29 April, 2009

Father Rawls

Those Rawls-followers out there may enjoy this article about this senior thesis in the religion department.

Swine Flu-alia

Two great ads promoting vaccination during the 1976 epidemic:
The second one is priceless.

In case anyone is as fascinated as I am by the swine flu, here are some blogs I've been following:

Effect Measure - A public health blog with a progressive twist. Here's a kind of scary post about our lack of preparedness in case the pandemic does actually get worse.
Virology Blog - Less public-health-y and more science-y. Here's a post about how we may (emphasis on the may) see the flu disappear in the US relatively soon, spread throughout the South, and return in a more virulent form in this autumn. I found this somewhat reassuring, since we'll be well on our way to having a vaccine by then.

Here is an economics paper (unfortunately gated) that uses the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 to look at the effects of in utero flu exposure on outcomes later in life. For example, they estimate that males whose mothers were infected during pregnancy had 5-9% lower incomes on average.

Here is a daily updated confirmed case count.

Why am I fascinated? Probably to subvert my own fears, in the same way that one can be fascinated by severe weather. But influenza and viruses more generally are a really interesting phenomenon. The seasonal flu stays "alive" all year by traveling between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, causing diametric flu seasons in each one. It constantly shifts and morphs through different genetic variations, seeking that which will be most effective in promoting its own propagation. It's pure evolutionary logic at its best...and worst.

not just ANY facebook

it's Barack Obama's facebook....well it's Slate's version of it

a nice break from a long day.

28 April, 2009

In case you were thinking of blaming economists for the financial crisis...

...you may want to take a look at this first:

The late twentieth century was the heyday of deductive economics. Talented and facile theorists set the intellectual agenda. Their very facility enabled them to build models with virtually any implication, which meant that policy makers could pick and choose at their convenience. Theory turned out to be too malleable, in other words, to provide reliable guidance for policy.

In contrast, the twenty-first century will be the age of inductive economics, when empiricists hold sway and advice is grounded in concrete observation of markets and their inhabitants. Work in economics, including the abstract model building in which theorists engage, will be guided more powerfully by this real-world observation. It is about time.

Should this reassure us that we can avoid another crisis? Alas, there is no such certainty. The only way of being certain that one will not fall down the stairs is to not get out of bed. But at least economists, having observed the history of accidents, will no longer recommend removing the handrail.

Well played, GOP

If you haven't heard yet, Specter defects. I, for one, applaud the GOP's strategic foresight -- maintaining an ideologically pure caucus is much more important than that extra senate seat. It will be interesting to see how or if his voting changes -- will he move from a conservative that often votes with Democrats to a liberal that often votes with conservatives?

Compare this with the way that Joe Lieberman was treated within the Democratic caucus after endorsing the opposition presidential candidate and regularly deriding Obama on the campaign trail. Sure, revenge may have been sweet, but it also would have been counterproductive. Confident, capable political parties/coalitions can withstand dissent and craft compromises based on the common ground that does exist. Republicans...not so much.

Restructuring Academia

Related to Eremita's earlier post, anyone have thoughts on this op-ed?

GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).
The author has some provocative ideas about how he thinks academia should be restructured, including more inter-disciplinary programs. (For now, I will just say that this seems to apply far more to the humanities than the natural sciences, with social science somewhere in the middle.)

UPDATE:Brian Leiter and his commenters do not like this proposal, nor do they have anything good to say about interdisciplinarity.

26 April, 2009

Culinary Intimations

The fruits of a conversation with Spencer tonight.

I've been experiencing a wierd disconnect between being as old (still quite young, obviously) as I am, and wanting to feel younger by doing the same things or acting the same way as I did throughout most of college. Spence said something that set me off thinking: "insofar as I have a hobby, it would be cooking."

It's a big mark of our twenty-something generation--experimenting with different culinary styles and being more or less dedicated to eating well as a lifestyle choice. I think it's great, because as a lifestyle choice, cooking for one's self is creative, healthy, conversive, and very much a community builder.

Like the 8-year Cabot cheddar I've been enjoying lately, I feel that maturity set in without my even noticing it. A big part of that is the intentionality that goes into food these days. When I say "eating well," I think of eating healthy, as well as interesting and flavorful cuisine. Maintaining that choice as an individual or couple requires a lot of planning and care. If I don't think about what I'm eating for dinner a day in advance, I end up scrounging odds and ends out of the refrigerator all night like a pre-pubescent boy. It struck me the other day that Lupe and I have "standbys" that we generally have the fixings for on hand. Light cream cheese spread on grape tomato halves wrapped in a spinach leaf is particular favorite recently.

Shopping for food is regular and important event because it represents a more or less intentional plan for the next two weeks or so--compared to what I used to do, making smaller stops at the grocery almost every day or two. It's a decision about what life will look like, what's important to the individual, and a chance to develop tastes.

