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Dwight Garner reviews Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West. (The Times seems to go in for this sort of alarmism lately.) Garner concludes:

It is hard to argue with his ultimate observation about Europe today: “When an insecure, malleable, relativistic culture” (Europe’s) “meets a culture that is anchored, confident, and strengthened by common doctrines” (Islam’s), “it is generally the former that changes to suit the latter.”

Hard to argue with, because no specific examples are provided. But is there any “culture” more “insecure, malleable, relativistic” than that of the United States? Surely our success in reducing any immigrant strain to three-day weekends and Taco Bell should be grounds for optimism in this regard.

As I am not a scholar of the law, I do not have much to add to the conversation concerning Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  Kevin Drum is almost assuredly correct about the end result following the mandatory political theater; Kieran Healy provides us with the program notes.

So in lieu of analysis, I have for you a mental toy inspired in part by the end of the spring semester and joyful graduation ceremonies everywhere and the rise once again, dissected here, of the zombie affirmative action meme.  (It says “GRAAADESSSS! GRAAAAADES!”)

Imagine you’re a political pundit.   Your little girl has just graduated from Yale Law School, where she distinguished herself at the Yale Law Journal.  Four years earlier you had wept with joy as your little girl, first in her family to go to college, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton.  You feel as if you would burst with pride at all she has accomplished.  You wish your father had lived to see this day….

…and as you hug her, you whisper in her ear your respica te, hominem te memento, that really, Princeton is nothing, Yale is nothing, and she’s must be an affirmative action student who never really accomplished anything at all.  You haven’t bragged to your friends.  You haven’t mentioned it.  Why would you?

What’s been amusing me in the past few days is the contrast between the hypothetical parent who would be thrilled to tears to have a child with half of those accomplishments, the hypothetical response of the friends and community of those parents, and the rush to paint Sotomayor as someone who isn’t very bright, rather common really, a dime a dozen, part of the new detestable affirmative action policy for the Supreme Court. Whatever the reasons to oppose Sotomayor legitimately, one of them is not that she isn’t qualified.

I swear you could get pundits to declare that salt is sweet if they thought there was an advantage in it.

I haven’t posted at all regarding the torture memos because I’ve been far too angry to write much more than expletives or “seriously?”  But here is something poorly reasoned from the chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit*: that we need to be able to torture because one day, we might catch Osama, he might tell us that he knows where all of the bombs are, and Obama won’t let us beat him up in order to save American lives….

A response,one that contains no ventings of spleens, after the jump.

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The threat? The “denimization of America“:

Do not blame Levi Strauss for the misuse of Levi’s. When the Gold Rush began, Strauss moved to San Francisco planning to sell strong fabric for the 49ers’ tents and wagon covers. Eventually, however, he made tough pants, reinforced by copper rivets, for the tough men who knelt on the muddy, stony banks of Northern California creeks, panning for gold. Today it is silly for Americans whose closest approximation of physical labor consists of loading their bags of clubs into golf carts to go around in public dressed for driving steers up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene.

This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don’t wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

There’s actually an interesting sociological point here–which Will misses, of course–involving the idea of working-class clothing becoming fashionable for the middle and upper classes. But that would be taking him seriously, not something one should do before morning coffee.

Update: By the way, Fred Astaire in (I think) blue jeans (with Audrey Hepburn):

zn0mch.jpg

Hat-tip to Steve Benen

America is too exceptional; and American soldiers are people too.

Updated: here’s Obama’s ‘exceptionalism’ answer:

In one sense, of course, it’s nearly vacuous. But in “threading the needle”, as someone put it, in building a principled frame within which cake may be both eaten and had, it resembles the lightning-strikes of insight familiar from psychotherapy or religion.

I remember as a teenager feeling completely betrayed when I realized that the Just Say No Just-So Story that everyone who tried pot ended up friendless and alone and with Bs on their homework was false!  Some even went to Harvard! The war on drugs would clearly be the dumbest policy we’d come up as a society with if only it didn’t have so much competition.

That said, I don’t think much of this kind of anecdote argument.  Not that I don’t agree with the conclusions.  But I suspect that the productivity of Wilkinson and others like him has less to do with the fact that pot isn’t dangerous and more to do with the fact that if one is well-educated and well-off one has to really screw up before anything affects one’s expected life outcomes.  They have a safety net made of money.   Upper middle class kids enjoy heroin and cocaine, too, but I wouldn’t take their general success as a reason to legalize either of those.  Even if the kids go to Harvard!

