To Catch a Thief

There's an awesome, though pretty scary story in this month's Wired. It's about the World Lock-Picking championship, though despite being called the championship it seems that it doesn't decide who is world champion. That is, the person who is world champion going into the event is a different person from the previous years event winner. This story certainly communicates that locks aren't going to do much against someone who knows what they're doing. This is similar to all the stories about people who can get into your car without a key faster than you can with it Thinking about this leads to ideas about just how dependent society is on trust that people won't violate certain moral norms, or fear of consequences of being caught, or most likely some combination of the two. It's also a good way to start thinking about contractarian ethics, since everyone would be worse off if they couldn't count on people not breaking their locks most of the time. The money paragraph from the story is:
Or take a jewelry store on Main Street. The world sees the shatterproof Lexan windows and stone walls. Sure, you could melt the Lexan with a lighter or turn that wall into lava with a few strokes of a battery-powered thermal lance, but that's not fair, that's forced entry. Besides, why bother when you can go through the door? The dimpled 437-rated high-security lock, the one Underwriters Laboratories considers a 20-minute pick job? A 12-year-old with a bump key could hack it in 20 seconds.
Also, the fact that the whole story is online makes me wonder why I subscribe. I haven't compared the online content to the magazine, so there could be an obvious answer. And it is well photographed and more convenient to carry around than my whole computer.


Talking about Distributive Justice

Over at Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson has had a very interesting series going called, "How Not to Complain About Taxes." That site, by the way, features some eminent philosophers, so it's worth checking out if you're a credentialist. Otherwise it's worth checking out for the rigorous quality of most of the arguments. I wonder if there's a connection between the two.

In the third post of the series, she argued out that since, according to Hayek, the primary function of market prices is informative, they can't possibly track moral desert. Moral desert is retrospective, while the informative function is prospective, aggregating current demand and projected future demand (take that last part with a grain of salt, my knowledge of Hayek is quite limited). In a broad sketch, her argument ran that since market prices have nothing to do with desert, one can't argue that he or she deserves (in a moral sense) their pre-tax income, so that can't be asserted as a reason, in and of itself, why taxes should be lower.

Today, both halves of the duo at Marginal Revolution responded with criticism. I'm not sure I understood Alex Tabarrok's response, and if I do, I think he goes too far and ignores too many counterarguments. I accept what he says about misusing Hayek, as I have no idea about that. But I think his conclusion just doesn't follow from some of what he says. Here are the second and last paragraphs, which are all I want to discuss, though it can't hurt to read all four.

Hayek argued that the concept of social or distributive justice was "empty and meaningless." Anderson tries to use this argument, which she explains well, to suggest that any idea of libertarian or free market justice must also be empty and meaningless. Hayek, however, did not argue against rules of just conduct, "those end-independent rules which serve the formation of a spontaneous order." Among such rules may be Nozickian or Lockean rules of voluntary exchange.

True, it is an accidental fact that I live in a time and place where my skills are highly prized. In this sense, I do not deserve my income (i.e. my income is in part a function of things beyond my control). But I do deserve my income in the sense that it was acquired justly and to take justly acquired earnings may be an injustice.

Essentially, the problem with this response is that it ignores the most basic egalitarian arguments. What an egalitarian can do is grant that your income was acquired justly in the same limited sense that Tabarrok uses, namely that no particular person was wronged by the actions you took in getting the income. This doesn't cut off a Dworkinian argument that distribution should be endowment insensitive but ambition sensitive. That is, it seems unjust to many people that the "life chances" (broadly understood) of many people are dependent upon their birth situation in terms of both socio-economic stauts and genetic heritage. Now my argument here is also too fast and ignores various counterarguments, especially some in Anarchy, State and Utopia against Rawls, but this is only a blog post, not a book on the virtues of liberal egalitarianism versus libertarianism. But I just feel that Tabarrok's conclusion is undeserved, and taking his last line as clearly established is an error.

Oh, everyone should read Marginal Revolution, there's always good stuff there.

Update: Will Wilkinson has a great post arguing on the libertarian side of this debate, it's much better than what I wrote. In particular, this paragraph is key:

How close does Anderson get to committing the Fundamental Redistributivist Error (the FRE), which is the very common but nonetheless logically horrifying error of inferring from the fact that P doesn't deserve x to the conclusion that there exists someone who is morally authorized strip x from P. Somebody ought to write an article about the manifold expressions of FRE titled "How Not to Argue For Taxes."
That's not to say that there is no argument for someone or something being able to redistribute from P in a morally proper manner, but Will is clearly right that just showing non-desert doesn't get you there. Of course, Anderson doesn't say this either, since her topic is about fallacious arguments against taxation, she hasn't made her positive case for taxation yet.




Good news from Iraq with some context

It should go without saying that today's Iraqi elections are the most hopeful sign out of Iraq for quite awhile. Turnout figures which I've seen range from 57-72%. Where ever it actually ends up, this is really great news. Furthermore, the insurgency was clearly unable to really disrupt the elections, which should cause them to lose adherents as it made them appear weak. While they were able to murder 44 people, expectations were far worse. While there is nothing wrong with war supporters putting up exuberant posts following the days events, it would be great if they could stop trying to make grand points out particular of left/ liberal bloggers not saying anything about the elections. I find the blog discussions based entirely upon similar sins of omission so tiresome.

To take an example that some on the right are criticized over, if you don't have anything to say in a discussion on torture and abuse of detainees, I really don't see anything wrong with not saying anything. Absence of condemnation should not be taken as approval or as denial. If someone is approving or denying torture, that is of course grounds for serious criticism. In general though, until someone makes a positive committment to a position, I don't see a reason to go after them over their inaction.

For an interesting perspective on what the days events mean, see Kieran Healy's discussion of how the key feature of democracies is governments accepting loss. Therefore, it won't really be possible to see if there is a functioning democracy until the winners of this election are opposed and either obey the rule of law and step down or ignore the results.

Also, see Yglesias, going off of what Kieran says, bringing in the situation in Afghanistan, and adding some key points. Especially nice is this last graf:

If Iraq winds up in an okay state, all those opportunity costs will be forgotten and war opponents will (unjustly) appear to have been discredited by events. That's wrong, but I could live with it. It would be better, certainly, then us achieving public vindication by a spiral in which things get worse and worse. Speaking reality-based, war proponents have been thoroughly discredited ever since the national security case (WMD plus al-Qaeda ties) fell apart a long, long time ago. Anyone who actually proposed an undertaking on this scale for purely humanitarian purposes would be laughed out of the room, and rightly so. Beyond that, the odds of real success remain long, and even if we do succeed the humanitarian benefits of the massive increase in the Iraqi death rate caused by this adventure seem questionable.


Ethicist watch

I took last week off from blogging the ethicist because he wasn't all that interesting [read: I didn't have any particular bones to pick with him]. This week isn't looking much better for me. His attempt to address campaign finance rules is sort of odd, but I think that's all right for an advice column as opposed to someone whose job it is to develop policy. This point isn't original to me, but I think it's extremely clear that a lot of the derision Randy Cohen gets would go away if the name of his column changed to Ask Randy. He could make the same claims, true or false, and people would care much less just because he isn't calling himself The Ethicist. I don't have any issues with Cohen's first response, but I do have some believability worries with the first writer's story:

I teach sociology at a college-prep academy. Each year I do meditation with one of my classes. One student does not meditate but acts as timekeeper. At the end of the session, I admit I only wanted to see what a class would do with their teacher's eyes shut. The timekeeper reveals she was a spy and reports how many were looking out the window, etc. I then ask my students if this experiment is ethical. Most say yes. What is your view? Joseph A. Gironda, Bayonne, N.J.

