OxBlog

Monday, May 02, 2005

# Posted 9:55 AM by Patrick Belton  

BRIT BLOGGING: The Church of the Militant Elvis Party, which is contesting a constituency in Erewash in the British general elections, plans to place giant photos of celebrities such as Johnny Vegas, Graham Norton and Chris Evans in Heathrow and Gatwick, 'to discourage undesirable foreigners from entering Britain.'
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Sunday, May 01, 2005

# Posted 11:28 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YGLESIAS SCORES BIG TIME: This week, Matt is guest-blogging on TPM. So young and already so successful. He's practically the Jonathan Safran Foer of his generation. Anyhow, Matt says he will continue the proud TPM tradition of obsessively blogging about Social Security. I guess now that promoting democracy in Iraq doesn't seem like such a ridiculous notion, the President's critics need a softer target. En garde!
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# Posted 11:04 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IT ISN'T HYPE IF IT'S REAL: I'm one of those skeptics who twitches every time someone talks about how the internet -- or even morseo, the blogosphere -- is about to transform some major field of human endeavor. However, the very sober Dan Drezner points out (drawing on The Economist) the ad revenue for Google and Yahoo! is expected to rival the combined prime-time ad revenue of the three major networks.

In the same post, Dan describes the strategy of Roger Simon and Marc Danziger to finally pull in some major advertising accounts for the blogosphere. Roger and Marc want to bring an end to the era of hawking T-shirts and bumper stickers via BlogAds. They want Amex and Lexus to fund the blogosphere. Wow. I hope they succeed.

Another currency in which the blogosphere seems ready to trade is prestige. Dan mentions in passing that TPM will be adding a foreign policy/national security blog in addition to its main site. When I clicked through to find out more, I was blown away to find out whom Josh Marshall had recruited to post on the site: Anne-Marie Slaugher, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at Brookings and former National Security Council official.

Slaughter and Daalder are precisely the kind of people who could ignore the blogosphere and continue to be incredibly successful. They have all of Democratic Washington (and then some) knocking on their doors. CNN, Foreign Affairs and the New York Times all want to know what they think about American foreign policy.

So, if scholars like Slaughter and Daalder think the blogosphere is worth their time and effort, that says a helluva lot about how far we've come.
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# Posted 3:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BAND OF (POLITICALLY CORRECT) BROTHERS: Band of Brothers was a superb cinematic acheivement. But it wasn't perfect. Even though I loved it, I noticed a few unusual things about its politics. First and foremost, in ten hours of action and dialogue, there isn't a single negative remark made about blacks or homosexuals.

In the first couple of episodes, BoB makes a big deal about the tensions caused by a very specific set of ethnic and religious differences. Instead of Irish and Italians, we hear about micks and wops. On the boat over to England, a vaguely anti-Semitic remark gets one Jewish soldier mad enough to throw a punch.

But after that, everything is just peachy. This Band of Brothers has to learned to transcend the petty differences that divide our nation. The US army has become not just the liberator of Europe, but yet another great American melting pot. It almost makes you forget that the army was still segregated at the end of WWII.
So what's going on here? Aren't Hollywood liberals like Spielberg and Hanks supposed to be reminding us of the dark side of American history, of our betrayal of our own democratic ideals? In general, yes. But not when the subject of discussion is The Greatest Generation. Because they are perfect. Because they live in a timeless land that has never heard of partisan politics.

World War II was the good war, so even Hollywood liberals tend to forget all of things they don't like about America circa 1945. Moreover, liberals need a good war to praise in order to demonstrate that their opposition to all those other wars reflects a nuanced political philosophy rather than just dovish naivete.

When liberals want to remind us of all the bad things America has done, they make films about Vietnam. Thus, if Hollywood history is to be trusted, one might infer that Americans were far more racist in 1968 than they were in 1945.

Now some of you may be thinking, "So what? Why should anyone care if Hollywood occasionally forgets to be hypercritical about American history?" Well, I can think of three reasons. The first is simply that precise thinking about history is always better than mythologizing the past. That principle applies even more to a film like BoB, which is based on a work of non-fiction by a professional scholar and has been widely praised for its "realistic" portrayal of the past.

The second reason has to do with anti-Semitism. BoB may simply ignore racism and homophobia, but it deliriously pretends that if Jews and gentiles go to war together, suddenly there's no more prejudice. Since BoB devotes almost an entire episode to Easy Company's liberation of a concentration camp, you'd hope it could deal with American anti-Semitism in a more forthright manner.

Now, it should go without saying that American anti-Semitism was the palest shadow not just of the vicious Nazi faith, but of the anti-Semitism that prevailed throughout Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, American anti-Semitism was part and parcel of the same Western tradition from which European anti-Semitism derived. When that point is forgotten, it becomes too easy to pretend that anti-Semitism is a thing of a past.

Third of all, I've had it up to here with The Greatest Generation. Not because it wasn't great or didn't make tremendous sacrifices on behalf of our nation. But because it represents a sort of unthinking nostalgia that makes it very hard to think about the present in a realistic manner. In the same way that our glorification of the Founding Fathers makes us lament the intense partisanship of today, our glorification of The Greatest Generation does the same. Yet like the Founding Fathers, The Greatest Generation often found itself riven by partisan and ideological conflicts.

I don't know if the early 21st century will some day be considered a landmark period of triumph in American history, but I am fairly confident that even bitter deliberations are vital to the success of our democracy today, no less than they were in 1776 or 1945.
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# Posted 1:42 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REFIGHTING WORLD WAR II: The time for watching cinematic epics is while you're still in grad school. Once you have a job and a family and all of that other good stuff...fuggedaboudit. So, with that in mind, I recently embarked on a ten-hour journey through that Spielberg/Hanks production, Band of Brothers.

If you look up Band of Brothers in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), you may notice that the series received a 9.6 (out of 10) average rating from the 14,768 site visitors who registered their opinions about it. I think you'd have to call that a pretty strong consensus, even allowing for the self-selection of IMDb site vistors. And I agree: Band of Brothers (BoB for short) is a very impressive acheivement.

I think one of the great challenges that BoB's directors had to confront was how to tell a story in ten hours, rather than the usual two hours for your average film. Ten hours is both an opportunity and a burden. It is very rare for a director to be given so broad a canvas on which to present his vision. But it is also very hard to keep a viewer's interest for that long.

One of the most important decisions to make is about the basic structure of the narrative. Most films in this genre (think Saving Private Ryan) tell a single story with a limited cast of characters and a straightforward set of plot developments. But that might not be enough to sustain a ten-hour epic. On the other hand, in the absence of a controlling narrative, how can the audience make sense of a film?

Wisely, BoB seems to recognize that history itself provides the film with its basic narrative structure. The uncertain march from Normandy to the heart of the Third Reich provides a well-understood framework that holds the series together. Thus, individual episodes within the series are able to break away from the constraints of traditional storytelling.

