Thursday, October 19, 2006

And some more geekery

One of the hottest new free programs for academics is zotero, essentially a firefox plugin that serves as a bibliographical database. So far, it's available only for Firefox 2.0, which is available as a beta. I gave it a trial run - importing an Endnote database, formating a couple of references - and the programs works just fine, better than other free bibliographical tools I've tried so far. The program is being developed at George Mason University, with the support of various grants, and if it does what it promises to do (online sharing of databases, integration with Word...), it will be a real competition for Endnote et al. For now, it is definitely a useful tool for students who write a couple of term papers a year and want something that spits out a list of references in APA format... (See also the Lifehacker post on zotero.)

On my office computer, Windows Explorer has been doing funny things, such as dropping the "Date Modified" column. So I've been looking around for free and improved alternatives, and have come across freeCommander, and I like it. So far, it has been working without problems on my Windows XP machine, and I like the Norton Commander-style dual panels and one-key copy and move functions.

More multimedia stuff on courts: Oyez Beta

It's been around for a while, but if you haven't done so, take some time to play with the new beta version of They have some fascinating media: interviews with Justices Blackmun and Douglas, besides the ever fascinating oral arguments... Also, check out the new feature of their case summaries (thanks to Bob Roberts for pointing me to it) that lets you view the justices' decision lineup by seniority and ideology (they use Martin/Quinn ideal point scores to estimate justice ideology). Just go to any case record and you'll see (if you don't use a linux computer with an old version of firefox that's missing whatever plugins you need, as I am doing right now, blagh).

Scalia v. Strossen on C-SPAN

C-SPAN has posted the debate between Justice Scalia and ACLU president Strossen as a Podcast of the Week. It is somewhat hidden - you have to subscribe to the podcast feed in order to download the mp3 file; you can also watch the debate (for now) on Realplayer if you go to the C-SPAN home page.

California national election law II

Arnold indeed veto the CA bill that would have attempted to undermine the electoral college. George Will's column of October 12 has the details. Will also provides a good summary of the pro-electoral college arguments. He has a good point about the 2000 election; the electoral college system restricted the recount dispute to a single state. A national election would have led to a marge larger recount problem. Will could have gone even further: If only a few states had decided that their electoral college vote would go to the national winner instead of the state winner, how would they deal with a situation in which the national totals were contested?

I'm less convinced by Will's rejection of the argument that the electoral college system makes non-battleground states irrelevant. According to Will, this argument is only about the lack of voter interest in safe state, and the fact that presidential campaigns spend less attention to safe states. I believe the debate is about more: If a state is safely in one partisan camp, the president may be tempted to neglect the state also between campaigns (if there is such a thing in today's world of permanent campaigns). Safe states may be disconnected from the majoritarian control mechanism. You don't want the president to do what is good for Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc. and neglect the other states. Will argues that scrapping the electoral college would induce parties to rely on narrow localized majorities. Florida, Ohio, and other battleground states do not constitute a contiguous localized part of the country, but at least in 2004 they did not constitute even a majority of the electoral college votes (for a nice picture, look here). (I leave the rather easy counter-argument to that claim to the putative reader...)

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

California's anti-electoral college law

Thanks to Ginny in my American Politics class for the heads up on this interesting story in the LA Times about a California law that intends to undermine the electoral college. The law would grant California's electoral college vote to the party whose candidate has won the national popular vote. It still has to be signed by Governor Schwarzenegger; also, it would only go into effect if enough states pass similar laws, so that a majority of electoral college votes would depend on the popular vote.

It's a really interesting law. It does not violate the electoral college provision in Article II of the Constitution: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." The Constitution does not state that the electors have to be elected, or that they have to be chosen by a majority of the people of a state. On the other hand, since the 1820s most states have been appointing their electors by popular vote, and even though the text of the Constitution does not require elections in the states, I suspect that most Americans believe that such elections are their constitutional right. It would be interesting to see if such an unwritten constitutional provision would be recognized by the courts (I doubt it). My guess is that Schwarzenegger will veto the law, possibly arguing that it's unconstitutional, and cutting the courts out of the debate.

Another interesting point is the justification of the law. One might have expected laws like this after the 2000 election, when the loser of the popular vote won the electoral college vote. But this is not what motivated the CA lawmakers. Their complaint was that the presidential campaigns ignored their state and instead focused on states with a closer expected outcome. If the national vote counts, they argue, the presidential campaigns have to pay attention to the entire country.

