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On the Edge of the Holy Land…

[ 47 ] October 12, 2010 |

And so Bobby Cox retires. After 134 years, the Braves remain nine games shy of .500 (although well over if you count their 225-60 record in the National Association).  But then they were 523 games below when Cox took over, so getting them this close is rather an impressive accomplishment for a career.


Killing the Bismarck

[ 65 ] October 11, 2010 |

Iain Ballantyne’s new book Killing the Bismarck makes a rather controversial claim: As HMS Rodney, HMS King George V, and several attendant cruisers and destroying were pouring shells and torpedoes into Bismarck, the German crew was trying to surrender.  I haven’t read the book, but there’s a summary in Warships: IFR.  I have a bit on the evidentiary claims at Information Dissemination. Since we’ve been talking quite a lot about the laws of war here lately, I thought I’d give this to the crowd.  The facts of the situation:

  • Bismarck was not offering coordinated resistance, although her aft two turrets were firing ineffectually.  Bismarck was at this point largely incapable of moving under her own power.
  • It was unclear what percentage of the crew might have been willing to surrender, or whether such an order came from a central authority.
  • The potential for attack from German submarines and aircraft was very real.
  • A boarding operation would have taken time, and left Royal Navy vessels short of fuel and vulnerable to German counter-attack.
  • If the attack had been abandoned, it is possible that the Kriegsmarine might have been able to recover and repair Bismarck.

Under these circumstances, what were the responsibilities of the Royal Navy to the German crew?

The tinfoil hat brigade

[ 13 ] October 11, 2010 |

With the publication last month of Devra Davis’ book Disconnect, you’ll likely find yourself reading a lot of this sort of thing over the next few months, as “science” and “health” reporters breathlessly repeat her contention that cell phones are somehow causally linked to a parade of medical adversities, including brain cancer and male infertility. For anyone who remembers the (now thoroughly discredited) anxiety over electromagnetic fields from the 1980s and 1990s, the “Cell Phones are Killing You” narrative is a mildly more sophisticated offspring of the belief that power lines will give your children leukemia.

The issue of mobile phone safety has received an extraordinary amount of attention over the past two decades, and the published literature is filled with contradictions and burdened with some pretty knotty methodological problems (including the question of how researchers can overcome recall bias to gain an accurate portrait of cell phone usage). Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence — contrary to the claims of Davis and the rather small group of researchers who have enabled the the bulk of Davis’ argument — leans pretty strongly against any meaningful association between mobile phones and poor health.  Robert Park’s 2001 piece in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute is still the clearest summary of the first generation of epidemiological work on cell phones and cancer; more recently, Steven Novella had a useful commentary of some of the latest research, including the massive (and widely misreported) Interphone study, which once again failed to detect the sorts of perils that Davis is now exaggerating on a daily basis during her promotional appearances around the country. For those of you with more free time than good sense, some time with PubMed will amply reward your skepticism.

Although Davis — an actual epidemiologist — isn’t quite in the same league as the quacks who guide the anti-vaccination movement, she seems to have a penchant for selecting evidence that allows her to repeat the same essential narrative that worked in her previous books, When Smoke Ran Like Water and The Secret History of the War on Cancer: Loathsome corporations, with the assistance of the government, are suppressing evidence proving their complicity in the erosion of human health. Though I have no doubt that telecommunications companies are loathsome, there’s a simple problem with applying this formula to mobile phones. Whereas we have highly plausible mechanisms to explain the adverse effects of airborne industrial toxins, for example, we have no similar way to explain how low-frequency, non-ionizing radiation — the kind bombarding you as you read this post — is supposed to cause the sort of cell damage that leads to cancer.  (Davis, however, insists that experimental studies have begun to reveal the dangers of pulsed EMF; even if that were the case, and non-ionizing radiation was magically capable of splintering DNA, a few experimental studies would hardly seem to provide enough muscle to forge a book-length expose on how your iPhone is going to put an olive-sized tumor in your head.)

