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More Gefilte, Please

[ 4 ] April 20, 2008 |

A Passover song that was curiously omitted from the celebration I attended last night:

…in fairness, I should note that due attention was paid last night to the unfortunate fate of the Egyptian firstborn.

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[ 15 ] April 20, 2008 |

I just realized that I, um, passed over writing a post telling you all that it’s Passover and I’m out of commission for the weekend. Having eaten enough matzo stuffing tonight to sink a ship (yes, it’s that heavy), I am calling it a night. My posting will resume as normal on Monday.

Happy Passover to those of you celebrating. To the rest of you…happy bread eating.

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An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

[ 66 ] April 20, 2008 |


Late last month, as students returned from spring break, the University of Chicago Law School announced that Internet access would be blocked from classrooms. While individual professors at law schools have created policies banning laptops or allowing them only for specific uses — and while some colleges don’t even have classroom Internet access, or mandate classroom-only use without any enforcement — the move by Chicago appears to be the first institution-wide directive of its kind. Already, there’s been an uproar among students and even senior administrators, while some law professors have stepped up to defend the policy.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve toyed with the idea of prohibiting laptops in my classes; it’s no mystery that nine out of ten laptop users are (by my scientific calculations) instant-messaging, checking e-mail, or surfing the intertubes for hard core man-on-box-turtle pornography. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck just yesterday. I’ve survived my share of faculty senate meetings by watching baseball games on my laptop, and I’ve even thrown up a couple of blog posts in medias tedium. So when students are softly chuckling to themselves, it’s a good bet that they aren’t actually listening to that part of my lecture that covers the Ludlow Massacre; conversely, when they’re typing feverishly I tend to assume they aren’t trying to document my 5-minute tangents on Jimmy Carter’s fight with a rabbit, or the history of early 19th century flatware, or my rundown of the greatest facial hair in American political history.

But in the spirit of fairness, I figure that until I’m actually motivated to ask students what the fuck they’re doing while I’m talking about Chester A. Arthur’s mustache, I can only get so irritated with them. Besides, I’ve never actually seen any evidence that laptop-users do worse in my courses than the folks who stare blankly into space or squander class time drawing pictures of their favorite Star Wars characters. I’ve even allowed students to do beading or knitting in class, on the theory that “kinetic learning” isn’t simply a load of crap invented by people who prefer not to pay attention to what teachers are saying.

Moreover, every now and then we actually need to look up some important piece of historical data — such the date when marshmallows were invented — and we really need the Google-ator.

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Very, Very Bitter

[ 26 ] April 19, 2008 |

Kathy unloads some snark on Maureen “Feminism Should Too Be My Dating Service!” Dowd for asserting that, whatever that condescending girly-man Barack Obama might think, she was never bitter:

But there’s another problem with the opening sentence of the Dowd column. “I’m not bitter.” Oh Maureen — who the hell do you think you’re kidding? The woman positively soaks in bitterness. Marinates in it. It oozes out of her pen and pours into just about every damn word she writes. Her bitterness has utterly corroded her soul. It’s turned her into a twisted freak whose chief pleasure in life seems lie in vicious, barking-mad attacks on the only people capable of ending our long national nightmare — the Democrats. Seriously, if there is any other single person in the media who’s been a more powerful enabler of Republican high crimes and misdemeanors than Modo, I don’t know who it is.


There’s always been a weirdly gendered quality to Dowd’s bitterness. The main, and indeed often the only, point of nearly every column she writes is that male Democrats are girly men and female Democrats are castrating bee-yotches. It’s antifeminist, to be sure, but it goes waaaay beyond that into some warped, dark psychosexual realm of its own. Somerby calls her a “gender nut,” which is as good a term for it as any, I suppose.

Make sure to keep reading for the funny setup-with-MoDo anecdote, which will hopefully give pause to people who accept assertions that the media is obsessed with Bill Clinton’s penis because it’s what the public demands…

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The Impact of Arbitrary Institutional Decisions…

[ 0 ] April 19, 2008 |


From August through the following July, there is a steady decline in the likelihood that a child born in the United States will become a major leaguer. Meanwhile, among players born outside the 50 states, there are some hints of a pattern but nothing significant enough to reach any conclusions. An analysis of the birth dates of players in baseball’s minor leagues between 1984 and 2000 finds similar patterns, with American-born players far more likely to have been born in August than July. The birth-month pattern among Latin American minor leaguers is very different—if anything, they’re more likely to be born toward the end of the year, in October, November, and December.

