November 2006

2006 11 29

The WaPo sends its reporters out on what must have been a very easy quote-gathering hunt: find U.S. politicians looking to blame Iraqis for the mess in Iraq:

“We should put the responsibility for Iraq’s future squarely where it belongs — on the Iraqis,” began Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee’s next chairman. “We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves.” He has advocated announcing that U.S. troops are going to withdraw as a way of pressuring Iraqi politicians to find compromises.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) followed by noting: “People in South Carolina come up to me in increasing numbers and suggest that no matter what we do in Iraq, the Iraqis are incapable of solving their own problems through the political process and will resort to violence, and we need to get the hell out of there.”

“We all want them to succeed,” agreed Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). “We all want them to be able to stabilize their country with the assistance that we’ve provided them.” But, he added, “too often they seem unable or unwilling to do that.”

Later the same day, members of the House Armed Services Committee took their turn. “If the Iraqis are determined and decide to destroy themselves and their country, I don’t know how in the world we’re going to stop them,” said Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.).

I’ll just make two brief points about this: First, there really are situations in which most people are simply making the best of a bad deal, and the result is much, much worse than anyone wants, and much, much worse than anyone intended. I think it’s a serious mistake to regard collective behaviours in Iraq as anything like the simple sum of a bunch of individuals’ intentions. And it’s a serious mistake to regard the results of collective behaviours as bearing any resemblance to the goals or intentions that the various actors have. This isn’t to deny that a lot of Iraqis have a lot to answer for. But there’s some really simplistic moral reckoning going on here, which is confused as well as tasteless in the circumstances.

The second point is that the bulk of the American political class jettisoned a great deal of the country’s principles in response to the attacks on 9/11. The subsequent erosion of civil liberties, the supine response to, or support of, the invasion of Iraq, and so on, were all made possible by a single attack on a country that is much, much safer to threats than Iraq. If that’s the response of the American political class to a single terrorist attack, I don’t think it’s in any position to be lecturing Iraqis, who live in hell, about sensible and level-headed responses to violence and chaos.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 11 28
Ask and ye shall receive

Posted by in: Odds and ends

An experiment to see how fast this link gets spread around. You don’t have to follow it; it just has to be here and get registered on Technorati. If you want to play too, post the link on your blog and ping Technorati by clicking on that link; if you also invite your readers to play along, Scott can track how this link spreads. Via Making Light and Bitch PhD. Now go back down and read Paul’s more thoughtful post.

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 11 28
Not so fast

Glenn Greenwald is great. I learn a ton reading him, and he’s a trenchant critic of this administration’s authoritarian policies. But this has me saying not so fast:

In an excellent new New Yorker article, Jeffrey Toobin documents how Arlen Specter lambasted the Military Commissions Act as a tyrannical, unconstitutional, profoundly unjust atrocity, only to then, like the good boy that he is, cast his vote in favor of it. After his habeas corpus amendment failed, “Specter, visibly angry, left the Senate chamber. He told reporters that he thought the habeas ban was ‘patently unconstitutional’ and vowed to vote against the detainee bill.” The next day — the next day — he voted in favor of it. That’s just sad.

Democrats replaced Republicans in Congress as a result of the midterm election but nobody has replaced Dick Cheney and George Bush. And they see Congress as irrelevant. The increasingly assertive defender of American values, the American Patriot Pat Leahy, explains in Toobin’s article how Congress functioned for the last five years and what it reveals about the “character” of those who still rule the executive branch:
Cheney and Karl Rove come to the Republican caucus meetings and tell those guys what to do. It�s all �Yes, sir, yes, sir.� I bet there is not a lot of dissent that goes on in that room. In thirty-two years in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress roll over and play dead like this one.�

Leahy talks a good talk. But let’s recall that he voted for General Michael V. Hayden to be Director of the CIA. This was the guy who insisted, in response to a journalist’s question about the illegal NSA spy program, that the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution does not link the standard of a legal search to “probable cause”. Of course, Hayden was dead wrong, despite heading up the secret spy program that he insisted was constitutional.

