Monthly Archives: April 2009

I For One Welcome Our New Google-y Overlords

Google is extending search to public data, first from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From a post on the Google blog:

The data we’re including in this first launch represents just a small fraction of all the interesting public data available on the web. There are statistics for prices of cookies, CO2 emissions, asthma frequency, high school graduation rates, bakers’ salaries, number of wildfires, and the list goes on. Reliable information about these kinds of things exists thanks to the hard work of data collectors gathering countless survey forms, and of careful statisticians estimating meaningful indicators that make hidden patterns of the world visible to the eye. All the data we’ve used in this first launch are produced and published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division. They did the hard work! We just made the data a bit easier to find and use.

Since Google’s acquisition of Trendalyzer two years ago, we have been working on creating a new service that make lots of data instantly available for intuitive, visual exploration. Today’s launch is a first step in that direction. We hope people will find this search feature helpful, whether it’s used in the classroom, the boardroom or around the kitchen table. We also hope that this will pave the way for public data to take a more central role in informed public conversations.

I think this is fantastic, of course. HT: Tyler Cowen at

Disclosure: My brother recently accepted an internship?/job offer? with Google for the summer and will be working in their Ann Arbor facility.


Torture, a Thought Experiment

Most people who are familiar with my views and my work know that I’m a vehement opponent of the ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ embraced by the Bush Administration. There are several reasons as to why:

1. Torture methods were introduced as a gut reaction; there doesn’t seem to have been any thought given to the origins of these methods nor their effectiveness.

2. It is highly unlikely that information obtained using these methods could not have been obtained through other ways.

3. The information obtained may not have been that useful anyway. Coherent intelligence policy should be capable of understanding the new terrorist paradigm (steal planes and fly them into things) and should be able to formulate effective responses without knowledge of specific targets.

4. Our government lied to us about what it was doing and in defending itself tried to reinterpret arguments and laws that explicitly prohibited such conduct.

5. Defenders of the program point to ticking-time bomb scenarios as justification, but it’s unclear what functional parameters were used to define a ticking time bomb scenario. I suggest such parameters are functionally arbitrary. It is clear that a nuclear bomb set to go off in a major metropolitan area is such a scenario, but I’m not sure flying a plane into a building, or most buildings, really meets that scenario, especially in a post 9-11 world where the US Air Force controls the sky and can defend against those threats easily. (PS. US air superiority rocks).

There are other arguments I’d muster, but let’s stop here and digress into a thought experiment. If we are justified in torturing people in emergency situations, why limit it to terrorists that we capture abroad? What is the difference between that scenario and torturing a sex predator or a murderer to reveal the locations of kidnapped victims as they face imminent death? Or would we be justified in torturing the Oklahoma City bombers if we feared that there were more bombs at other locations?

The difference of course is that the Oklahoma City bombers were Americans, and clearly entitled to constitutional rights. Followers of bin Laden and other organizations of course are not; though they were captured in combat situations we created a special legal class to dodge Geneva Convention rules on prisoners of war so that we could torture them. Would George Bush be in favor of creating a special legal class for Americans so that our government doesn’t have to worry about the constitution when prosecuting or preventing mass crimes?

My response of course is that we have a Constitution (and have bound ourselves by extension to rules about how war should be conducted) precisely so that the government can’t do those things. It’s because the Founding Fathers acknowledged a fundamental truth about the world: large organizations, including and particularly governments, are far more dangerous that any mob or terrorist cell. That it’s far more important to protect people from governments than it is to protect governments from people. Here I think is the essential argument: we shouldn’t let our government torture people because our government is far far more dangerous than any terrorist organization even if our government is a better government than any other. American history is full of examples: from perpetrating genocide against Native Americans, rounding up Japanese people in de facto concentration camps, massacring people in Vietnam, etc…The list is long.

The other fundamental truth about government is that leaders have their own biases and carry their own grudges. When we cannot control our leaders, people pay in blood. This is the real point of the arguments against torture and one I think gets lost far too often.

More Nabokov, All the Time

I only wish I could do something deserving of a compliment like this:

Mr. Liebrandt’s food at Corton is mysteriously flavorful, shimmering with new variations on perfume and texture and temperature, but restrained from pushing cuisine beyond recognition. His asparagus velouté has notes of vanilla, garlic, yuzu and fresh bay leaf, but it’s familiar; a soup is still a soup. And yet. Within its traditional framework, Mr. Liebrandt’s food is so full of allusions and hints and references that it’s like Nabokov on a plate: delicious, demanding and just the slightest bit disturbing.

Gorgeous. Link to the NYT story here.

After Holocaust Remembrance Day

Am currently reading Savage Beauty, a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford; the prologue contains this anecdote:

…When the Nazis razed the entire Czech village of Lidice in 1942, Millay wrote a verse play for radio called the Murder of Lidice,” which was broadcast throughout America when a third of the country was willing to accept a separate peace with Germany.

Not that I’m surprised; during most wars there is a substantial fraction of the population advocating or supporting peacemaking efforts. Does anyone know a good source for that claim?

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The Nabokov in the Room

I would not go so far as some who would insist that a Hindu is not the person to ask about Hinduism, as Harvard professor Roman Jakobson notoriously objected to Nabokov’s bid for chairmanship of the Russian literature department: “I do respect very much the elephant, but would you give him the chair of zoology?”

Another excellent quote I spotted on Marginal Revolution. The author is Wendy Doniger in The Hindus: An Alternative History.

I might note that you could replace Nabokov with Richard Posner and have a very interesting conversation on why Posner isn’t on the Supreme Court.


A Few Quick Thoughts

1. The United States as a countercyclical asset by the irreplaceable Tyler Cowen. One of the best essays on US power I’ve read in a while.

2. Pop culture meme: From The Lonely Island featuring the stoically impressive T-Pain, I’m on a Boat.

3. Cautiously optimistic: Good news from Wells-Fargo and some positive economic indicators. Are credit markets thawing a little bit?

4. Gaffe prone Joe Biden gets rebuked by Karl Rove. Even if Biden is something of a blowhard, I have trouble believing anything Rove says. Ever.

5. Great lines from Thomas Pynchon’s novels here. Still plowing resolutely and happily through ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.