Tuesday, October 23, 2007

No flies on Chuck....

Chuck Norris doesn't sleep. He waits. For the right presidential candidate. Clearly, while the chief export of Chuck Norris is pain, political influence is a close second.
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Monday, October 15, 2007

Well what do you know....

.... A terrorist organization I actually like the looks of. The freaky part is just how radical it manages to sound. I especially like the bit about the turnips.
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Friday, September 28, 2007

Fortune is the Yellow River

In Renaissance Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci collaborated on a now largely forgotten project to divert the river Arno from it's course through Pisa to an alternate route, cutting off Florence's enemy and, perhaps, bringing an inland seaport to Florence.

This remarkable engineering undertaking is now largely forgotten, because it failed--the river stayed right where is was. (Roger D Masters' book on the subject is a pretty good read).

China is currently at work on the largest water project in history, and it involves--surprise, surprise--redirecting a river. The NY Times has a great video piece here. The motivation here is different (getting water to the dry north from the lush south) and the risks are different as well (mostly environmental). On the whole, it looks like they'll probably succeed.

So, in the spirit of learning from history, I wonder if there isn't cause for concern. In Italy, several centuries ago, the only victims were the careers of two Florentine gentlemen at court. This time, at risk is the health and welfare of 1.3 billion Chinese and the environment beneath them.

It's a longshot, I suppose, but one hopes they hit the books first.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Methodology?

Alright, folks--time for some academia.

This blog post by political scientist Seth Weinberger defends the importance of scientific methodology. This followup concerns the President of Iran's recent address at Columbia. They make for an interesting one-two routine on the importance of proper scientific methodology. As I happened to find myself militating against it in a seminar today, I thought it might be worth commenting on.

Weinberger's argument in the first entry is that the essential feature of political science is the science part--the method part. This is a fairly common claim--the stuff of any undergrad social sciences course. He then goes about rather incisively analyzing and criticizing a NY Times article, on a number of points (I'll leave it to you to read).

This is all well and good, but I'm not sure it's science. It's certainly good critical thinking, but there's usually more to science than that. The failures of the article are along rather the same lines--the Times may be a great paper, but there's an analytical disconnect at work in the article. It has a few hidden assumptions, and Weinberger nicely teases them out. Were it right though, it still wouldn't be science. It would just be less flawed journalism.

The point I found myself making earlier today (or perhaps trying to make) was that the modes of methodological thought one attributes to the natural sciences aren't always suited to the study of something as ephemeral as society and politics. In the case above, we're concerned with public opinion in Iraq as it relates (or doesn't) to attacks on US soldiers. Good polling techniques help with this, and that's certainly science, but they have numerous quite self-conscious limitations.

This is where any number of forms of nonscientific analysis come in handy--the sort Weinberger probably includes in his blog from time to time, the kind that appears in better non-academic publications across the political spectrum, and that kind that I aspire to here, on good days.

His second post argues that President Ahmadinejad should not have been permitted to speak at Columbia the other day. This I take issue with (see this previous post). Addresses like Ahmadinejad's at Columbia take place all the time--public figures give non-academic lectures about the areas they work in, and are generally welcomed, listened to, and criticized. This is more or less what happened.

Weinberger contends that the address should not have gone ahead because Ahmadinejad in effect lacks methodology. He is a source of opinion, not scientific fact, and thus has no place in a university. Trouble is, if we use this formula to cast his remarks out of the academy, we also silence other public figures we might more readily agree with. We throw out the baby of serious professional policy analysis, valuable experience in the political sphere, and any number of other forms of nonscientific knowledge with the bathwater of Ahmadinejad's misogynistic, homophobic, violent, dishonest, and otherwise offensive remarks.