But being an equal opportunity critic, I’ll note the other Democratic luminaries who voted for Hayden: Biden, Byrd, Feinstein, Levin, Mikulski, Reid, and Schumer. So you see, I don’t trust the Democrats farther than I can throw them.

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2006 11 28
A Middle East Pony Conference

Obviously Iran is up to a bit of monkey business in Iraq now, and I’m willing to believe that Syria is not being 100% helpful. Still, I never bought the hysterical versions of these claims, pushed most often on the right. The violence and chaos in Iraq seems mostly a mix of homegrown dysfunction and foreign occupation, into which have also stepped various foreign radical groups who are often fiercely opposed to both Syria and Iran. That’s why I have so little faith in the idea that a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbours, in particular Syria and Iran, will help much. They’re not really where the trouble begins, and they’re hardly likely to be able to end it. I do hope that no one is seriously putting a lot of faith in the idea: it seems almost as desperate as staying the course.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 11 28
Midnight Ukulele Disco

Posted by in: Music

I’m not completely sure about this, but I think that Yoon will be appearing on this internet show tonight at 9pm EST. Afterwards, a clip of the show will be archived and watchable, but I don’t think the whole half hour will be. The focus will be on the ukulele player, I’m guessing, but she’ll also be performing.

Update: Oops. It’ll also be on local cable. Details:

Time Warner: Channel 56
RCN: Channel 108
Free to air: Channel 17
***Or you can watch it ON THE INTERNET at

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2006 11 27
Your info, their info

I notice that Google-owned Blogger makes it very hard to switch blogging platforms. There is, for example, no export function, as on other platforms, that you can use to easily save your posts, so that they can be imported into new software. And the support forums at WordPress are filled with people moaning about the failure of their attempts to import blogger posts via a WordPress tool. Some of these complaints are because the CURL extension in php is required and it’s a bit tricky to install, but there appears to be a Blogger-side to the woes too.

Besides betraying a basic insecurity about their product – if you have to make it hard to switch, you can’t be very confident in the reasons people will have to stay – this is worth mentioning because this is a Google product. It isn’t just any old company, then, that is churlishly holding onto these old posts. It’s one of the most important data-handling companies in the world, and growing more important every day. And it handles increasing amounts of personal data, in addition to most of the internet, and a growing number of out-of-copyright books. I think that’s a bit worrying.

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 11 27
Nobel Silliness

In early October, Edmund S. Phelps was awarded the Nobel prize for economics. The next day he published a piece in the Wall Street Journal on capitalism’s dynamism and justness. In the article, Phelps says that he

broadly subscribe[s] to the conception of economic justice in the work by John Rawls…An organization that leaves the bottom score lower than it would be under another feasible organization is unjust.”

Here Phelps is invoking Rawls’s so-called “difference principle,” which permits economic inequalities generated by society’s major institutions only if those inequalities serve to raise the life prospects of the least-advantaged higher than any other feasible alternative arrangement. So far, so good. But then Phelps ends the article with this:

Suppose the wage of the lowest- paid workers was foreseen to be reduced over the entire future by innovations conceived by entrepreneurs. Are those whose dream is to find personal development through a career as an entrepreneur not to be permitted to pursue their dream? To respond, we have to go outside Rawls’s classical model, in which work is all about money. In an economy in which entrepreneurs are forbidden to pursue their self-realization, they have the bottom scores in self-realization–no matter if they take paying jobs instead–and that counts whether or not they were born the “least advantaged.” So even if their activities did come at the expense of the lowest-paid workers, Rawlsian justice in this extended sense requires that entrepreneurs be accorded enough opportunity to raise their self-realization score up to the level of the lowest-paid workers–and higher, of course, if workers are not damaged by support for entrepreneurship. In this case, too, then, the introduction of entrepreneurial dynamism serves to raise Rawls’s bottom scores.