My problem is that I can't believe this experiment can be successfully conducted in consecutive years. My experience is with a public high school rather than a college-prep academy, but it seems likely that inter-grade communication is extensive enough that at least one person in Mr. Gironda's class for a given year would inform at least one member of next year's class about this experiment, that person would inform others, and they probably wouldn't forget. I could be wrong about this of course, but the version of events it supposes just seems really unlikely to me. I'll try to address the second letter later.




Words of the Day

The work amok originally came from Malay, it was a term that meant “engaging furiously in battle, attacking with desperate resolution, or rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.” It was also used by the British to describe the Malay natives.

An Economist article discusses, inter alia, a dispute between Malaysia about whether the causeway connecting Malaysia to Singapore should be replaced by a bridge. What is the difference between a causeway and a bridge? How can you tell when a driving surface over water is a causeway and not a bridge? Vice versa?





Now this is an advertisement. Seems far more respectful than Fred Astaire and the vacuum cleaner was, and if you know the history of the Golf GTI (which well known in non-U.S. markets) it also does an excellent job of communicating the message about the car that VW wants. Briefly, the original was a big hit, later versions of all disappointed in one way or another, and now the new one is supposed to be great again. Oh, the actual dance moves in the ad aren't any more impressive than the ones done in the Make 'em Laugh number, but still really cool.

via Unfogged


Mr. Cheney meets Mr. Blackwell and more

Normally my reaction so a government official not dressing in the manner expected of him would be: Why in the world is this in the news? I like to talk about policy, not personal gaffes. I'm doing it now, and I still think it's sort of hackish. I'm bringing it up because of an article in the Washington Post Style section talking about Dick Cheney's dress at Auschwitz.

The relevant quote from the article is:
The ceremony at the Nazi death camp was outdoors, so those in attendance, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were wearing dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots. Because it was cold and snowing, they were also wearing gentlemen's hats. In short, they were dressed for the inclement weather as well as the sobriety and dignity of the event.

The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.

Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name....

Like other attendees, the vice president was wearing a hat. But it was not a fedora or a Stetson or a fur hat or any kind of hat that one might wear to a memorial service as the representative of one's country. Instead, it was a knit ski cap, embroidered with the words "Staff 2001." ...

It is also worth mentioning that Cheney was wearing hiking boots -- thick, brown, lace-up ones. Did he think he was going to have to hike the 44 miles from Krakow -- where he had made remarks earlier in the day -- to Auschwitz?
When I did a little more looking into it, I decided this is worthy of a news story In particular, the important aspect is that other countries will view it as a snub. A couple of anecdotes I found about this. A commenter named Mr. Jauk at Political Animal says:
All those of you decrying the non-newsworthiness of this post, should stop living in a cocoon. This stuff really does matter to people around the world. During the time that I was living in Croatia, Bill Clinton made a short visit to Zagreb (to meet with the President and other leading politicos) after having visited US troops in neighboring Bosnia.
Bubba showed up in his brown leather bomber jacket, and some oh-so-tight khakis (too many Big Macs at the Tuzla base, I guess), and for weeks all most Croatians would talk about was how utterly devoid of respect the gesture was. "He should have been wearing a suit", "couldn't he have changed on plane?", etc., were the comments. And this, during a time when the Croats universally respected him and the US govt for having helped during the war in the early 1990s. So don't think that this isn't a big deal.
Another blogger says that the Polish have been discussing this story for the last day and see it as an insult. I'm still not totally comfortable with this being a news story, but I don't really have anything else to talk about today.

Except that I've been working for a while on a rambling, semi-coherent response to the lead editorial (I'm not sure if it's behind their's pay wall or not) from last week's Economist which makes that contrarian claim that corporate social responsibility is bad, and that corporations do all the good they should do by being rationally profit-maximizing. I'm not sure when (or if) I'll get my response done, so to give some flavor of it, here is a link to a June NYTimes Magazine article which illustrates what I see as some of the Economist articles flaws. The article is by Michael Lewis, who is worth reading no matter what he's talking about and is especially good here. It's part of NYTimes archive, so normally you'd have to pay for it. Fortunately, someone took the trouble to copy and paste it onto their site, and I was able to find it there, rather than copy and paste it from Lexis myself. Ignore there annoying bright blue background, and read the article.




And Then There Were Three

The current sensation sweeping the blogosphere is to guess how many journalists have been paid by the Bush Administration to promote Adminstration policy as an independent voice without disclosing that they were paid to do it. So far there have been three. The most recent one to come out is Michael McManus, Salon has the story. He was paid $10,000 to promote marriage iniatives. If you haven't been paying attention, the original story (and still the most egregious) was Armstrong Williams beind paid $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind. USA Today broke that one. The second one to come out was Maggie Gallagher, who was advocating the constitutional amendment against gay marriage and other marriage related policies. She was paid $21,500. Her case, while still unethical, doesn't look as bad as the other two. She wasn't paid to advocate for the policy, but rather to consult on the development of the policy in the first place. Actually, that might be worse. It seems like she wrote articles advocating policy she helped design without disclosing her role in designing it. That story broke in the Washington Post. The next story will either be the Washington Times finding an example of Clinton having done this, or the New York Times finding two paid by the Bush Administration. That or a Murdoch owned paper finding a way to connect the stories to either a headless body sex/nudity, or both.

(Hat tip on the Salon story: BitchPhd).


Weekly West Wing Writing

Comments on West Wing 6-13: King Corn
One interesting thing about this episode is that I think it would be unwatchable if you weren't a longtime fan of the show. The opening and closing were both focused on the Josh - Donna dynamic, and in fact people who don't care at all about whether or not those two characters are going to get together would have very little reason that I can think of to watch this episode at all. Also, it seems like this season is going to feature a dynamic of half episodes on the campaign trail and half episodes in the White House. I don't think this change is a problem by itself, the issue is that the majority of the characters in the campaign trail sections are not nearly as developed as the White House characters. This could change if more is done to flesh out the campaign staffs, but there hasn't been much work in that area so far. The episode was really oddly lit. I suppose this was done to indicate "It's winter in Iowa." I actually think the different lighting was fine, since it did establish setting. What was annoying was the overuse of handheld cameras. As far as those go, restraint must be your watchword. I'm also happy that so far Vinick being made out as a more appealing candidate than Santos, that's an interesting and fairly novel element, since the audiences natural reaction is to go with the candidate that Josh chose. The episode felt sort of dragged out, a good bit of the stuff on screen seemed like filler, would have been better spent developing personalities for the newer characters or, if they couldn't do that, show a little bit of what's happening at the White House.