Still, if I imagine a world where coffee, alcohol, and marijuana had been discovered and analyzed chemically yesterday, I have a hard time imagining that anyone in that world would be all that worried about marijuana.

Finishing up a research trip to the archives in London, I have a number of notes.

  • When you are walking down the street in the center of London (aka the “Tourist Zone”), if a large group of tourists stop suddenly, causing you to have to either a) cannon into them, or b) jump sideways to avoid them, they are almost invariably Germans. Today, Covent Garden, tomorrow, Lebensraum.
  • The most exciting moments of several days at the National Army Museum Templer Study Center were a) discovering a picture of Japanese officers with freshly-decapitated Chinese prisoners in front of them, and b) the moment an elderly gentleman, getting his collection of militaria appraised, unwrapped the hand grenade. (Archivist: “Has that been disarmed?” Gentleman: “I suppose so. It hasn’t gone off in 40 years.”)
  • The congestion charge has reduced traffic in London enormously and made it much more livable. It has also made the bus system usable again.
  • The Public Records Office (which the British have renamed the “National Archives” not realizing that no serious historian will call it anything but the “PRO.” Silly British.) has revamped its ordering and document production process so remarkably that it actually makes it a pleasure to use.
  • The Tank At The End Of The Road Where I Used To Live And Now Visit: Still there. Its name is ‘Stompie.’ It’s currently painted with white stripes, aka ‘The Lion King.’
  • British Prime Ministers cannot seem to manage their relations with U.S. Presidents to the satisfaction of the British. First, Blair was Bush’s poodle. Now, Gordon Brown isn’t getting good enough gifts from Obama.
  • British pubs are heaven for beer drinkers. Even the nastiest, lowest, sleaziest pub has something good on tap. It’s embarrassing just thinking about mass-produced American beer over here.

Another Boxer Post this coming week.

(Posted from Heathrow Departure Lounge)

Move over, Newton and LeibnizArchimedes may have beat you by 2,000 years:

Two of the texts hiding in the prayer book have not appeared in any other copy of Archimedes’s work, so no one but Heiberg had studied them until now. One of them, titled The Method, has special historical significance. It could be considered the earliest known work on calculus. [...]

The Greek philosopher Aristotle built defenses against infinity’s vexing qualities by distinguishing between the “potential infinite” and the “actual infinite.” An infinitely long line would be actually infinite, whereas a line that could always be extended would be potentially infinite. Aristotle argued that the actual infinite didn’t exist.

Archimedes developed rigorous methods of dealing with infinity—still used today—in which he followed Aristotle’s injunction. For example, Archimedes proved that the area of a section of a parabola is four-thirds the area of the triangle inside it (shown in red in the diagram below). To do so, he built a straight-lined figure that’s an approximation of the curvy one. Then he showed that he could make the approximation as close as anyone could ever demand to both the section of the parabola and to four-thirds the area of the triangle.

The writings had been hiding in plain sight, in a palimpsest underneath a book of prayer.  One wonders about the monk who scraped the parchment clean.  Did he have any idea?  Could he have…?

The postulation of a lost age, where human beings had made great advances in science, medicine, and mathematics, has always made for wondrous fiction (especially when the ancients had steampunk spaceships.)  This discovery leaves me despairing at the fragility of progress.

My first thought was that this proposal is beyond bizarre.  My second thought is it’s beyond bizarre, but worth kicking around a bit because it hits on some interesting issues about the profession.

So, there’s a perception that academic pedigree, i.e., where one did one’s Ph.D. and with whom one worked, particularly who wrote one letters of recommendation, matters disproportionately much to search committees, to the detriment of equally good but less prestigious candidates.  And there’s a stickiness problem, because it is commonly believed that one’s first job sets the course of the rest of one’s career, meaning that if it’s true that pedigree matters too much, there are plenty of people not getting good jobs their first time out, and having no real way to recover.

Portmore’s solution: candidates should submit blind dossiers, including blind letters of recommendation.

I think this is a bad suggestion on both practical and theoretical grounds.

