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the post-american world June 23, 2008

Posted by KG in books, foreign policy, international, iraq war, politics, religion, reviews, terrorism, Uncategorized.
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excerpt from fareed zakaria’s new book, the post-american world (nytimes review), which i highly recommend

(also, be sure to check out gps, his new show on cnn…”CNN U.S. chief Jonathan Klein approached Zakaria about a year ago and was told that “the only show I want to do is one that fills in the huge gaping hole in American television, which is 95 percent of the rest of the world,” Zakaria said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday…”):

The split between Sunnis and Shiites is only one of the divisions within the Islamic world. Within that universe are Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Southeast Asians and Middle Easterners, and, importantly, moderates and radicals. Just as the diversity within the communist world ultimately made it less threatening, so do the many varieties of Islam undermine its ability to coalesce into a single, monolithic foe. Some Western leaders speak of a single worldwide Islamic movement – absurdly lumping together Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite warlords in Lebanon, and Sunni jihadists in Egypt. In fact, a shrewd strategist would emphasize that all these groups are distinct, with differing agendas, enemies, and friends. That would rob them of their claim to represent Islam…

A cottage industry of scaremongering has flourished in the West-especially in the United States-since 9/11. Experts extrapolate every trend they don’t like, forgoing any serious study of the data. Many conservative commentators have written about the impending Islamization of Europe (Eurabia, they call it, to make you even more uncomfortable). Except that the best estimates, from U.S. intelligence agencies, indicate that Muslims constitute around 3 percent of Europe’s population now and will rise to between 5 and 8 percent by 2025, after which they will probably plateau. The watchdogs note the musings of every crackpot Imam, search the archives for each reference to the end of days, and record and distribute the late-night TV musings of every nutcase who glorifies martyrdom. They erupt in a fury when a Somali taxi driver somewhere refuses to load a case of liquor into his car, seeing it as the beginning of sharia in the West. But these episodes do not reflect the basic direction of the Muslim world. That world is also modernizing, though more slowly than the rest, and there are those who try to become leaders in rebellion against it. The reactionaries in the world of Islam are more numerious and extreme than those in other cultures-that world does have its dysfunctions. But they remain a tiny minority of the world’s billion-plus Muslims. And neglecting the complicated context in which some of these pseudoreligious statements are made-such as an internal Iranian power struggle among clerics and nonclerics-leads to hair-raising but absurd predictions, like Bernard Lewis’s confident claim that Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad planned to mark an auspicious date on the Islamic calendar (August 22, 2006) by ending the world. (Yes, he actually wrote that.)

The ideological watchdogs have spent so much time with the documents of jihad that they have lost sight of actual Muslim societies. Were they to step back, they would see a frustration with the fundamentalists, a desire for modernity (with some dignity and cultural pride for sure), and a search for practical solutions-not a mass quest for immortality through death. When Muslims travel, they flock by the millions to see the razzle-dazzle of Dubai, not the seminaries of Iran. The minority that wants jihad is real, but it operates within societies where such activites are increasingly unpopular and irrelevant.

excerpt from newsweek:

Look around. The world’s tallest building is in Taipei, and will soon be in Dubai. Its largest publicly traded company is in Beijing. Its biggest refinery is being constructed in India. Its largest passenger airplane is built in Europe. The largest investment fund on the planet is in Abu Dhabi; the biggest movie industry is Bollywood, not Hollywood. Once quintessentially American icons have been usurped by the natives. The largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore. The largest casino is in Macao, which overtook Las Vegas in gambling revenues last year. America no longer dominates even its favorite sport, shopping. The Mall of America in Minnesota once boasted that it was the largest shopping mall in the world. Today it wouldn’t make the top ten. In the most recent rankings, only two of the world’s ten richest people are American. These lists are arbitrary and a bit silly, but consider that only ten years ago, the United States would have serenely topped almost every one of these categories.



sachs on npr April 10, 2008

Posted by AP in books, econ, international.
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from forum, on npr:

Jeffrey Sachs may be the only economics professor who has his own MTV video — documenting his trip to Africa with Angelina Jolie — and he continues to be a leading voice promoting solutions to global poverty and environmental crises. He joins us to talk about his book, “Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet.” Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special adviser to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the Millennium Development Goals.

common errors in english April 7, 2008

Posted by KG in books, language, lists, misc.
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“Mixed-up, mangled expressions; foreign-language faux pas; confused and confusing terms; commonly mispronounced words—they’re all explained in this useful and entertaining guide.”

it’s all online here

some examples:


Both agnostics and atheists are regularly criticized as illogical by people who don’t understand the meaning of these terms. An agnostic is a person who believes that the existence of a god or gods cannot be proven or known. Agnosticism is a statement about the limits of human knowledge. It is an error to suppose that agnostics perpetually hesitate between faith and doubt: they are confident they cannot know the ultimate truth. Similarly, atheists believe there are no gods. Atheists need not be able to disprove the existence of gods to be consistent just as believers do not need to be able to prove that gods do exist in order to be regarded as religious. Both attitudes have to do with beliefs, not knowledge.

