Monthly Archives: April 2004

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Grade quotas 

I was intrigued by Ed Felten’s report that Princeton has a plan to cap the number of A grades a department can issue. Compared to my day (1974-78), grade inflation has apparently struck even Princeton.

My personal interest is heightened by one distinction in my academic career. I did pretty well, graduating magna cum laude and winning a scholarship to Oxford, but my record did include an F — from a class in Latin American History.

When I had my obligatory interview with then-provost Neil Rudenstine, who vetted scholarship applicants, his eyebrows nearly hit the ceiling over that mark. I think it probably puts me in a vanishing class, like the one person I know who received a “gentleman’s fourth” (since abolished) at Oxford in the late ’60s.

Rules for political writers 

Emily, who write It Comes in Pints, offers seven very sensible rules for anyone planning to write about politics.

I particularly like rule seven: “Know the sources of your information, be aware of their biases (and they all have them, no matter how much they might like to pretend they don’t), and form your judgements accordingly.”

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Maps and science  

Mapping science: A map of the top 50 "hot" words in the most highly cited PNAS articles from 1982-2001. Words appearing more often have larger circles, while the circle color and ring color identify when the word first appeared and when its popularity peaked, respectively.

I love maps and I love science. So this BBC story was tailor-made for me:

“Science is the most interconnected of all human activities, they say, and requires a new series of maps to chart the changing scientific landscape.”

Consider this insight from Katy Börner, the Indiana University researcher who is a pioneer in the field.

“Ultimately, I’d like to see a map of science in schools, as common as the political world map. ‘Continents’ would represent the diverse areas of science, and closely related areas would reside on the same continent. Teachers might say, ‘Let’s look at the new research frontier in sector F5.’ Students could say, ‘My mom works over there.'”

Where can I sign up my children’s school?

There’s more detailed information from the National Science Foundation.

Quite something for a sports column 

Here’s Hunter S Thompson’s concluding lines about the NCAA basketball championship game (sort of): “The 2004 presidential election will be a matter of life or death for the whole nation. We are sick today, and we will be even sicker tomorrow if this wretched half-bright swine of a president gets re-elected in November. Take my word for it. Mahalo.”

I hadn’t encountered the word mahalo before.

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Every MP should have one 

Labour MP Clive Soley: “There are now at least four MP’s with web logs and I suspect the number will grow in the next year or two. Soon every MP will be expected to have one. The teenage use of chatrooms is producing an interactive computer literate generation who will expect MP’s and other elected representatives to use this type of communication.”

“One comment on my Fabian paper started with ‘What a load of balderdash’ and went on in a fairly aggressive argumentative style. But it ended with ‘…it is privilege for all of us to be able to debate openly…’

“That’s why I’m a blogging MP!”

Sceptic on the thwarted gas attack  

Sadly, Channel 4 News’s John Snow doesn’t have a weblog. What he does write, however, is a daily email to provide a heads-up on stories for his 7pm newscast.

Today, he’s a sceptic about reports that a terrorist poison gas attack in Britain has been foiled. Here’s Snow:

“ABC Television News in America is making the startling claim tonight that Britain has been spared a major chemical attack using a substance called osmium tetroxide. Now I’m not a chemical man but this sounds suspiciously like the gas that might be exuded from the decomposing body of Osama himself. Now, given that Osama is not yet, so far as we know, decomposing, I am suspicious in the extreme. However as the BBC and Sky have gone big on it given the global nature of telecommunications these days, we are bound to take a sniff. And I can tell you if you do, this particular substance is foul indeed.

“But can it really be used as an agent of chemical warfare… doubtful. Frankly, this is one of those moments when I shall hope to persuade my fellow hacks here that how ever much noise people are making about this ‘revelation’ we have absolutely no independent corroboration that there is any truth in this story.

“But I can tell you, I can see the headlines now ‘Terror Gas Attack on Britain foiled’, ‘Smelly Gas threatened to Kill Thousands’ and perhaps ‘Gasman Cometh’. Now I don’t want to jest we all worry about chemical attacks on Britain, but chemical attacks aren’t easy, this gas is obscure and so far I don’t buy it. And by that I don’t mean the gas, I mean the story. Tom Clarke is on the case. Sorry to go into all that at length but you know in these dicey times it’s a good idea to set one’s stall out and sort out the chaff from the wheat and frankly, this has all the whiff of chaff.”


