Saturday, March 08, 2003

Lousy timing

This probably wasn't the best week for the International Rice Research Institute to put a "help wanted" ad in the back pages of the Economist. The IRRI is looking for someone to coordinate their GoldenRice(tm) Network, which purportedly uses genetically modified rice "to alleviate vitamin A deficiency among the poorest rice consumers." Interested readers can flick back to an Economist article on page 78, which uses GoldenRice(tm) as a prime example of how agri-business makes dodgy public health claims. According to the Economist's correspondent, the aforementioned poorest consumers would likely have to eat nine bloody kilos a day of the stuff in order to meet their Vitamin A requirements. More generally, Big Pharma has managed to screw the pooch pretty thoroughly on GMOs. Big kudos to Monsanto in particular, for the FlavrSavr tomato (nasty and tasteless), Roundup Ready soybeans (lock farmers into your proprietary weedkillers) and the Terminator gene (what marketing genius thought that name up?). GoldenRice(tm) is developed by a non-profit consortium, but Monsanto is trying to milk it for all the publicity that it can, licensing all patents that might affect it for free. Monsanto has figured out, about five years too late, that the way to sell GMOs to the mass public is to show that they have benefits for consumers and the developing world, rather than just big business. It's a pity that they couldn't find a GMO that really had such benefits.

Update: Via Jeanne D'Arc, another depressing story relating to Monsanto. Fox News, that bastion of journalistic integrity, suppressed a story about the nasty side-effects of a growth hormone produced by Monsanto - and then defended itself against a lawsuit by invoking its First Amendment right to lie or distort the news. Go figure.
Leftwingers, conservatives and the war

Hot off the press - both Kevin Drum and Josh Marshall have come off the fence; they've decided that Bush's incompetence (Drum) and the long term damage to the international state system (Marshall) mean that the costs of going to war outweigh the benefits. They're both smart left-liberals, originally pro-war, who have become convinced over time that it just isn't going to work. What intrigues me at the moment is the dog that isn't barking - why aren't there more right wingers out there who are coming out against invading Iraq? There's a clear realist case to be made that war in Iraq doesn't make sense; cf Mearsheimer and Walt. This case should be congenial to many conservatives. Indeed, my sense from the last couple of times that I've been to DC is that much of the traditional foreign policy establishment is horrified at Bush's current foreign policy - but everyone's afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. This is no way to conduct a debate. The arguments for or against going to war aren't traditional left-versus-right arguments any more, or shouldn't be - they're pragmatic ones about whether the long term costs of war exceed the gains. However, they're being conducted on the battlefield of American politics, so that principled opposition to war is equated with opposition to the Republican administration, and hence is anathema if you're of a certain political disposition. I think that war is a bad idea; some people, whom I take pretty seriously, disagree with me. The point is that these judgments should be made on the basis of a careful weighing up of the pros and cons - there are serious arguments on both sides of the balance. Which is why Drum's and Marshall's public agonizing over the last couple of months is considerably more impressive than the hysterical language of ideologues, both pro- and anti-war, who seem more interested in scoring cheap rhetorical points than in actually thinking about whether war makes sense or not.
Scholarly spam

I've started to notice a new trend in the last few months - scholarly spam is starting to clog up my mailbox. Incredibly obscure publishing houses, self-published authors with ideas that they claim will overturn modern social science, and the odd academic in some community college or another, trying to tout his latest book. Presumably, my email address has been hoovered up from the U of T website by some bot, and stuck onto a special interest list for sale to spammers. It's not only annoying - it's dumb. The academy has its faults - it's incredibly difficult to get published with big presses, major journals tend to be pretty cliquey and so on - but in general, its filtering mechanisms work pretty well. Anonymous peer review keeps up high standards (even if academics spend half their leisure time trying to figure out who their "anonymous" reviewers were). If you have a good piece that doesn't get accepted by one big journal, you try another - and sooner or later, if it's of interest to your colleagues, it'll find a home. What all of this means is that academics (unlike, say, selling methods of penis-enlargement) is a reputation based system - you increase your scholarly reputation through publishing in the places that your colleagues think are worthwhile. Sending them unsolicited emails not only doesn't help you acquire a good rep; it's positively damaging. Recipients' first reaction is going to be that someone who's desperate enough to try this (rather than the conventional route) clearly has nothing worthwhile to say; if they remember the spammer's name at all, it will be to avoid his/her stuff in the future.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

random musing

I blogged a little while ago about Alfred Jarry and Oulipo; now, via Long Story; Short Pier, this link to an online implementation (in English) of Raymond Queneau's "Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes" (another site has it in French). This is perhaps the most notorious of Oulipo's intellectual pranks - a method for generating 100 thousand billion poems. Queneau's "literature machine" has fourteen lines - for each line, pick one of ten options, and stir thoroughly until one of ten to the power of fourteen different possible poems emerges. Each poem scans and rhymes quite nicely, even if it doesn't make very much sense. Combinatorial exercises like this have a long history; they were taken very seriously once upon a time. However, Oulipo has more or less died out as a literary movement, or so I thought, until I saw "Cent Mille Milliards" again on the WWW, and suddenly realized that all of those little javascript toys that generate semi-random text - the Julie Burchill Random Recycler (via Iain Coleman), the sublime They Fight Crime, and all their cousins - are direct, if disreputable, descendants of Queneau's little engine. There's some significant point in there, I suppose - about how the avant-garde art-incomprehensibilities of one generation become the commonplace folk-art of the next - but I'm too tired at the moment to argue anything, except that it's sorta cool.

