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January 12, 2007
In the new issue of the Times Literary Supplement, there appears an interesting review-essay by John North on the topic of climate change. But wait, it's not what you think. This piece concerns the climate history that stretches back many thousands of years, a story that puts today's situation rather in perspective, if not in a cheery way.
Two things North gleans from the books under review: One is that the tale of the scientists and anthropologists who filled out the history of man on earth is a story of "the excitement of the chase for evidence." The other is that those researchers could tell us that the earth has proven itself alternately hospitable and inhospitable to human beings since long before we started affecting the weather. Discussing Chris Stringer's "Homo Britannicus," North writes:
Stringer, by aiming at as complete a history as possible, puts us well and truly in our place. Human absence is as important to his story as human presence. Climate change has meant that while there were tropical periods in which hippos swam in the Thames, there were other periods when the advancing ice left a terrain fit only for such hardy mammals as reindeer, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The underlying message is that our occupancy of these islands cannot be guaranteed for ever.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 04:41 PM
January 12, 2007
I'm a little behind on this, but I wanted to note that Maud Newton, who has good taste in books, has pointed out a novel that was among her favorites of 2006 but was left out of discussions of the year's best books. Calvin Baker's Dominion, which was passed over for review, it seems, in most major papers and magazines, tells the story of an African family trying to establish a foothold and even an estate in America in the century preceding the Revolutionary War, time of slavery of course.
The opening of the novel, quoted by Newton in her endorsement, caught my eye:
They ate the dead that first winter on the land, such was their possession by vile hunger, mean desperation, and who can say what else other than it was unnatural. Any decent history will vouch for the truth of that. And, according to lore, the majority of the graveless sacrificed were uneasy souls, who walked certain nights on top of the earth -- haunting not just the ground of their defilement but all the contiguous lands -- until they possessed the entire continent as surely as if they had been more fortunate in life.
Ould Lowe, one from that legion of unblessed, had prowled the wilderness since anyone could remember. Each Sunday he could be seen standing atop the hill on the southern side of the lake, ululating as any wild beast, or grief stricken man, from the first moments of Creation.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:33 PM
January 12, 2007
As noted by Daniel Drezner, two coups for the blogosphere today. (Are we stuck with that word forever? I still cringe at it, but how else to put it?) One is that Opinio Juris, a blog of international law and politics, will have as its featured guest blogger next week a sitting member of the Bush administration. Lee Bellinger is the State Department Legal Adviser and the former Senior Adviser to Condoleezza Rice, and will post six times over the course of the week. Reader comments on his posts will be permitted, though they will be moderated (extra carefully, I'm betting). Isn't it interesting, by the way, that a warning about comments here, which the Opinio Juris announcement contains, seems absolutely in order, whereas if Bellinger made an open speech at the 92nd Street Y in New York, we would pretty safely assume shame would prevent any outbursts? The mores of the Internet.
The other coup is that the 100 press seats to the Scooter Libby trial will be allocated not only to traditional media but also to two bloggers. Several bloggers will rotate in, including Rory O'Connor and James Joyner.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 11:29 AM
January 11, 2007
Jane Galt, a mostly libertarian economist who writes the blog Asymmetrical Information, has written a post on the very issue I discussed with regard to an Economist post about the Stern Report on the economic costs of climate change -- whether it is valid to value future people and problems at precisely the same weight that we value today's, as the Stern Report appears to do.
Galt's is a rather wide-ranging and perhaps undisciplined discussion; I'm not quite sure what her bottom line is. Surprisingly, she confesses that we need aggressive government action to halt global warming and lends her support to emissions taxing and caps. "(Yes, yes, I know: I'm not a real libertarian. You may have my card and my secret decoder ring back.)" And about Stern's decision to treat future people the same as we treat present ones, hers is a balanced take. She acknowledges that Stern's is a radical viewpoint, even if it doesn't seem so at first glance, that would require a reworking of many of today's policies and practices. Nevertheless, she's unwilling to treat it was a purely economic or practical problem, and this is what seems to me most interesting about her post:
It's a moral philosophy problem: are we, or are we not, entitled to privilege our own interests over the interests of those who are not yet born, but probably will be? Otherwise, the low social discount rate is just a pseudomathematical attempt to dress up your preferences as science....