Via Crooked Timber, here’s a wonderful essay on Yiddish by Michael Chabon. A brief extract:

“I dream of two possible destinations. The first might be a modern independent state very closely analogous to the State of Israel–call it the State of Yisroel–a postwar Jewish homeland created during a time of moral emergency, located presumably, but not necessarily, in Palestine; it could be in Alaska, or on Madagascar. Here, perhaps, that minority faction of the Zionist movement who favored the establishment of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews were able to prevail over their more numerous Hebraist opponents. There is Yiddish on the money, of which the basic unit is the herzl, or the dollar, or even the zloty. There are Yiddish color commentators for soccer games, Yiddish-speaking cash machines, Yiddish tags on the collars of dogs. Public debate, private discourse, joking and lamentation, all are conducted not in a new-old, partly artificial language like Hebrew, a prefabricated skyscraper still under construction, with only the lowermost of its stories as yet inhabited by the generations, but in a tumbledown old palace capable in the smallest of its stones (the word nu) of expressing slyness, tenderness, derision, romance, disputation, hopefulness, skepticism, sorrow, a lascivious impulse, or the confirmation of one’s worst fears.”

Telegraph joins the RSS train 

I was looking at something on the Telegraph site and I noticed a familiar orange box at the bottom of the page. It turns out the Telegraph has a bunch of RSS 2.0 feeds. I may not agree with its politics, but somebody there knows what they’re doing.

The Guardian, which is generally light years ahead in its web presence, makes finding feeds a difficult task. I know there’s this, but I couldn’t find it on The Guardian’s own site.

By my reckoning, the Telegraph now joins the BBC (there’s an unlikely match) in making it easy to subscribe to a feed.

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I’m changing the design of Davos Newbies rather belatedly. The last time I changed things (to make clear that I was no longer tied to Davos in any direct sense), I seemed to have made the site a bit klutzy in some browsers. I hope the new changes will work for everyone. Please excuse the under-construction issues that will be inevitable for a few days. Let me know if there are problems.


The widely reported claim that Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad is now richer than Bill Gates has a problem: Kamprad no longer owns Ikea. In 1982, he gave his interest in the group to a Dutch-based foundation.

There seems to be an argument whether this is merely a tax dodge or substantial. The key point, however, has been pointed out by Tim Dunlop: “Is it possible to cite two more annoying, frustrating and angst-inducing product lines than the Windows OS and Ikea furniture!!!! Clearly the way to extreme fortune is to piss off as many of your customers as possible.”

Two things 

Via Marginal Revolution, Glen Whitman’s Two Things: “Here are the Two Things about economics. One: Incentives matter. Two: There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Many other Two Things on the same page.

Wellspring of Davos 

Michael Bierut has a great comment in his latest posting on Design Observer: “My favorite line in Dr. Strangelove is delivered by Keenan Wynn as he grudgingly permits Peter Sellars to shoot off the lock of a soda dispenser to get enough spare change to make a phone call to the president to call off World War III. ‘If you don’t get the President of the United States on that line, you know what’s going to happen to you?’ he growls as if he’s delivering the biggest threat of all. ‘You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.’ There, in one sentence, you have the DNA from which was to spring both Davos and Adbusters.”

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A good source for outsourcing 

Brad DeLong and Stephen Cohen bring great good sense to the outsourcing debate.

“Because this is an economic transformation that is going to hit not in one shot next year but over the course of the next generation, we have plenty of time: time to build the social safety net, the education and retraining programs, the social and economic institutions needed to turn the coming of trade in white-collar services from a win-lose to a win-win affair for America and Americans; time to rebuild confidence that employment will be full and the duration of unemployment spells short. But we will need all this time, because the magnitude of the approaching economic trade shock will be much larger than anything in our historical memory.”

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Not this reader’s editor 

Dave Winer recounts Rogers Cadenhead‘s fruitless contact with The Guardian’s Reader’s Editor (in one of his mysteriously missing posts). I can echo his experience.

Before I wrote my post on The Guardian RSS brouhaha, I emailed the Reader’s Editor. I was glad that I didn’t receive the kind of automated reply that is too often the norm.

But I’m utterly dismayed and surprised that one week later I still haven’t heard anything at all. You’d think an ombudsman could at least send out a holding message: “Thank you for your email. I will look into the matter and let you know my conclusions.”

Instead, nothing. Nothing at all.

The Guardian, to my mind, is better than this.