At the end of the day, the most depressing aspect of all this is that Davis’ book — like Andrew Wakefield’s bullshit observations about the MMR vaccine — will provide a lot of people with a convenient (and almost certainly false) explanation for why they or their loved ones are suffering.  With press coverage almost unanimously praising Disconnected for its “convincing” argument, the wider body of evidence just won’t receive much attention.  Before long, maybe we’ll even hear that cell phones are responsible for Glenn Beck’s mysterious affliction.

Fare thee well, Dr. B…

[ 8 ] October 11, 2010 |

This saddens me (and not just because it makes our blog roll obsolete), because back in the day, when I was a nobody, she helped make me an extremely minor somebody. (She also got me into the best parties. Was the Internet just that much different then, or is it just me?)  So, best of luck to Dr. B. and her fellow travelers, all of whom will be missed.*

*Except for the ones who post elsewhere, as they’ll just be missed by virtue of not all being in the same place.

French Constitutional Court Upholds Ban On Veils

[ 48 ] October 11, 2010 |

Since I’m skeptical of even much narrower anti-veil public policy, I find much broader French bans on wearing veils in public particularly dismaying.   Like Somin, I express no opinion about whether the Conseil Constitutionnel’s opinion is sound as a matter of French constitutional law, but agree that to the extent that the decision is plausible it represents an indictment of French constitutionalism, and the legislation itself is a greater indictment. It’s worth noting that this ban — since it’s obviously targeted at the practices of a particular religious minority — almost certainly wouldn’t survive even under the American Smith standard, which many consider too narrow. Achieving gender equality is certainly a compelling state objective. But not only are bans on wearing the veil not necessary for achieving gender equality, it’s not clear if they’re effectual at all. For Muslim women in egalitarian family relationships, bans on the veil represent a diminution of freedom for no benefit, and for Muslim women compelled to wear the veil because of patriarchal family relationships, the bans offer only the most cosmetic relief.  Inscribing into the law the principle that the veil is necessarily a manifestation of sexism is not the right solution to a very real problem.

Paladino, Proud Bigot

[ 12 ] October 11, 2010 |

I’d say New York’s latest teabagger hero isn’t ready for prime time, but it’s more like he isn’t ready for the 2 AM slot on public access.

My guess is that the campaign’s next move will involve inviting George Allen to address African-American groups…

Happy “Reconsider Columbus Day.”

[ 54 ] October 11, 2010 |

I would like to encourage LGM readers to join the movement to replace Columbus Day with a nationally recognized Indigenous People’s Day.

Or for a slightly different perspective, here’s some light holiday reading.

More on Sexism And The Social Network

[ 27 ] October 11, 2010 |

Since I saw the picture this weekend, I thought I’d add some thought’s to Charli’s excellent post below. I should say at the outset that although I’ve been an Aaron Sorkin detractor since before critics still thought Studio 60 was a work of genius, I should say at the outset that The Social Network was…an excellent movie. I could cop out and give all the credit to Fincher, an outstanding if very uneven talent, but the script was in fact very strong. The story emphasizes Sorkin’s talents while minimizing his weaknesses — he was born to write the instant classic Larry Summers sequence, and plenty of scenes within this absorbing, well-paced film are almost as good.

On the issue at hand, I think it’s worth distinguishing between two critiques. There were some nagging weaknesses — in addition to Charli’s links, see Tracy Clark-Flory — related to the movie and its portrayal of women. In particular (whether they actually happened or not) the final club party out of a Katy Perry song and the “groupies” at the Bill Gates lecture feel like fratboyish Ben Mezrich embellishments, and the movie would have been better off without them.

On the other hand, to echo Dana Stevens it’s very important to not pin the misogyny of the characters on the filmmakers. Starting but by no means ending with Erica Albright’s much-quoted kissoff, Sorkin and Fincher take a clearly critical stance towards Zuckerberg’s contempt for women. To what extent the portrayal of Zuckerberg is accurate I have no idea (and given that this is a fiction film I don’t think it matters), but the implicit critique the film provides of it is actually one if its strengths.

…via the comments, Aaron Sorkin himself responds to criticisms, and again I don’t think he’s rationalizing.   The portrayal of misogynist characters in The Social Network is no more a celebration of misogyny than Mad Men is a celebration of sexual harassment, glass ceilings, workplace alcoholism, etc.