I'm not sure this is true. For example, assume that the national vote clearly tilts towards one candidate. Wouldn't this decrease turnout in the states that go for the other candidate (since only the national vote counts), and wouldn't this mean that the winning candidate (and the loser, too) could ignore the state? This is really just off the top of my head, and one would have to study more carefully what the expected outcomes are. My guess is, however, that nationalizing an election does not make it more likely that the candidates pay more attention to the states.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Where do all the prices come from?

The Washington Post has a pretty interesting article on how the Consumer Price Index is measured. It's a human interest story about the experience of a woman who actually goes into the grocery store to collect all the prices. I like this part:

In the case of the bologna, Gaffney is perplexed. She took down the price as $2.49. But her computer tells her that on her last visit the price was $1.99. After some investigating, Gaffney realizes she grabbed the wrong item this time -- the higher-priced all-beef light bologna.

We like to think that measures like the CPI are simply out there and true. The bologna shows us, however, that there is measurement error involved (even if it is likely to be small) and that the measure is stochastic. (Not to talk about the conceptualization problem: What is it that a typical person consumes.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Desks: Beautiful or messy?

There has been an interesting coincidence (there always is) in two blogs I read for beneficial procrastination: Lifehacker had a competition for the coolest workspace, and the winner (and all contestants, it seems) had a very clean and simple -- and very beautiful -- workplace. And Andrew Gelman linked to a fascinating discussion on Ed Tufte's page on Thinking and Paper, which discusses how to use stacks and folders of paper to organize complex information. This thread is interesting for several reasons: First, Ed Tufte is one of the main authorities on the visual presentation of information, so it's interesting to see how he organizes the information he works with every day. Second, the thread has been active since March 2002 -- nice to see that lengthy discourses can be maintained in the electronic world. Third, there are several very interesting and detailed contributions. I haven't read all of them yet, but there is a lot to think about.

Where do I stand? I tend to favor the messy workplace. In contrast to Tufte et al., however, this is not to organize information , I just don't want to spend time cleaning up every day. Plus, a messy workplace gets me into work mood. (And, to be fair, the Tufte workplace is not necessarily messy but crowded and organized.)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

How to make yourself go to class

Okay, okay -- the term just ended and you have other things in mind than making yourself go to class. Well, maybe you are taking Maymester classes.

Anyway, there is an interesting discussion on Ask MetaFilter: What can I do to stop skipping classes in college? Bookmark for fall!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

I haven't vanished but...

I haven't had time to post anything. And now I'm in the middle of grading term papers and won't be able to post a lot. So, to while the time away, some interesting links, without much comment:

(Re-?)Segregation in Nebraska

Saturday's (that is, April 15's) New York Times had an article on a Nebraska plan to create three new school districts in Omaha. The districts are designed to be racially/ethnically homogeneous: one is supposed to be black, one to be white, one to be Latino. A clear violation of Brown v. Board of Ed., isn't it? Interestingly, the plan was introduced by the only African-American member of the Nebraska state legislature, Ernie Chambers. Balkinization has an interesting discussion of the issue: here is Jack Balkin's take, and here is Heather Gerken's.

Discovering music podcasts

One of my favorite radio shows, BBC 3's Discovering Music nows posts their newest show as a downloadable podcast. (OK, all podcasts are downloadable, that's the point...) If you're into classical music, this program is a must. And you can listen to old shows (non-downloadably) here.

Funny Honda ad parody

A while ago I posted a link to a nice ad for Honda, in which a choir imitated car noises. Well, 118 118, a British company that provides information about phone numbers, train schedules, etc., produced a parody that I found funny. But then it might be that I have a somewhat brutish sense of humor (being German etc.). Anyway: Enjoy!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

New SCOTUS case on search and seizure

Just in time for my classes on search and seizure cases. Yay! The case deals with consent searches of homes, which usually are allowed under the 4th Amendment, even without a warrant. The special quirk in the "new" case, Georgia v. Randolph (here is the opinion), is that the consent was given by a woman whose husband objected to the search. The Court now held that both spouses have to consent to such a search in order for the consent exception to be used by the police.

There is an interesting exchange between Souter (who wrote the majority opinion) and CJ Roberts (who dissented, for the first time) over whether this means that the police cannot intervene in cases of domestic violence. More interesting for constitutional theory freaks is another exchange between Stevens and Scalia. Stevens points to the fact that, from the framers' point of view, only husbands could consent, which shows, according to him, that originalism is flawed. Scalia obviously has to reply to that and everybody is having fun.

If you don't want to read the whole decision, here and here are some news stories.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Nerd's delight

It's Spring Break here in Pembroke (and the weather is indeed spring-like), and people tend to think that this means profs are on vacation. Not quite. Still, it's nice not to go to classes for a week and take care of those things that one usually has to squeeze into one's schedule. Today I did the data analysis for a paper on the conditions under which the Attitudinal Model is more useful than a fact-pattern model to predict Supreme Court behavior. Also, I'm working on a new advising website for the UNCP political science department, have a couple of recommendation letters to write, classes to prep, etc.