Grade: B




Blame Kiefer

The helicopter crash in Iraq today was both tragic and senseless. Similarly, the train derailmeny in California was also deplorable and a reminder, along with the Subway fires in New York this week, of the vulnerability of the nation's mass transit systems. But the morbid point I wanted to make is that I'm honestly very surprised that no one on television has pinned the inspiration for the guy who drove his Jeep onto the train tracks to the first episode of 24 this season. That episode starts with an act of terrorism in which a truck is driven onto the tracks to cause a train crash. I'm not trying to suggest that the person who drove on to the tracks actually was inspired by 24, since I'm sure multitudes of people have killed themselves in exactly that manner before. But I am saying that normally TV and other tabloid news is really fast to blame a tv show or movie for all sorts of tragedies. Columbine for instance. Maybe it will be in tomorrow's tabloids.


TV news sucks

[Paraphrasing] Story on NBC Nightly News: New study shows role of genes in obesity. This study compared the weight of children at six years of age to their mother's weight. It found that while there was no difference between birth weight for children with obese mothers and children with non-obese mothers, by age six children with overweight mothers were 15x more likely to be overweight.
Me: Wouldn't obese mothers feeding their children worse diets than non-obese mothers produce the same results? Couldn't be this checked by examining the children of overweight mothers who weren't raised by their birth mother? Hopefully, NBC just misstated the study and it actually does test the effect of genes on obesity.


Dems get it right

In a somewhat surprising show of principle, all eight Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary committee voted against confirming Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General. Especially interesting was Russ Feingold's vote against, since he is normally in favor of allowing wide discretion for a sitting President to choose their appointees. Insofar as the vote against Gonzales is understood by the public as a vote against torture, I think this was the correct choice politically, as well as morally. Despite some worries, most polling data shows the strong public opposition to torture and prisoner abuse. It's also fairly clearly the right decision as a matter of principle, since Gonzales work did have a substantial affect in muddying the waters on what is and isn't proper treatment of detainees. Also, it creates a counterpoint to claims that the Democrats are always calculating politically, rather than standing up for what they believe in. In this case it's obvious that Gonzales will be confirmed, and yet the Democrats are signaling their opposition to torture anyway. It's a shame they didn't take steps on this issue earlier, like during the campaign. Congratulations to Senators Leahy (VT), Kennedy (MA), Biden (DE), Kohl (WI), Durbin (IL), Feinstein (CA), Feingold (WI), and Schumer (NY).


Cultural Relativism

In Egypt, "Conservative commentators decried the demise of the traditional Egyptian family" because a young, unmarried woman decided not to have an abortion. When she went to court to get an order declaring the child's paternity, it ignited a national scandal. I just thought it was a neat twist to have family values on the side of having abortions, as opposed to the system here. Besides that, the whole situation is pretty tragic, especially the first paragraph which describes the standard response to pregnancy out of wedlock as abortion, surgery to "refurbish virginity" by restoring the hymen, and marriage to the first suitor.


Scientific Method

Sullivan: OSCAR SANITY: Kudos to the academy for ignoring the execrable "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the pornographic "Passion." Right-wing and left-wing ideologues will be disappointed. But what do they know about art?
I can think of at least three problems with this two sentence post. I don't think much of Fahrenheit 9/11 as a substantive anti-Bush argument, but it's certainly a well made film. It has artistic merit just from the way it's put together. Even if one thinks it's both a poor argument and contains many untruths, as Sullivan does, that doesn't mean it has no artistic value. I haven't seen the Passion, but I've heard it described by trusted sources as quite gruesome and challenging to the viewer. It's not clear to me that it's un-artistic or even bad art. But these are really my smaller problems, as it seems quite likely that it was a good choice not to nominate either of those for any awards, especially if you think intended truthfulness is an important quality for a documentary.

No, the real problem with the post is the implication from the last sentence that the Academy does know about art. This is not to say that the membership of the Academy don't include many excellent artists, which it does. It is instead to say that the Academy's track record has been uniformly horrible. As a small piece of evidence for this, I've conducted a brief experiment. The experiment is based on the premise that I know something about the artistic quality of movies, though I think it could be repeated by a wide range of people with similar results. I looked at a list of films made every tenth year from 1953 until 1993 without checking the Best Picture Winner for that year in advance (start date and end date picked randomly). If I hadn't seen any films I liked from a given year (1953), I moved to the nearest year where I had a strong preference. Not once did my choice accord with the academy's nor would the academy's choice likely be in my top five except for the first year listed where I just haven't seen enough to know. The Sting isn't a terrible choice for 1973 and might sneak into my top 5. I haven't seen anything from 1983 that I'd be comfortable voting for, and while Blood Simple from 1984 would be my pick, I also really like Amadeus. Since this experiment isn't showing the results I wanted I'm shutting it down. Especially since the Academy may very well have nailed 1993 (Schindler's List). It would definetly be in my top five for the year, and I'm not sure what I'd put in front of it. It just seems wrong to put Groundhog's Day ahead, plus I haven't seen Schindler's List for a long, long time.
Me Academy
1952: Singing in the Rain The Greatest Show on Earth
1963: Charade or The Great Escape My Fair Lady
1973: Mean Streets The Sting
1984: Blood Simple Amadeus

Update: It's not clear from the above that Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn't submitted for Best Documentary, so it had to stand or fall as Best Picture.





On Monday's Daily Show, the guest was Richard Viguerie. He's a pioneer of political direct mail who has been a key figure in the growth of the conservative movement. He was on there to promote his book, America's Right Turn, which was described as a handbook for how the conservative movement was built. One exchange between he & Jon Stewart caught my attention. Stewart observed how conservatism seems more like a movement while liberalism seems like an assemblage of unrelated causes. This may seem quite obvious, but it long been my opinion that there are no particular principles which connect most policy beliefs of conservatives with each other and that the same is true for most liberal beliefs.

To get the obvious part out of the way, a large part of the difference has long been that conservatives are more willing to tolerate inequality if the price is using the government's coercive power to remedy it, while liberals are more willing to use the government's coercive power to remedy inequality. I believe that is a very value neutral way to state the difference, though I'm open to correction in either direction. Except that if you think that statement is unfair to conservatives you're quite mad. It is not clear that this distinction applies to a Bushian conservative, since Bush has not demonstrated any affection for limited government. But even assuming that this is the fundamental distinction between conservatives and liberals, it doesn't do anything to explain many other correlations of views.

For instance, what does one's view on limited government have to do with pro-life versus pro-choice views? If anything, being in favor of less use of coercive power would bring one towards pro-choice, and being in favor of more use would make one more likely to be pro-life. The reverse is true on gun control, and I suppose there are some big government, pro-life, pro-gun control people. But this is still a very over simplified model. None of these views have any connection with the validity of any particular foreign policy view, and yet I would really be surprised to find more than a very few people holding the first three views who are against the war in Iraq. And this is still a radically simplified vision of the range of policy views. What does one's view on gay marriage have to do with being a limited government conservative? How about evolution/ intelligent design debates? Drug policy? Whether or not the United States government has engaged in torture/abuse, and what are proper interrogation policies? What about education policy? Environmental policy?