Whereas most war and action films are wedded to events, BoB places an emphasis on character. The series recognizes that war provides enough drama and tension in and of itself, so there is no need to create the suspense associated with an improbable rescue mission, a la Saving Private Ryan. The results are tremendous.

Perhaps the finest moment in a very fine series is the sixth installment, entitled Bastogne. Told entirely from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe, the episode describes the efforts of tired, under-armed and under-supplied soldiers to hold on to a few square miles of Belgian forest land.

Truth be told, the figure of the heroic medic is something of a cliche in films about the Second World War. The combat medic is healer who enables other to inflict violence. The medic never leads the charge, but is consigned to the even more dangerous mission of attending to soldiers lying injured and prone on the battlefield.

In contrast to many others, this cliche has a lot of substance. Combat medics were, and continue to be, unique sorts of heroes. When I was in high school, there was one chemistry teacher who had served as a combat medic in World War II. His accomplishments inspired a quiet reverence.

The great success of Band of Brothers is that it goes so far beyond this sort of cliche. In most films, the medic gets one heroic cameo. Here, we investigate the intellectual and emotional struggle of a man who must constantly engage in dangerous and paradoxical behavior. We Doc Roe struggling to locate a few more shots of morphine so that he can afford to ease the pain of the next man wounded without using up his emergency supply. We see Doc Roe struggling to accept his own helplessness in the face of pervasive carnage that is beyond his control. His is a portrait that goes far beyond the standard cliches.

Over the course of ten hours, BoB provides a series of compelling portraits, like that of Doc Roe, which add up to one of the most sophisticated accounts of war and its psychological impact ever produced by Hollywood.

Sometimes, it is hard to follow exactly what is happening and to remember all of the different characters who may have a bit part in one episode and then become a critical figure in the next. But in the end, that doesn't matter, because Band of Brothers is a not single narrative or an evidence-based argument. It is a collage of perspectives and emotions that is more important than any single detail.

UPDATE: Eminent jurist and military officer Phil Carter points out [via e-mail] that the structure of BoB follows very closely the structure of the book on which it is based. Thus, the filmmakers only deserve credit for preserving the sturcture of the book and not for envisioning the structure I praise so highly above.

Also, as you may have guessed, I have not read the book, but am now motivated to do so thanks to the series. Phil also points out (apropo of the post above this one) that the book mostly avoids the issues of racial and religious prejudice, so the demerits given to the filmmakers above belong partly to the author of the book, Stephen Ambrose.
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Thursday, April 28, 2005

# Posted 10:31 AM by Patrick Belton  

UNINTENTIONALLY SCARY SENTENCE OF THE DAY: ‘My thoughts on these matters shall be yours’ – David Hajdu in TNR, reflecting an ordinarily unspoken premise of political opinion journalism.
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# Posted 2:11 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GOD BLESS THE BRITISH SENSE OF HUMOR: Wednesday's WaPo ran a brief profile of Tory candidate Michael Howard and his party's sagging hopes for a victory in the UK's upcoming general election. Let me just say that I absolutely adore the Tories' campaign slogan: "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?"

That kind of thing would never fly in the United States. Our campaign consultants would insist that a question without an answer would just confuse the average voter. Instead, we get stupid cliches like "Stronger at Home, Respected Abroad."

But maybe we should have a little more faith in the American voter. Maybe a slogan that's a question would actually make people want to think. Or maybe not. Maybe us cowboys need to have candidates just tell it like is (or isn't).

So let's just be thankful that there is one country whose Monty Python-esque sensibilities have created a welcoming environment for impishly clever campaign slogans.
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# Posted 2:01 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CATCHY TUNES: Like Mr. Yglesias, I am rather fond of "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers. (Those are the names of a song and a band, oddly enough.) But as for Matt's complaint that the deceny police have bowdlerized the song's lyrics, allow me to suggest that the lyricist may have intentionally hinted at a certain anatomically-correct couplet in order to tantalize little boys from Harvard, then purposefully disappointed their hopes of hearing a dirty word on the radio. Caramba!
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# Posted 1:24 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MONEYBALL OR FUNNYBALL? I found Michael Lewis' argument persuasive, but then again, I don't know that much about either baseball or statistics.

According to economist-slash-blogger Steven D. Levitt, Lewis has no idea what's he talking about. (Click here and here for more details from Levitt.)
Naturally, I'm not equipped to say which side is getting the better of this argument. But if Levitt's data is as solid as he makes it out to be, he should be able to get a cover story in a major magazine.

(Major League Hat Tip: Bo Cowgill)
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# Posted 1:14 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

50 CENT + 50 CENT = ONE DOLLAR? It's hard to beat Seda' Club, but some liberal folks have also decided to combine flash animation, humorous lyrics and a chart-topping beat courtesy of 50 Cent.

I figure that opinions of this one will be pretty much divided along partisan lines. But if you be representin' the GOP, I think there's plenty of room for schadenfreude.

By the way, you may be interested in knowing that I discovered this bit of left-wing agit-prop thanks to an e-mail sent my way by a bona fide member of the mainstream media. Really.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

# Posted 10:46 AM by Patrick Belton  

MAIL BAG: i.e., that being the corner of OxBlog in which we're always happy to run bad jokes of a certain level of irredemptibility from our readers:
Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where ... the police are German, chefs British, mechanics French, lovers Swiss and Italians organize it.
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# Posted 1:25 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AT LEAST HE'S GOOD FOR SOMETHING: Thabo Mbeki may pretend that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and that Robert Mugabe isn't a brutal dictator, but at least he is good at reminding delusional French presidents of their nation's post-colonial impotence:
French President Jacques Chirac discovered the extent of Mbeki's mojo last February when rival parties in the troubled former French colony Ivory Coast told him that they trust the South African more than any Western leader. So incensed was Chirac that Mbeki was muscling in on former French territory that he publicly advised Mbeki that he should "understand the soul of West Africa" before setting out to broker peace deals there.
Chirac a theologian? I never would've guessed. By the way, that profile of Mbeki is from Time Magazine's annual 100-most-influential-people-in-the-world issue. Talk about a gimmick. Somehow, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and Jon Stewart all made the list. Apparently, Time confused "the world" with "the northeastern United States and parts of California".
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# Posted 1:02 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AN EMBARASSMENT: Phil Carter (himself a former officer, in case any of you have forgotten) denounces the decision of the Army's inspector general to clear the senior leadership of the US military in Iraq of any responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Glenn suggests that the Democrats' politicization of Abu Ghraib is responsible for the Army's circle-the-wagons mentality, but I disagree. Politicians on both sides of the aisle make stupid remarks about miltiary affairs all the time. That is no excuse for closing one's eyes to human rights violations.
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# Posted 12:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PLAGIARIZING MYSELF: After two weeks offline, it's hard to get back into the fast-paced, up-to-the-minute rhythm of blogging. Therefore, instead of opining about current events, I shall regale you with an excerpt from that timeless cure for insomnia known as "My Dissertation".

