Kevin Drum - March 2012

Me and my iPad

| Sat Mar. 31, 2012 3:54 PM PDT

You've probably all been wondering about me and my new toy. "I wonder how Kevin likes reading on an iPad?" you've been asking yourself. "I sure wish he'd write a blog post telling us."

OK, fine. I will. I'm not sure if I'm surprised by this or not, but I like it a lot. I bought a Kindle a few years ago and used it for several months, and while I didn't hate it, I never really warmed to it either. But the iPad feels entirely different. Partly it's the larger screen. Partly it's the faster page turning. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's just enough to make it feel a lot more comfortable than the Kindle. Having readable graphics in nonfiction is a huge plus too. (Though I wish Amazon would make their inline graphics a little higher resolution. I know that would make file sizes bigger, but it would be worth it.)

But what about eyestrain? One of the reasons I waited so long to try a tablet was because I was afraid that long reading stints on a low-res display would make my eyes ache. I don't know if that would have been a problem since I never tried it, but the retina display on the iPad is as good as advertised, and so far hasn't caused any eye fatigue at all.

I'm also pleased with Readability, an Instapaper-like app that allows you to easily save long magazine articles and then read them later on the iPad. Everybody told me I'd love this, and everybody was right. I'm way more likely to read long-form stuff if I can do it in my easy chair instead of sitting in front of my desktop display. (I'm using Readability because for some reason Instapaper wouldn't work properly for me. But it works great and the app is free, so I guess this was a blessing in disguise.)

I ended up buying a leather cover for the iPad, and although that probably marks me as terminally unhip, it's been great. For me, reading is partially a tactile experience, and I don't like to read on a device that's cool and slick to the touch. The leather cover gives the iPad a warmer, friendlier quality that just feels more like a book. Besides, the leather cover also has a flip stand thingie that props up the iPad when I'm reading at a table, and that's something I like a lot too.

It's still possible that I'll get bored with the iPad at some point and drift back to dead-tree books. But so far I'm a convert.

POSTSCRIPT: Is there anything I don't like about the iPad? Well, it takes a helluva long time to charge, but that's not too big a deal. And it's all but impossible to move files on and off the iPad unless you have a handy copy of iTunes running on a desktop machine. That's a pain in the ass, and especially annoying because it's a deliberate design decision, not a sad but necessary compromise. Still, I don't have a big need to do this, so I can live with it.

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Facebook and the Creep Factor

| Sat Mar. 31, 2012 12:17 PM PDT

A few days ago I finished reading Rule 34, which reminded me once again that I should probably read Charlie Stross's blog more regularly. But of course, I did nothing about this because I'm a lazy sod and I had other things on my mind. Now Brad DeLong reminds me again, by linking to Stross, who in turn links to John Brownlee, who is obsessed these days with an iPhone app called Girls Around Me. Why? Because it demonstrates just how much privacy we've given up, either voluntarily or accidentally, in the era of Facebook and social networking:

“Okay, so here’s the way the app works,” I explained to my friends.

Girls Around Me is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity: whether it be parties, clubs, deals, or what have you. When you load it up, the first thing Girls Around Me does is figure out where you are and load up a Google Map centered around your location....It’s when you push the radar button that Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin. I pressed the button for my friends. Immediately, Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area.

....“How does it know where these girls are? Do you know all these girls? Is it plucking data from your address book or something?” another friend asked.

“Not at all. These are all girls with publicly visible Facebook profiles who have checked into these locations recently using Foursquare....The pictures you are seeing are their social network profile pictures.”

“Okay, so they know that their data can be used like this for anyone to see? They’re okay with it? ”

“Probably not, actually. The settings determining how visible your Facebook and Foursquare data is are complicated, and tend to be meaningless to people who don’t really understand issues about privacy,” I explained. “Most privacy settings on social networks default to share everything with everyone, and since most people never change those... well, they end up getting sucked up into apps like this.”

....One of my less computer-affable friends actually went pale, and kept on shooting her boyfriend looks for assurance. A Linux aficionado who was the only person in our group without a Facebook account (and one of the few people I’d ever met who actually endorsed Diaspora), the look he returned was one of comical smugness.

“But wait! It gets worse!” I said, ramping things up.

Click the link to see how it gets worse. And then click on Charlie's blog post to find out what it all means. Then, when you're done, for God's sake, take some time to go into your Facebook profile and make sure you're not sharing anything more than you really want to. It's not as easy to do this as it should be, but the good news is that it's at least a little easier than it used to be. So go do it.

UPDATE: ProPublica reporter Jake Bernstein tweets that this app no longer works. Good news! But there will be many, many more just like it, so go update your Facebook profile anyway.

Maybe We Really Do Have the Government We Deserve

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 6:49 PM PDT

I just turned on the TV for a few minutes and switched to MSNBC. Where I found Rachel Maddow going on and on about the fact that Mitt Romney once called the residents of Afghanistan "Afghanis" instead of Afghans. That got tedious after the fifth or sixth bit of snark, so I switched over to Fox. Where Sean Hannity and a pair of guests were guffawing over the fact that Barack Obama once referred to the "Austrian" language and mispronounced "corpsman." Yuck yuck.

This is why I hate politics sometimes. And it's why I hate TV almost all the time.