Where to begin? For one thing, Phelps misunderstands “Rawls’s classical” model in two key respects. First, the difference principle is not the sole principle of distributive justice. Rather, it’s one of three, and is the last in line in priority. Rawls’s Basic Liberties Principle and Fair Equality of Opportunity are given absolute priority over the difference principle by Rawls. So if maximizing the prospects of the least-advantaged is inconsistent with the protection of any of the basic liberties or a policy ensuring that equally talented and motivated persons have equal life-prospects, the difference principle gives way.

Second, it is false that in Rawls’s theory, “work is all about money” and has nothing to do with what Phelps calls “self-realization”. In fact, one of Rawls’s arguments in favor of Fair Equality of Opportunity is that its absence would legitimately lead those who do not have a fair chance to secure the most desirable jobs to feel unjustly treated, and this is precisely because they are “debarred from experiencing the realization of self which comes from a skillful and devoted exercise of social duties. They would be deprived of one of the main forms of human good” (A Theory of Justice (rev. ed., 1999), p. 73).

Of course, these exegetical points do not touch the substance of Phelps’s argument; it might be that, after the Liberty Principle and Equal Opportunity principle are satisfied, the difference principle requires increasing entrepreneurs’ prospects for self-realization at the expense of greater wages for workers. So let’s press on.

Phelps’s argument relies upon an unstated premise, something like “If it’s what I really really want, then it alone will contribute to my self-realization, and is therefore elevated to a legitimate interest within a Rawlsian theory of justice.”

This leads to absurd implications. For I could demand that justice cater to my desire to live a in society without entrepreneurs, just as I desire to live in a society without thieves. Or, if you think preferences about others’ preferences are a suspect form of double-counting, then we can tweak my desire: I really really want to receive a wage for playing basketball in my backyard all day, since that is what determines self-realization for me. The absurdity of both these suggestions shows that in order to be a legitimate concern of justice, the claim to self-realization has to pass certain moral tests. We cannot just assume that strong desires determine justice-relevant claims about what individuals need in order to be able to seek self-realization.

Rather, a sound theory must respect both interpersonal objectivity and suitable generality: if they are to be of practical use at all, principles of justice cannot be determined by personal whims or idiosyncratic wishes.

So now, instead of assuming that those wannabe entrepreneurs who are forced to live under a regime that curbs their entrepreneurial prospects are the “worst-off” since they do not have adequate opportunities for self-realization, that must be argued for. And the argument must explain why the entrepreneur’s complaints are legitimate but the complaint of the person who insists on a society that lets him play basketball all day are not. That is a hard argument to make. It would seem that the same strong response is available in both cases: “The fact that you want to play basketball all day is irrelevant to your standing from the point of view of justice. You have plenty of worthwhile opportunities, and it is wrong for you to demand that society makes a life of basketball (entrepreneurship) available to you, especially in light of what that would mean for and require of others. Given the opportunities available to you, given that your basic liberties are not infringed [which I am here assuming–Paul], and given that this arrangement maximizes the justice-relevant prospects of the justice-relevant least advantaged, you cannot complain that you have been treated unjustly.”

Of course, permitting entrepreneurial activities and advantages may well be required by the Basic Liberties principle and/or by the difference principle, even when illegitimate interests or claims about self-realization are ruled out. And this is indeed an argument that Phelps makes. But the supplementary argument about self-realization and the wannabe entrepreneur doesn’t fly.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 11 27
Changes coming

Posted by in: Odds and ends, Software

Using this fantastically helpful set of instructions, I recently set up a WordPress installation on my home computer. I already use WordPress for my teaching blog and to run Yoon’s blog, but I’d been putting off switching over this blog from its old Movabletype software to WordPress. (I wanted to do this because Movabletype won’t allow an upgrade to a group blog without our having to pay for it. And because WordPress is just awesome.)