I just noticed this post might be taken as my saying it's really a shame that people don't just hew to one principle like small government or big government, and then arguing for libertarianism which actually does stick to the small government view in every case. That's not my point at all. My point is that since people's positions on many of these issues aren't based (and shouldn't be based) on just one principle of the type illustrated above, the ideological uniformity among people who are broadly conservatives or (in my opinion to a much lesser extent) liberals is really strange and that you'd expect to see more people with odd mixes of views on these different subjects. Part of me thinks this may be a naive point that everyone recognizes, but what the hell.


Obligatory Oscar post

I think I'm obligated to make some comments about the Oscars, but I haven't really paid attention to them for a couple of years. Plus I hadn't seen a lot of the 2004 films nominated. For instance, I've only seen 2 out of the 5 best picture nominees. Despite having not seen the film, my two cents are that I can't really imagine Finding Neverland being good. This also goes for Ray, but to a slightly lesser degree. Of the two I have seen, I liked Sideways and had a mixed reaction to Million Dollar Baby. I think that's in part it's because I had very high expectations for Million Dollar Baby and ended up thinking that most of it was just a cliched story well shot and well acted. So of the two I've seen, I would vote for Sideways, but not happily. As far as the two screenplay awards I've seen 40% of the nominees for those too. So really the point of this post is that I didn't see enough good movies this year to have an informed opinion.


Ministry of Clarity

For a while now, Brad DeLong has been using this very clever line: "I'll stop calling the Bush administration 'Orwellian' when they stop using 1984 as an operations manual." I recently realized why it's always bothered me. Shouldn't Orwellian mean "like George Orwell" or, alternatively "similar to the writings of George Orwell?" In this usage, doesn't it mean, "similar to the actions of the government of Oceania under Ingsoc" or, alternatively, "political tactics which Napoleon (the pig) would have approved of?" I wonder when Orwellian took on this rather counter-intuitive meaning involving aspects of well known Orwell characters. It seems like it could just as easily be being used to mean, "similar to the events described in Road to Wigan Pier."

Also, I don't think clarity is really an antonym to pedantry. I needed an antonym for the title of this post, but I couldn't really think of one.


Good teachers are good

I've been reading eduwonk on and off for a while now. It came highly recommended and I have definitely enjoyed reading it. However, while I've missed some posts, I think I could state the principles behind nearly every post I have read in two sentences. Principle 1) Teacher's Unions are opposed to merit based pay and pay based on working in the neediest areas for foolish and short-sighted reasons. Principle 2) Charter schools are a good thing to be experimenting with, and so far the results are quite positive. I think both of those principles are true, and have really found a lot of the anecdotes illustrating them from that site interesting. But the impression I get from reading it is that if teacher's unions these accept changes and some other minor ones, and charter schools became more prevalent, this would solve the United States' education problems. This just seems like too easy an answer to me. Maybe the problem is that I can't really define what "America's Education problems" are. Just saying that there aren't enough good teachers isn't even a starting point. The starting point would be defining goals for the education system as a whole, and I don't even know where to start on that.




I agree with the second part

For years, a pet peeve of mine has been the title of the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman and featuring a serial killer who bases his crimes on some number or other of deadly sins. The title of the film is spelled thusly: Se7en. Obviously the correct pronounciation of that is se-sev-en-en. Apparently, the plague of spelling in this manner is spreading and increasing in severity. Last night, CBS premiered a show called Numb3rs. Pronounce that. Also, am I the only person who associates Seven (sic) with the Patriot Act? One of the provisions of the Patriot Act which has caused the most commotion is the one granting access to library records. If you take Seven (sic) literally, that's nothing new.

(hat tip: Yglesias).


Judge Orth demonstrates dry humor

A funny excerpt from a serious opinion: Pope moved that we strike from the State's brief and appendix a selection from the Year Book of 1484 written in Medieval Laten and references thereto. The State provided no translation and conceded a total lack of knowledge of what it meant. The motion is granted. Pope v. State, 306 A.2d 1054 (Md. 1979).

That's all I know about the situation. Feel free to speculate about why Maryland would include a passage in their brief which they didn't know the meaning of, or if they know the meaning why they conceded "a total lack of knowledge."




Tempest in a teapot

As much fun as it is to criticize the President and his appointees, and as much as they frequently deserve it, I think the most recent criticism I'm hearing (via Mark Kleinman) is fairly specious. Alberto Gonzales appears to have not told the full story in response to one of the writen questions from Senator Leahy sent him as part of the confirmation process.

This particular question asked for a full description of the events when, in 1996, (then) governor Bush was called for jury duty. Bush publicly declared that he wanted to serve. However, he didn't fill in the part of the jury questionnaire asking about past arrests. When it turned out that it was a drunk driving case, Bush realized that his own drunk driving conviction from 1976 would come out. So Gonzales, the chief counsel to the governor, had a closed doors meeting with the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney. In this conference, he argued that having Bush serve as juror would create a potential conflict of interest in the situation that a request for a pardon came before him in his position as a governor. The dubious merit of this novel legal argument isn't important. What is important is that it led to Bush being dismissed from the jury pool and his DWI conviction not coming to light until almost the end of the 2000 campaign. The new criticism is that Gonzales failed to mention the conference in response to a question about the events surrounding Bush's jury appearance.

But the story about the conference isn't new at all, it was, for instance, in
USA Today in 2000, right after news of the DWI came out. That story doesn't mention Gonzales, that may just be because his name wasn't nationally known prior to Bush's election. Gonzales role was in the public record though, here is a March 2002 article that does specifically mention Gonzales's part in the meeting. So the new content of the story is that Gonzales didn't acknowledge something which everyone knows happened. The Newsweek story on the new flap(which is where I got most of the facts for this post) doesn't include the exact phrasing of the question Leahy asked, so it's unclear how misleading the response was. The story does however include quotes from the judge and defense attorney, which might create the impression that this is new information. But the 2002 story includes the same data, including the argument Gonzales made. So it is clear is that this isn't a cover-up, since it's a story that was published in 2002 and wasn't disputed by the administration at that time. Presumably, Leahy's awareness of this story is why he asked. While Gonzales not addressing the conference in his response certainly isn't praiseworthy, he hasn't denied that the conference took place or anything like that. There are surely far better criticisms to be made, and it's not clear to me that this is a problem at all.

Update: Yglesias makes far too much out of this incident.



I was playing around on Wikipedia earlier today, and decided to check if they had an entry on Chappaqua. They do. Most of the entry is just a summary of census data, but it also mentions the presence of exactly three businesses. First, the entry reasonably notes the global headquarters of Readers Digest. Then it moves on to Rocky's deli and Lange's deli.
I understand how Wikipedia works, that anyone can change any entry, but who thought that it was more important to note those two deli's than any other business? I may update the Chappaqua entry myself if I can think of anything substantive to put in there. If anyone has suggestions, you can leave them here or update it yourself. Maybe I’ll put in something about the government or ratings of the schools, or famous residents other than the Clintons and Vanessa Williams, if I can think of them. Except that the stuff about the government should go in the New Castle article, since Chappaqua has no government. Oh, and the claim that Rocky's is in Chappaqua as opposed to either New Castle or Millwood is just false.