The passage below is about Reagan's trip to South Korea in 1983, but you will probably find it more interesting for what it says about the state of political journalism. Apparently, if blogs had existed twenty years ago, they would've had plenty to criticize about the MSM:
Air Force One touched down in Seoul on November 12, 1983, at a time of great international sympathy for the people of South Korea. In September, the Soviet air force shot down a South Korean passenger jet after it strayed into Soviet air space. Hundreds of travelers perished, almost all of them citizens of the US and ROK. In October, North Korean military operatives sought to assassinate Chun Do Hwan during a state visit to Burma. Chun survived because the North Koreans detonated their bomb prematurely. Nonetheless, four members of Chun’s cabinet died, along with numerous other senior officials.[1] If the realist hypothesis is correct, then these powerful demonstrations of the Communist threat to South Korea should have led the United States to further compromise its democratic principles and embrace the South Korean dictatorship even more tightly. Instead, Reagan did the opposite.

Speaking before the National Assembly, Reagan withheld direct criticism of the regime but firmly insisted that democracy was the goal toward which South Korea must strive in spite of the ever-present threat from the North. The president declared that:
The development of democratic political institutions is the surest means to build the national consensus that is the foundation of true security…We welcome President Chun's farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988…Now, this will not be a simple process because of the ever-present threat from the North. But I wish to assure you once again of America's unwavering support and the high regard of democratic peoples everywhere as you take the bold and necessary steps toward political development.[2]
Reagan reinforced this public message by confronting Chun in private about the state of political liberty in South Korea. In a prepatory memo for the president, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane informed Reagan that “your second meeting with President Chun should focus on political liberalization and economic issues. Although Chun will not welcome a discussion of the Korean domestic political situation, he will expect you to refer to it and to express support for further liberalization.”[3] Chun did not resist as strongly as McFarlane expected, however. Instead, the Korean president told Reagan that the ROK’s turbulent postwar history had led “the people [to] believe that a change of presidents is only possible through violence. This is a very dangerous way of thinking…My term is scheduled to end in 1988 and it will.”[4] Although Chun had often promised, in public, to step down at the end of his term, few believed that he would become the first South Korean president to leave office without being killed or overthrown. Since Chun himself had supervised the drafting of the 1980 constitution that limited the ROK president to a single term of office, few believed that Chun would let the constitution get in his way if he wanted to stay in power. However, by making a private commitment to Reagan – his most powerful and sympathetic ally – to step down in 1988, Chun indicated just how serious he was.[5]

Unaware of the private commitment Reagan had secured from Chun, American journalists found themselves unsure of whether Reagan’s public call for reform represented a sincere attempt to promote liberalization or a cynical apologia for an intransigent military dictatorship. In a front page story about Reagan’s address to the National Assembly, the Washington Post recounted Reagan’s remark that “You are not alone, people of Korea. America is your friend, and we are with you.” Its correspondents then reported dispassionately that “Reagan and top U.S. officials made it plain that they identify the ‘people of Korea’ with Chun's authoritarian government.” The Post also emphasized that Reagan had not scheduled any meetings with prominent South Korean dissidents, whereas Jimmy Carter had done so during his visit to Seoul in 1979. In an editorial three days later, the Post savaged the president’s diplomacy on the grounds that Reagan
Did not simply stay publicly mute about South Korea's [human right] violations. He strongly praised its "continued progress." It was no routine speechwriter who had him welcoming President Chun's "farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988"--yes, 1988. It was a satirist.[6]

The New York Times was far kinder to the president. The top headline in its November 12th edition read “Reagan Bids Seoul Seek Democracy; Denounces North”. The first sentence of the article below the headline quoted Reagan to the effect that democratic change is “the foundation of true security.” Three days later, a headline in the Times observed that “Reagan Trip Buoys Seoul Leadership”. The Times’ correspondent took care to note, however, that while “Mr. Reagan repeatedly gave his commitment to South Korea's security, he did not match those words with a ringing endorsement of President Chun himself. It seemed to reflect a widely held judgment that Mr. Chun, while holding uncontestable power, does not enjoy unflagging popularity.”[7] This confusion was never resolved, since South Korea disappeared from the front page soon after Reagan returned home.

[NB: I've included my footnotes below even though the notation is somewhat confusing for laypersons. FYI, "Oberdorfer 1997" refers to Don Oberdorfer's excellent book The Two Koreas.]


[1] For a more detailed account of the downing of the jet and the bombing in Rangoon, see Lee 1984 and Oberdorfer 1997:139-144.
[2] PP-RR, 12 Nov 1984, “Address”.
[3] Memo – McFarlane to Reagan, 5 Nov 1983, DDRS Doc. CK3100497051.
[4] Memo – Wolfowitz to Shultz, 19 Nov 1983, NSA/Korea.
[5] Chun’s family had been pushing hard since his inauguration for a legitimate succession that would prevent Chun from sharing his predecessor’s fate. (See Oberdorfer 1997:162) Thus, Chun’s commitment to Reagan represented the acknowledgment of a decision that had already been made, rather than a concession to American pressure for liberalization. Moreover, Chun’s commitment to step down from office did not entail a parallel commitment to allow the democratic election of his successor.
[6] WP, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A14. Because of the time difference between Seoul and Washington, the November 12th edition of the Post reported in full on Reagan’s November 12th address to the National Assembly.
[7] NYT, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A5.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

# Posted 7:01 AM by Patrick Belton  

TO TAKE BETTER CARE OF OUR READERS, and after cursory reading of our e-mail, OxBlog has opened up a mental health hotline. Click here for detailed instructions on how to call.
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# Posted 4:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BUSINESS WEEK: Not a publication I usually read, but this week's cover story is about blogs. And there isn't even a photo on the cover page. Just the word "Blogs" in huge red letters followed by the words "...will change your business" and a sentence or two about the story.

It's a pretty good report, although it doesn't come close to living up to the hype created by the cover. I wasn't really persuaded that blogs have, or will, change that many businesses. There are a couple of examples of businesses who make good use of the technology, but it's not as if every Fortune 500 company is about to rush out looking for a Chief Execublogging Officer.