The magical date of Aug. 1 gives a strong hint as to the explanation for this phenomenon. For more than 55 years, July 31 has been the age-cutoff date used by virtually all nonschool-affiliated baseball leagues in the United States. Youth baseball organizations including Little League, Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth, PONY, Dixie Youth, Hap Dumont, Dizzy Dean, American Legion, and more have long used that date to determine which players are eligible for which levels of play. (There is no such commonly used cutoff date in Latin America.) The result: In almost every American youth league, the oldest players are the ones born in August, and the youngest are those with July birthdays. For example, someone born on July 31, 1990, would almost certainly have been the youngest player on his youth team in 2001, his first year playing in the 11-and-12-year-olds league, and of average age in 2002, his second year in the same league. Someone born on Aug. 1, 1989, by contrast, would have been of average age in 2001, his first year playing in the 11-and-12-year-olds division, and would almost certainly be the oldest player in the league in 2002.

The older players are slightly better, receiving more attention from coaches and more encouragement, and are thus more likely to stay in baseball.

I am forced to revisit my own Little League career, in which I played center field (yes!) for the Coast League Royals in Rancho Cordova, California. Another young man from my class played in the same league, but he was much, much better than I was; even at the age of nine, he could hit, catch, and run for more than a minute without getting tired. That young man’s name was Geoff Jenkins, and I’ve always wanted to find some arbitrary reason why he has a Major League career and I don’t. Now, it turns out that Geoff was born on July 21, which would seem to put him on the wrong side of the line, but I am almost certain that I remember that he started playing a year earlier than I did.

Did connections allow Mr. Jenkins to start Little League early? Were there bribes? I think that an investigation is in order, and I’m certain that I somehow deserve a portion of the $42 million that Geoff has thus far earned in his career.

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[ 78 ] April 18, 2008 |

Ann (or, as she as known in the New Yorker, “one blogger”) points out that Aliza Shvarts will be turned into the kind of apocryphal symbol that will be used by anti-choicers for decades. Ross Douthat approves: “there’s a larger sense in which stories like these – with the uncomfortable questions they raise for at least some segments of the pro-choice side – are too helpful to the pro-life cause to be ignored.”

But what exactly are these uncomfortable questions? The approximate percentage of abortions obtained because women deliberately choose to get pregnant specifically to get an abortion is zero. Even if Shvarts had intentionally induced three miscarriages, it would be silly to change one’s political or legal position on abortion based on such an obvious outlier. It’s also true that defenses of reproductive rights, like defenses of all rights, are not premised on the idea that every single person will exercise their rights in ways that everyone else will recognize as responsible or desirable, for the obvious reason that this would be a ridiculous standard.

On the other hand, Shvarts and the kabuki surrounding her does raise uncomfortable questions…for Americans who believe that (poor and rural) women should be forced by the state to carry pregnancies to term. The official position of the Republican Party, and as far as I can tell most pro-life groups, is that performing an abortion should be a serious criminal offense in all 50 states but obtaining an abortion should be subject to no criminal sanctions at all. Apparently, this is because women who obtain abortions are just too “desperate or helpless” to be considered moral agents in the eyes of the law. At any rate, if we are to take the typical public positions of American pro-lifers seriously, if Shavrts had actually done what she claimed to have done this would be much less problematic than an ordinary situation where a woman goes to a doctor’s office to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. So while Shavarts does nothing to undermine the case for legal abortion, she does provide another useful demonstration that the positions of American pro-lifers are a complete shambles: most of their public representatives are unable to explain why abortion is wrong and what should be done about it without collapsing into incoherence, reducing to extremely reactionary notions about women’s rational capacity, or both.

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Done Young

[ 12 ] April 18, 2008 |

On the day after an avalanche took out five local hydroelectric transmission towers — an event that will quintuple Juneau’s electricity rates for the next few months — the Senate vote to investigate Don Young’s earmarks came as a whiff of good news. I maintain steadfast in my optimism that within the next two years, both Don Young and Ted Stevens will be pressing license plates along with an assortment of former state legislators and several of former Gov. Murkowski’s staff. It’s been widely reported that Young spent well over a million dollars on legal advice at the end of 2007; by the end of this month, he’s apparently supposed to disclose the nature of those expenses. There’s a pretty good chance he won’t be in office after January anyway, since he’ll be facing two primary challengers as well as a stronger-than-ordinary opponent — which is to say one who is bathed and clinically sane — on the Democratic ticket.

Meantime, it’s been immensely fun to watch Republicans across the US distance themselves from their Alaskan counterparts — as well they should, although the state’s congressional delegation has been a national embarrassment for much longer than it’s recent critics have been willing to say. Of all the explanations for Alaska’s troubles, though, this happy fellow has outperformed the field:

My theory is that those wonderful “pioneering” Alaskans have been corrupted by the fact that they all get a big fat handouts from the government from their oil royalties. Yep, you know a lot like the Arabs do.