Similarly, entertaining friends has noticably become more centered around preparing dinner for a group--and I'll take this opportunity to apologize for my Pad Thai and promise to learn what went wrong and fix it--and bringing people together. That practice is downright ancient, really, and I think it speaks a lot about what, as social beings, is and has been important to mankind for a very long time. I feel like I've reached a point where gathering people together and sharing my table with them is one of favorite things to do. I look forward to it all the time, and I relish discussions with friends about new dishes to try. Example: tortillitas. Deliscious, easy, alterable, and I have the stuff on hand now. Love it. Kudos to Elliot.

So, just some musings since we've had a dry spell.

16 April, 2009

Ideas or Interests?

A point of disagreement that often comes up on this blog is whether it is ideas or interests that drive changes in the world. Are the ideas that are discussed in political forums actually what is at stake? Or are the ideas that are adopted by parties in the public debate merely rationalizations of those parties' interests?

Marx is a puzzling example of this question. Marx's idea was that history is essentially deterministic, a series of phases that transition into one another due to broad economic forces. In other words, it is economic interests, not philosophical ideas, that ultimately matter! Of course, this idea then became the basis of many a revolution and changed the landscape of the world dramatically--but was it the idea that did the changing or was it merely adopted by revolutions that would have happened anyway?

Now, we have Ezra Klein asking the same question about John Rawls. What would be different about American politics if John Rawls had never existed? Sure, he articulated a theory of justice that concords well with Democratic politics, but would those politics not have gone on without him? Neil Sinhababu responds to say that America just isn't that interested in public intellectual debate these days--ideas, at least academic ones, don't matter all that much and political impact needs to come from other sources. Then Yglesias says hold on a minute--just because political philosophers don't have much impact doesn't mean that ideas in general don't have impact and he cites three examples where bad ideas have in fact had a bad impact. In an unrelated post, Dani Rodrik falls on the same side of the argument as Yglesias--interest groups have power, but how they are allowed to direct this power is determined by the "ideas in the air".

In any case--there a wide range of views to adopt, because there's little evidence on this question--but it seems like an important one. Thoughts?

15 April, 2009

Fake Fake Coffee

I found it. After years of not searching, I have found it. Accidentally. The only coffee drink I will ever like.

Yes, I admit from the beginning that while refusing to drink hot juice that tastes like beans myself, I have always maintained that people who liked caramel white chocolate mochas didn't really like coffee. It's fake coffee, I would say. Let's face it, I will probably still say this. It's true, isn't it? People who like milk, sugar, chocolate, flavor shots, or whipped cream with their coffee are just trying to cover up the bitter taste that is the essence of coffee. These people don't like coffee any more than I do. They just won't admit it.

And yes, I will also openly admit that my newly discovered coffee drink is not just full of flavorings, sugar, and milk. It's worse than that. It's fake fake coffee. That's right: the white coffee latte.

Even in my past life as a barista (ok, a barista in Wisconsin), I had never heard of this stuff. When I tasted my white coffee latte at a yuppie coffee house in the burbs last weekend, I couldn't believe there was any coffee involved. No bitter bean-like taste! No dark coffee color anywhere to be found! But, unlike it's nutty flavor would lead you to think, white coffee is made from coffee beans just like any real coffee. The difference, apparently, is that white coffee is roasted for a much shorter time. This keeps the bitter taste from forming and, incidentally, seals in a lot more caffeine. So no, white coffee does not smell, taste, or look like real coffee. Or even fake coffee. But it wakes you up like coffee. And, apparently, it can seductively lure you out of your coffee boycott. Let's hope it's not a gateway drug.

But if I do ever find myself back out in Yuppiville with $3.80 to spare...I might just get myself another one...

11 April, 2009

Media Elite: This Whole 'Competition' Thing is a Bad Idea

Since this came out over the weekend, I haven't seen too many people link to this yet, but the Atlantic and the National Journal put out the results of a poll of media elites yesterday that asks them whether the rise of the internet is a net positive or negative for the news. And guess what - they all hate it! Well, 65% of them, at least, say that the internet has hurt journalism more than helped it. Well, the good people over at Politico aren't going to take this lying down. Michael Calderone, for one, offers a ringing defense of his primary medium by venturing that " I think the Internet offers the potential to enhance journalism" (emphasis mine).

These claims seem incredible to me, the avid consumer of news. The idea that readers were better served ten, twenty or thirty years ago I find laughable. The range of options available to the interested individual -- at a moments notice I can find a Cuban dissident blogger, local analysis of Indian politics, lengthy conversations between interesting and brilliant people, etc etc -- are so much broader, so much better, and so much easier to access than traditional print or television journalism product that I think you have to be in pretty steep denial to not realize the leap forward we've taken. But of course for the producers or beneficiaries of an outdated, shitty product (and the people interviewed were by and large not even reporters, but editors and talking heads, so they are themselves not even the producers, but just the middlepeople) are going to squeal at the rise of a medium whose structure leads to more dynamism and competition.