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Via the Modesto Kid, William Zantzinger has died.

It’s conventional wisdom that when the economy is bad, college enrollments are up.  Yglesias recommends that 2008-2009 college grads, unable to find employment*, should go to grad school.

Bad idea.  There are two kinds of graduate school.

  1. Kinds you pay for.  Law, MBA, most master’s programs.  Professional degrees.
  2. Kinds you don’t.  Ph.D. programs.

There are some cross-overs, but I will ignore them.  (If you’re getting a scholarship to Columbia law, odds are you didn’t just decide to study law because the economy was bad.)

In the first category, one does a short (two-three year) program, incurs a soul-crushing amount of debt, and then has a degree which arguably makes one more employable.  As Neddy is fond of saying, “J.D. is not Latin for ‘meal ticket’”, and it’s entirely possible that one’s employment prospects are just the same two-three years down the road, except now one has even more loan payments.

It’s also not clear how long this economic downturn is going to last.  It would suck if one found an expensive place to hide for two years only to learn in 2011 that 2008 was really thought of as the last good year….

In the second category, ugh, please don’t.  A Ph.D. program is a multi-year commitment.  And while there’s no reason to be ashamed of beginning a Ph.D. program and leaving having discovered you don’t want to do it, there should be something wrong with starting a Ph.D. program (and eating up funding**) in bad faith.

More to the point, a Ph.D. program is not just like undergrad.  Undergrads never believe this.  There’s a world of difference between liking history or English and being good enough at it to produce it.  It can be very rewarding, but it’s essentially a low-paying job that no one thinks is a job (“Are you still in school? When are you joining the real world?”)

I would recommend to anyone considering graduate school, especially in the humanities, that they work a year or two first.  One of two things will happen:  you’ll realize that you only wanted to go to graduate school because you were comfortable with being good at school, and, look at that!  You’ll have a career!  Or, you’ll realize that you really did have a love for the subject, and you have interesting things to say about it.  In which case, you’ll go into graduate school with a clearer idea of why you’re there, and with a little more cash in your pocket.

But this is not meant to be a system to babysit you because no one handed you an i-banking check upon graduation.


*This is advice targeted at elite college grads whose trouble seems to be not that they can’t find any job, but that they can’t find the kind of job that they’d expect to get. We’re not talking laid-off-from-the-Chrysler-plant territory here at all.

**No loans for a Ph.D.  Don’t even consider it anything that isn’t saying full-tuition, and some sort of fellowship/teaching income.  The market is just too bad, and the job doesn’t pay enough, for hundreds of thousands in loans to be a good risk.

… good luck to all of you on the various academic job markets this year.  This sums it up nicely, except on the academic markets, there are fewer coins.

It is not generally true that one is required to dance at the interviews, however, if that comes up, stay in unison.

Also, for those of you following the parliamentary dust-up in the True North Strong and Free, a helpful guide to Canadian politics.

  1. If you shoot yourself in the leg with your own unlicensed gun, that should be punishment enough.
  2. Burress is charged with two counts of illegal weapon possession.  I am tickled to think he could have shot his other leg with another gun, too. *
  3. And now the serious:  he faces 3.5 years in jail.  Mandatory minimum.
  4. To put this in perspective, just to pull an example out ex recto, Mike Tyson served three years for rape.**
  5. Burress will probably plead down.  Maybe he can even plead to a lesser charge.  He has a good attorney.
  6. Of course, not everyone has a good attorney, and mandatory minimums are everywhere.  Which is the real problem here, not Burress.  I’ve heard the argument made to the effect:  more parity in sentencing, by reducing judicial discretion, is more just.  I am unconvinced.***   This is the αιτια of judges.  Discretion is what they’re for.

*I suppose it’s more likely that one count was for the gun, the other for having it loaded, or something.

** Yeah, yeah, I know, he was sentenced for six.   But still.  Rape.  Shooting oneself in the leg.

***Largely because all it does is shift the game to getting charged with the right thing, which is already part of the game, but makes it worse for people without great representation.

While listening to some of the debate coverage again, it struck me that John McCain sounds like Linus (you know, Peanuts, with the blanket) especially when he inserts “my friends” into the middle of a sentence.

Maybe the October surprise is when (my friends) the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch.

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