Can one reject a compelling moral precept just because it's nearly impossible to live by? That's a question that devout Christians wrestle with every day. I am still thinking through this question. But my instinct to reject the precept simply because it would require me to overthrow half of my policy positions is not, at first glance, an admirable one.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 05:50 PM
January 11, 2007
The Institute for the Future of the Book is a kind of think tank and Web site devoted to analyzing and leading the way in the onrushing digital age of publishing. They're on to some pretty interesting thoughts and experiments.
Last month they published the Iraq Study Group Report in a format of their own devising -- known in-house, they say, as "Comment Press" -- as they explain here. (Also explained is that they are doing the same thing with last night's speech by the president.) This is a joint project with Lapham's Quarterly, a new magazine founded by the editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, Lewis H. Lapham. The idea behind "Comment Press" is to give users a chance to annotate the document with their own comments, isolating a particular paragraph or page, or commenting on the whole document (though the last seems to defeat the purpose). It works beautifully, after a short learning curve. This could really open up some new doors, particularly if others try to compete and improve the model.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 02:02 PM
January 11, 2007
Sorry about the flu-related hiatus yesterday. Just a quick note that we now have a new instance of harnessing the collective judgment of online readers to shorten the path to publication, a phenomenon I wrote about in an article for Ideas and a follow-up post here.
Touchstone, a division of the venerable New York publishing house Simon & Schuster, has agreed to publish the winner of a fiction-writing contest held online at Gather.com, a social networking site similar to Friendster or MySpace. This is an even more risky and powerful endorsement of the collective judgment of Internet users than The Frontlist or the Zoetrope Virtual Studio, which only promise that someone in power might read the top writing; now Touchstone is stuck having to put the winner between covers no matter what they think.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 11:59 AM
January 11, 2007
I forgot to mention that the vinegar-beer taste tests took place at two pubs at MIT: The Thirsty Ear and the Muddy Charles. (Despite its popularity, the curious brew has not, as of yet, appeared on their regular menus.)
Posted by Christopher Shea at 09:29 AM
January 10, 2007
I'm a sucker for this kind of social-science study. The December Psychological Science has an article that demonstrates just how manipulable our judgments about taste are. (Literal taste, in this case, but the study is relevant to broader conceptions of taste, too.)
A Columbia business-school professor and two MIT business professors -- Shane Frederick and Dan Ariely -- tested how people react when you put a few drops of balsamic vinegar (Trader Joe's) in their beer (Sam Adams). Vinegar, the authors explain, is "a beer flavoring that most participants find conceptually offensive, but that does not, at this concentration, degrade the beer's flavor (in fact, it slightly improves it)."
Asked in the abstract what they think of the idea, some 80 percent of participants in one survey said, basically, Yuck. That's what you would expect.
But when the professors administered a blind taste test, 59 percent of the participants actually preferred the beer with vinegar to an unadulterated glass of Sam Adams. (During the test, the scholars dubbed the augmented drink "MIT brew.")
In another test, however, in which participants were told ahead of time which glass of beer had vinegar in it, the proportion preferring the vinegar beer dropped to 30 percent. Preconceptions shaped the subjects' taste judgments.
If you follow a different order, however -- 1. taste test, 2.explain which beer includes vinegar, 3. ask which beer participants prefer -- the preference only drops to 52 percent. That suggests that people's actual preference for the vinegar-beer is fairly strong.It can survive the shock of learning what it is they were drinking.
The authors link their findings to others from the psychological literature: For example, give the same ice cream two different labels, "low fat" and "regular fat," and people will say the high-fat product tastes better. And they'll eat more of it.
(Access to Psychological Science requires a subscription, but you can read an abstract here.)
Posted by Christopher Shea at 04:27 PM
January 10, 2007
Second-best Dig cover, ever
In response to my Brainiac post, last night, about Joe Keohane's departure from Boston's Weekly Dig, and my complaint that Keohane was the only good thing about that periodical, Dig founder and publisher Jeff Lawrence writes:
I'll never forget making Joe the offer [to edit the Dig], he said no twice over a pint at Foley’s, and I might have begged him in between, because I knew then what I had always known: if this paper was going to grow and thrive, having a genuine voice at the helm would be of the utmost importance, and Joe was clearly that voice. Without experience and a bucket full of fear, he transformed my fledgling little rag into something I honestly consider to be one of the best written publications of its kind.