Update - Teresa Nielsen Hayden has further interesting musings about semi-random text generators, as well as a link to an excellent resource page run by Steven Savage.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Onion scoops Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall has a good analysis of North Korea's shadowing a US spyplane. Basic insight:

"We are keeping the North Koreans on the back-burner. But they want to be on the front-burner. So they're continuing with a pattern of escalations and provocations until we put them there."

But the Onion beat him to it: see its article of Feb 12, "As the U.S. continues to inch toward war with Iraq, a jealous and frustrated North Korea is wondering what it has to do to attract American military attention. What does it take to get a few F-16s or naval warships deployed to the Yellow Sea?" North Korean president Kim Jong Il asked Monday. "

He's clearly figured out the answer since then.

Aside: I was in NY last weekend, where I met with various friends, including a couple of other socialist/radical democrat pol-sci academics. They all had independently discovered Marshall's blog/newsfeed, and read it religiously. Talking Points Memo - the thinking lefty-professor's news source of choice.

It's always nice to discover a new blog that you like - and Ana Feruglio Dal Dan's "This Land is My Land" is all that and more. I'm an Italophile; I lived for three years in Florence, doing research at the Istituto Europeo in the hills above the city. Italian politics is my first love as a social scientist, but I've had to leave it behind as I starting working in international relations rather than comparative political economy. It's also something that is very, very difficult to keep up with, unless you're living in the middle of it. Politics in Italy are very public in one sense; newspapers publish long speeches by politicians verbatim; political posters on the walls contain long lists of demands and complaints. But the real meaning of these statements and manifestoes is opaque and implied; they give you the impression of eavesdropping on a conversation that you only half understand. There's a word in Italian for this feeling that everything that's important takes place behind the scenes- dietrologia. After a couple of years, you end up being a little paranoid. Which is by way of saying that Feruglio Dal Dan's blog not only gives excellent reportage on what's happening, but helps to interpret it too. I hadn't realized that Andreotti had been convicted at last - she has a fine post on what this means - and the contrast between Andreotti's and Berlusconi's brushes with the law. My only complaint is that she could post more often - it's really high quality commentary and discussion.
dismal sciences

William Sjostrom has the Real Deal on how to categorize economists - the crucial division isn't between Ph.D. and non-Ph.D; it's between micro and macro. Macroeconomics and microeconomics are intellectual countries divided by a common language; they have different starting points and goals. Efforts to reconcile them are reminiscent of physicists' efforts to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity; and are about as successful. Sjostrom finds macroeconomics boring, which he blames in part on a succession of lousy teachers. I think he's being too nice (a first?): macro is much duller by its nature. Microeconomics, whether you agree or disagree with it, gives you a neat set of intellectual tools that you can apply to all sorts of intellectual problems. Undergraduate micro students start to reimagine the world as a set of demand and supply curves. Unfortunately, some of them never grow out of it. Macroeconomics doesn't click in the same way - its application to everyday life is more limited, and its assumptions much more questionable. When economists start to talk about the economic consequences of higher interest rates, let alone IS-LM-BP curves, I fall asleep- but when they talk about game theoretic models, or even about the politics behind macroeconomic policy, I start to perk up again. I admit it's an idiosyncratic set of preferences. However, via Brad De Long, the man who puts the fun into "Fundamentals of Macroeconomic Theory," and Asymmetrical Information, this illustration of the predictive power of economic forecasting models.

Update - Dr. Sjostrom is deeply hurt at my implication that he isn't too nice on a regular basis - but isn't economics all about the redundancy of nice behaviour? "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner ..." and all of that. Indeed, too much niceness can be a Very Bad Thing in the cut and thrust of bloggery - it just isn't entertaining. I'm with deceased society hostess, Alice Roosevelt Longworth on this - she reportedly had a cushion embroidered for her afternoon soirees with the words "If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me"
celebrity blogger

Apparently there are others who wish to claim the dubious accolade of best international relations / celebrity gossip blogger. The brother has asked me if Farrellblogger can top this. Of course we can. But we won't! Celebrity gossip is a currency to be hoarded and passed discreetly from hand to hand, not flung down on the counter for all to see. But I will tell an old story and provide a class of an apologia for our (much more famous) compatriot and namesake Colin Farrell.

Before I was a lobbyist, I worked in the film industry in Ireland for 4 years. I worked for a documentary production company,Hummingbird Productions,my first 2 years out of college, then went freelance and got a union ticket and my first job on a drama. I was a production trainee on a fairly depressing 4-part drama called Falling for a Dancer made for the BBC. (BBC only seemed willing to fund 1950's dramas, in picturesque rural settings featuring wife-beating, overbearing priests, and wayward but good-hearted Irish cailini.) It was a 5 month location job in the out and out most beautiful part of Ireland (and that's saying something), the Beara Peninsula of West Cork. And despite the 14 hour days and 6 day weeks, and the constant fear I was going to be fired, it was one of the best summers I've ever had.

