the housekeeping manager — ”

“O.K., fine, O.K.!” And he hung up. That was that.

Being flashed is very different from being violently assaulted, but they are on a continuum of unwanted sexual encounters. Also, it’s difficult to believe that a man who gets to that point hasn’t gotten away with quite a lot of other skeezy things in the past, such as exposing himself. Perhaps if M. Strauss-Kahn had had repeated, embarrassing conversations with the male hotel staff in which banning him from further stays was mentioned it would have been salutary.

It also occurs to me if a women left her hotel room door unbolted and someone came in and raped her, the number of times (hint: infinity) she would be told that she should always keep the door locked, and call downstairs to check with the front desk when a male staffer came to the door even in uniform, etc. etc., might make her decide to just not bother reporting the crime.

I thought it was interesting that despite the subject matter, the Times was unable to find a woman to write about the topic, perhaps one who had worked as a housekeeper? Just a thought. I understand that “Jacob Tomsky is writing a memoir about his experiences in the hotel business,” but that hardly seems the most salient concern, unless someone’s agent knows someone. And you may object that most of these workers are recent immigrants, but I see Maureen Dowd’s name out of the corner of my eye oftener than I would like, so it’s not as if having a woman with limited English-language skills on the Op-Ed page is somehow a problem.

Kevin Drum recently posted in a sort of muddle-headed, if well meaning, way. His post is entitled, “Why Do Hotels Tolerate Sexual Predators?” His readers were there to point out that if you kicked all the rich flashers out of your hotel you’d lose a lot of money. I might additionally suggest that the victims (in these cases, the housekeepers), are mostly immigrants working in a low-status job, and their right to be free from unwanted exhibitionism looms small in the mental world of a hotel manager.

When I say the post is muddle-headed, I only mean that it is surprising that Drum is surprised. Many (most, actually) of the women I know have been flashed, usually as younger girls. It’s not as though it’s some astonishing thing that never happens; it’s just going on all the time, but not happening to Kevin Drum. But in swoops Megan McArdle and I thought, how is she going to defend rich assholes who flash hotel housekeepers? I mean, really. Especially considering that Megan grew up in New York City in the 70s and 80s, which means I am morally certain some dude has flashed her, or masturbated next to her on the subway, or done something equally unwelcome. How not? (I have experienced all these things, and more! Ask me about the time the cops told me the man hassling me was a convicted sex offender who had forcibly raped at least 6 women, and I was “an idiot” because I returned idle pleasantries, in a deflecting way, on the BART. It was apparently my duty to remain silent at all times.) But then, she doesn’t mention it, so perhaps she was weirdly lucky in this regard. Really weirdly lucky.
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Attributing single events to background conditions

by Chris Bertram on May 25, 2011

There’s “a nice piece”: by Bill McKibben in the Washington Post about the rationality of people who repeat the mantra that single extreme weather events can’t be tied to climate change:

bq. When you see pictures of rubble like this week’s shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing. It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they’re somehow connected.

Well read the whole thing, as they say. (See also “the stunning pictures from Joplin at The Big Picture”: . )

Sunnyside III – Fueled By Randomness

by John Holbo on May 25, 2011

I had a simply heart-breaking experience, reading Sunnyside. (Strictly, I listened to it on Audiobook. So the following page numbers, courtesy of Amazon search-inside, do not correspond to my original ‘reading’ experience.)

Leland “Lee Duncan” Wheeler is about to audition.

The house lights went up momentarily, for the judges to introduce themselves. Each in turn stood up, announced his or her associations, then sat. Mrs. Franklin Geary, head of the Liberty Loan Committee, Christopher Sims of the Institute for Speech Benevolence … (246)

Then, on p. 256.

“We didn’t understand half of what he was doing. Mr. Sims, did you understand what he was doing?”

“I liked the kick to the face.”

Mrs. Geary frowned. “I thought he was swimming.”

You get it? Sims? Of the ISB? And the kick to the face seals the deal. I was so proud I spotted it. I emailed Sims to report my discovery of this wonderful Easter Egg and … he’d … already noticed it … himself. Way to let the air out of my little Easter Egg.

But now you know. That’s something they can put on my tombstone, I guess. [click to continue…]

Brad De Long writes something condescending

by Chris Bertram on May 24, 2011

I was starting to feel somewhat neglected. Usually, when I write something of any substance on Crooked Timber, Brad De Long pops up and has a sneer. Recent efforts have been so stretched in relation to what I actually wrote that I have to conclude it’s personal and that Brad is just itching to have a go. Well that’s his problem. Usually, I’d post a short and polite correction in his comments box, explaining where I thought he’d got himself mixed up, but recently Brad has taken to “moderating” my comments, as if I were some kind of troll. Well ho hum. Anyway, “he clearly approves of my latest, or purports to”: , since he (unsurprisingly) approves of my judgement that Leninism doesn’t offer a way forward for the Western left. Well no shit. But he also appears delighted to catch me out in a “contradiction”, because, well, didn’t I write something laudatory about Cuba on the occasion of Castro’s retirement over two years ago? (It seems Brad is keeping track, which does feel a bit creepy.) Well yes I did, though he clearly didn’t understand the point I was making, which was principally that US hate-obsession about Cuba has everything to do with capitalism and not much to do with enthusiasm for human rights. Plus (in the case of Brad and people like him) it signals that you really really disapprove of those to your left. Am I pro-Cuban in the sense that I support the ideology and strategy of the Cuban CP? Well no, of course not. I’m not a Barca fan either, for that matter, but I will be cheering them on in the Champions League final.

UPDATE: I see that DeLong has extended his original post slightly. I respond below the fold:
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On first reading, Sunnyside seems to be a picaresque with a sting in the tail. In the best spirit of Chaplin’s films, this rambling story of World War I and the movies uses slapstick and pathos to wring out tears of laughter and sadness. Many readers set it down, bemused, scratching their heads, wondering what, if anything, it was all about. Some reviewers said it was an ambitious failure. Sunnyside is a book you need to live with for a while as it unwraps itself. Or not. Like the best comedy, it’s a response, though not an answer, to the despair of the human condition. And it’s very, very funny.

What does it mean to ‘get’ a book, or at least to think you have? It’s something that happens in a reader’s mind when the characters, story, feelings and ideas of a novel unite into something greater than their sum, becoming a complete world of their own, a world that teaches true things about the world we live in. A good book that sits uncomfortably in its own era resists understanding just as it teaches you how to read it. Sunnyside is the sort of book you think about for a long time after reading, and will probably come back to again. [click to continue…]