HOWEVER, and I'm sure Joe has said as much to you but it's worth repeating, we do actually have a great editorial team here beyond him. How can I be so certain? It's one that Joe put together himself, so that when he finally did leave, we'd be better off than the day before. I hope you'll still pick [the Dig] up post-Keohane and enjoy our next prose.
Actually, Keohane has never said anything to me about the quality of the editorial staff at the Dig, but I do think he had more leeway to hire and fire than we do, for example, at the Globe. So chances are that he does, in fact, think the folks he's leaving behind are good at what they do.
So... I still don't think the Dig will be anywhere near as good as it was under Keohane. But like I wrote to Lawrence, what else am I supposed to read on my Wednesday morning train ride, the Phoenix?
Best Dig cover, ever
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 02:59 PM
January 9, 2007
Today on "Fresh Air," Terry Gross had a long interview with GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who's known for the kind of strategic relabeling that transformed the inheritance tax into a "death tax" and global warming into "climate change."
Luntz has just published "Words that Work," a book explaining how we can all communicate better by using his insights. In today's interview, he earnestly (though not convincingly) insisted that his only goal was to clarify the truth for the American people. It's worth a listen, if only to marvel that he can keep the radio equivalent of a straight face throughout.
His message is not new, though; what caught my ear was a hint of etymological reanalysis suggested by a particular pronunciation. As Luntz explained that environmentalism had given itself a bad name, he said, "A conservationist is seen as someone in the MAIN-stream. An environmentalist, more often, is seen as someone who is more EX-treme." An indifferent speller might well have thought he was contrasting two kinds of stream (or streme).
But of course there is no stream in extreme. The stream that flows into the river is a Germanic word, native to English from the beginning. Extreme, rooted in the Latin extremus -- "far out" -- doesn't come to English till circa 1500. The meanings contrast nicely, but the words aren't even kissing cousins.
Yeah, you know that, and I know that, and probably Frank Luntz knows that. But what about the people who generated the 400,000+ Google hits for exstream? All punsters, or victims of a new folk etymology?
Maybe our great-grandchildren will picture exstreamists as the losers who watch from the riverbank as the sensible people sail by on the mainstream. If "climate change" leaves any riverbanks behind, that is.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:43 PM
January 9, 2007
No political commentary intended here, but P. O'Neill, at the blog Best of Both Worlds, points out an amusing grammatical glitch in a Monday Wall Street Journal editorial:
[T]here are many serious people who believe success is still achievable in Iraq. They include retired four-star General Jack Keane and military historian Fred Kagan, who recently worked with some of the military's brightest officers to suggest a plan to secure Baghdad under the auspices of the American Enterprise Institute.
Posted by Christopher Shea at 10:24 PM
January 9, 2007
Back in October, I mentioned here in Brainiac how much I'd enjoyed having a beer with Joe Keohane, editor of Boston's Weekly Dig since 2003. Singlehandedly, he has transformed a once-lousy altweekly into a lousy altweekly with a brilliant editorial (by himself) and a handful of other great features (written pseudonymously, for the most part, I suspect, by himself) that spoke truth to power: City Hall, State House, and Boston Globe.
Since 2003, I have picked the Dig up every single Wednesday morning and read it, laughing aloud, on the train to work. So it was a blow to hear, today, that Keohane is quitting to become a freelance writer. Although his official announcement doesn't say so, one fears that he -- like most of the local writers I've admired -- will soon leave town for a city where a freelancer might actually make a living.
Not that Ideas hasn't done its part to keep Keohane in town. We've hired him to write about Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here," and J.P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man." Keohane is the kind of thinker and writer I was talking about in my Brainiac post about The American Scholar: He's an authentic public intellectual, conversant with the past and outraged about the present, immune to the allure of academe, funny and smart, eloquent and bloody-minded.