I'll bet Weinberger tends to favor these sorts of events when they involve more respectable public figures. However if he does, he ends up judging the Iranian president's remarks based on his own opinion of them. This is, I want to emphasize, a good thing. Cogent, well thought out, well defended opinions are essential to academic progress, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But this being the case, we need to let these sorts of events go forward. We don't need to like what we hear or even accept its underlying logic. Our ability and willingness to assess it critically, and the insight we gain either from accepting or rejecting it, justify the event.
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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Blackwater

I'm sure this has been pointed out, but does anyone else think it's funny that the folks behind Blackwater (the violent, hapless, irresponsible, etc, etc mercenaries working in Iraq these days) neglected to check their name's other uses before putting it on the letterhead? Just sayin'....
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Monday, September 24, 2007

Academic Freedom

It's been kind of a screwy week stateside for academic freedom. First, the University of California at Irvine hired, then fired, then rehired a dean for its new law school (all before the doors opened on the thing). The party in question seems to be guilty of publicly holding a number of rather liberal opinions, and may have been subject to a campaign from the right.

But all's well that ends well, right? Well meantime, over at UC Davis, ex-Harvard President Lawrence Summers had his invitation to speak on campus rescinded. Summers is now best remembered for getting himself run out of Cambridge, Mass after some comments he made a few years ago about racial and gender differences among natural scientists, and their correlation with rates of publication, success at achieving tenure, etc.

Summers' comments may well have been inappropriate or downright offensive (I'm not directly familiar with the details myself). They were certainly outside his area of expertise (he's an economist). In any event, no one much seems to agree with him. But doesn't the very straightforwardness of his inaccuracy make lynching him a bit wrong? Aren't there better ways to address this--like letting him speak and questioning him then and there?

So that's an even split on the question of academic freedom (both stories are recounted here). However, a third story out of New York throws things the other way.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been invited to speak at Columbia while he's in town for the opening of the UN General Assembly. The invitation has been the subject of ongoing controversy, but Columbia president Lee C. Bollinger has to date stood by the decision. For his comments on this in a press release, see the link above and scroll down. They're class itself.

So two out of three aint bad, I reckon.

Meantime, the Iranian president has been barred from visiting Ground Zero while in NYC. This has been roundly applauded by almost all of the presidential candidates. Marginal Democrat Mike Gravel seems to be the only exception. His comments are here. His reasoning isn't quite mine, but this is an intelligent, principled stand. His party should be so lucky as to have more of this.

Update:

Looks like Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia went ahead as planned. Protesters were out in force, but seem to have been intelligent enough. They even broke their speeches for an hour and half so they could listen to an audio feed of his address. Have a look at the video on the link above. The students interviewed, while they generally oppose what the Iranian president stands for, are thoughtful, intelligent, clear, and well informed in their criticism. Maybe an Ivy League education aint so bad after all. President Bollinger was a bit, well, rude in his introductory remarks, but the fact of the event ought to outweigh the less than ideal tone it took on.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

On This Site

How y'all like the new look? I figured it was time to do away with the funny (not to mention unreadable) layout. Yes, I know the new banner loads a bit slow at the moment, and I'll probably play with the colors a bit, but I figured it was time to fix things in short order.

Stay tuned for details...
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Rejoice!

TimesSelect is dead! All hail the New York Times!

Well, it's not quite a coronation, but it's pretty cool. The NY Times has killed its online subscription service, meaning that its entire op-ed section, including columnists and several never-before-read-for-free blogs are not available to anyone who wants them.

At the moment, this includes a number of treats. We might start with Frank Rich's excellent argument that Larry Craig should be pardoned, exonerated, acquitted, or anything else that would make him not entirely guilty in the eyes of the law. The rest of the gang--Friedman, Krugman, Kristof, etc--are all free on demand. As is the entire archive (!).

Also kind of fun is the Times' meta-blog (for lack of a better term) The Opinionator. This is a clever little clearing house for current information on the topic of the day. For an interesting example, see Friday's post about Belgian national unity--or rather, the lack thereof.

Lastly, venerable academic loudmouth Stanley Fish has had his TimesSelect blog offered up for free. This is a neat trick indeed--it probably makes him, overnight, the most visible practicing academic in the country. I can't wait to waste hours reading this stuff.
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