From the monthly archives:

September 2015

Spadocide and the future of Labour

by Chris Bertram on September 13, 2015

Driving though France to catch a cross-channel ferry is an odd situation in which to try to follow the UK news. Back in 1997 we tuned into British radio and heard outraged callers demanding to know why the BBC had been insensitive enough to run a documentary on the land-speed record after Diana died in a car crash. That was weird, but not so weird as being on a ship where we seemed to be the only people not worshipping in front of enormous TV screens installed for the funeral. We were coming back to a country that was a bit different to the one we had left three weeks before. Eighteen years later we managed to pick up decent reception for radio 5 just before the Labour leadership result was announced, but every bridge and power-line we passed under resulted in a whoosh of deep-bass interference, so that key bits of information were lost and we had to infer them from later commentary. And then the only programme on the ferry was rolling BBC News, a succession of talking heads and policy wonks on College Green, telling the public what to think about events which had revealed just what an important section of the public thinks about people like them.

BBC journalists, newspaper columnists and professional politicians all seemed to be carrying on with zombie incantations of what they take to be the the eternal truth of British politics, as decreed by the prophet Tony: tack to the centre. This hardly seems adequate to what has happened. Jeremy Corbyn, the most awkward of the awkward squad, previously barely a household name in his own house, has thrashed the professional elite of one of Britain’s two main political parties, gaining nearly 60 per cent of the vote against candidates with ministerial experience and considerable public reputations. The estimable Flying Rodent [deployed the following well-judged sporting analogy](

> In football terms, this is like East Fife beating Celtic 13-0 at Parkhead – one of those things that should just never, ever happen.

> To stretch the analogy, I can tell you now that if a bottom-tier team dealt out that kind of drubbing to the richest club in the country, nobody would put it down to East Fife’s sudden samba football. The headlines wouldn’t read “Fifers Fantastic”.

> They’d say – “Woeful Celtic hammered”, “Shambolic Celts stuffed” and, most importantly, “Fans demand immediate resignation and suicide of everyone associated with this mortifying catastrophe”.

But the media friends of the androids who Corbyn defeated thought the important thing to say was that the he had no future, rather than querying the performance of their preferred candidates.
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Sunday photoblogging: Downs League football

by Chris Bertram on September 13, 2015

Apologies for the hiatus in Sunday photoblogging. It turned out that getting the embedding code from Flickr whilst travelling with an iPad was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Here’s a picture from a few years ago. Most sports photography is with long-lenses (300mm or so), this was an attempt to capture the action by getting up really close with a wide-angle lense. It succeeded enough for a student newspaper to steal the image, anyway.

Downs League Football

One-Star Yelp Reviews By Five-Star Generals

by John Holbo on September 12, 2015

I am too busy these days. No time to post on CT, so sad. So I’m just going to let you write the jokes, then I’ll take credit for the thread. The idea is this: bad Yelp-style reviews of countries the US has invaded, written from the perspective of high-ranking military commanders and political leaders. Take it away, CT-commenters! If you can, make Mallory Ortberg proud. If you can’t, at least don’t make Belle Waring ashamed.

UPDATE: The category can include any sort of aggressive foreign policy stance, suitably frustrated.

On the Other 9/11: Kissinger, Pinochet, Obama

by Corey Robin on September 11, 2015

Today is the anniversary of two 9/11’s. The one everyone in the US talks about, and the one not everyone in the US talks about. Greg Grandin, who’s got a new book out on Kissinger that everyone should read, writes in The Nation today about Pinochet’s violent coup against Allende—fully backed by Kissinger and Nixon—and how Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is completing the work that Kissinger, Nixon, and Pinochet began. Forty-three years ago today. [click to continue…]

Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?

by Harry on September 10, 2015

Here’s the text from which I gave a talk to our Geography Department’s welcome lunch for new graduate students, postdocs, etc, at the start of this semester. The charge was to come up with something that would be relevant to everyone in the room, and would be funny. A previous speaker told lots of Ole and Lena jokes. So…

Thank you for inviting me to talk. When I was asked to talk to you, I was stumped about what to talk about, especially when told that previous speakers were humorous. It ruled out Philosophy as a subject, and, really, ruled out explaining the Laws of Cricket, which is my second go-to. Anyone want to know about the subsequent career paths of all the cast of The Love Boat? Or the history of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal? Or why I know anything about those subjects? No, I thought not.

So I thought I’d talk about something that you all should be thinking about right now, that is, teaching. You will all, or almost all, be teachers of some sort. Some will become professors, who teach graduate students and/or undergraduates and the general public. But every professional teaches – whether it is students, or clients, or co-workers, or mentees, or, sometimes, one’s supervisors. And typically, actual, well informed, high-quality, training in teaching is a low priority in research universities. So, I thought I’d talk about why it should be a higher priority, and how we could do it better (the training, and the teaching).