So... Joe, I applaud you, since quitting your job is a brave and creative act. But Boston will sorely miss your influence.
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 07:37 PM
January 9, 2007
A couple of months ago, I blogged on multiple occasions about the hot debate surrounding the use of Microsoft's PowerPoint, an application designed to create slide presentations, as an intellectual tool for digesting and presenting information and opinions.
Now we have the strange and sad story of Capt. Travis Patriquin, who created a cartoonish PowerPoint slide set that depicted the path to victory in Anbar province, and, by extension, in Iraq as a whole. It made the unofficial rounds among the coalition ranks.
The presentation makes some glancing criticism of the military, for instance by saying that 80 pounds of battle gear actually make it very difficult to do battle, even if safety is greatly improved. But on the whole it's just one grunt's view of the right strategy, outlining both the frustrations of distinguishing good guys from bad, and the way to circumvent that problem -- mainly by approaching and recruiting the sheiks (rather than the politicians) for help. Capt. Patriquin writes, at the bottom of a slide, "The Sheik brings more Sheiks, more sheiks bring more men. [G.I.?] Joe realizes that if he'd done this three years ago, maybe his wife would be happier, and he'd have been home more."
Capt. Patriquin was killed on Dec. 13 in Anbar province by an improvised explosive device.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 03:42 PM
January 9, 2007
The Sunday before last, I wrote an article in Ideas about new online fiction writing sites, like The Frontlist and Zoetrope Virtual Studio, that offer not only a writers' workshop and a relief from loneliness but also a chance to circumvent the slush pile by rising to the top of the sites' rankings and getting noticed by agents and publishers.
Now the British literary agency Christopher Little, best known for representing the author of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling -- talk about putting big bucks in the eyes of writers -- is sponsoring a 1,500-pound prize for fiction writers in the City University of London program. As with The Frontlist and Zoetrope, the real prize for the budding Rowling, I suspect, is the chance of publication -- specifically, that Christopher Little will go that last step and print the winning work. (Clearly they'll get the first crack at whatever comes out of this venture.) Too bad the contest is only for students at one school, but it's an interesting model for others to follow. I wonder if organizations like the NEA or the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts would consider a competition with publication as the treasure at the end of the rainbow.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 01:25 PM
January 9, 2007
Last Friday, I wrote about the 75th anniversary of the journal The American Scholar, and Evan and Chris responded in these pages.
I also received a friendly response from Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar. I'd made one criticism in my write-up, asking: "Who are the intellectual giants and provocateurs of today? One would like to see their names appear on the cover of The American Scholar; alas, I have not seen them appear there so far during Wilson's tenure."
I think the magazine is full of the sort of person you mention from the excerpts. Ted Widmer himself is an Arthur Schlesinger Jr. type, having worked inside government as a speechwriter for Clinton. Garry Wills, to my mind our premier public intellectual, was in the Scholar three times in 2006. The two people in our banner for the Winter 2007 issue, Ethan Fishman and Nick Bromell, also qualify. See our piece by Brian Boyd in the Autumn 2006 issue. The editor of Arts and Letters Daily said it was the most requested piece he had last fall, and it's a very serious piece of work on a big subject. Others who have appeared on our cover: Adam Goodheart, Amitai Etzioni (twice), the new senator James Webb, William Deresiewicz, Ingrid D. Rowland, Donald Worster, Josiah Bunting, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Eugen Weber, Philip Alcabes, Emily Bernard. These names don't have the historical resonance of the names you mention, but it's worth remembering that some of those people began to establish their reputations in the Scholar.
I didn't really mean that the Scholar should publish more famous intellectuals (though what I wrote could easily be construed that way). I meant that TAS should publish up-and-coming thinkers and writers whom we will one day consider the great minds of the 2000s. Of course, this is far easier said than done, as those of us who have ever edited an intellectual journal, or newspaper section devoted to ideas, know all too well. Wilson proudly claims that he is doing just that, so it could be that I was unfair, and will have to publish yet another retraction.
First, though, I've got to re-read the essays he mentions. Good thing the newly redesigned American Scholar website is (as Chris pointed out) so easy to navigate. Here, for example, is Brian Boyd's Autumn 2006 essay on what proponents of Theory could learn from bioculture. I'll return to this topic in the near future...