And I have some time to try new computer programs. I find it annoying that Microsoft Word and Excel, two programs I use extensively, are so slow loading on my two-year old laptop (not to talk about my three-year old office computer). So I've been testing Gnumeric Spreadsheet and AbiWord. Both are free open-source programs, and they are comparatively small (AbiWord -- including a number of plugins -- takes less than 50 MB on my computer, and Gnumeric is about 67 MB).

Gnumeric looks like a complete Excel clone. It seems to do everything that Excel does, and using it for a number of bar charts this afternoon was a breeze. One can load Excel spreadsheets, comma-separated files, and other formats. Excel spreadsheets maintain the original formatting, including background colors, etc., which is essential if I want to use my Excel gradebooks. The only drawback may come with really large data sets (256 variables, 65,536 cases -- quite a class size), but it seems to be possible to tweak the program so that it deals with such an amount of data. (In that case, however, I'd prefer to use a real stats program. One can load basically anything into R.)

AbiWord *is* fast, and it is able to load and save Word documents (and has a bunch of plugins to open WordPerfect and other formats). For me, the main attraction is that one can use LaTeX code to write mathematical formulas, which is much less bothersome (in my opinion) than clicking your way through the Microsoft equation editor. This is useful for collaborations with authors who do not know how to use LaTeX. The downside for such purposes, however, is that the revisions tool is less developed than the MS Word change tracking tool. In addition, Endnote does not have a plugin for AbiWord. In contrast to MS Word, one has to save the document as an rtf file and then scan it "manually" with Endnote to create footnotes, references, or a bibliography. But my main purpose right now is to have a fast WYSIWYG word processor, and AbiWord seems to do the job.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

New blog on political science journals

It's called the political science journal monitor and is basically a forum for frustrated political scientists to bitch about the journals that rejected their submissions. Since all journals have to reject most submissions, there are lots of flames on the blog. It's kind of fun, but so far I haven't found much helpful information. Most (maybe all, but y'all know about the fallacy of induction) posts to the blog are anonymous -- many people, it seems, still want to submit to the journals they hate -- so it is hard to learn something about a journal's reputation among different types of political scientists. One of the more bizarre side-effects of the anonymity is the fact that the quanti-quali-activist debate is fought with a bitterness and contempt for the other side that is stunning. Road rage for nerds, I guess.

The fake anti-abortion campaign: Mississippi is next, it seems

The Mississippi state House is currently considering a law banning all abortions except if the life of the mother is in danger. This is similar to a bill passed by the South Dakota legislature on which I commented a couple of days ago. As with the South Dakota law, my guess is that the legislators do not seriously expect the Supreme Court to uphold the law. It's great electoral politics though: As long as lower courts reject the bill, the lawmakers' pro-life supporters will be energized. Until the Supreme Court decides, this should be good for two elections or so.

The fact that Mississippi now jumped on the anti-Roe bandwaggon ads an interesting twist to the issue. If more states decide to bring legislative challenges to Roe v. Wade, the more likely it is that different federal appeals courts will make different decisions. Now, according to Supreme Court rules, one of the factors that justices consider when they decide whether or not to hear a case is lower court conflict. If the US Court of Appeals for the 5th circuit (which contains Mississippi) upholds the Mississippi law, and the appeals court for the 8th circuit overturns the SD law, then it is pretty likely that the Supreme Court will hear the case. Still, my bet is that the appeals courts will all overturn state anti-abortion laws that don't provide exceptions for cases of rape or health threats. The precedent is simply too clear, and it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will uphold the laws. (Of course, some appeals court judges may want the Supreme Court to make a clear statement against the laws and uphold them just to force the Court's hand. We'll see.)

Another twist: At The Moderate Voice, Justin Gardner notes that the Mississippi House committee reporting the bill included an amendment that requires the state to provide free education and health care to every child born in the state. This looks like a poison pill, so the law may not actually pass.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Newsweek on the future of Roe v. Wade

Newsweek has an article titled Reality Check for 'Roe', which comments on the South Dakota anti-abortion bill and state laws restricting late-term abortions. Earlier I posted some suggestions as to why the South Dakota legislature may have passed the law in the first place. The authors of the Newsweek piece (Martha Brant and Evan Thomas) also believe that the SD bill is unlikely to pass Supreme Court review and go for the "pandering to the base" explanation . It seems that the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life are critical of the bill, exactly because it is unlikely to pass court review.