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The Social Network Movie You Won’t See

[ 31 ] October 10, 2010 |

A major theme emerging from otherwise favorable reviews of The Social Network is the relationship between sexism and film gender relations and technology:

Beth Accomando:

The underlying message in the film seems to be that if these guys just got laid more often we would never have had innovations like Napster and Facebook.

Bob Grimm:

We have Facebook because some dude got dumped. I can believe that.

My favorite post on this theme comes from Laurie Penny:

The Social Network is an expertly crafted and exhaustively modern film, and one of its more pertinent flashpoints is the reminder that a resource that redefined the human interactions of 500 million people across the globe was germinated in an act of vengeful misogyny. Woman-hating is the background noise of this story. Aaron Sorkin’s dazzlingly scripted showdown between awkward, ambitious young men desperate for wealth and respect phrases women and girls as glorified sexual extras, lovely assistants in the grand trick whose reveal is the future of human business and communication.

The narrative whereby the nerdy loner makes a sack of cash and gets all the hot pussy he can handle is becoming a fundamental part of free-market folklore. It crops up in films from Transformers to Scott Pilgrim; it’s the story of Bill Gates, of Steve Jobs, and now of Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a story about power and about how alienation and obsessive persistence are rewarded with social, sexual and financial power.

The protagonist is invariably white and rich and always male — Hollywood cannot countenance female nerds, other than as minor characters who transform into pliant sexbots as soon as they remove their glasses — but these privileges are as naught compared to the injustice life has served him by making him shy, spotty and interested in Star Trek. He has been wronged, and he has every right to use his l33t skills to bend the engine of humanity to his purpose…

The only roles for women in this drama are dancing naked on tables at exclusive fraternity clubs, inspiring men to genius by spurning their carnal advances and giving appreciative blowjobs in bathroom stalls. This is no reflection on the personal moral compass of Sorkin, who is no misogynist, but who understands that in rarefied American circles of power and privilege, women are still stage-hands, and objectification is hard currency.

Penny makes a sophisticated argument, but from what I know of FB’s origin story, I do think she gets that last bit wrong. He has his faults, but this deeply gendered script is very much the doing of Aaron Sorkin and David Finscher rather than Zuckerberg himself. Read more…

A zombie? A puppet-master? A zombie puppet-master?

[ 8 ] October 10, 2010 |

The official White House photostream needs to consider how the photographs it posts will be photoshopped by its opponents.  For example:

I only went with the obvious ones in the title, but other possibilities abound.  For example, the foreshortened arm there is begging for this:

The administration could at least up the degree of difficulty for its critics.

Be afraid.

[ 11 ] October 10, 2010 |

Be very afraid

…or prepare yourself for oodles of unintentional hilarity from people whose love of Liberal Fascism can now be expressed directly beneath posts by the man who authored it.

Your Point Being?

[ 22 ] October 10, 2010 |

Upon hearing that Greg Mankiw will stop writing transparently illogical op-eds opposing Social Security and favoring upper-class tax cuts if the Bush tax cuts aren’t extended, all I can say is…who thought that the policies I already favor could have such salutary side benefits?


Basically, the effect of letting the Bush cuts expire is so tiny that the only way to make it noticeable is to compound it over 30 years, which reduces his eventual payout from $2,000 to $1,700. (And even that’s probably overstated, since it assumes Mankiw pays all his taxes at their full statutory rate, which virtually no one does.) The rest of the reduction down to $1,000 comes solely from the estate tax. But even on the heroic assumption that you should take this year’s zero rate as the baseline for comparison, the estate tax has an exemption of several million dollars. Unless Mankiw leaves his kids a helluva lot more than they need for a down payment on a house, they won’t pay a dime of estate tax.

This is why the tax posse has such a habit of wildly overstating things. If they don’t, there’s no there there. It turns out that the effect of letting the Bush tax cuts on the rich expire is so minuscule that the only way to make it look sensational is to pick a scenario in which you (a) overstate effective tax rates, (b) compound those tax rates over 30 years, (c) slash the final number nearly in half by ignoring the estate tax exemption, and (d) use this year’s highly unusual zero rate as your baseline. It’s a virtuoso performance.

…see also DeLong.