Government handouts corrupt the soul and make for flabby characters and diseased consciences. Alaska is not the final frontier. It’s a cesspool of socialism. I know because I was going to move there and did research on it and decided not to when I saw that it was a sick culture.

It’s true. It’s true. Has he seen our state seal?

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Bus Culture

[ 40 ] April 18, 2008 |

Matt pursues a rationalist explanation for bus ridership:

My sense is that the main determinants of yuppie bus usage are the determinants of everyone else’s transit choices — it all has to do with the speed and cost of taking the bus versus the speed and cost of getting around some other way. If you internalize more of the costs of driving & parking and implement strategies to make bus service faster and more frequent, more people will take the bus. Obviously, a bus can’t be made to go as fast as a grade-separated heavy rail system, nor can it carry as many people, so it’s better to build heavy rail where you see potential for a lot of demand, but there’s not some law of nature keeping people off the bus.

I don’t know. In Seattle, everyone I knew took the bus; its cheaper, there are dozens of park and rides, and there are (thus far) no alternative mass transit options. When I moved to Lexington, then later to Cincinnati, I discovered that almost no one I know takes the bus. Now, this might be because I moved up a class bracket when I got a real job, but I got the sense that it was something cultural. The descriptions of bus travel given me by the locals here harp on the twitchiness of the whole enterprise, not going quite so far as to characterize it as dangerous, but clearly placing it within the “normal people don’t do that” category.

Last week, I took it upon myself to ride the bus in Cincinnati. I found the experience almost exactly like that of riding the bus in Seattle, with the difference that you would normally see jackets and ties on the bus in Seattle, while the Cincinnati crowd did seem to have a different class make up. But that really suggests a cultural rather than a rationalist difference…

Atrios also weighs in on the general less-awesome-than-trains-ness of buses.

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When the Tactical and Operational Overwhelm the Strategic

[ 0 ] April 18, 2008 |

This article by Major Niel Smith and Colonel Seth MacFarland on the foundations of the “Anbar Awakening” strategy is a must read. Smith and MacFarland detail how they helped bring a new set of methods to Ramadi in 2006, methods which played a key role in the larger Sunni Awakening strategy and which helped to substantial reduce violence in Iraq in 2007:

The “Anbar Awakening” of Sunni tribal leaders and their supporters that began in September 2006 near Ramadi seemd to come out of nowhere. But the change that led to the defeat of Al-Qaeda in Ramadi- what some have called the “Gettysburg of Iraq”- was not a random event. It was a result of a concerted plan executed by U.S. forces in Ramadi. Tactical victory became a strategic turning point when farsighted senior leaders, both Iraqi and American, replicated the Ramadi model throughout Anbar province, in Baghdad, and other parts of the country.

Read the rest; it goes into detail on Al Qaeda operations in an around Ramadi, on a previous “Awakening” effort that fizzled because of Al Qaeda violence, and of the shifting incentives that moved tribal leaders towards collaboration with the United States.

While reading this piece I was struck by its echoes of a chapter in Peter Paret’s edited volume Makers of Modern Strategy. In his chapter German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare 1914-1945, Michael Geyer makes that argument that the German Wehrmacht, an exceptionally effective tactical and operational military organization, allowed those lower levels to overcome strategic considerations. In other words, German officers were quite brilliant at figuring out how to make war “work” at the tactical and operational level, but making it “work” there led to general strategic incoherence, because the means never matched the ends.

The Smith and MacFarland remind me of that chapter because it seems like the same thing is going on; innovative, smart American officers are trying to figure things out at the tactical and operational level, but at the strategic level incoherence reigns. In this particular case, Smith and MacFarland brought peace to Ramadi, but at the cost (in my view) of permanently gutting the capacity of the Iraqi state; arming local groups and politically enabling them is, as I’ve discussed before, a strategy of anti-state building. In this particular story, it was the “farsighted senior leaders” in Iraq and the US who should have understood this. I don’t know whether these leaders misunderstood the implications of arming local tribal groups, or whether they understood but just figured (perhaps accurately) that things couldn’t get any worse.

In any case, Smith and MacFarland came up with an innovative series of tactics for doing their jobs. Unfortunately, the elevation of these tactics to the level of strategy has effectively killed the Iraqi state. Of course, it might have been dead anyway.

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Chuckie Krauthammer: I Can Use Big Words Like "Deterrence"

[ 0 ] April 18, 2008 |

Chuckie Krauthammer comes not to praise nonproliferation, but to bury it:

The era of nonproliferation is over. During the first half-century of the nuclear age, safety lay in restricting the weaponry to major powers and keeping it out of the hands of rogue states. This strategy was inevitabily going to break down. The inevitable has arrived.