[Edited on Feb. 27.]

Mental and spiritual freedom

That's what the folks at the Houseplant Picture Studio take the "straight and narrow road to" after reading my blog. I'm glad about that. The encounter of a political scientist usually leads to madness and despair. The houseplanters moved me, in turn, to listen to Captain Beefheart, finally, and I am excited. Finally I understand what (er, whom) Tom Waits has been imitating after he went avantgarde.

Friday, February 24, 2006

South Dakota's anti-abortion challenge

The South Dakota legislature today passed its anti-abortion law, and it is likely that SD Governor Rounds will sign the bill. The apparent purpose of the law is to give the Supreme Court an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since Sandra Day-O'Connor, who generally supported abortion rights, has been replaced by Samual Alito, abortion opponents believe that the Court may be ready to overturn Roe.

That's the story you'll read in the newspapers. What does not fit into this picture, however, is the fact that the South Dakota legislature wrote the law in a way that minimized its chances of passing Supreme Court review. The law outlaws abortion even in cases of rape or incest, or if the health of the pregnant woman is at risk. In addition, it defines the beginning of life at the point when a human egg is fertilized. This may prohibit stem-cell research and some birth-control methods, and may restrict medical research. There is a fair chance that a majority on the Court will reject a law with such broad implications. I am not even sure whether Justice Scalia would uphold the law. After all, he once characterized himself as a "faint-hearted originalist." Forcing raped kids to give birth may not be something for the faint-hearted.

Why does the SD legislature pass a law that is likely to be overturned? One possibility is that the law is mainly an act of symbolic policy. It makes a strong statement that appeals to more extreme voters and activists, but it is not meant to have much of an impact. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that voters and activists are gullible and belief the legislature's posturing, which I find unlikely. NPR reports that abortion opponents in fact debate whether a sweeping law such as the one in South Dakota is the right strategy to overturn Roe. Activists are aware of the fact that the law may not be upheld, they do not seem to be stupid or ignorant. But maybe they are irrational -- more interested in ideological purity than effective but morally compromising strategies.

Another possibility is that activists and politicians do not want the law to be upheld. It is well known that it is easier to mobilize support against something than for something. If abortion was illegal, conservatives would lose an important evil that helps them rally support. Liberals, on the other hand, would gain an evil that they could use to gather support. Maybe conservative activists and politicians prefer the status quo, after all.

I usually dislike such conspiracy-type arguments, as they violate an important property of good social science theories: parsimony -- explanatory simplicity. If you can explain the same facts with a simple argument and a complex argument, the simple argument is to be preferred. Since it is more complex to assume that people lie because of hidden strategic motives, the first argument (that the law is symbolic) is to be preferred. On the other hand, the hidden-motive argument does not require the assumption that activists and politicians are stupid or irrational...

A third possibility is suggested by Vikram Amar, who is quoted by Bloomberg News as suggesting that the South Dakota legislature may be expecting future changes on the Supreme Court that will lead to a favorable outcome. Amar points to the fact that cases usually take several years to reach the Supreme Court. It is likely that in the next couple of years at least one vacancy will have to be filled on the Court, opening the possibility for more conservatives on the Court. But, from the perspective of anti-abortion activists, those should not be faint-hearted.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Pretty cool Honda ad

After a week of exams, here is something neat for procrastination. Honda has released a car ad in Britain that features a choir singing a piece composed of car noises. You can watch it here. Found at Duncan's TV Ad Land.

OOPS UPDATE: I got the wrong URL for the add. Here is the correct address.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Professors and student emails

The New York Times today had a mildly amusing article on student emails to professors. The article has a few interesting points but has a strong no-news feel. There are professors who report that they get inappropriate and amusing student emails. From people in their late teens and early twenties? I am shocked. But the point of the article -- that the instant access to instructors via email has changed academic instruction -- is well taken. And it is a good thing.

One point that the article overlooks is that email communication is not only a means for instruction, but it should also be the subject of college education. The fact that we -- instructors -- get inappropriate emails (sloppy writing, no spell checking, no signature, no courtesy, etc.) indicates that students have not yet learned how to communicate professionally. Now, that's something people need to know if they want to succeed, and college should be one of the places to learn it. So, it makes a lot of sense to establish an email style code that sets minimum standards for emails that will be answered by the professors. I haven't yet implemented such a code, but I will next term.

You can find more comments on the NYT article at PrawfsBlawg and at LawCulture. (Who, by the way, started this habit of putting capitals in the middle of blog titles? Ew.)

New report on discrimination in voting since 1982

Published by the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act. You can find the report here.