Have I mentioned that WordPress is awesome? Well, having an installation on my home computer allowed me to goof around a lot to see what I could do with it. A lot, it turns out. In the end I was able to get something running that kept the look and feel of Explananda (because CHANGEBAD), but with a few nice extra features.

Anyway, you shouldn’t notice anything for a while, since over the next month or two I’ll be setting things up in the background and importing a bunch of files. But things will get a bit spiffier around here after that.

Howls of outrage (11)

2006 11 25

Posted by in: Odds and ends


Observatory Circle in northwest Washington is filled with people who live by the clock.

They are many of Washington’s movers and shakers, and they live in spacious houses around the rim of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s 72-acre circle of land.

In 2002, the quiet neighborhood was rocked by months of mysterious, round-the-clock blasting from the vicinity of No. 1 Observatory Circle, the official residence of the vice president. The explosions were never explained. “The noise was ungodly,” Douglass said. “I think many of us still have windows that don’t open and close properly.”

Some houses developed cracks in the plaster and other minor damage. Douglass made phone calls to ask about insurance claim forms. She was directed to the Pentagon, and says she was informed that property damage claims would not be considered, “because the blasting had never happened.”

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 11 24

Posted by in: Lebanon, Political issues

Jamie explains the recent assassination of Pierre Gemayel.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 11 21
For their own good

Matthew Yglesias calls attention to a surprisingly neglected feature (in U.S. contexts, at least) of the debate over the occupation of Iraq: an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the U.S. out. To be sure, opinion is not uniform – support for a U.S. presence is bound to be higher, for now, among the Kurds, for example. Still, I think that what Iraqis think is rather important here, both in what can be achieved and what it is appropriate to attempt to achieve. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many supporters of the occupation who look at the prospect of an even more violent civil war with horror. But they need to be honest about the fact that they want to force an occupation on Iraqis for their own good. Once again, I am reminded that this is an essentially neo-colonialist project.

Howls of outrage (30)

2006 11 20
Periodicals Bleg

Posted by in: Blegs

Well, it’s time to think about taking on a new subscription. I might substitute a new one for one of my current, but will more likely just add one, maybe two more. Here’s what I get already: The Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Left Review.

So what should I add: The New Yorker? New York Review of Books? American Prospect?

One Rule: Don’t suggest the New Republic: the book reviews are great, but the rest is pap. Oh, and I am very interested in economic issues, so I’d be willing to consider The Economist. But Dollars and Sense and Challenge seem more up my alley. Does anyone subscribe to–or even know of–these last two?

Thanks, Y’all.

Howls of outrage (8)

2006 11 18
Gig Tonight

Posted by in: Music

Oops. Late announcement. Right in Brooklyn:

Saturday, November 18th
6:00pm – 8:00pm

Yoon’s E-String Band
Yoon Sun Choi – voice and toy piano
Jacob Sacks – melodica
Khabu Doug Young – ukulele
Thomas Morgan – guitar
Vinnie Sperrazza – percussion


(formerly known as “Night & Day”)
230 5th Ave (corner of President St and 5th Ave)
Park Slope, Brooklyn
R train to Union St. or Q train to 7th Ave


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2006 11 16
The pasilalinic-sympathetic compass

Posted by in: Gadgets, Sex

This reminds me a bit of the particles in the Bell experiment, except, of course, in this case instead of subatomic particles it’s snails who have fucked.

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2006 11 15
Impractically high doses

Posted by in: Health

Science marches forward:

The latest Hopkins findings, to be presented Nov. 14 at the American Heart Association’s annual Scientific Sessions in Chicago, identified the effect of normal, everyday doses of chocolate found in ordinary foods, unlike previous studies that found decreased platelet activity only at impractically high doses of flavonoids equivalent to eating several pounds of chocolate a day.

If you snacked through the day, you could pull it off.

Howls of outrage (4)