From the monthly archives:

December 2012

Shorter Eugene Volokh

by Henry Farrell on December 15, 2012

Train kindergarten teachers as shooters. Tool them up. Problem solved.

Update: I can only imagine that Megan McArdle is jealous of all the attention Eugene Volokh has been getting.

Playing Russian Roulette with the Internet

by Maria on December 14, 2012

Yesterday, the US, UK and a dozen other countries refused point blank to sign a UN treaty on the Internet. About twenty more are making very negative noises about it, saying they need to go back to their capitals to discuss. The two thirds of countries who did support it, led by Russia, have no way to enforce or even – for many of them are struggling to build and maintain basic communications infrastructure – to implement it.

I’ve been meaning to write something about the International Telecommunication Union negotiations in Dubai, not least because I helped out in a small way with getting the International Trade Union Confederation and Greenpeace involved. But time and events kept rushing past, and other people did it better, particularly Jack Goldsmith’s ‘opinionated primer’.

But if anyone wants to catch up, the BBC has done excellent, incisive and factual pieces from the beginning. And for a decent analysis of yesterday’s debacle and how the US acted and is perceived, the Economist is pretty much on the money.

Predictably, much US commentary has reverted to type with ‘bureaucrats = bad; UN bureaucrats = the work of the devil’. For amusingly unhinged opinion, you could do worse than the WSJ which proclaimed that “Letting the Internet be rewired by bureaucrats would be like handing a Stradivarius to a gorilla“. That said, the WSJ isn’t entirely wrong. (Even a stopped clock tells the right time, twice a day.)

This has been a process where everyone played to type, from the ugly Americans with the 120 person delegation and pathological inability to understand how they are perceived; to the shifty Russians leaking, denying, defending, introducing, withdrawing and reintroducing oppressive proposals; to NGOs and the techies who built the Internet fuming (rightly) at being excluded from discussing it; to the ITU Sec. Gen. making one disingenuous, self-serving and patently wrong claim after the next; to a Chair who thinks because he’s on Twitter, the whole process is open; to, finally, an Iranian determined to force a vote to embarrass the West, and who brought the whole house of cards down on top of everyone.

But you really had to be there to appreciate the shambolic, dishonest, catastrophic failure of the whole thing. My thanks to Kieren McCarthy who braved it and reports from the rubble:

“Mistake piled on mistake and yet the ITU seemed incapable of responding, relying on member states to arrive at their own solutions and ignoring civil society, the technical community and even hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens that took to online petitions to express their disgust at decisions being made over the Internet in closed, government groups.

In the end, the ITU and the conference chair, having backed themselves to the edge of a cliff, dared governments to push them off. They duly did. And without even peeking over, the crowd turned around and walked away.”

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.

The Economist and the Irish Famine

by Henry Farrell on December 13, 2012

The Economist has a “review”: of two books on the Famine in the most recent issue.

Both authors describe the folly and cruelty of Victorian British policy towards its near-forsaken neighbour in detail. The British government, led by Sir Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary to the Treasury (dubbed the “Victorian Cromwell”), appeared far more concerned with modernising Ireland’s economy and reforming its people’s “aboriginal” nature than with saving lives. Ireland became the unfortunate test case for a new Victorian zeal for free market principles, self-help, and ideas about nation-building.

[click to continue…]

Dr Who Monopoly

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Everyone knows that next year is the 50th anniversary. In fact it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out the day after the far less significant 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination: a special is promised, though no details yet. The doctor is even, right now, on the cover of TV guide magazine though not, contra the inside story, for the first time: somewhere in a depths of my 16 year old’s bedroom is the TV guide from just before she was born with Paul McGann on the cover promoting the 1996 TV movie. (And the adorable Larry Hagman is relegated to the back cover — who, when JR was shot, would have imagined that when the real JR died he’d be upstaged by John Smith?) So I thought I’d poke around for a good present for the 16 year-old from her loving siblings and found….Monopoly: Dr. Who Edition 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. Fantastic! (PS, don’t tell her, please).

Peak Pale

by John Holbo on December 13, 2012

It seems to me that, just as ‘peak oil’ refers to the “the point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline,” so ‘peak pale’ ought to refer to the point in time when the maximum relative rate of white vote extraction is reached by the GOP, after which the party’s rate of election is expected to enter terminal decline. (So it isn’t that we’ve ‘run out of’ whites – not exactly. Let’s be precise about this, shall we?)

I am not sure how this relates, if at all, to my previous post.

Maternal Deprivation Studies at UW Madison

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Lori Gruen has had a post up for a while at New APPS, on the renewal of maternal deprivation research at UW Madison. Here is her description of what the researchers plan to do:

A psychiatry professor who has a distinguished record of research on anxiety disorders plans to separate more monkey babies from their mothers, leave them with wire “surrogates” covered in cloth (a practice developed by Harlow) to emulate “adverse early rearing conditions,” then pair them with another maternally deprived infant after 3-6 weeks of being alone. The infants will then be exposed to fearful conditions. The monkeys in this group and another group of young monkeys who will be reared with their mothers, will then be killed and their brains examined.