Supreme Court upholds RFRA?

Today the Supreme Court *unanimously* ruled in favor of a Brazilian sect, which asked for an exemption from federal drug laws. As part of their religious ceremonies, members of the group, O Centro Espírita Beneficiente União Do Vegetal (UDV), consume tea made from plants containing a drug prohibited in the US. The feds had warned the group that they would be subject to criminal prosecution if they imported the tea from Brazil. The Supreme Court now decided that the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause requires the government to make an exception to the narcotics laws to protect the group's religious practices.

I have not yet read the opinion (which you can find here), but it seems that the Court has upheld the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), after all. The RFRA requires federal courts to use a legal standard that is very protective of religious freedom and basically gives it the same legal standing as the freedom of speech. In 1997 (City of Boerne v. Flores), the Supremes decided that it was not Congress's business to tell the courts which legal standards to use and, it seemed, overturned the RFRA (if you are taking my conlaw class this term, you know what I'm talking about). Now it seems as if the law is not overturned, after all. Interesting. What has changed?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Empirical Legal Studies Blog

Jason Czarnezki (Marquette University), William Ford (University of Chicago), Michael Heise, and Theodore Eisenberg (both Cornell) have created a new blog focussing on empirical studies of law and judicial processes. In political science, empirical studies of the law have been around for quite a while, but more recently legal scholars, including the blog's founders, have begun to use empirical methods, too. The blog should be of interest for scholars from both sides of the law/political science divide and already has a promising line-up of guest contributors, including some of the most important legal and political science scholars in the field. The URL is

Wiretapping and strict constructionism

On FindLaw, Vikram Amar and Alan Brownstein discuss whether the administration's defense of its secret wiretapping program would pass strict constructionist judicial review.

The cartoon crisis is getting sillier -- and more serious

First to the silly part: For days, there have been news reports that Iranian bakers have renamed Danish pastries; they're now "Roses of the Prophet." Never mind that the Danish don't call Danishes Danishes -- they're "Viennese bread." I guess the next thing Iranians will do is to rename French fries into "Jihad fries." And I will change the old "Buy Danish" campaign into the "Eat Danishes" campaign. You'll see.

On the serious side, the protests continue to escalate and their targets become more and more diffuse -- generally Christians in Nigeria, the US in Indonesia, homosexuals in Russia... I don't have much to add to the debate swirling around the internet and other media, except for one thing: Even though the cartoons were probably just a tool used by Islamic fascists to incite unrest, I hope that there will be a profound and well-reasoned debate about the ethical limits of free speech. Not the legal right to offend -- the government should stay out of that matter -- but the question when it is appropriate to offend somebody, and when it is appropriate for somebody to claim offense. Such a debate will not defuse the current conflict, but it may support the position of moderate Muslims, who are possibly more under attack than Western societies.

More on agenda-setting

Two of the most important researchers of agenda-setting and its impact on policy outcomes, Frank Baumgartner and Brian Jones, have been collecting huge amounts of data on the US policy agenda, and on actual policy changes, since World War II. Their data, and more resources about their project, are available
at the following website. They also provide information on their project, links to papers, lesson plans using the data, and more. Check it out!

The quail shooting agenda

It's interesting to see how some stories -- NSA wiretapping, anybody? -- almost disappeared from view this week, with Cheney's quail hunting misadventure. Looks like a classic example of how unpredictable events can influence the media agenda and make some decisions fairly easy. For example, on Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee decided to cancel hearings into warrantless wiretapping authorized by President Bush. At the same time, the administration declared that it was open to talk about legislation regulating the wiretapping program. While nobody watched, a compromise emerged.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cheney's shot: A tort?

OK, people seem to find the Cheney hunting story "enjoyable" and take the opportunity for a lawyer joke. Poor Harry Whittington.

Anyway, here is a teaching moment: Can Whittington, after all an experienced lawyer, sue Cheney for tort? And for which one? Ed Lee speculates about the possible cause of action: battery or negligence?

And since I mention frivolous jokes about hunting accidents, I might as well remind everybody of Tom Lehrer's nice old ditty on the topic. Something to learn by heart.