There's been a conversation going on about the idea of demonstrative/expressive reading. Essentially, this conversation is made up of people talking about how part of the reason they read in public is so that other people will see them reading in public. Most of the people involved in this conversation talk about this being part of their past, which they have gotten over now that they're mature. Well, I still do it, and don't think there's anything wrong with this practice at all. I can see where there is a problem with changing what you're going to read based on how people will see you when you're reading in public, but I'm not at that level. Instead, I'm pointedly reading both classics and pop in public, since the image I'm cultivativing is that of an eclectic reader (or I happen to actually be an eclectic reader). So the fact that I want to be noticed reading whatever I happen to be reading and have someone comment on it does not change my actual choices of what to read, because there is nothing I wouldn't want to be seen reading. For instance, if I decided to read the Left Behind series, I would have no trouble being seen reading that. I may in fact decide to read it at some point in the future, since it would be interesting to see what was so popular.




Why didn't I write this

We watched I, Robot via Netflix last night. It's a good thing that I didn't remember the Isaac Asimov book very well - otherwise it might have spoiled the ending. What a close adaptation, a perfect realization of Asimov's vision on the screen - Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien has nothing on this winner! My only complaint about the movie was that I found it hard to hear, sometimes, what with Asimov spinning around in his grave so loudly. (via Abu Aardvark)

I fully endorse the above. I believe this post may contain less content written by me than any other. Or maybe the Ebert one did. If I write some more here about how little content this entry has, it will clearly have more content than the Ebert one. There. Now I'm done.


Empirical question

I am aware of two people who have seen Before Sunset, but not Before Sunrise. They didn't like Before Sunset. On the other hand, everyone I know who has seen both, including me, thinks both are great. So my question is whether or not Sunset establishes Jesse and Celine as interesting characters in and of itself. Based on my extraordinarily limited results, the answer is no. This seems like a reasonable hypothetical to me, but I can't really tell what I would think about the characters if I hadn't seen there first encounter. If anyone wants to compile a sequel depdency ratio, I'd be interested in contributing. Here's an obvious place to start. The valuation I place on Aliens has, I think, no relation to the valuation I put on Alien. I like both, but I like both independently. This isn't true of Sunrise/Sunset.


Things I never thought I'd see

Cabbie smoking a cigarette thinks the divider has some effect
Young mother thinks its ok to bring her approx. 4 month old to happy hour




Rules of thumb

I just happened upon Roger Ebert's movie glossary. It's a reasonably funny list of film cliches which he appears to have put together at some point in the middle of the 1980s. I thought these were some of the better entries. Check out the rest.

Idiot Plot

Any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.

Mid-Wife Crisis

Any character whose wife and/or kids are introduced more than an hour into the movie and who hugs and kisses any or all of them will be dead within the next 20 minutes. e.g., "Goose" in TOP GUN.

Third Hand

Invisible appendage used by Rambo in RAMBO, in the scene where he hides from the enemy by completely plastering himself inside a mud bank. Since it is impossible to cover yourself with mud without at least one hand free to do the job, Rambo must have had a third, invisible, hand. This explains a lot about the movie.


Words Mean Things

Section 703(j) of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says: Nothing contained in this subchapter shall be interpreted to require any employer, employment agency, labor organization, or joint labor-management committee subject to this subchapter to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of [...] an imbalance which may exist with respect to the total number or percentage of persons of any race, color, religion, sex, or national origin [...] in comparison with the total number or percentage of persons of such race, color, religion, sex or national origin in any community [...] or in the available work force in any community [...].

There are many deep and interesting things that might be said about this subsection. I'm not planning on saying any of them. My question is this: What in the world is "an imbalance with respect to total number"? I understand what an imbalance with respect to percentage is, but as far as I can tell an imbalance with respect to total number is not a meaningful phrase. If anyone can enlighten me I'd really appreciate it.


re: Strategery

Before I started blogging, I always wondered why bloggers would point out their disagreements with each other without talking to the person they were disagreeing with about it. So, when I tried to answer a question Drum was wondering about on Wednesday, I also e-mailed him a version of my answer. He disagreed with my prediction of what the congressional democrats would do, and in he certainly has better resources to know about them than I do.

Also, I'm trying not to just talk about current events, but it's so easy to blog about that. There is something new to talk about everyday. Furthermore, I've noticed a (very small) number of fairly regular readers. Why aren't any of you leaving comments? I find it hard to imagine that you haven't found fault in anything I've said. In particular, I'm referring to someone whose domain is (what are you doing for the inauguration?), someone at Bolt, Beranek & Newman (I don't know who you are) , & a couple of other regular readers.


Comments on West Wing 6.12

As I've said previously, Leo and Jed's friendship is a strong point of the show. But it didn't come in until nearly the end. When it did, it was almost too optimistic. I think it's great that Leo's pitching the idea of their last year being one great blaze of glory, but I'm not sure how realistic it is that this idea was so under the table until Leo brought it up. The end scene also made a good point about how crises distract from overarching goals. The episode was fairly low on humor, and all the character development was based around the characters reestablishing their relationships with Leo. In some ways it was a nice episode, but over the years there have been quite a few about the staff regaining their focus. Also, it was worse than last weeks episode. So I'd give it a B-.


Royal Rumble

I haven't watched wrestling since high school, but I just wanted to praise the ad running for the next pay-per-view. It features the people who (I assume) are the current most popular wrestlers in wigs and costumes, singing a west side story-esque song. The ad definetly makes buying the next PPV seem more appealing, though I can't really expalin how.




Master of their domain

In Property today we talked about Virtual Works, Inc. v. Volkswagen of America, Inc. (1999). This is going to be an oversimplification, but generally, the court says that Virtual Works' can't own the domain for the purposes of selling it to Volkswagen, and that in fact Volkswagen can demand that the site be transferred to them. I don't really want to discuss this case, but rather the law behind it. To the best of my ability to determine, the entire reason for this law is to prevent corporations from having to pay reasonably large sums of money to entrepreneurs. Essentially, the law prohibits the "bad faith" purchase of domain names identical or confusingly similar to a protected mark (e.g., VW).

Here's how I see the situation: Prior to someone registering a new domain name, the domain name doesn't exist. Someone chooses to bring that new thing into existence because they believe that someone else will value it. They spend $70 to register the new domain name with Network Solutions, and then wait to see whether or not some other entity really will value the domain name. If this is an accurate way of describing the case, then all that this law is designed to do is prevent speculating against the interests of corporations with protected marks.
To see how egregious this is, in this Virtual Works' really was operating an ISP for two years under this domain, they had purposes in buying it other than profiting from VW, but the fact that they at want point did try to sell it to VW for a high price and knew at the time of purchase that a situation where they were going to sell it to VW might eventuate.

What really bothers me for this law is that the prohibited behavior doesn't seem to be harmful to society at large in terms of causing an inefficiency or anything, so it's effect is just to increase the rights of a certain portion of society against another part.



I haven't been posting anything about Social Security because other people are doing such a good job in that area that I haven't had anything to add to the discussion. But today, Kevin Drum wonders: But I think Bill Thomas is right: after all the wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides is over, Bush's privatization plan will go down in flames...But here's the funny thing: surely Karl Rove knows this? Unless I'm missing something, it seems like a no brainer. So what's the point?
Maybe this is too obvious, but I've always assumed that if privatization failed, the point was to force the Democratic party to propose either benefit reduction, higher taxes, or most likely some combination of the two, pass it, and then be able to blame the Democrats electorally. While it is totally false, I would expect to hear something like, "Our individual accounts would have kept Social Security healthy without raising taxes, but Democrats not only insisted on raising your taxes, but raising your taxes to provide you with less. We used to complain about tax & spend liberals, but at least they were willing to give you back some of your money. Now they're just tax & tax."