The six-party talks on North Korea have failed miserably. They did not prevent Pyongyang from testing a nuclear weapon and entering the club. North Korea has broken yet again its agreement to reveal all its nuclear facilities.

The other test case was Iran. The EU-3 negotiations (Britain, France and Germany) went nowhere. Each U.N. Security Council resolution enacting what passed for sanctions was more useless than the last. Uranium enrichment continues.

Right… well, the North Korea story hasn’t fully played out, but it’s not really fair to say that efforts have completely broke down yet. The Iran situation also has yet to play out, but both share one important commonality; the United States, under the recommendation of folks like Chuckie Krauthammer, decided to reject any and all multilateral efforts at nonproliferation in favor of… well, it’s not even clear that what the US tried can be referred to as a coherent strategy. In short, after the Bush administration spent years efficiently knifing the nonproliferation regime, Chuck is here to pronounce it dead.

Chuck goes on to repeat the “Iraq invasion scared Libya into giving up its weapons” story, a tale that Chuckie himself must know has been debunked so many times that is has ceased to be funny, but at least admits that “pre-emption” as a strategy is dead with regards to Iran and North Korea. So what do we get? Missile defense!

For the sake of argument, imagine a two-layered anti-missile system in which each layer is imperfect, with, say, a 90 percent shoot-down accuracy. That means one in 100 missiles gets through both layers. That infinitely strengthens deterrence by radically degrading the possibility of a successful first strike. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sitting on an arsenal of, say, 20 nukes, might recoil from these odds — given the 100 percent chance a retaliatory counterattack of hundreds of Israeli (and/or American) nukes would make Iran a memory.

Of course, one can get around missile defense by using terrorists. But anything short of a hermetically secret, perfectly executed, multiple-site attack would cause terrible, but not existential, destruction. The retaliatory destruction, on the other hand, would be existential.

Right. But here’s the thing (and I choose my words carefully…) you morally retarded nitwit; if Iran is sensitive to the cost of existential annihilation, then you don’t need even one layer of missile defense. If North Korea doesn’t want to get blown up, then aiming plenty of nukes at it will be more than enough to deter an attack. The “millenarian” line is an extraordinarily weak hook to hang missile defense on, especially WHEN IT STILL REQUIRES DETERRENCE TO WORK. At least Chuckie seems to understand that missile defense doesn’t take deterrence out of the picture; given the unlikelihood that a shield will be perfect, and the (incredibly likely) eventuality that Iran would figure out a means of delivering weapons other than by missile, deterrence is still necessary.

In short, for missile defense to work a deterrent relationship has to hold, but with a deterrent relationship missile defense is pointless. Chuckie would have us waste billions of dollars on missile defense while simultaneously gutting all of the multilateral tools of nonproliferation that have prevented five nuclear powers from becoming fifty.

I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who consistently betrays such monumental ignorance on basic security concepts manages to maintain a position as columnist for one of the two major foreign policy newspapers in the United States, but I am sad. I mean, I know he has the gravitas, and that he has a snide wit, but beyond that, he can have only one of two qualities; either a shameless willingness to deceive his readership, or a grasp on the issues upon which he writes that is so shaky that it crumbles at the first nudge. I’m betting a little from column A, and a little from column B

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Art as Conversation Piece

[ 0 ] April 17, 2008 |

Wow. I have to say, I am proud of my alma mater for not censoring this work. Though other than that, I am speechless.

Update: Lindsey thinks it might all be a hoax.

Update 2: Well, apparently Yale isn’t standing so strong, but Shvarts is. Though, in a detail that nobody highlighted yesterday, she did not know whether she was pregnant at any of the times she took the abortifacient herbs/drugs.

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Treason In Defense of Global Warming

[ 43 ] April 17, 2008 |

Via Think Progress, Alexandra Liddy Bourne of the Heartland Institute, speaking to the Heritage Foundation:

So yet again, the South has to pay on its back the cost of using coal in this country to the northern states. We’re going to have another Civil War here in a short period of time, because the cost is going to go up. So the Southeast has not bought into this because they understand that they’re going to have to pay a very high price. Maryland has decided to sort of stay out of it because they have coal, as is Pennsylvania. They don’t necessarily want to pay Yankee taxes, right?

Right. Lest we forget, here’s the (corrected!) map of the balance of Federal funds, with blue states paying and red states receiving:

The next time that the South pays its fair share will be the first time, at least in the last 160 years. But remember, it’s okay to talk about the violent overthrow of the US government if you’re a conservative Southerner…

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