Ed Lee took his post out of consideration for Whittington, who has suffered a heart attack. I don't see how the heart attack makes the discussion more or less insensitive, but with the Mohammed-cartoon controversy on everybody's mind, people seem to be confused about what can and cannot be considered insulting. Oh well.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


In the new New Yorker, David Denby claims that one of my favorite books, Lawrence Stern's Tristram Shandy is "unreadable." As Walter Shandy would say: Pish!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Dead and alive -- the good news

A couple of days ago, it seemed that Houseplant Picture Studio was closing its virtual doors. Now they are open again, which is really good news. Their Photos of an Unknown Family who Probably Owned a Liquor Store have been one of the last year's wonderful www phenomena -- mysterious, funny, and sad.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cartoons and burning embassies

Joe Miller has a neat little discussion on the cartoon debate at his blog around the corner. As Joe, I don't have much to add to the raging debate that you can follow at Andrew Sullivan's, signandsight, Volokh Conspiracy, etc. (and don't forget Juan Cole, who makes some interesting comparisons with Northern Ireland). (Nevertheless, I left a longish comment, egg on my face. How do you recognize a professor?)

Anyway, two more things:

First, Chris Bertram has written a *very* useful argument in and for the debate, over there at Crooked Timber.

Second, and seriously now, what strikes me as most important in the whole affair is the sense that this is really an important juncture, definitely for Europe and probably for the rest of the world. Maybe more important than September 11, March 11, or July 7: In those events, foreign terrorists entered the US, Spain, and Britain and committed mass murder. The reaction against such acts is nothing qualitatively new: Destroy the terrorist organizations, keep foreign terrorists out of the country, and prevent those who get in from committing further acts. Difficult but doable.

In the cartoon affair, we are not dealing with terrorism (yet?), but -- possibly worse -- with widespread mass agitation and violent activism against some of our most fundamental values. The activities take place mainly outside Europe and the US, but they are very effective in putting Europeans under pressure. A Danish newspaper publishes some cartoons that offend several Danish Muslim activists, who take the cartoons to a number of Middle Eastern countries to mobilize a mass movement to change Danish laws, they receive support from some Middle Eastern governments, and a world crisis is born. That's globalization, folks, and nobody seems to know how to deal with it! In the past, if immigrants caused trouble in Europe or the US, the common perception was that they could be simply deported. Now the concept of immigrant and foreigner does not even make sense in the conflict, as it does not matter where the demonstrations take place. Sure, in principle Britain could deport many of those guys who demonstrated in London last week, but it would not change the situation. We better get used to such global societal conflicts and find a way to deal with them *and* protect our values.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

How should I understand this?

Today at Barnes & Nobles: found Kübler Ross's On Death and Dying -- in the Self-Improvement section.

Humor deficit reduction

From USA Today via Andrew Sullivan:

"Congress approved a $750 million, five-year plan aimed at building healthier marriages Wednesday as part of its deficit reduction bill."

I guess that's the Marriage Deficit Reduction Clause of the Deficit "Reduction" Bill.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Implicit biases and Katrina

I am not surprised that the study on racial bias and partisanship that the WashPost reported on (see here) resonates among partisans (see the comments to my previous post). After all, political elites are pretty polarized these days and grateful for any partisan ammunition.

As an empirical political scientist, however, I should point out that even if Republicans in fact have stronger racial biases than Democrats, this does not explain why the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina was a disaster. Racism may or may not have played a role -- we don't have the evidence to decide one way or the other.

Let's go through the arguments:

First, the type of bias measured by Project Implicit is a cognitive bias, which is different from prejudice, which in turn is different from discrimination. Now, the differential treatment of Katrina victims (those with cars got away and stayed in motels, those without cars ended up in football arenas) constituted discrimination -- those people who were treated badly were predominantly poor and members of racial and ethnic minorities. However, we do not know whether the discrimination was caused by prejudice (i.e., public officials did not make better plans because they did not want to bother about blacks) or inability (i.e., public officials did not make better plans because they couldn't, due to incompetence or missing resources), or other factors such as housing patterns, poverty patterns, and the like. The same outcome could have been caused by different causes.

Second, the post-Katrina criticism of the federal government has centered on President Bush (see "George Bush don't like black people"). However, we do not know whether he in fact participated in the Project Implicit study, and if he did participate, we would not know whether he personally in fact showed more racial bias than most Democrats or not :-) . The study drew conclusions about differences between groups of partisans; it does not allow us to draw conclusions about specific individuals.