Here is the experimental protocol and here is a history of maternal deprivation studies at UW Madison, from a site established by critics of the research.

The protocol describes the value of the research as follows:

While numerous studies have been performed examining the effects of surrogate/peer in nonhuman primates, no studies have been performed examining the effects of this rearing modification on brain development using state of the art imaging and molecular methods. These efforts will allow us to identify the exact brain regions affected, the changes in gene function in these regions, and the specific genes that are involved increasing the early risk to develop anxiety and depression. Such information has the potential to identify new targets in specific brain regions that can lead to new ideas about treatment and even prevention of the long-term suffering associated with early adversity. For example, understanding the involvement of brain chemicals that have never before been implicated in anxiety, will allow the field to begin to search for medications that affect these newly identified systems. In addition, the molecular information, combined with the imaging data, may allow for interventions that target novel brain regions that are critically involved in anxiety and depression.

Part of me is very resistant to forgoing human benefits for the sake of non-human animals. The other part of me thinks that the more like a human being an animal is (and thus the more likely research on it is to be useful for the treatment of humans) the more likely it is that the animal has a high degree of moral status. And there can be no question that the monkeys will be caused psychological harm by this study, since the monkeys’ susceptibility to anxiety and distress is an integral part of the research. And while studies of this kind do differ from Harlow’s experiments involving total social isolation, they still seem spectacularly cruel.

The university seems to have been pretty unforthcoming about the research. A quick Google Search for “maternal deprivation UW Madison” shows the top hits as a page against the research by Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based animal rights group, a petition by Gruen to the UW Provost to stop the research, and another website hosted by Alliance for Animals that has a pledge for alumni to refrain from donating to UW until the maternal deprivation experiments are stopped. But I don’t see anything by UW. I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen more information. Or could offer a convincing defense.

The Good and Bad of Occupy

by Henry Farrell on December 12, 2012

Not a proper post – just a very strong recommendation that you read Quinn Norton’s “extraordinary article on Occupy”:

Albert Hirschman has died

by Henry Farrell on December 11, 2012

News via Dani Rodrik on Twitter. He was a great economist, whose influence was nonetheless far greater outside his academic specialization than inside it. I am almost certainly unworthy to comment on his work, but here you go anyway. _Exit, Voice and Loyalty_ is the book that will be remembered, but his essays gathered in _Rival Views of Market Society_ and other volumes glistened with insights and were wonderfully written to boot. His book on _National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade_, which turned his empirical work on how the Nazis reshaped trade relations to their own advantage is less widely read than it deserves to be, because it is so hard to get, but nonetheless had substantial influence on the field of international relations. I don’t know enough to say much about his work on development, except that people who know more than me took it seriously. He deserves a good biography – his life was nearly as extraordinary as his thought.

Heckman on predistribution

by Harry on December 9, 2012

Last month’s issue of Boston Review has a very good essay by James Heckman, and follow-up discussion. Heckman’s essay argues forcefully for early childhood interventions of various kinds as efficient means for mitigating inequality of opportunity.
I’d especially recommend that you read Charles Murray’s comment, just so you can read Heckman’s (devastating) response, but also Annette Lareau’s and David Deming’s. And, if you want, mine and Swift’s.

One thing I am curious about. Heckman is consistently accused by lefties of not understanding that poverty, not parenting, is the fundamental problem. For all I know that is true, and it is not impossible that I have a tin ear, but when I read his essay (and hear him talk etc) everything he says is consistent with the (entirely reasonable) assumption that as things stand, though the fundamental problem may well be poverty, elected officials are pretty determined to do very little to reduce poverty in general and child poverty in particular, so we need to look for policy levers that would improve the prospects of poor children without addressing their poverty. (And, if by some chance, this pessimistic assessment is wrong, still the measures he proposes would play an important role during the long transition to a more equal society). Is it just because he is known to be, broadly speaking, a conservative that people read him the less charitable way? Or am I, indeed, missing something?

Bomb Sight

by Harry on December 8, 2012

My friend Amy Keys alerted me to this amazing website documenting every single bomb that was dropped during the Blitz. I recommend zooming out on the main page, and then narrowing in to particular places you know well. My first trip was to Regents Park.

Apparently there’s going to be an app.

Why Can’t We Say What Color Our Skin Is?

by John Holbo on December 8, 2012

Corey’s post about the more toxic stuff in Jefferson’s writings was interesting, wasn’t it?

This bit –

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?

– reminded me of something else I read recently, in The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision, by Mark Changizi [Kindle version only $1.99. Good deal!]