Courts and Politics

There's an idea going around, which I have some sympathy with, that it's bad politically for liberals when policies which liberals support are enacted by courts rather than by democratically elected bodies. The idea is that when this happens it really motivates opponents of those ideas, because the ideas are being forced on them. The opponents then go out and dominate public conversation on the topic, while liberals sit back, content with the idea that the courts will defend their policies preference independent of the other sides voice being far louder in public debate. This story is told about, for example, gay marriage, abortion rights, and teaching of intelligent design in schools. I believe this story, insofar as it makes a prediction about the effect of a courts decision on political mobilization.

But the story has a lot of holes in it. It assumes that the same group of people who failed to get their policy enacted democratically are the people going to court to get it enacted anyway. But you can't bring a case in court unless you've suffered a legally cognizable injury. So if liberals fail at preventing a democratically elected school board from mandating the teaching of Intelligent Design, it's not being brought to court by "liberals" in general. It's being brought to court by the parent of a child who is being harmed by that policy because the child has had their freedom of religiong encroached upon. So the alternative to the political harm of court action is to tell the people who are actually being hurt by unconstitutional policy that they have no recourse. If it were the case that no one in the community where Intelligent design was being taught opposed the policy, no one could take it to court. This makes it clear that this is a straightforward example of protecting the rights of a (religious) minority from the tyranny of the majority, which is (in my understanding) part of the reason for the establishment clause in the first place.

UPDATE: In case my conclusion wasn't clear, I'm saying that even though it has negative political effects to work through the courts, it's not really sensible advice to tell other liberals to stop working through the courts for political reasons. The people doing it aren't, in general political actors, but people who feel that they or their child have been legally wronged and want to stop that from continuing.

This post might be clearer if seen in the context of the people it's responding to. While the discussion about policies being enacted via courts versus legislatures is in no way new, this particular round of the conversation started off with
Nathan Newman and then Kevin Drum responded. Then the original poster replied to that, and then Drum reiterated his original point, after which Yglesias provided a counterpoint to that. If you read all five of those linked posts, you will know more about this debate than I would imagine you want to. Also, I haven't read about half of them.


Other responses to Hersh

Best response: Bitchphd.
I was checking out her site because I figured she'd have a snarky response to Harvard President Larry Summers opening his mouth and inserting his foot on the topic of women in Science. And she did have one, but also a clever response to the Iran situation which involves recourse to a different fictional world. I think about the West Wing, she quotes this comic.

Most obvious response: Andrew Sullivan.
Says he'd be worried if the operations which Hersh exposed and the state department gave a non-denial denial to weren't happening.

Worst response: Little Green Footballs.
The following quote is not taken out of context in anyway, in fact the title of the post it's from is, "The Media is the Enemy." "But it’s discouraging that our government apparently lacks the will to prosecute leaks like this as some form of treason or sedition." I acknowledged that my first reaction was that he might be putting the operation in danger, but it certainly wasn't: "That man should be executed." Execution of course being a bog-standard punishment for treason. UPDATE: I should have read the next sentence more carefully, it's unclear whether he's saying Hersh should be executed or the people who leaked to Hersh. That next sentence reads, "Hersh is only doing what a mainstream journalist in the 21st century does—feeding off the bottom—but the ones who are really to blame are the consultants and intelligence officials who talk to him."

Second worse response: The most popular political blog in the world.
Quotes the above passage on treason and then says, "Indeed. And where is the journalistic outrage that accompanied the Plame story?" The story was published in the New Yorker today. Is the outrage supposed to occur simultaneously with the publication of the story? Also, he agrees on the execution part apparently.


Seymour Hersh & Iran

On Sunday night, I saw Seymour Hersh on CNN talking about the story he has in the current issue of the New Yorker. In particular, he was discussing covert reconnaissance being done on sites in Iran where weapons development, and especially nuclear weapons development was being done. I had three reactions to this, in rapid succession:

1) Publicizing this might endanger an ongoing intelligence operation against a government that no one could plausibly describe as our ally. The fact that Hersh has a right to publicize it doesn't mean he should always do so. I was very surprised with myself for having this reaction, and I understand that there are good reasons to publicize it even if it endangers the operation, in particular Hersh is trying to make the point that there will be more wars after Iraq. I'm not speaking to the accuracy of that point, but that is why Hersh was pointing it out.

2) Maybe the reason it was leaked to Hersh was so that the Iranians found out about it. It might make them easier to negotiate with. The problem with this idea is that even if they didn't have specific confirmation, the Iranians probably assume that we're spying on their weapons program. So it's not clear that publicizing the information would make them any easier to negotiate with. In the alternative, Hersh says that air strikes could come as early as this summer. Maybe that is the threat that whoever is leaking to Hersh wanted communicated.

3) If instead of being a story about the Bush Administration running reconnaissance operations against the Iraqis, it was a story about an administration whose motives I trust, like the Bartlett administration, running operations against the Qumaris, I would probably thing it was a pretty good idea to keep up to date on your potential enemies weapons development. So just because I don't trust the Bush administration I shouldn't be too quick to conclude there is anything wrong here. Yes, my third reaction really was to compare it to the West Wing.




Book 2

Never Mind the Pollacks, Neal Pollack. The book, is among other things, a parody of music criticism which simultaneously recaps the history Rock and Roll. It does this by tracing the life of the fictional music critic Neal Pollack. It's rather hard to write a review of it, since the main character shares the name as the author and is a music critic. For instance, the phrase, "Neal Pollack writes..." is ambiguous between the main character having written something and the author having written something. When the book is funny, it's very funny, but at least for me, the laughs were a little more spaced out than I would have liked. And while incessant name-dropping of semi-obscure bands is certainly a characteristic of musical criticism that does deserve to be parodied, it's also sort of a shout-out to people who read lots of music criticsm and are therefore familar with all these bands. I'm not, so the book lost me at certain points. One of the high points of the book was the series of lies Bob Dylan tells Joan Baez to break up her relationship with Pollack, another is the repeated theme of being hit by cars, and his version of how Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love got together is just hysterical. As far the version of Bruce Springsteen presented in the book goes, I'll just say that I hope Bruce has a good sense of humor.

I'm reading a couple of books of short stories now, so it's not clear what the next book I'll finish for the challenge will be.

Also, I discovered after reading this book that Neal Pollack a) has a his own blog and b) is also taking part in the 50 Book Challenge. If I were him, I would think it's very cool that someone is reading my stuff for a challenge I'm also taking part in.


The Ethicist takes on Kant and Singer?

This week's Ethicist column doesn't contain anything as bothersome as the one which sparked the first post on this blog, but I do have a bone to pick with. One good thing about the column is that it uses a word I'd forgotten. That word is testudinal, "pertaining to or like tortoise or tortoiseshell." Also, Cohen says something which Kant explicitly disputes but upon which I agree with Cohen.