Third, in order to draw empirical conclusions about the possible causes of an event, we have to compare the event with other, comparable, events. Assume for argument's sake that the administration in fact was racially biased. Then, to show that the bias translates into discrimination, it would not be enough to show that the Katrina response was discriminatory. We would have to show either that the response of the same administration to other comparable disasters (not involving minorities) was not discriminatory, or that the response of other public officials (with fewer racial biases) to the same disaster was not discriminatory. The first strategy fails. There was not a comparable disaster to which the Bush administration had to react. Hurricane Rita, a month after Katrina, did not create an emergency that was comparable to Katrina. The second strategy is available, as a number of public officials at different levels of government, with different party affiliations, were responsible to protect New Orleans residents. Comparing their reaction, we find that all of them -- federal officials, state officials, Republicans, Democrats, blacks, whites -- failed to perform adequately. Again, no evidence that the administrations low performance was due to racial bias.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Finally the evolution debate arrives at UNCP

... in form of a three-hour video that a creationist student (I presume) group wants to show next Tuesday in the UC. If I was a creationist, I could come up with a less boring way to indoctrinate people, but since I am not one, I'll use something that is *more* boring: giving you reading material. So get ready for an exciting debate:

Since we're basically revisiting a debate that has been going on for about 150 years, first some historic documents: The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law provides the goodies (and a concise explanation of the different variants of Creationism and Intelligent Design).

Natural History Magazine presents a debate between the two sides of the Intelligent Design-Evolution debate.

The New York Times has a couple of lesson plans on evolution (and some on the debate on Intelligent Design).

Christianity Today has a number of articles sympathetic to Intelligent Design, among them interviews with Rob Moll (a journalist who makes the case for ID) and William Dembsky (one of its main proponents among scientists).

For a different perspective, read Judge Jones's decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the recent Pennsylvania court case on whether Intelligent Design may be taught in public schools.

Last November, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a widely regarded Washington Post column arguing that faith and science are not in conflict.

And in TCS Daily, Uriah Kriegel argues that Intelligent Design is not a falsifiable theory and therefore not scientific.

And finally (for now), there is an interesting NY Review of Books article by Richard Lewontin on the evolution debates.

Still awake?

More on Project Implicit

(the research project that produced the bias/partisanship study mentioned below) can be found here. You can also request a number of reprints and unpublished papers. And here is an article in the APA's Monitor on Psychology on implicit association tests. And here is a transcript of a Scientific American Frontiers program on unconscious choices that discusses such tests. And the BBC asks, catchily, Are you a racist? ...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Have Republicans "implicit biases against blacks"?

Today's Washington Post reports on a study that claims to show that Republicans are more biased against blacks than Democrats are. Created quite a discussion at Ann Althouse's.

I haven't read the study and I am not a specialist in Political Psychology, so I cannot tell you how reliable those results are. However, three points:

First, the study talks about cognitive bias; that's conceptually different from stereotypes (generalizations about a group of people), prejudice (a pre-judgment of somebody, usually due to stereotyping), and discrimination (differential treatment of different groups of people). What is racism -- bias, stereotype, prejudice, or discrimination? There is no obvious definition.

Second, the main measure used by the study, it seems, is based on word-image association: Racial bias is determined by the type of words respondents associate with black or white faces, and by the speed with which the word associations are given. Biased people associate more negative terms with black faces, and they do this more quickly than others. The test is computerized (of course) and available online. You can try the test yourself at The benefit of the test is that it uses automated coding procedures and thereby reduces the impact of the political biases that researchers may have. However, at first sight I find it quite a leap of faith to accept that unthinking responses to faces capture stereotypes or even prejudice. But take a look at the online test and decide for yourself.

Third, the study is based on a quantitative comparison of Republicans and Democrats. Obviously, not all Republicans in the study were more biased than Democrats, and vice versa. So, being a Republican does not automatically mean that one is biased, and being a Democrat doesn't mean that one doesn't have any biases. And maybe the relationship between bias and party is due to some third factor -- region, for example, level of education, and so on.

If I find an online copy of the paper or more information on it, I'll post it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Pretty good food

Generally speaking, Bob Schieffer's interview with President Bush (on CBS's Face the Nation) was not remarkable (NSA wiretapping was absolutely necessary but could not be discussed in public because terrorists would otherwise guess that there was wiretapping, and similar really new arguments). But specifically speaking, there were some remarkable personal remarks about old foes and new friends: Hillary is "formidable" and Bill is his "new brother." And then there was the following explanation why being president is a good thing (about 18 minutes into the interview; the transcript is here):

Pres. BUSH: (...) I would highly recommend this job for

SCHIEFFER: Mm-hmm. You don't see this as the great white presidency, as
Harry Truman said.

Pres. BUSH: No. It's an inconvenience.


Pres. BUSH: But I'm a volunteer.


Pres. BUSH: Nobody made me run for president. Probably me of anybody else
in the modern history knows what I was getting into.


Pres. BUSH: Because I saw a good man here and watched him carefully.


Pres. BUSH: But now I--nobody should feel sorry for me. And I certainly
don't feel sorry for myself. You know, it's an inconvenience that you can't
go to the Wal-Mart or something like that.


Pres. BUSH: On the other hand, the honor and the--is fantastic and the
food's pretty good.