Still, there are 9 million blogs out there. Now, more than a quarter of internet users read blogs. Two years ago, there were only 100,000 blogs. And OxBlog is three years old. Too weird.
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# Posted 4:32 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

POPE VS. EMPEROR: Is Benedict XVI actually the Dark Lord of the Sith? You decide. (No indignant responses please. This is just meant to be funny.)
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# Posted 4:27 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TERRORIST ON THE LOOSE: If Charles Taylor is friends with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and has a well-deserved reputation for committing unspeakable atrocities, why isn't our government trying to stop him?
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# Posted 3:57 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TV IS GOOD FOR YOU! Still more good stuff in this week's NYT Magazine. According to a forthcoming book by Steven Johnson, the growing complexity of what we watch on television means that sitting on the couch should count as an educational activity. As Johnson incisively writes,

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want.

As always, OxBlog is on the lookout for evidence that the average American is far more sophisticated than the experts want to admit. (Note to social scientists: OxBlog is also on the lookout for evidence that contradicts its hypothesis.)

Anyhow, although Johnson makes lots of good points, I'm going to reserve judgment about his overall hypothesis until I see the book. But here's an anecdote that may spark your interest. According to Johnson, the 1980s cop drama "Hill Street Blues" ushered in the modern age of television:
Before ''Hill Street,'' the conventional wisdom among television execs was that audiences wouldn't be comfortable following more than three plots in a single episode, and indeed, the ''Hill Street'' pilot, which was shown in January 1981, brought complaints from viewers that the show was too complicated. Fast-forward two decades, and shows like ''The Sopranos'' engage their audiences with narratives that make ''Hill Street'' look like ''Three's Company.'' Audiences happily embrace that complexity because they've been trained by two decades of multi-threaded dramas.
"Hill Street" rung a bell because I have vague childhood memories of my parents getting very excited about that show. Since I happened to be sitting on my parents' couch while reading Johnson's article, I rushed into their room to ask them what they remembered about "Hill Street Blues". From under the covers, my groggy father issued an animated denunication of "Hill Street" for having too many sub-plots that made its storylinesimpossible to follow.

I was dumbstruck. I assumed my father was pulling my leg. I asked him three times if he had already read the article by Steven Johnson in the NYT Magazine. He adamantly denied it.

So, you may be thinking, is Adesnik trying to tell us that his father is some sort of paleolithic neanderthal who can't appreciate good television? (After all, the man is from the Bronx and puts ketchup on his steak, sometimes even in restaurants.) The answer: No, of course not. Complexity is never something that has prevented my father from taking an interest. After all, it's pretty hard to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from MIT if you don't deal well with complexity.

So what's going on here? I think the answer is conditioning. My father grew up in the days of simpler television. That's the kind of entertainment he's used to. I grew up in the age of The Simpsons and therefore revel in the contorted plot twists and obscure cultural references of such shows.

In closing, I'll leave with you one more sharp observation from Johnson's article:
There's money to be made by making culture smarter. The economics of television syndication and DVD sales mean that there's a tremendous financial pressure to make programs that can be watched multiple times, revealing new nuances and shadings on the third viewing.
That's so true. I can watch the same episode of The Simpsons again and again and again. I even own a book that summarizes the plots and pulls out the best laugh lines from every episode in Seasons One through Eight. I figure, TV must be getting smarter if you can enjoy reading books about it.
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# Posted 3:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IF YOU LOVED MONEYBALL, then don't miss Michael Lewis' cover story in this week's NYT Magazine. Once again, Lewis shows how our national pasttime has become the prisoner of irrational obsessions that ruin the careers of talented young players.
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Sunday, April 24, 2005

# Posted 10:35 PM by Patrick Belton  

GEEK CORNER:* The internet telephony company Skype has announced a new service, SkypeIn, whereby customers can have a telephone number assigned to their computer at which to receive calls, for €10 / $13 for three months and for €30 / $39 for a year. There's also a voice mail feature. Telephone numbers are available for the United States and Britain and for Hong Kong, France, and Scandinavia as well. So wow, now there's never any reason to put your computer down.

* If by mistake you were looking for 'Greek corner', we kindly redirect you either to Greek Philosophy at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or to www.EligibleGreeks.com. If on the other hand you look up EligibleGeeks.com, you'll be promised that it's coming soon. Which will come as a welcome relief to all those beautiful geekophilic women who haven't yet discovered bloggers.
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# Posted 10:06 PM by Patrick Belton  

AS PART OF HUGH HEWITT'S READER GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION PROGRAMME, he's posted up a list of state mottos as they should read.
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# Posted 8:49 AM by Patrick Belton  

CHAG SAMEACH to all of our Jewish readers and friends! Here at OxBlog central studios (where as the Irish Catholic OxBlogger I've been pigging out on all the OxChametz - it's like the reverse Atkins...), we've been chuckling all week over rapper Fifty Cents's rendition of the plagues, courtesy of the fine latter day Yiddish humour factory that is ShaBot6000. And nowadays you don't even have to leave the city for the Catskills!
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Saturday, April 23, 2005

# Posted 8:43 PM by Patrick Belton  

GOODNESS GRACIOUS, IT'S OUR BLOGIVERSARY! HOW'D THAT HAPPEN? Thanks galore to all of our readers and friends who keep us, er, in business. Three more years! Three more years!
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# Posted 8:18 PM by Patrick Belton  

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, MANDARIN STYLE: OxBlog's neat site of the day today is the Internet Chinese music archive, a portion of the free internet library iBiblio, which features hours of classical, folk, and pop music from China, and together with several hundred of the disposable chopsticks and bagged fortune cookies (some suggested starters: 'the special sauce come from floor,' 'everyone meal today on you' and 'your dog no longer missing') is really all you need to start up your own Chinese takeout restaurant. Enjoy!
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Friday, April 22, 2005

# Posted 10:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A PILGRIMAGE TO BOROUGH PARK: Is it appropriate to deliver a eulogy in the blogosphere? When my uncle -- my mother's elder brother -- passed away two weeks ago, I wanted thousands and thousands of people, as many as humanly possible, to know what a wonderful human being he was. My uncle had shown so much kindness to me and to so many others for so many years. This much I owed him.

But I decided that delivering a eulogy online was not the right thing to do. Although I have written back and forth to hundreds of you during my time on OxBlog, the blogosphere is still too much of an anonymous place for emotional intimacy and vulenerability.

I do not believe that bloggers, like foreign correspondents, should separate their personal lives from their writing with a thick red line. But some things must remain private, and this was one of them.

I did speak about my uncle at his funeral. Even then, it was uncomfortable talking about so personal a relationship before an audience of many hundreds. Many of those in attendance I did not know. But everyone there was someone whose life had been touched by my uncle. That much we shared.

Instead of recounting what I said at the funeral, I would like to tell a brief story about my uncle. This story is not so much a memorial as it is a source of consolation, primarily for myself.

For more than twenty years, my father and my uncle had made a special trip to Borough Park, in Brooklyn, during the final days before Passover. Borough Park is where my uncle and my mother grew up. Although kosher-for-Passover foods are now more widely avaiable, they used to be much harder to find except in places like Borough Park. So every year, my uncle would drive my father (a non-driver) out to Borough Park in order to shop for the holiday. And every year they would visit Semel's, the same small grocery store at which my grandfather shopped for Passover while he was still alive.