“Agnostic” is often used metaphorically of any refusal to make a judgment, usually on the basis of a lack of evidence; people can be agnostic about acupuncture, for instance, if they believe there is not enough evidence one way or another to decide its effectiveness.


Chai is simply the word for “tea” in Hindi and several other Asian languages. The spicy, milky variety known in India as masala chai is called “chai” in the U.S. Since Americans likely to be attracted by the word “chai” already know it’s a tea-based drink, it’s both redundant and pointless to call the product “chai tea.”

link roundup March 19, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, books, econ, environment, news, politics, race, religion, science, sex, tech.
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1) the human side of ralph nader (make sure you change the bookmark to chapter 1)

2) hillary’s “experience”

3) fred krupp, president of the environmental defense fund, talks about “his new book and his thoughts on harnessing the great forces of capitalism to save the world from catastrophe.” – direct real audio link & airtalk archive link (scroll to 3/14)

4) andrew sullivan ponders prostitution – 1 & 2

5) ezra klein on wright vs. falwell

6) TED talks (richard dawkins, larry brilliant, bill clinton, the google guys, and more)

the audacity of data February 26, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, books, econ, politics.
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noam scheiber with an excellent piece about obama’s economic advisors:

But what’s really interesting is how Thaler and his fellow behaviorists responded to this fairly critical insight. Though rational self-interest was the central tenet of neoclassical (i.e., modern) economics, they didn’t take a wrecking ball to the field and replace it with some equally sweeping theory of human behavior. Instead, they labored to bring economics closer in line with how the world actually works, one small adjustment at a time. “‘Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly,'” Thaler wrote in the introduction to The Winner’s Curse, quoting the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. “I hope to accomplish that first step–awareness of anomaly. Perhaps at that point we can start to see the development of the new, improved version of economic theory.”

As it happens, Thaler is revered by the leading wonks on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Though he has no formal role, Thaler presides as a kind of in-house intellectual guru, consulting regularly with Obama’s top economic adviser, a fellow University of Chicago professor named Austan Goolsbee. “My main role has been to harass Austan, who has an office down the hall from mine, ” Thaler recently told me. “I give him as much grief as possible.” You can find subtle evidence of this influence across numerous Obama proposals. For example, one key behavioral finding is that people often fail to set aside money for retirement even when their employers offer generous 401(k) plans. If, on the other hand, you automatically enroll workers in 401(k)s but allow them to opt out, most stick with it. Obama’s savings plan exploits this so-called “status quo” bias.

And, yet, it’s not just the details of Obama’s policies that suggest a behavioral approach. In some respects, the sensibility behind the behaviorist critique of economics is one shared by all the Obama wonks, whether they’re domestic policy nerds or grizzled foreign policy hands. Despite Obama’s reputation for grandiose rhetoric and utopian hope-mongering, the Obamanauts aren’t radicals–far from it. They’re pragmatists–people who, when an existing paradigm clashes with reality, opt to tweak that paradigm rather than replace it wholesale. As Thaler puts it, “Physics with friction is not as beautiful. But you need it to get rockets off the ground.” It might as well be the motto for Obama’s entire policy shop.

scandals of higher education February 22, 2008

Posted by KG in books, race, reviews.
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new york review of books:

Michaels is fed up with the mantra of diversity, and it is hard to blame him. In the past, one obstacle that kept minority students out of college was patent racism—the asserted association between external physical characteristics (skin color, facial features, body type) and inherent mental capacities or tendencies.[12] Today, however, this kind of pseudoscience has been discredited, and the word “race” tends to be employed as a synonym for culture—an equivalence based on the dubious, or at least imperfect, premise that a person’s ancestry tells us something important about how that person experiences the world. The problem with “this way of thinking about culture instead of race,” Michaels says, “is that it just takes the old practice of racial stereotyping and renovates it in the form of cultural stereotyping.”[13] People of African ancestry are expected to prefer blues to Brahms. People of Asian ancestry are lumped together in the category “Asian-American” even though they might identify themselves primarily as Laotians or Christians. In any event, they are supposed to prefer engineering to poetry.

Michaels argues that nothing much has changed by substituting the idea of particular cultures for the discredited idea of race. For pragmatic as well as analytical reasons, he wants the left to forget about this kind of diversity, whether we call it racial or cultural (“diversity, like gout, is a rich people’s problem”), and focus instead on poverty. A satirical verse (quoted in another recent book by another English professor, Michael Berubé of Pennsylvania State University) nicely captures Michaels’s point. It might be called the Song of the Abject Affluent, and a lot of people at elite colleges are singing it:

I’m sorry for what my people did to your people
It was a nasty job
Please note the change of attitude
On the bumper of my Saab.