Cohen, as part of a response to a letter which I'll address later on, talks about the hypothetical situation of a person who is (secretly) a member of the underground railroad needing to answer falsely when asked about the location of slaves by slave-catchers at her door. This hypothetical is meant to work as an intuition pump to show us that lying is sometimes permissible. Cohen goes further to say that lying is obligatory in that situation, but all I need to generate the dispute with Kant is the asserted permissibility of lying here. Kant argues that you cannot take an action which you would be unwilling to accept as a universal maxim. To show how serious he is about this rule, he looks at the non-identical, but quite similar situation, of your friend having run into your house because he's hiding from a murderer. The murderer comes to your door and asks where your friend is. Kant says it is not permissible to lie in this situation because to do so it to will the maxim, "It is permissible to lie." Kant then shows that this maxim is self-contradictory. However, he doesn't consider the idea that you could describe the action as lying to a known murderer when you have good reason to believe it will hinder his actions, and then will as a maxim that everyone does that. This leads to the conclusion that Kant's concept of categorical imperatives requires a theory of how precisely an action must be described in order to be workable. Also, it's an odd situation to use as an intuition pump, since it seems clear that the answer isn't to lie or not, but to try to physically detain the murderer. Finally, Cohen's right about the permissibility of lying to prevent the evil acts of others.

Cohen brings up his hypothetical in responding to a rather odd letter. The writer's "friend" sees a man who had tied fishing line around a turtle's throat and was letting his kids drag it up and down the path. She wants to stop this, but thinks that just saying to the man that it's wrong to do that will lead to a fight. So she says, "I am a biologist with So-and-So University. Turtles are toxic; they secrete a poison that may make your kids horribly sick." Cohen acknowledges that the lie about the turtle is not as clear-cut a situation, but concludes that the "friend" acted "reasonably, if imperfectly." Well, I'm not sure about that. The letter writer says that they "stop[ped] tormenting the turtle right away." But I assume that they not only took off the leash, but got rid of the turtle, since they were told that having the turtle could seriously harm them. If they lawfully purchased the turtle, is there a problem with keeping it, or just with treating it badly? Even if they found it and captured it, is it now considered wrong to take an animal as a pet? There are many children's stories where exactly that happens and it's treated as the basis for a healthy relationship. So either Cohen is advocating the quite radical position that owning pets is a sufficient evil to justify a lie, or he is just not thinking through the impact of the action which he approved of.

I guess I did have as much to say about this article as I did about the first one.




What was his Tipping Point joke?

Tyler Cowen's ultra brief review of Malcom Gladwell's Blink is the paradigm of pithiness. I really enjoy Gladwell's work for the New Yorker, so as soon as Blink is in paperback, I'll be reading it. Cowen quotes a brief excerpt and then makes the following comment, which I had to read over a couple of times to get the joke:That is one early passage from Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. So far I find the book intriguing but once I have read it I will offer a less accurate evaluation.

Blink is about how snap judgments are more accurate than deliberative reasoning in certain situations.


Hitting below the belt

I am now officialy a big fan of John Dryden. I've never see any of his plays, or read any of his other work, but he is the first listed user of the word "mawkish" in the OED. For this I have to thank him, because otherwise I'd be trying to figure out what word I should use to describe Million Dollar Baby. Actually, it's not the whole film that is mawkish, just the vast majority. A small portion of it is a very interesting musing on the selfishness of love. And the parts hi-liting the friendship between Morgan Freeman's Scrap and Clint Eastwood's Frankie are quite compelling, though they pale before the amazing example of friendship between two older men that John Spencer and Martin Sheen have compiled with their work on the West Wing. Actually, I thought all of the acting in the film was quite good. But the majority of the story is, on a basic level, a combination of the scrappy underdog makes good and the gruff (was the word gruff invented to describe Clint Eastwood?) loner with a heart of gold has his cold exterior broken through and finds a measure of happiness tropes. These are quite overdone and were hysterically parodied in Bad Santa. Bad Santa should be required viewing before making a film like this one, it would have provided a valuable lesson. Also, the voice over narration only detracts from the film, indicating a basic distrust of the audience's ability to understand fairly clear situations. The dialouge is a mixed bag with good lines ("We'll fly there, drive back) mixed with bad ("Every fighter has a certain number of fights in him, but no one ever tells him what the number is"). On a less serious note, I find it quite implausible that Hillary Duff's Maggie doesn't accidentally find out what her nickname means by reading her own publicity. At one point there is a specific mention of articles being written about her, and I find it hard to believe that these articles would just mention her nickname without explaining it. Oh, and I liked Eastwood much better as Frank Horrigan in In the Line of Fire.




Newdow watch

On Friday, Michael Newdow lost a suit which requested that an injunction be issued forbidding President Bush from having ministers or other clergy take part in the inauguration ceremony this Thursday. While I am very sympathetic towards Newdow's overall message that atheists are not treated as equals in American public culture, I think the court was right to reject the request for an injunction. Essentially, I think there can be a meaningful distinction drawn by George W. Bush's actions as the government and his actions as an individual. I am not sure that George W. Bush acknowledges that distinction, since (among other things) he appears to think it's acceptable to use tax funds to pay a journalist to act as an advocate of policies that he is in favor of. But that's a separate matter. What is of import here is that if George W. Bush (the individual) wants ministers to offer prayers at a ceremony to celebrate his (wholly unfortunate) victory, I don't think this constitutes a government action at all, so it cannot be a government action in violation of the 1st Amendment. I should note that I have not studied establishment clause jurisprudence in any real way, and that this is just my uninformed take on the matter.


Challenge Begun

I finished the two books that carried over from 2004, so I'm officially working on the 50 Book Challenge now. All I have to say about Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is that it would be worth reading entirely for the footnotes, and the footnotes aren't the best part. As for the other book, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, I found it very interesting for its discussion of fairly abstract arguments about the just distribution of resources in society and rather illuminating in its explanation of Feminist political philosophy, an area which I had essentially no knowledge of and found more interesting than I had (prejudicially) imagined. However, I did find it odd that there was no examination of foreign policy from a political philosophic perspective, as if philosophy had nothing to add in that area. For that matter, it is unclear how applicable any of the philosophical positions discusses are to the full range of policy issues examined in standard political debate.
Book 1: The High Window

Chandler, both here and in other of his works, seems more interested in writing descriptions of people and places than he is in the actual mechanics of mystery. This isn’t a criticism, because many people can write mystery novels, but only Chandler could give us Phillip Marlowe’s idiosyncratic view of the world. Chandler does an excellent job of establishing Marlowe’s perspective and transporting the reader into it. He even manages to make a lot of the hard-boiled dialogue come off as if people really spoke that way. One thing that didn’t work for me in the book was a sense of time passing. The plot unfolds in only a couple of days, but there seems to be far too much packed into it. Characters meet each other, interact, develop relationships, etc. These relations between characters seemed like they just spring out of nowhere. Every time there’s an explicit mention of a particular event only having happened a day before or just that morning I was thrown off the flow of story because it seemed like the event had happened much earlier than the book explicitly says it did.

I’m probably going to be reading through a large chunk of the Chandler oeuvre at some point in this challenge.