This year, I drove my father to Borough Park in my uncle's car. When I was in high school, my uncle taught me how to drive. When I was growing up, I always knew that he would be the one to teach me how to drive. And now, in this small way, I began to emulate my uncle, whose life of kindness is an example by which I will always be inspired.
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# Posted 6:06 AM by Patrick Belton  

PHOTOBLOGGING AFGHANISTAN: So this morning we have several snapshots of daily life from our illustrious and famed Afghan correspondent, who remains anonymous as a way of avoiding the large number of teenage girls who would otherwise be emailing him their underwear. (Note I, however, as a young bachelor writer can generally use clean underwear. Please email it to me instead at underwear_appeal@patrickbelton.com.)

Rocket propelled grenades. And, um, chai.



Poppies, the reason we're here. I mean, not that way.



Which isn't to say they aren't often quite photogenic. (Even more so if you're on heroin.)



One of the district governor’s imposing security guys. Don't mess with him or he might just kick your tuckuss at backgammon.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

# Posted 1:30 PM by Patrick Belton  

BUT WILL HE BLOG? Our network of far-flung observers (see, we're flinging them even as we speak) report that Benedict XVI now has an email address, benedettoxvi@vatican.va, or if you're like the BBC's conclave team and can't speak a word of Italian, benedictxvi@vatican.va. Can we assume the Popemoblog is next?
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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

# Posted 8:10 PM by Patrick Belton  

COOL INTERNATIONAL-THEMED WEBSITE OF THE DAY: Both for writing and for prank calling Josh and David, I frequently need to think about time zones before I pick up the phone. No more (now I just prank call them all hours of the night!) - now there's a worldtimezone.com website with a map of the world and the current times within each time zone displayed. All with a certain Tron aesthetic unlikely to be otherwise familiar to, say, our undergraduate readers.
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# Posted 1:36 PM by Patrick Belton  

EASE ON DOWN THE ROAD: In the department of funny road trips, in summer of 2006 I’m planning to celebrate long-overdue completion of my D.Phil. and a numerologically significant birthday by driving the Silk Road together with a dear friend, and we’ll be writing a book together about the people (and changing polities) we meet along the way. Our good friend, Crescat’s Amanda Butler, heard about this and immediately sent me to Mongol Rally, one of the world's zanier road races which I think promptly needs to be shared with our readers:
The mother of all adventures, the Mongol Rally is an 8000 mile dash across 1/4 of the earth's surface in cars that most people consider underpowered for doing the shopping. We have no entourage of support vehicles, there is no carefully marked course, there are no professional drivers, fast cars, or even good cars. It's just you, your shite-mobile and thousands of miles of adventure. … The Mongol rally is a charity event that raises money for an awesome charity with a slightly ridiculous name 'Send a Cow'. (warning: page makes unexpected agricultural noises at you occasionally if you go to it)

Any car that has more than 1000cl of go is strictly forbidden as over-powered, and considered a risk to your ability to have fun. (See their Hall of Crapness for more on the 'Crap Car Rule')
And then from the FAQ section:
Is it safe?
No, not completely

What lovely tropical diseases can I collect?
This is NOT a comprehensive list so for real information contact your local travel clinic who can also tell what to do about minimising the risk, but here's a guide:

Hepititis
Cholera
Diptheria
Meningacoccal meningitis
The plague
Rabies
Typhoid


Do I need to be able to speak Russian?
What is very useful is if you have some idea of the Cyrillic alphabet. The road signs, if there are any, will not correspond very well with your maps if you don't.
There are also photographs and diaries of last year's Mongol Rally.
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# Posted 6:02 AM by Patrick Belton  

BLEGGING FOR BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS ON PALESTINIAN POLITICS: Our frequent readers know of our interest in Palestinian democracy, and in Mahmoud Abbas's prime ministership in particular. So, I'm currently open to the idea of spending part of this summer in Ramallah to write a series of articles on Palestinian politics in the era of Abu Mazen. As a result I've been looking to read, and review here, some of the better journalistic and academic works that have been written on Palestinian politics. And so I thought I might ask for suggestions from our readers with backgrounds in that direction, as well as list the books and articles currently topping my list to read and review on OxBlog. I'll very happily share results here.

Here's what I've amassed so far, and I'll cheerfully add to this list as our readers make suggestions:

Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People: A History (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Mushtaq Khan (ed.), State Formation in Palestine: Establishing Good Governance and Democracy Through Social Transformation  (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004).

Nathan J. Brown, Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine (University of California Press, 2003).

Barry Rubin, Revolution Until Victory?: Politics and History of the PLO (Harvard University Press, 1994).

Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

Yezid Sayigh and Khalil Shikaki, Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions (Council on Foreign Relations, June 28, 1999).
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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

# Posted 12:21 PM by Patrick Belton  

HABEMUS PAPAM: The smoke billowed white. BBC's website has free online live coverage from the Vatican.

UPDATE: Joe Gandelman has a review of the coverage of Benedict XVI. Personally I was hoping for a cuddly Italian liberal. But a conservative German with the nickname 'the enforcer' was probably my second choice.
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# Posted 10:16 AM by Patrick Belton  

VIRTUAL POPE BLOGGING: The BBC, rising to the high level of Sistine Chapel aesthetics in the finest tradition of the Elizabethan Settlement, establishes a Vaticam. Meanwhile, closer to home and in a bonafide Catholic country, Paddy Power has set up www.popebetting.com. The latest odds?
Francis Arinze (Nigeria) 7/2
Joseph Ratzinger (Germany) 11/2
Cláudio Hummes (Brazil) 7/1
Dionigi Tettamanzi (Italy) 7/1
Jean-Marie Lustiger (France) 8/1
Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (Honduras) 9/1
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (Italy) who sounds like he would give great parties at the Vatican... 10/1
Yer man also has bios and assessments of the most papabili of the papabili. Personally, I like the former archbishop of Milan and the current archbishop of Venice.
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# Posted 9:12 AM by Patrick Belton  

VIRTUAL PARIS BLOGGING: A few of this blog’s dear friends were headed to Paris several days ago. So, as part of a day's work in OxBlog's world-renowned reader services department, we made up for them an itinerary around some of our favourite bistros, cafes, and creperies on the Left Bank. In the interests of equanimity, our other readers are now most welcome to use it to daydream, preferably to the accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald singing April in Paris.
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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

# Posted 3:50 AM by Patrick Belton  

FROM OUR DASHING, LONG-LOST AFGHANISTAN CORRESPONDENT: 'We love you, Afghan correspondent' - a reader and real live teenage girl. I've been back in Afghanistan for the last five months -- deep in southern Afghanistan, actually, administering a mass employment program to keep the bottom from dropping out of the local farm economy when the poppy eradicators arrive. Due to the sensitivities of my job, I haven't been able to send regular updates, and I'm not going to enter into any great detail now. But here are some comments to accompany the few photos that I'm sending to Patrick. (and that he'll post up soon, he promises - ed.)