Posted by Joshua Glenn at 12:41 PM
January 9, 2007
Some time ago, I blogged here about Arnold Schwarzenegger's hopes of addressing the problem of California's 6.5 million uninsured citizens -- actually uninsured people, since that count includes immigrants both legal and illegal. Now those hopes have taken a big step. We can call them plans now, and here they are.
As predicted, Arnold's proposals are likely to tick everyone off. He wants to spread the burden of insuring everyone in California between doctors, hospitals, individuals (who will be required by law to sign on), and employers large and small. The small employers, who are at present most likely to not offer insurance, are likely to put up the biggest stink. They or the doctors, who are used to charging more or less whatever they want and being reimbursed in full (except when billing Medicare or Medicaid or their state equivalents).
But progress means pain, you gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet, etc. It's hard not to admire the showbiz governator for giving this a whirl. As some have argued, Arnie is going beyond Massachusetts' model, which he ardently followed and supported, because he's gathering men, women, and children into the safety net. Will Mitt Romney look westward and respond, especially given his presidential hopes?
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:32 PM
January 9, 2007
A very interesting and wide-ranging post at the Economist blog ties environmentalism and abortion. That's right. The blogger -- anonymous as ever, this being the Economist -- notes that the Stern Report, a document prepared for the British government on the economic costs of global warming, uses as an assumption the idea that future lives are worth just as much as present ones.
This approach has been disputed by William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, and he is right to argue that in ordinary intuitive logic this is a radical notion. How, then, to justify the legality of abortion, the Economist blogger and Nordhaus ask, if future lives are just as valued? Indeed, how to justify the idea that I am more valuable than a person yet to be conceived?
It's a question that has nagged ethical philosophers for ages. Strange that it's now entered the sphere of economics as a matter of debate. But we all have to wrestle with what a "fair" burden our grandchildren should bear for our current environmental state of affairs, not to mention other social problems we're sure to pass on.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 10:38 AM
January 8, 2007
Regarding Josh's appreciation of the new, Robert Wilson-edited American Scholar -- well, he's been in place two years -- I would take non-aggressive issue. Fadiman, a woman with a charming authorial voice, brought a great taste in prose to editing the magazine. Style reigned, and her fairly constant focus was on a certain kind of highbrow personal essay, with a hint of scholarship underlying most pieces. What was laudable about that is that no other magazine does it, really. Everyone seems to love the occasional personal essay in the New Yorker -- a family essay, a Sedaris bit, an essay on a wife's miscarriage (the last, by Daniel Raeburn, is well worth digging up). And yet no magazine really focuses on the genre, despite the recent success of memoir as a book-length project.
One of Fadiman's find was a young writer of extraordinary powers named Adam Goodheart. Another, apparently, was Brian Doyle -- not the Yankee second baseman of the '70s but a consistent American Scholar contributor who showed up elsewhere quite rarely. Where can I find him now? He seems to have parted ways with The AS, as nearly the entire staff did, in protest, when Fadiman was unseated.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:55 PM
January 8, 2007
Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution points to a paper by an all-star team of economists who have done a rigorous study of what the grades of first-year graduate school students actually predict at the nation's top economics programs. (Similar studies at undergraduate programs have found, to my knowledge, that freshman grades predict quite a bit, including final transcripts and job market success.)
One result: "Students who attended elite undergraduate universities and liberal arts colleges are more likely to be placed in top ranked academic jobs." This is not surprising and squares with the anecdotal experience of my friends and acquaintances in grad school. (They all seem to hate it, by the way, as Josh apparently did.) Another principal result, as Cowen highlights:
[W]e find that first-year Micro and Macro grades are statistically significant predictors of student job placement, even conditional on Ph.D. completion. Conditional on first-year grades, GRE scores, foreign citizenship, sex, and having a prior Masters degree do not predict job placement.
I'd call the second sentence of that the most interesting. A lot of factors there are overshadowed by first-year grades. That GRE scores say little is surprising to me. Maybe having a knack for graduate school is a more specialized skill.
Posted by Evan Hughes at 12:07 PM