Easy charity

Go here before midnight Sunday (Australian time), make a comment, cause 3.45 (Australian) dollars to be donated to Tsunami relief. If you're wondering why someone would make the amount of their donation contingent upon how many strangers log into their web page, the answer I've come up with is that the method he used of making his donation public encouraged other people to pledge matching donations, which is what brought the amount up to 3.45 per comment rather than the one dollar per comment that the site's proprietor, John Quiggen, has personally pledged (up to $1000 Australian). Australia is fifteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, making it 7:33 AM on Sunday at the time I am writing this, and making midnight on Sunday in Australia 9 AM Sunday on the East Coast. Also, as of Friday the 14th, €3.45 Australian dollars could be exchanged for $2.62 US or €2 Euro, rounded to the nearest cent, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia.




This post brought to you by Tostitos

Some people (really, anyone who isn't a maniacal Randian) tend to be in favor of charities. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to note that Newman's Own Salsa is really awful. Do not buy it.


Free drinks and marginal benefits

During the past week I've been to a couple of Law Firm receptions, and I have more of them upcoming for the next month or so. For those who don't know, the firm rents out a room at a bar or restaurant for the night, announces it a couple of weeks in advance, and first year students interested in attending RSVP. Now I know why students go to these events. There are free hors d'oeuvres, drinks, and some associates and maybe a partner or two from the firm to chat with. I've been trying to come up with clever questions to ask in order to actually get some insight on the firm, but so far the best I've come up with is, "So what's your favorite project that you've worked on during your time at the firm?" Not too clever. But the thing that's bothering me (and others) is that I can't figure out why in the world the firms are doing this.

As PG says in the linked post, the firms have no need to court 1L's for the upcoming summer, since many of them already have all the 2L summer associates they want, and the ones that do want 1Ls are swamped with resumes as is. PG also suggests that they might be trying to build name recognition for future hiring periods. The problems with this idea is that students tend to choose the receptions for either the firms they're already interested in or for the one's at the best restaurants. Also, as far as I can tell, every large or mid-size firm sponsors a reception. So it's not clear what advantage these provide to one firm over any other particular firm. So my theory is that it must be a collective action problem.

I haven't researched this in the least, but I would guess that at some point in the past, a small number of firms, possibly one, started having these receptions and experienced an up tick in their recruitment. Other firms noticed their success and started emulating them. At some point when enough firms were doing this, it stopped having the effect of improving their recruitment numbers. This is an empirical claim which I have no evidence for, but the theory behind it seems correct. If it is, the reason the practice is still on going is similar toproblems with unilateral disarmament. If only one firm stops having receptions, they might suffer a downturn in their name recognition. But, if my theorizing is correct, every firm stopping the receptions simultaneously would leave them in exactly their current position, plus they could keep the cost of these receptions and their associates wouldn't have to answer the same questions over and over. On the other hand, maybe the associates enjoy the chance to get out of the office and talk to first year law students, I don't know. There are of familiar game theory issues here with trying to get everyone to agree to this and no real obvious to avoid the problem of one or more firms defecting.




Democracy demotion

Earlier this week, Will Wilkinson linked to an article by Michael Munger, Chair of Political Science at Duke. The article discusses the extent to which the United States is a democracy, what it really means to describe something as a democracy, and some confusions people have on the topic. In conclusion, he argues, "The framers of the U.S. Constitution fully recognized that there is nothing, nothing at all, inherent in democracy that ensures the freedom of persons or property." Now this seems obviously true, but the key word is ensures.

So, in comments at Will's site, I suggested that the article argues against a straw man, and that the interesting question is whether or not democracy makes individual freedoms more likely than other forms of government, and if so, how much more likely it makes them, not whether or not it ensures some particular outcomes. Munger, also in comments, gave a nice, but odd, response. He
says, "As for washerdreyer: Plenty of people DO believe that "love is all we need," and love=democracy. If you don't believe that...go out and tell some people! 'Cause you have already found the path of wisdom."
So I've got that going for me.

I guess I accept as an empirical matter that there are some people who think democracy is all we need, but I don't think it's very many of them. And I still think that just pointing out that democracy doesn't ensure liberal (small l) freedoms is not really an adequate answer to the question of how valuable democracy is.



In the midst of a post about splitting up the crime fighting functions and the counter-terrorism functions of the FBI, and possible bureaucratic mergers afterwards (crime fighting part of the FBI merges with the ATF and DEA), Yglesias uses the word "debacular." I recognize this as a form of debacle, but I'm pretty certain I've never seen this word before. The word only has thirteen hits on google, so it's not that common, but it doesn't appear to be somethign Matt made up. It's not in the OED though. Any ideas where this word came from or how new it is?


On Anderw Sullivan on Torture

It would be nice to live in a world where there weren't new things to say on the topic of torture on a regular basis. But we don't, and won't for quite a while, irrespective of the practices of our own government. Today, Andrew Sullivan links to a purported book review from this Sunday's New York Times Book Review. I say purported because, like a large number of books reviews, it doesn't spend much time talking about the books at issue. But the review does provide a good degree of depth on how widespread the practice using of very abusive and cruel tactics against detainees has been, and the Bush Administration's complicity in making the U.S. stance on torture anything but 100% against. It's fairly long for a book review, but very much worth reading. Oh yeah, the book review Sullivan links to is by... Andrew Sullivan (I don't really have any point in being cutesy with this last line, but it stays as is).

Since I don't know how many of my readers are familiar with him, a couple of comments on Sullivan. There are many areas in which I vehemently disagree with him. His views on all manner of redistributive policies (e.g. taxes, welfare, social security, etc.) strike me as rather wrongheaded. I also disagreed with his endorsement of the Iraq war, an endorsement which has not unsurprisingly waned, though it is still present. I also stopped reading him for a month or so because of his obsession with bashing Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11, though that is less of a substantive criticism and more of a "he was annoying me by being repetitive" issue. Finally, and the criticism of him which is most commonly cited to whenever any liberal expresses agreement with him, it was a huge mistake to describe (click on the link, then scroll down to Retract What?) some members of the Left as "a fifth column" on September 16th, 2001. Anyway, my point is that he is quite intelligent, worth reading on almost any issue, and frequently correct on issues other than the ones I've specifically noted my disagreement with him on. Also, he has been on top of (and condemning) Abu Ghraib and related torture issues since day one, and is an expert on gay marriage, having been involved in the issue since before almost anyone. Here's a link to his short bio, circa 2000.





Here’s a hypothetical. The school board of the town of Thalia decides on a curriculum in which they teach the kids that 2+3=9, the only information on a times table is the schedule of trains, the derivative of x2 is seventeen, there aren’t an infinite number of integers, the graph of 6/(4-x3) is an ellipse, and thousands of other false mathematical propositions. The members of the school board, as well as the parents of the children in the school, were educated outside of the town and are well aware that the information is false. Nevertheless, they re-elect the same school board members each time there is an election. This is because all the parents are practical jokers and/or hate their kids and/or want to see the results of this social experiment. Now imagine that the separation of powers is in flux. Should higher level state legislative bodies have the ability to mandate that accurate math be taught? Should Congress? Courts (at any level?) Does the answer on how this situation should be dealt with change based on how big of a majority support the school board? These ramblings brought you to me thinking what the debate over teaching intelligent design would be like if it weren’t for pesky issues about establishing religions.