These months have introduced me to the Pashtun heartland of the country -- the irrigated desert and mountain areas that initially welcomed the Taliban with open arms, and are now divided on whether to welcome the new government of Karzai. It's a country where young women flinch from your eyes and young men swear they would die for you; where old men roll out their prayer rugs in a field of (religiously prohibited) opium poppy; where the warlords and local drug barons fence cautiously with the new powers of the Afghan National Army and the international occupying forces; where some farmers thrive on grand irrigation systems built by America in the fifties, and others lower themselves fifty meters into the earth, carving two-foot-wide tunnels by candlelight in order to get enough water for bare subsistence agriculture many kilometers away. Working here has been intense, and inspiring, and thought-provoking.

It's hard at times to pierce the superficial hospitality and get to what people really believe and feel about the new order. I've been working in districts that neighbor on Mullah Omar's hometown. During the mujahidin era, they produced fratricidal, drug-trafficking, arch-conservative commanders (one of whose sons is now a major provincial governor). During the Taliban era, they produced conscripts and recruits for the new movement -- first for the campaign to restore order to the Pashtun south, then to conquer the corrupt and fractious north (as it's seen down here). But now war-weariness and the desire for calm seems as prevalent here as anywhere. When I talk to villagers, they mention how glad they are that pseudo-official bands of armed men are no longer able to stop cars on the road or roam the countryside, extorting at will. The UN-led disarmament program has had a noticeable impact even in these areas. Guns still abound, crime is common, and the police in most places are barely-domesticated militias who (in the memorably awful words of a colleague) "haven't quite lost their habit of sitting around, smoking lots of hashish and raping little boys." But for all that, the power of the gunmen and the chaos of the war years have diminished greatly, and people believe they will continue to diminish.

This bears emphasis, in contrast to the unwarranted hysteria of some of the commentary I read on Afghanistan ("an electoral-narco-gulag-permanent-base dependency," passim). Many people still don't understand just how bad things were in Afghanistan, or how hard it is to find the traction to begin rebuilding a country from such a low base. Look at the stats on
where Afghanistan is now (poverty, infant mortality, kidnappings, repression of women, impunity for murderers), and of course it's appalling, of course it's a dependency -- four years ago it was a textbook failed state. Look at the trajectory of the place, and there's reason for much hope.

News reports claiming that the US has set up a network of secret and lawless prisons in Afghanistan are dreadful, if accurate. But these prisons do not impinge on the average Afghan, and my firm impression is that (as with the initial arrival of the Taliban) the great majority of people in this country would bear with considerably more human rights violations if they thought peace would result. The Bush administration's contempt for the Geneva Conventions should be a source of shame to Americans everywhere, but it does not endanger the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the prospect of permanent US bases in the country is greeted with tremendous relief by most Afghans I talk to, whose primary fear at the moment is that America "will abandon us again as they did in the 1990s." And the international military presence throughout the country is becoming ever more international, as US Provincial Reconstruction Teams retire and are replaced by Canadians, Italians, Brits. The securing and rebuilding of Afghanistan is not the simple act of American empire perceived by many critics.

The canard that Hamid Karzai is "only the mayor of Kabul" also grows less supportable by the month. The great majority of provincial governors, including many warlords and clients of warlords, have been replaced this year by Karzai's order. I have personally seen the anxiety in the eyes of governors and district heads at the prospect of the "mayor of Kabul" finding out that their poppy eradication efforts have been inadequate. I've seen the impact when the governor and two of his major local rivals are "DDRed" (the UN's disarmament program has become a common Afghan verb), losing power vis-a-vis the center. The most notorious major commanders, Ismael Khan, Mohammad Fahim, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, remain powerful men, but all are clearly following Karzai's lead, not vice versa. A mere year ago this outcome would have been considered wildly improbable.

Karzai's main electoral opponent from last year, Yunus Qanuni, has formed a "loyal opposition" party to contest the parliamentary elections. These will doubtless be messy and noisy, and probably attended by serious Taliban attempts at disruption -- the insurgents know how much credibility they lost when the presidential elections went off without a hitch. But given the continuing marginalization of the Pushtun insurgents, the steady trickle of Taliban commanders "coming in from the cold," and the non-violent tenor of political competition between factions over the last few months, I think the parliamentary elections are likely to be, on the whole, another small success.

Finally, on the issue of the narco-economy: it's cause for concern, but not panic. In five years, if the best efforts of the international donor community haven't provided real alternatives (crops and credit) to the opium economy, then it'll be time to make comparisons between Afghanistan and Colombia. For now, of course the farmers are planting poppy -- their land has been degraded, their roads and other infrastructure devastated. They need a crop that gets maximum profit per acre and doesn't perish en route from farm to market. They also need credit; a loan up front from poppy traders is a major incentive to get into the cultivation business. We can provide these things. I've found farmers to be generally interested if skeptical when presented with alternative crops, and very interested in alternative sources of income and credit to keep them out of the traffickers' debt in the first place.

Poppy cultivation is going to drop this year, though after last year's bumper crop, that's not saying much. The US and Afghan government eradication efforts have targeted the provinces that cultivated the most opium last year. In the two most populous of these provinces (southern Helmand and eastern Nangarhar) this has had a major impact. The governors and local authorities in Helmand and Nangarhar have reduced overt opium cultivation by at least 60% (though in remote valleys and inside walled compounds, large poppy fields persist). This will likely mean an increase in districts with weaker government control (Orozgan and Ghor in central-southern Afghanistan, Paktika, Khost, and Kunar in the east), but overall there will be less poppy cultivation this year. Can this be sustained next year without social unrest? That'll depend on the state of the Afghan economy, and whether people believe there are alternatives.

None of this is victory, and it's far too early for triumphalism. But enthusiasm, continued commitment, and some degree of optimism -- these are I think proper attitudes when considering the situation in Afghanistan.
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Monday, April 11, 2005

# Posted 3:57 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOTICE: There has recently been a death in our family. I will be spending the coming week in New York in order to observe the traditional period of mourning with my parents and relatives.

At the moments when I need a distraction from the weight of mourning, I may find myself online and blogging, because it is something that I enjoy and that takes me away from my surroundings.

For the moment, I would simply like to observe just how enervating it is to travel a long distance for a funeral. I have always experienced travel as a moment of excitement, of looking forward to a different and better future. It is that expectation of discovery which makes the effort of travel often seem effortless.