One day, quite early on in the shoot, the production manager walked a new actor into the production office, had him say a blanket 'hello' to us all and then marched him down to see the producer. 15 minutes later I was told to drive the guy to his accommodation, but since I wasn't insured to drive cast members in my own car, the production manager threw me the keys of his Lexus. The actor and I walked out to the car without a word between us, I unlocked it and got into the driver's seat, he got in his side, I revved her up, and we both burst out laughing with a big 'yes!'. Then we went on the mitch, driving that car like a bastard along the narrow roads with grass down the middle around Castletownbere, and stopping in the village haberdashery where Colin bought a present for the 5 year old daughter of the house he was staying in. Great fun and a real sweetheart.

A good few weeks into the shoot, we had a Saturday off, and went for an afternoon pint in McCarthy's. A guy called Sinbad spotted us perched on the barstools and came in. Sinbad lived locally, but wasn't from Castletown, and he was called Sinbad because he wore a pirate's head scarf. (he disappeared towards the end of the summer and about a year later I saw him in the background on a news bulletin - but that's another story.) Well, Sinbad fancied Colin like anything, and Colin was cool about it, and so the conversation rolled along. It was really warm and Sinbad was wearing a pair of white shorts. He was a pretty ample guy. My eyes were drawn down to Sinbad's crotch and Colin followed them. There was a pause. I blushed and took a scoop of my pint. Then Colin burst out "Jaysus Sinbad, you've the biggest fucking langer I've ever seen in my life!" and we all roared laughing and life went on again.

And on to the apologia. A lot is made of Colin's womanising ways. (Jesus, Britney?!). But the point that doesn't come across is how generous, funny and sweet the guy is. I don't know if he's ever met a woman he didn't see something special in, and something that he really liked. That's at least part of his charm - charisma is directed outward not inward, and lavished on one and all. You could be just walking down the road with Colin (and not 'with' Colin might I add) and he would honestly make you feel like the only girl in the world. He's got many talents and gifts, but that has to be one of the nicest.

Colin was a lovely friend, but we lost touch when I moved to London a couple of years ago. He's been having a pretty wild ride in the meantime. I'm hoping it's a soft landing.

Well Henry, I've kept up my end. Now you'd better look after the whole 'international relations' side of things.

Update (Henry) - Of course, we're just insignificant microbes so I suspect that Dan isn't quaking in his boots just yet. But insignificant microbes with ambitions - maybe, just maybe, one day we'll be Lowly Worms, or Cheerful Creepy-Crawlies. Whatever.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Taxi(i)ng the rich

Irish newspaper readers were bemused to find out this evening that Michael O'Leary, CEO of Ryanair, and worth $300 million or so, has converted his swish personal Mercedes into a taxi. The motivation? Traffic gridlock in Dublin is horrendous, but taxis can drive in special lanes reserved for public transport. O'Leary, who has a notoriously robust attitude towards the interpretation of government regulations, spotted an opportunity, laid down a few thousand euro for taxi plates, and can now speed past traffic jams with impunity. Expect indignant questions about this in the Dail (Ireland's Parliament) tomorrow, and government promises of speedy reform.
Faery queendom up for grabs

Goblin Queen is hanging up her crown, and soliciting pretenders to the throne. Any takers?

Sunday, March 02, 2003

The weakness of strong democracies

Mark Kleiman has handed out his award for most stupid and offensive comment in the war debate to a recent Guardian editorial, which he quotes at length. The offending statement.

"Bearing in mind that America only became a full democracy in 1965, and Germany in 1946, there is a case for saying that Germans have at least as strong a democratic tradition as Americans."

Kleiman is right - this is the Grauniad at its most self-satisfied and idiotic, drawing comparisons that are as unwarranted as they are repulsive. See also The Volokhs. But the question could be turned on its head - you can make the argument that Germany is more "democratic" in some ways than the US, precisely because of its problematic history.

Some of the steps that the US has taken in the last eighteen months would have been politically impossible in Germany. To be specific - Germans simply wouldn't stand for indefinite detention without trial of citizens and non-citizens, possible use of military tribunals with lousy standards of evidence, and targeted deportations of individuals to third countries where they can be tortured for information. If the German government tried to do anything like this, there would be outcry in the streets; citizens would fear that Germany was returning to Nazi-era type abuses. But in the US, it's been a non-debate - a couple of highly tentative articles in the WP and NYT have made clear what's going on, but no politician of standing is prepared to step up to the plate, and say that certain US policies are wrong, immoral, and fundamentally anti-democratic.

Point I'm trying to make? Claims that Germany has a stronger democratic tradition than the US are self-defeating and stupid. But sometimes a weak democratic tradition can be a political plus. It makes you more conscious of the fragility of democracy, and the risks involved when you take steps that subvert whatever democratic institutions you have. I'm not at all confident that John Ashcroft is as keenly aware of these risks as Joschka Fischer.