Since I am a philosopher, let’s start with one of my favourite sayings: “Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”. The declarative phrase in that sentence is true. And there is some good news, but also some bad news, in its truth.

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George Scialabba is retiring from Harvard

by Henry Farrell on September 10, 2015

George Scialabba is one of the great writers and intellectuals of our time. He’s also a member of the CT community, both as a commenter, and as the subject of a seminar that we ran a few years ago on his wonderful collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? He’s also someone whom I consider (although we’ve only met in person two or three times) to be a good friend. In a properly constituted America, he would be a Living National Treasure. His greatness as a critic and essayist is a result not only of intelligence and prose style but of willingness to try to get inside the heads of the people he is writing about, so as to understand what they were trying to do on their own terms, before reaching judgment. People may reasonably have different opinions about which of George’s essays is the best. My personal favorite is this devastating piece on Isaiah Berlin.

George is retiring from Harvard, where he has worked for many years scheduling events for the Center for Government and International Studies, while writing in his spare time. There are many people at Harvard whose work and thought I admire enormously, but with no disrespect to them, I think that George has been the single best public intellectual working there over the last few decades (I’ve sometimes wondered whether Harvard’s senior administrators know who he is, or have any idea what a gem they have had in him). The good news (as Scott notes in his appreciation at Inside Higher Ed is that this should give him more time to write. The Baffler is throwing a party for him this evening; I’d love to be there. In lieu of that, this post. Congratulations, George. And more importantly, thank you very, very much.

Two Songs Enter!

by Belle Waring on September 9, 2015

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time in area woman Belle Waring’s life when she thought she didn’t like Stevie Wonder. Yeah, I know. In graduate school (!) I learned just how wrong I was. I was wronger than like 30 goddamn Dick Cheneys. I remember my conversion experience quite distinctly: I was in the back seat of an acquaintance’s car, driving from Berkeley to Da Club (I mean, da club in general, not a club called “Da Club”) in San Francisco, not even near the Bay bridge yet. We had just gotten off the surface streets. I was sitting alone in the back seat while this random…Linguistics?…no, English Literature grad student and my boyfriend talked–it is a peculiarity of highway driving that although you can hear the people conversing in the front seats fine, they can’t hear you for shit. Then, “Maybe Your Baby” came on his car stereo and I was like “hold up, hold up, who is this?” When I got told it was Stevie Wonder I made some shocked comment like, “but…Ebony and Ivory though.” Then he turned around from the front seat and shot a withering glance at me that said “think for ten seconds and recall, at least, the existence of ‘Uptight‘ or ‘Signed, Sealed Delivered!'” He was right! Also, the withering was more my reaction than a real thing that he did.
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What Means That Trump?

by John Holbo on September 8, 2015

No, I’m not just asking the question everyone else is asking. I’m quoting Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. It’s, like, erudite.

I’m with Kevin Drum. Watching Jonah Goldberg splutter about it is pretty rich. [click to continue…]

Economics in Two Lessons: Income distribution

by John Q on September 7, 2015

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Rather than work sequentially, I’m jumping between:

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at how opportunity cost reasoning applies to policies that change the distribution of income, wealth and other entitlements.

As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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by Belle Waring on September 7, 2015

Yesterday I chanced to read a story from 1850, The Three Visits, by one Auguste Vitu. It is in a collection of, broadly speaking, ghost stories: The Macabre Megapack: 25 Lost Tales From The Golden Age. It is free to Amazon Prime members, and 99 cents otherwise, so you should buy it. It is misleadingly advertised by the title–it’s actually tales from writers earlier than, and contemporaneous with, Edgar Allen Poe, not stories from the golden age of Weird Tales (though that is also a thing.) This story starts out in a promising way:

In the month of August, 1845, a column of French soldiers, composed of Chasseurs d’ Afrique, of Spahis, and several battalions of the line, were crossing the beautiful valley of orange-trees and aloes, at the base of Djebel-Ammer, one of the principal spurs of Atlas. It was nine o’clock at night, and the atmosphere was calm and clear. A few light and fleecy clouds yet treasured up the melancholy reflection of the sun’s last beams, which, in copper bands, were radiated across the horizon. The march was rapid, for it was necessary to catch up with the advance guard, which had been pushed forward to make a razzia, the object of which was to bring into subjection one or two mutinous tribes. The Marechal de Camp who commanded this advanced party had halted with a field-officer, to observe this party defile into its place with the rear guard. The day had been very warm, and luminous masses of vapor from time to time rose from the surface of the ground, like white apparitions in the midst of sombre space….