Take the claim about the internet that

It has blurred the line between opinion and fact and created a dynamic in which extreme thought flourishes while balanced judgment is imperiled.

To begin with, I tend towards the opinion that "balance" - at least in political reporting - is at best an empty feel-good bullshit mantra, and at worst a cover for malicious intent. (For instance, climate change denialism's political strategy is clearly predicated on the understanding that if they produce someone with a Ph.D. to make their case, the media will, for balance's sake, give them equal time and credulity.) And anyway, how can these doucheburgers make this claim about "the line between opinion and fact" with a straight face as the Washington Post proudly publishes George Will's blatant lies, and then, when called on it - by, ahem, the blogosphere - they can't even bring themselves to offer a correction. We're supposed to look to Mark Halperin and David Brooks and who knows what other clowns for "balanced judgement" on the issues of the day? Please. I am far, far better informed by the ongoing, often partisan debate between the likes of Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, Tyler Cowen, and other full-time experts/part-time journalists - that is, I feel I have more real balance in my thinking due to being able to hear and judge many different voices from many different perspectives - than if I were to rely on the aristocratic monkeys of the traditional media to create some sort of artificially "balanced" take.

Then theres the claim that

The Internet trains readers to consume news in ever-smaller bites. This is a disaster for newspapers and magazines.

Maybe this is true generally. But, anecdotally, its the opposite for me. Sure, I read more small bites of news - but this is because my total consumption has expanded dramatically. I also now read long essays in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, because they are cheaper and more convenient to access than before, and many of the blogs I read link to them for their arguments. Sure, I watch short, stupid clips on YouTube. But I also watch full-length speeches or lectures or documentaries. The above phrase sounds like a bitter euphamism for "the Internet trains readers to consume news online because it is cheaper, faster, and more integrated with many other sources of valuable information, and that threatens me."

There is a real concern here hidden amongst the self-important smokescreens. And that is if online news sources destroy the old news-gathering apparati before developing their own effective mechanisms of newsgathering, a vacuum could be created:

But the cost to the business model (R.I.P. Seattle P-I) and the inability of the business model to monetize the Internet means that there is a disturbing net cost to newsgathering. If you're not covering your state delegation in D.C., or the state legislature back home, or the city council, bad things are going to happen, undiscovered.”

This is true. The traditional media - especially at the state level - has played a critical role in providing investigative journalism, and a world without that kind of journalism would be worse off. But I'm not sure why the internet-based media won't evolve to perform this function. Outfits like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo are examples of online media producing, and not just commenting on, the news. FiveThirtyEight, with its two guys, provided better on-the-ground reporting and analysis of the past elections than, say, Newsweek, or, god forbid, cable news. And state level publications like WisPolitics.com are growing up to cover all the turf that the dailies cover, and more.

Long story short, thinking that the internet has been a net negative for journalism is pretty much crazy talk and says more about the blinders of the media barons than anything else. But rather than seeing this as some sort of battle to the death, its better to think about it as a re-equilibration: many traditional outlets will die, but some will survive, likely becoming hybrid print-online resources, like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, which are pleasures to read on the glossy page while sitting on the porch sipping your coffee, but which also host a broad array of online content.

05 April, 2009

Sunday reads

Humanism, new and old.

Wikipedia as a city.

A friend of a friend live-blogging the intersection of modern Spain and ancient Christianity during Semana Santa.

And, what I'm making for brunch today. (Full recipe here.)

04 April, 2009

Thinking Out Loud About Thinking

My father recently came to visit me at my university. Dad is a semi-retired psychologist that moved a few years back from his clinical practice to teaching at a university of his own. He was in town for what he calls "a guild conference" of the APA. The topics of the conference were fresh in his mind and so chatting over gyros became a lengthy conversation about inter-discipline exchange.

Dad's outside-in perspective of academia met with my never-been-out naivete in some interesting ways. We both agreed that it was a problem that so little dialogue occurs between related disciplines - a problem for the rapid advancement of the fields, and a barrier in forming concerted efforts to combat contemporary problems that require input from multiple disciplines.

After this, however, our opinions diverged. Dad felt, on the one hand, that the major hurdle contributing to the exclusionary structure of the ivory tower(s) is stubbornness. Individual scholars and experts are unwilling to explore professional relationships outside of their immediate field that would allow them access to up-to-date research and discoveries in other fields. This is perhaps the result of protectiveness or perhaps laziness.

I, on the other hand, felt that the more significant problem is a more natural one. As each academic discipline gets more and more complex, being an expert in the basic understanding, not to mention working at the frontiers of the field, is a life-time commitment. Specialization makes it increasingly difficult for "Renaissance men" to bridge the gap from discipline to discipline.

Which seems like the more problematic contributor to the lack of inter-discipline dialogue in academia? Though I remain as yet still convinced by my view as outlined above, I harbor hope that specialization is not the bigger culprit because I think it will promise to be the harder problem to fix.