The book manages to hit the popularized-but-substantive sweet spot pretty consistently. The chapter on skin color reports some of Changizi’s own research. He starts with a puzzle: why is it no one has a good name – a name they are satisfied with – for their own skin color? ‘White’ people aren’t white: tan, pink, salmon, off-white, peach? There are 11 ‘basic’ colors, per Berlin and Kay. None are good descriptors of anyone’s skin color. This result generalizes. ‘Black’ people aren’t any better at finding words for their own skin color they are satisfied with than ‘white’ people are.

Why would that be? A hypothesis. [click to continue…]

The ECB’s New Role

by Henry Farrell on December 6, 2012

I’ve a review in the new issue of _The Nation_ of Harold James’ history of the euro (Powells, Amazon) which does the usual annoying-reviewer-trick of taking a book and using it to talk about things that the reviewer rather than the book’s author wants to talk about. I think this works better than it sometimes does, since the book has lots of juicy (for administrative history values of ‘juicy’) details about the arguments behind the creation of Economic and Monetary Union, which have obvious implications for politics today. Anyway, “judge for yourselves”: if you’re interested …

bq. In September, the European Central Bank announced that it had taken decisions on a “number of technical features regarding the Eurosystem’s outright transactions in secondary sovereign bond markets.” The ECB did all it could to make these decisions sound like a nonevent. It claimed that the new policy measures—which it gave the incomprehensible-seeming label Outright Monetary Transactions—had the dull but laudable aim of safeguarding “appropriate monetary policy transmission and the singleness of the monetary policy.” As it turns out, Outright Monetary Transactions are anything but simple “technical features.” They have scant relevance to monetary transmission or to conventional monetary policy. Instead, they allow the ECB to do something that it is not supposed to do: intervene in the market for government debt.

Spicing up that pancake

by Eszter Hargittai on December 2, 2012

Years ago, a friend I hosted made me pancakes with over a dozen ingredients. This was an interesting concept that had never occurred to me. The plain ones had never really appealed to me, but I’d only experienced the simple addition of chocolate chips, which, while making a bit of a difference, had still not converted me to this American tradition. While my palette does not seem sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate over a dozen ingredients at once, I have since adopted my friend’s approach of adding 4-5 items to the mix and now look forward to this treat on weekends. (I’m no purist, by the way, I just work with pancake mix from a bag.)

In addition to chocolate chips, a hint of mint turns out to be an excellent ingredient. (You really do want to be careful with it though as more than a drop or two can overwhelm all other flavors.) I’ve found dried fruits such as dried cranberries and pineapple work well, too, chopped up into little pieces. Various nuts are other fun options, also chopped. In particular, I recently started using some gingersnap almonds (courtesy of Chicago’s very own Mama’s Nuts) that has been delicious (they’re great on their own as well, but that’s another matter..). Right after Thanksgiving, adding some pumpkin pie filling to the batter was a good way to make something of leftover ingredients while varying things up a bit.

Another tweak that I have not tried yet, but came recommended by my friend David Figlio and sounds very intriguing is the idea of sprinkling one side with some Old Town spiced sugar right before turning it over. Apparently this gives it a little bit of brulee crunch and just the right amount of sweetness (especially helpful if you don’t like to use syrup, which I don’t). This approach is definitely on my list to try in the future. What are your favorite twists on traditional pancakes?

Jonah Goldberg : “If the GOP wants to win more black votes, it will need to get a lot more ‘racist.'” Yes, if there’s one thing black voters are waiting for, that might bring them back into the warm embrace of the GOP, it’s the enticing prospect of attending an endless pity party with a ‘liberals – and blacks! – have wrongly accused the GOP of racism’ theme. (Because, after all, the Davis-Bacon Act was totally racist!) But Charles Murray gave Goldberg a run for his money, in the anti-Dale Carnegie sweepstakes, with his hypothesis that the reason Asians don’t flock to the Republican Party is that, as a group, they have a ‘ludicrously inaccurate’ view of … well, of political reality.

Goldberg and Murray – and others I could mention – are casting about for a way for the GOP to win over minorities without saying ‘sorry’. Indeed, they are looking for a way to win over minorities while saying ‘you’re welcome!’ in an aggrieved, long-suffering sort of way (this white man’s burden hasn’t been lifting itself, y’know!) [click to continue…]

Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist?

by Corey Robin on December 2, 2012

It’s Old Home Week in the American media. First there was the welcome back of Abraham Lincoln (and the brouhaha over the Spielberg film). Now Thomas Jefferson is in the news. But where it was Lincoln the emancipator we were hailing earlier in the week, it’s Jefferson the slaveholder who’s now getting all the press.

Yesterday in the New York Times, legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote a bruising attack on Jefferson titled “The Monster of Monticello.” This was a followup to some of the controversy surrounding the publication of Henry Wiencek’s new book on Jefferson, which makes Jefferson’s slaveholding central to his legacy.

Finkelman’s essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (h/t Samir Chopra) wrote: [click to continue…]