Happy New Year

of the dog!

Chuck Hagel on ABC

Talking about the Republican campaign: ABC's This Week show today (you can download the audio here or subscribe to their podcasts here) had an interesting interview with Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska, who was not at all eager to take the administration's side. Much of this is due to the conflict between Congress and president over the NSA-wiretapping affair; Hagel is probably in part defending institutional interests. But it shows that the administration has an uphill battle ahead (sorry for the pun), and it'll be "interesting" to see if they can pull it off. (The way the Democrats dealt with the Alito nomination, chances are that the Bushies have luck on their side...)

State of the Union Address

Tuesday's State of the Union Address is so totally recommended viewing for political science students. The poll numbers are down for the president (here is a summary) *and* it's an election year, so the president will want to get control of the debate, decide which issues will be debated until November, and frame them in a way that is useful for the Republicans (which means lots of national security and War-on-Terror arguments). This is basically the start of the 2006 campaign (OK, that's a silly thing to say if we already have a permanent campaign).

While we're at it...

(Fairly) new blogs, that is: There is a new one that combines law and lit crit, with high-profile contributors. Worth a look: LawCulture.

Interesting blog from Saudi Arabia

It's called Saudi Jeans and is written by a Riyadh student.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Voting students out of group projects?

An interesting debate on fair grading practices at the meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. One of the panelists suggested the following for group projects in which some students free-ride on their mates' hard work: Let the group vote out members who don't participate. Sounds like a sure recipe to get the instructor involved in personal vendettas between students...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why it's useful to take conlaw... further proof

During the Alito hearings in the Senate, Dick Durbin (Democrat from Illinois) said the following when Alito refused to state explicitly that Roe was "settled law":
"Many people will leave this hearing with a question as to whether or not you could be the deciding vote that would eliminate the legality of abortion."

Problem is: we *know* that Alito could not eliminate the legality of abortion because it is not conceivably a question that the the Supreme Court will decide. The question in Roe and other abortion cases has been whether state governments violate the Constitution when they restrict abortion, not whether abortion itself violates the Constitution.

Now the puzzling thing is: Durbin has a JD from Georgetown, so he should know better. Did he forget? Did he mislead? Did he simply want to dramatize the exchange? Did he mis-speak?

For what it's worth, the New York Times notes the error, NPR does not. I haven't checked others.

The Washington Post has the transcripts of the hearings on its website.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Interestingly, when I summarized the hot political topics of the day a week ago, I did not think of the Abramoff capaign donation and bribery affair. Since I'm a courts guy and it was already late, this was not too surprising. OK, now the Alito hearings are over, the Democrats made their point, and Alito seems to be destined for confirmation. So bad for the Democrats, who haven't been able to score major points. What to do? Change the topic of the day to something more favorable -- the Washington Post has more. All students of American politics should be drooling over such developments.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Welcome back...

The new term has started, and it is already quite busy, with student advising and prepping a new constitutional law class. But it is fun.

Politically, it's pretty exciting these days, so it is worth taking political science classes. In the Supreme Court, cases dealing with the treatment of enemy combatants are pending: In the Padilla case, the Court still has to decide if it wants to grant cert. Padilla has been transferred to Florida, where he will stand trial in a civilian court; the Justice Department now wants the Supreme Court to drop Padilla's case against his military detention, as he is now released from that type of detention. Padilla's lawyers want the Supremes to hear the case nevertheless, to resolve the legal issues involved. In the Hamdan case, dealing with the constitutionality of military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees, the oral argument will take place during the next months. The newest New York Times Magazine has a lengthyish background article on Hamdan.

In the Senate, Judiciary Committee hearings on Supreme Court appointee Samuel Alito have started today and are worth following. Sunday's Meet the Press on NBC provided a good primer on the issues that will be discussed (or postured on): You can watch the show or read the transcript here. C-SPAN's America and the Courts program also has a number of interesting programs on the Alito nomination; particularly the November 27 program with Arlen Specter is interesting -- also for its inside look into the Senate. (The Senate hearings are also available at the C-SPAN site.)

And, of course, there is the NSA wiretapping story: more here and
here and in lots of articles in newspapers and blogs -- didn't have time yet to compile those. On Balkinization, University of Texas law professor Sandy Levinson connects the wiretapping debate with the Alito nomination.

On the bright side of things, Underneath Their Robes is back. David Lat, a federal prosecutor, had published this anonymous, mildly amusing, and gender-bending gossip column until his identity was revealed in a New Yorker article. After this unrobing (sorry, couldn't resist), the blog vanished, but now he has quit his government job and is again her old Article III Groupie self.