But last night and tonight, I have invested so much effort in order to come home and confront a great loss that came long before its time. Instead of discovery, there is emptiness.
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Friday, April 08, 2005

# Posted 9:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

RESTAURANT REVIEW -- McDONALD'S: Enough of this highfalutin talk about Bobos and documentaries and cultural analysis. Let's talk about what really matters: the food.

Yesterday, in Terminal Seven of the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, I became a patron of McDonald's. Why? Because in Terminal Seven there is no Burger King or Wendy's. There is a nice deli, but who wants to pay $6.59 (before tax) for a tuna fish sandwich?

Actually, I didn't save all that much by going to Mickey D's because I decided to order one of their Premium Salads. To be specific, I ordered the California Cobb Salad with Grilled Chicken, which cost $5.09 before tax. I must admit that I have been especially curious about McDonald's' selection of salads, since director/guinea pig Morgan Spurlock eats salad at least twice during Super Size Me.

If Spurlock really wanted to know whether there is nutritous food available at McDonald's, why does he pay so little attention to the salads? One possible answer is that very few people actually order salads when they go to McDonald's. But according to Spurlock's own rules, he was allowed to order whatever he wanted provided that he tasted each item on the menu at least once during his 30 day experiment.

So, is a McDonald's salad nutritous? As Spurlock mentions in his film, nutritional information about all items sold at Mickey D's is available on the McDonald's website. Conveniently for bloggers, there are even permalinks to the webpage for each item. So, for example, my salad had 270 calories, approximately 100 of which were from fat. The low fat vinaigrette added another 40 calories, plus 60 for the croutons for a total of 370 calories.

I also ordered a medium fries (350 cal.) and Diet Coke (0 cal.), which brought my grand total up to 720 calories for lunch. Not bad. Not exactly the way to lose weight if you're on a diet, but otherwise reasonable.

On film, Spurlock mentions in passing that he ate approximately 5000 calories per day during his 30 days of McDonald's. Which forces me to ask one very simple question: What the f***, dude? Were you trying to ruin your health?

Naturally, I'm not the first one to point out that Spurlock's supposedly scientific investigation was designed to produce sensational results. Vic Matus had a good article about the film in the Weekly Standard and Tech Central Station has a whole site devoted to the Super Size Con.

So what can I add to all of this widely available information? An opinion, I guess. While you certainly can order a salad at McDonald's, the question still remains: would you want to? My answer is a qualified 'yes'.

The lettuce is reasonably fresh. The grilled chicken is edibly tender. The servings of bleu cheese, diced eggs and other Cobb salad ingredients are stingy at best, but what do you expect for five bucks?

Actually, if you happen to live near a Harris Teeter, you can get a pretty damn good Cobb salad for five bucks. In the shopping center where I usually go for lunch when I'm at my office, there happens to be a Harris Teeter within 200 yards of the McDonald's, so don't expect me to head back to Mickey D's for a Cobb salad anytime soon. But if you're stuck at an airport and want something that is affordable but isn't too greasy, you won't have any regrets about ordering a "Premium" Salad.

Alternately, if for some bizarre reason you decide to eat three meals a day at McDonald's for an entire month, you can probably stick to the salads and not wind up any fatter than you were before.

UPDATE: If this post was too un-highfalutin for you, check out Jake Young's post about McDonald's, Bobos and the Protestant ethic.
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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

# Posted 2:58 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ANOTHER CAPPUCINO CONSERVATIVE: Dan Drezner blogs about the virtues of expensive chocolate.
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# Posted 2:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE EXPERTS ARE ALWAYS RIGHT: I dare you not to enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink. There isn't a boring page in the whole book. Which is why you will soon finding yourself reciting Gladwellian anecdotes to all of your friends and neighbors.

But the big question every reviewer seems to ask is "So what?" Gladwell presents himself as much more than a storyteller. He presents himself as a humble conduit for the great but unknown truths of modern science. By presenting himself as the messenger instead of the Word, Gladwell deflects attention from himself and from his role in the (mis)interpretation of the stories he has told.

Blink is about the power of cultivated intuition. That adjective is extremely important, and some of those who have reviewed the book seem to have overlooked its significance. Right up front, Gladwell grabs your attention by arguing that
We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it. When doctors are faced with a difficult diagnosis, they order more tests, and when we are uncertain about what we hear, we ask for a second opinion. And what do we tell our children? Haste makes waste. Look before you leap. Stop and think. Don't judge a book by its cover. We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible. (Pages 13-14)
Thus,
The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be very bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.(Page 14)
The second task of Blink is to ask why intuitive judgments are sometimes so tragically wrong, as in the case of the four New York cops who pumped 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo because they thought his wallet was a gun. In other words, decisions made very quickly can be far, far worse than those made cautiously and deliberately. Which is why:
The third and most important task of this book is to convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled...The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift magically given to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves. (Pages 15-16)
Actually, the evidence in Gladwell's book suggests something slightly different. It suggests that highly-educated experts are capable of making very good snap judgments about questions that concern their particular area of expertise.

For example, the Getty Museum in California conducted extensive research in order to determine whether a $10 million statue it wanted to buy was an ancient Greek original or a later-vintage imitation. Yet before committing to buy, the Museum asked a number of experts to take a look at the statue. Almost all of them instantly declared that it was a fake, even though they couldn't explain why they felt that way...at first. Ultimately, they were able to provide evidence to back up their point.

In contrast, average human beings often make bad snap judgments when high-pressure, high-adrenaline situations cloud their judgment. When you throw racism and other cognitive biases into the mix, the results can be explosive, a la Amadou Diallo.

Which makes you wonder, shouldn't the title of this book be Blink (Sometimes)? As David Brooks pointed out in his review of the book,
Though Gladwell describes several ways intuition can lead people astray, he doesn't really dwell on how often that happens. But I've learned from other books, notably David G. Myers's more methodical but less entertaining ''Intuition,'' that there is a great body of data suggesting that formal statistical analysis is a much, much better way of predicting everything from the outcome of a football game to the course of liver disease than the intuition even of experts.
Brooks is definitely right about Gladwell ignoring a lot of evidence that points to the shortcomings of intuition. But I think Gladwell does have a partial, albeit implicit answer to the question of how often snap judgments are well-made. The answer is "When experts make them."

I can only think of one example in Blink of how expers' intuition can lead them completely astray. As Gladwell relates, female musicians used to have an extremely hard time getting chosen to play for prestigious orchestras. That is, until concerns about sexism led to the innovative idea that during auditions, there should be a screen between the performer and the judges that prevents the latter from knowing whether the former is a man or a woman.

Before the screens went up, the judges always provided aesthetic justifications for their decision to reject female candidates. They insisted that the performances of female candidates were objectively inferior. And they probably believed it. But they were wrong.

In addition to sexism, Gladwell identifies racism as one of the cognitive biases most often responsible for making bad snap judgments. He also identifies physical attractiveness and height as factors that can lead us astray. What these four things have in common is that all of them are basically visual attributes. Moreover, they are all preferences which everyone now condemns as superficial (e.g. looks and height) or morally reprehensible (e.g. racism and sexism).

In other words, Gladwell seems to be telling us that it is easy to make good snap judgments if we are good human beings who don't give in to prejudices that we already know are bad. While no one would recommend giving in to prejudices that we already know are bad, Gladwell seems unable to recognize just how many other sorts of prejudices there are that may lead us astray.

The book I read immediately before Blink was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is a story about how statistical analysis is so much better than intuition that the Oakland A's were able to win 90+ ballgames four years in a row even though they spent only a fraction of what their rivals did on recruiting talented players.

(Coincidentally, David Brooks also talks about Moneyball in his review of Blink. Spooky, no?)

Part of the story about the Oakland A's is that their general manager, Billy Beane relied on an unusual set of statistics to decide whether or not a player was talented. Far more importantly, Beane discovered that other managers didn't notice which players had talent because, over course of decades, baseball had developed a culture that considered certain players to be defective even though they were good at getting on base and winning ballgames.

In short, baseball culture is full of prejudices. According to Lewis, major league scouts are always looking for young players who seem athletic. To some degree, these scouts bought into the myth of good looks that Gladwell describes. Yet they also focused on seemingly objective indicators of talent, such as how fast a player could run around a baseball diamond.

Speed isn't bad thing, but Beane discovered via statistical analysis that the added value of having a fast runner on your team isn't very high at all. However, there is nothing superficial or immoral about having a preference for speed, especially if you are a baseball coach. Thus, a preference for speed is precisely the sort of cognitive bias that Gladwell can't warn us about.

What my intuition tells me is that is almost every field of expertise has the same sort of prejudices as those of major league baseball. Especially politics.

To be continued...
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Monday, April 04, 2005

# Posted 2:09 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHY OXBLOG IS SO CIVILIZED: Have a look at my mother's letter-to-the-editor in Saturday's New York Times. (It's the first of three on the page.) Now multiply that by 18 years and you'll get a better sense of who I am.
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# Posted 2:03 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JOHN PAUL II, IN MEMORIAM: The president said it well: "The world has lost a champion of human freedom." Even so, John Paul deserves many more kind words. Yet at the moment I am hoping to organize my words of praise into publishable form, so please forgive the laconic nature of this post and expect something more polished in the coming days.
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# Posted 12:35 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BOBOS IN PARADISE HELL: One shouldn't take for granted the upbeat and neighborly tone of David Brooks' socio-comic treatise. Brooks suggests that Bobos are inherently moderate, friendly and willing to compromise. But there is a dark side to the Bobo lifestyle and I became aware of it last night.

Last night, I began to watch Super Size Me, the highly-acclaimed documentary about a director who put himself on a strict, McDonald's-only diet for thirty days. The politics of the film are pretty boring. If you've seen one anti-corporate polemic, you've seen them all. As we all know, corporations brainwash us with slick advertising and spend millions on lobbyists in order to prevent the government from actually representing the voters who put it in office.

What kept me interested was the culture. Super Size Me is the perfect expression of the Bobos' unmitigated condescencions towardAmerica's primitive middle-class or, if you will, lumpenbuergertum. Although the film holds McDonald's responsible for the atrocious eating habits of its very satisfied customers, there is a powerful subcurrent of horror at the ignorance of those who subject themselves to this sort of nutritional abuse.

Although the film never says so explicitly, it has a very rigid, albeit unspoken class structure. The lower class consists of those who love McDonald's, dozens of whom are interviewed by Spurlock, usually in one of our glorious nation's many McDonald's franchsies. The upper class consists of the physicians, nutrionists, scholars and legal experts who practically beg Spurlock not to force himself to eat all that junk food.

According to the pop-psychological theory on which Spurlock bases his argument, manipulative advertising has the ability to instill vulnerable children with unbreakable, lifelong habits of consumption. Yet somehow, all of the educated individuals who advise Spurlock have cleansed themselves of the destructive messages to which they were exposed as children. Although Spurlock never explains exactly how this is possible, the implicit message is clear: educated people simply know better.

While the average American may think that he really enjoys eating at McDonald's, he actually is suffering from what scholars refer to as 'false consciousness'. Early on, Spurlock seems to enjoy some of what he is eating. But after a while, his only reaction is to mock both its appearance as well as its taste. In other words, well-informed people find McDonalds to be self-evidently disgusting.

I have to admit, I find this argument somewhat persuasive, since I also find much of what's for sale at McDonald's to be self-evidently disgusting. (On the other hand, Burger King and Wendy's cook food that I can really enjoy.) However, I don't hold it against anyone that they like McDonald's. In fact, it is perfectly sensible to say that eating at McDonalds is an enjoyable activity in spite of being bad for one's health.

This sort of trade-off between short-term pleasure and long-term welfare is not irrational. It is necessary for living a good life. And it helps explain why people do things like smoke, have extra-marital affairs and vote for Howard Dean. Yet instead of acknowledging that such a rational trade-off is taking place, Spurlock & Co. are genuinely disgusted by the thought of liking McDonalds. Rather, they live in a world where basic choices about personal consumption must reflect profound ethical commitments.

This is classic Bobo thinking. One might even say that it is Bobo religion. Everything must be organic. Instead of instant coffee, there is cappucino made from fair-trade Colombian beans. Instead of low-priced mega-stores, over-priced boutiques. Instead of SUVs, gas-electric hybrids. (NB: Brooks identifies the SUV as the ultimate Bobo vehicle because of its pseudo-ruggedness, but I think he'd now agree that the smart set has come to regard SUV's as a guilty pleasure. Someday, it will loath them as it does McDonald's.)

What prevents the Bobos' condescension from exploding into utter loathing and contempt is the sense that America's primitive majority is not responsible for its crude and ignorant behavior. Instead of contempt, there is a certain pity. If you watch Super Size Me, I think you'll agree that Spurlock betrays a definite affection for all of the misguided McDonalds' lovers he interviews. He wants them to live better and healthier lives, but he would hate himself if he ever became like them.

The ignorant middle-class is the shameful Other that helps Bobos reinforce their identity. The Bobos' confidence in their own enlightment depends to a considerable extent on the availability of a pathetic, pitiful Other. While there may be much to admire about the Bobo lifestyle, it also has a divisive side that Brooks doesn't seem to acknowledge.

When a Bobo sees (on film, of course) a 200-pound woman ordering a Big Mac, large fries and 32 oz. soda, he or she says to himself, "There but for the grace of Harvard (or Swarthmore or Middlebury) go I."
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