As the column approached Djebel-Ammer, the soil, which had hitherto been grassy and fertile, became barren and desolate. The orange-trees gave place to mastich-wood and the most horrible cactus. The arbuti lifted directly to heaven their blood-red trunks and regular branches, on which the leaves were so glittering that rays of the moon made them splendid as the scanthi of candelabra. On the right side and on the left arose layers of black and blue rocks, like vast Japanese vases, from which arose great cactus, with leaves dentelated as the claws of a gigantic crab. Fine and dry briars rattled as they quivered in the breeze, and the pale light of the rising stars made gigantic silhouettes of the shadows of the horses and men. The wolves howled in the distance, and large birds hovered in the air, uttering the most melancholy cries while they were on the wing.

What are spahis, you may be wondering? They are Algerian cavalry under French command. What’s a razzia, you wonder? Don’t worry, you’ll find out in a minute. In this story, the general reveals a compelling story to the regiment’s doctor about why he is “superstitious” and won’t allow the men to tell scary stories on night marches. Basically, it’s because his best friend of the golden hours of youth, George, has appeared to him twice after dying. George intimates, on their first post-death encounter, that the general would see him three times in his life, with the final meeting just preceding the general’s joining George in the possible Swedenborgian space awaiting him. (For real, Swedenborg is invoked). The second time, George saves his life by helping him clear his name, after the then-captain was falsely accused.
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Writing numbers on refugees’ arms, are you f’ing kidding me?

by Eszter Hargittai on September 3, 2015

If Hungary can forget after 25 years why a fence on its border is shameful, disgraceful, and disgusting then I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the Czech police may forget after 70 years that marking people with numbers on their arms for identification purposes is, well, not something that should be happening. Seriously, WTF.

If you’ve been living under a rock or focusing on US media/most Americans’ FB feeds, you may not even know what’s really going on. This Human Rights Watch piece gives a helpful overview. It also points out why things as they stand don’t work.

Worth noting is this piece from Al Jazeera that makes a very good case for why commentators, very much including the mainstream media, should not be talking about refugees as though they were migrants. They are refugees escaping inexplicable circumstances and we owe them the respect to acknowledge that when we discuss their plight.

It boggles the mind that some people, or in certain cases many people, cannot sympathize with these refugees and have nothing but hatred toward them. Is it history education that has completely failed us? Where is people’s compassion? The source of significant current problems is ISIS, hardly a group with which many in Europe would sympathize. So why is it so hard for people to appreciate that these refugees need help? I guess then it is not surprising that people can’t go the extra step to recognize the potential benefits of welcoming these refugees even if they can’t get on board with the humanitarian need.

There are exceptions, fortunately. Several thousand in Iceland have petitioned their government to take in more Syrian refugees. They get it. Refugees have the potential to contribute significantly to any society. From their letter:

Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host.

And to be sure, there are also many volunteers who are helping out on the ground across Europe. This piece has concrete suggestions for how you can help even from afar.

Images, of course, often tell the story better than words. I recommend Budapest seen on Facebook for photographs that do a great job capturing the humanity of the situation, the innocence of the children, and the brutality of the circumstances.

And one more important observation:

The great replication crisis

by John Q on September 2, 2015

There’s been a lot of commentary on a recent study by the Replication Project that attempted to replicate 100 published studies in psychology, all of which found statistically significant effects of some kind. The results were pretty dismal. Only about one-third of the replications observed a statistically significant effect, and the average effect size was about half that originally reported.

Unfortunately, most of the discussion of this study I’ve seen, notably in the New York Times, has missed the key point, namely the problem of publication bias. The big problem is that, under standard 20th century procedures, research reports will only be published if the effect observed is “statistically significant”, which, broadly speaking means that the average value of the observed effect is more than twice as large as the estimated standard error. According to the standard classical hypothesis testing theory, the probability that such an effect will be observed by chance, when in reality there is no effect, is less than 5 per cent.

There are two problems here, traditionally called Type I and Type II error. The classical hypothesis testing focuses on reducing Type I error, the possibility of finding an effect when none exists in reality, to 5 per cent. Unfortunately, when you do lots of tests, you get 5 per cent of a large number. If all the original studies were Type I errors, we’d expect only 5 per cent to survive replication.

In fact, the outcome observed in the Replication Study is entirely consistent with the possibility that all the failed replications are subject to Type II error, that is, failure to demonstrate an effect that is there in reality

I’m going to illustrate this with a numerical example[^1].

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