michael shermer @ google February 18, 2008

Posted by KG in books, cognitive science, econ, history, marketing, media, neuroscience, politics, psychology, science, speeches, talks, tech.
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michael shermer @ google discussing his new book – the mind of the market: compassionate apes, competitive humans, and other tales from evolutionary economics

discusses the ultimatum game @ 27min, the evolution of moral sense/trolley car experiment @ 33min & how hormones affect trust/cooperation @ 43min:

related: shermer speaking about debunking superstitions @ TED & “why people believe weird things about money

tim harford @ google February 2, 2008

Posted by KG in books, econ, media, neuroscience, psychology, speeches, talks, tech.
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discussing his new book, the logic of life: the rational economics of an irrational world…interesting bit about “hyperbolic discounting,” or the idea that “consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future” @ 43min:

god’s crucible February 2, 2008

Posted by KG in books, history, religion, reviews.
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joan acocella reviews david lewis’ god’s crucible: islam and the making of europe, 570-1215:

This book has to be understood in context, or, actually, two contexts. The first is post-colonialism, the effort on the part of scholars from the nineteen-seventies onward to correct the biases that accompanied and justified the colonization of eighty-five per cent of the earth by European powers between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries. In that period, according to Edward Said’s 1978 “Orientalism”—the founding document of post-colonial thought—history-writing about the Near East and the Middle East was an arm of empire. Its goal was to make non-Western peoples seem uncivilized, so that European control would appear a boon. Since Said, much writing on Europe’s former colonies has been an effort to redress that injustice.

The other context in which Lewis’s book must be read is, of course, the history of terrorism, since the late nineteen-seventies, on the part of people claiming to be instructed by the Koran. When this started, most Westerners had little idea of what the Muslim world was. Harems, hookahs, carpets—that was about it. Nor, after the terrorist attacks, was it easy to catch up in any proper way, for, while there has been an outpouring of books on Islam in the past two decades, many of them were for or against it. A number of prominent intellectuals have denounced Islam. Other people have protested that the vast majority of Muslims do not support terrorism. Some historians have condemned not just the demonization of Islam but the West’s ignorance of the Muslim world—a failure now seen as political folly, not to speak of arrogance. Scholars went to their desks to testify to the glories of Islamic cultures. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in the foreword to her magnificent anthology “The Legacy of Muslim Spain” (1992)—a collection of forty-nine essays describing not just the politics and the religion of Muslim Iberia but its cities, architecture, music, poetry, calligraphy, and cooking—calls the omission of Islam from the West’s story of civilization a “historical crime.”

Rahman was the founder of Muslim Spain’s famous convivencia. Translated literally, the word means “living together,” in spite of differences, and this idea is the burning center of “God’s Crucible.” I think it is the reason that Lewis chose to write about Muslim Spain. He is not an Arabist. He is best known for a two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1993 and 2000), which won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for each volume. But that book, if it is not about Arabs, is about racial justice, and it is for the furtherance of such justice that Lewis so admires Rahman. Nevertheless, as he points out, the convivencia had its limits. It was not just a humane policy—an act of obedience to the Koran (“There shall be no compulsion in religion”) and a way of being civilized—but also a matter of Realpolitik. Iberia was a ragbag of religious and ethnic groups. Tolerance, what we would now call multiculturalism, was more likely to hold them together than forced conversion. Furthermore, the convivencia never involved complete equality. In the early years, a number of restrictions were placed on Jews and Christians. They had to wear identification badges. They could not proselytize, and they were required to pray quietly. Their houses could not be taller than Muslims’ houses. Most important, they had to pay a heavy tax, called the jizya. In time, many of these rules (not including the tax) fell away. Jews, especially, were allowed to enter public service, as scribes, clerks, advisers. They taught the Muslims how to run a government, Lewis writes. The golden age of Al Andalus, he says, was also the golden age of Sefarad, the Sephardic Jews. But even those who did not have brilliant careers no doubt found badges and taxes preferable to forced conversion or death. Eventually, many Jews and Christians did convert—probably, in many cases, to avoid the tax. At the end of the eighth century, the vast majority of people in Iberia were Christians. Two hundred years later, the majority were Muslims.


If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today. I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practiced—far-flung and transacted with money—leads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.


mark penn & microtrends January 29, 2008

Posted by KG in 2008 Elections, books, marketing, news, politics, tech.
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A pollster by trade, the CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller by position, Penn is obsessed with carving up the electorate into itty-bitty slices and famous for propounding micro-policies to satisfy their cravings and allay their anxieties. Among many in the Clinton circle, he is regarded with intense suspicion; his feuding with her communications director, Howard Wolfson, and longtime ally Harold Ickes is legendary. “A lot of Clinton people aren’t sure that Penn is really a Democrat—you know, he’s kind of a New York Sun guy,” says one of his clients. “Some of them wouldn’t piss on his head if his hair were on fire.”


Clinton’s focus on the quotidian telegraphs to voters her seriousness about issues and tangible deliverables. And this, in turn, may help explain why she is doing so much better among downscale voters than Obama is—along with highlighting one of the core strengths of her candidacy in an ever-worsening economy. According to copious research conducted by Penn, upscale voters tend to focus more on personality and character, while working stiffs focus more on substance and on who will effectively defend their interests. “The eggheads have become the jug-heads,” Penn says, “and the jug-heads have become the eggheads.”

penn discussing microtrends & his book @ google: