What I’ve been reading and watching

I’ve just bought the new Nick Hornby novel, “A Long Way Down” first person narrative from four people who meet on a rooftop, each planning suicide. It looks promising so far – the implication is that all survive, but for all I know they may end up back on the rooftop, or may be speaking from the next world[1]. No spoilers, please.

I went with my son to Revenge of the Sith, which was certainly better than Episodes 1 and 2. My big complaint is that we’ve been waiting since 1978 or thereabouts to find out how Princess Leia comes to be fleeing from Darth Vader at the end of episode 4, and now we find that episode 3 ends with her in nappies. If Lucas meant to make a hommage to 1950s serials he hasn’t done a great job in this respect.

Better news is that I’ve got something to watch on Saturday nights again, with the arrival of a new series of Dr Who. Apart from the occasional Lions game (and they haven’t been too rewarding lately), I haven’t had any options since I abandoned The Bill a couple of years ago.

fn1. This device, effective in “The Lovely Bones” (Alice Sebold)The Lovely Bones seems to be getting hackneyed

The NYT goes cash for comment

ViaTimothy Noah at Slate, I learn that the NYT is going to start charging for access to its opinion columns. It’s not clear whether, and how, bloggers will be exempted from this – the NYT provides blog access to the archives (otherwise pay-per-view) through its RSS feeds

Speaking as a reader, I wouldn’t want to pay for the NYT Op-Ed page. The Editorials are worthy, but not very exciting. Of the columnists, only Krugman is consistently excellent, and most of his columns consist of necessary repetition of important truths well-informed readers are aware of, but most commentators are unwilling to harp on for fear of being called “shrill”. Kristof, like the little girl in the rhyme, is very, very good when he’s good, but that’s not always. And Herbert is steadily good, if sometimes overly earnest. After that, there’s a long tail, with columns more often useful for mockery than for endorsement.

As a blogger, there’s no point in paying for something if you can’t link to it. That’s why the WSJ is so thoroughly marginalised in the blog world. So unless the NYT finds a way around this, they’ll be cutting themselves off from the most active part of the public debate, and presumably missing out on quite a few potential readers.

Weekend reflections

This regular feature is back again. The idea is that, over the weekend, you should post your thoughts in a more leisurely fashion than in ordinary comments or the Monday Message Board.

Please post your thoughts on any topic, at whatever length seems appropriate to you. Civilised discussion and no coarse language, please.

Reinventing the wheel

Over at Crooked Timber, Eszter has a post on physicists doing social network theory , which raises the issue of ‘reinventing the wheel’. In this case, the physicists are breathlessly announcing results that sociologists have known about for years.

That’s obviously silly, but I don’t think reinventing the wheel is entirely a bad thing. Whenever I start on a new research topic, I like to spend a bit of time thinking about the issues on the basis of first principles, before I start reading the literature to see what others have done. The benefit of this is not that you’re likely to discover anything fundamentally new, but that it makes it easier to see what is central to the literature and what’s merely the accidental result of its development history (Professor X, the founder of the field, stressed assumption A, so all subsequent writers pay homage to it, and so on). Of course, this is only useful if you can subsequently engage with the existing literature.

My short summary “By all means have a go at reinventing the wheel, but don’t try to patent it[1]”

fn1. Apart from anything else, this guy has already done it

Update As James Farrell reminds me, I’m reinventing my own wheel here.

Kingdom of Heaven

Today’s Fin ReView section (alas, subscription only) has a great article by Peter Manning, reviewing Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven but also spelling out what a terrible crime the Crusades were, and how they are still affecting both the West and the Islamic world after nearly a thousand years. Manning is particularly good on the issue of just war doctrine, and the relationship between jihad and crusade.

Among the few good things to come out of our current trials is the fact that the word “crusade” is finally getting the evil connotations it deserves. A few years ago, George Bush was using the term “crusade” to describe the struggle against terrorism, and the US was about to build an artillery system called the Crusader. Now, just about the only time you hear the term is pejoratively, from bin Laden and like-minded jihadists.

Whether you call it crusade or jihad (or, for that matter, revolutionary communism), holy war is the worst of evils.

A good result

As I mentioned a couple of posts down, I’ve become pretty blase about letters from journals, at least to the extent that getting a rejection doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But I still get excited about the results from my annual karate grading, and I’m happy to say the news is good. I was hoping to be promoted to 7th kyu, which would have given me a black tip for my blue belt. Since our Kancho (founder) doesn’t encourage you to grade unless he thinks you’re ready, I was reasonably confident, but still nervous[1]. But when the results were announced, I’d reached 6th kyu and a yellow belt. Standards in our style are pretty high, and I can’t imagine ever getting a black belt. But a year ago, I would have thought a yellow belt was unattainable.

If you live in Brisbane or the Gold Coast and would like to learn karate in a rigorous traditional style, but with a friendly and non-threatening, mixed-age and mixed gender group, give Seiyushin a try.

fn1. Another successful grading meant I won a bet, in which my forfeit would have been watching a Dragonball Z movie marathon. Deliverance!

Life in Brisbane

I happened to notice a story in the local suburban newspaper about the midnight opening of Revenge of the Sith which begins “Hundreds of fanatics will brave the cool to be among the first to see …”

Torture and the pro-war blogosphere

In my first post on the Bagaric-Clarke paper advocating torture, I said “I haven’t seen any comment yet from pro-war bloggers, but I hope at least some of them will repudiate this terrible proposal”.

Andrew Norton[1] stepped up, pointing out that Bagaric has previously been identified with leftish positions, and criticising his current views. And regular commenter “Razor” on this blog says “As a confirmed RWDB and ex-soldier I can’t support the use of torture”.

Apart from that, I’ve come up blank. It’s easy to find pro-war bloggers and commenters supporting torture with more or less tortured arguments, defending Bagaric and Clarke’s right to speak and staying mum on the substantive issues, or just blogging on about Newsweek. I won’t bother linking to them – visit the obvious sites and you’ll find them. No doubt there are exceptions I’ve missed, but they aren’t very prominent.

This is a bit disappointing, but it provides a useful lesson. Next time you read one of these guys talking about Saddam and his crimes, remember it’s just a factional brawl within the pro-torture party. If Saddam had stuck to fighting wars against Iran, and torturing Iraqis, instead of invading Kuwait, he’d still be “an SOB, but our SOB”, just like Karimov in Uzbekistan.

Update Tim Dunlop has lots more on this here and here

Further update In comments, Andrew Norton advises that he was pro-war but didn’t blog on it directly, and Andrew Leigh is in a similar category. I can’t read Currency Lad’s blog (for heaven’s sake ditch the wallpaper!) but I’m not too surprised to learn from the comments that he is opposed to torture. And that’s it so far. Of the legion of noisily pro-war RWDB bloggers (a group from which I exclude CL), not one has so far taken a position any different from that of Saddam Hussein, and most of the noisiest have eagerly lined up with Saddam.

fn1. I should say that I haven’t actually seen anything Andrew’s written on the war, so I’m only guessing that he fits into the pro-war anti-torture category. I’ll be happy to correct this if it’s wrong.

One for three

Yesterday’s mail from the journals included one rejection, one acceptance and one revise-and-resubmit. Not a triumphant day, but I was happy enough, since major economics journals often have rejection rates of 90 per cent or more[1], and revise-and-resubmits generally lead to acceptance in the end.

As a result of this process, a big part of an academic’s research life consists of dealing with rejections. I gave up counting them after the first hundred or so, and it’s water off a duck’s back to me now, but this is something people starting out in academic life often find very hard to deal with. I can’t say I find the system satisfactory, but I don’t have an adequate alternative to offer.

fn1. The same is true in quite a few other disciplines, though not all.