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 March 2012

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 11:58 AM PDT

On the left we have a cat and her shadow. On the right, we have a shadowy cat. Or, more accurately, a snoozing cat who wants to know when I'm going to put my stupid human toy away and let him get back to his nap.

Need more cats? Coming right up. Here's the story of Vincent, a homeless stray who made it big in New York and is now trying for the big time in Hollywood. And here's a cat playing with dolphins. It oozes so much cuteness you might need an insulin shot after you watch it.

Why Are American Conservatives More Anti-Science Than European Conservatives?

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 11:11 AM PDT

Chris Mooney has a new book out, The Republican Brain, which I haven't read yet. But he has a long piece over on the right which says, basically, that conservatives are wrong about a lot of stuff, and they're wrong because their brains are wired differently than liberal brains:

As I began to investigate the underlying causes for the conservative denial of reality that we see all around us, I found it impossible to ignore a mounting body of evidence—from political science, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and genetics—that points to a key conclusion. Political conservatives seem to be very different from political liberals at the level of psychology and personality. And inevitably, this influences the way the two groups argue and process information.

Broadly speaking, I don't really have any issue with this. I've long been sold on the idea that liberalism and conservatism are at least partly temperaments, and it's those temperaments that lead us to different political conclusions rather than any kind of rational thinking process.

But the problem I have with Chris's piece is this: temperament is universal, but Republicans are Americans. And it's Republicans who deny global warming and evolution. European conservatives don't. In fact, as near as I can tell, European conservatives don't generally hold anti-science views any more strongly than European progressives.

I'm going to keep this post short because, as I said, I haven't read the book. Maybe Chris addresses this at greater length there. But in the MoJo piece, at least, he doesn't really address the question of why differences in brain wiring have produced such extreme anti-science views in American conservatives but not in European conservatives. So consider this an invitation, Chris. Is your contention that American conservatives are unique in some way? Or that American brains are wired differently? Or am I wrong about European conservatives? One way or another, though, it strikes me that international comparisons are critical here. If we're talking about brains, we're talking about the human race, not just our little chunk of North America.

My Lottery Fantasies Shattered

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 9:57 AM PDT

Since I live in California, you're probably all wondering whether I've bought a lottery ticket yet. Answer: no, I haven't. But I tried! Marian and I wandered up to our local drug store last night to get some Easter stuff, and I figured it would be a good night to buy my first lottery ticket ever. But the machine was broken. Or out of paper. Or out of numbers. Or something. No ticket for me! And the story was the same at the neighboring supermarket. So I have nothing.

Now, it turns out that Marian did sign up to be part of a lottery pool at work, so all is not lost. However, a little quick arithmetic suggests that even if our pool wins we'll only take home something like $5 million after taxes. In other words, peanuts. Hardly worth the bother of picking up the check, is it? Maybe next time.

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How Saving Obamacare Could Rein In the Welfare State

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 9:07 AM PDT

The Supreme Court will be voting today in the Obamacare case (though we won't hear the results until June or so). One possible outcome is that they'll buy into the argument of the critics that Congress can regulate activity but not inactivity (i.e., it can't penalize you for failing to buy health insurance), and therefore strike down some or all of the law as unconstitutional. This distinction between activity and inactivity would be an example of a "limiting principle" — that is, some rule that explains what Congress is allowed to do and what it's not. Conservatives have long said that this is something the court will demand, since they aren't willing to give Congress unfettered power to do anything it wants based solely on the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution. In oral arguments, the government never really articulated an alternative principle, but a few days ago I asked why that should be the government's job in the first place. Isn't that the court's job?

And this, I think, is where there's cause for hope. Overturning Obamacare would be a very, very big deal for the court. There's good reason to think that Roberts and Kennedy in particular would be reluctant to overturn a major domestic program in an area that's indisputably political and legislative in nature, and they'd be especially reluctant to do that based on a logic-chopping decision that amounts to a technicality. They know perfectly well that Congress could have quite easily implemented the individual mandate in a way that's unquestionably constitutional, and the only reason they didn't was because no one had the slightest fear that the court would overturn the existing version. It just wasn't an issue.

So what will the court do? If they don't want a rerun of the 1930s, which did a lot of damage to the court's prestige, but they do want to put firmer limits on Congress's interstate commerce power, the answer is: find a limiting principle of their own. But find one that puts Obamacare just barely on the constitutional side of their new principle. This would avoid a firestorm of criticism about the court's legitimacy — that they're acting as legislators instead of judges — but it would satisfy their urge to hand down a landmark decision that puts firm limits on further expansion of congressional power. Liberals would be so relieved that Obamacare survived that they'd probably accept the new rules without too much fuss, and conservatives, though disappointed, would be thrilled at the idea that the court had finally set down clear limits on Congress's interstate commerce power.

I have no idea what the justices are actually thinking, of course. Hell, maybe the court's conservatives are ready for a revolution and don't care what the mob thinks of them anymore. But a new rule that reined in Congress without overturning Obamacare just might be a compromise that the liberal wing of the court could push through, especially if they made it clear they were willing to sign on themselves in order to give it bipartisan legitimacy. I guess we'll know in a few months.

People Like Free Books

| Fri Mar. 30, 2012 8:03 AM PDT

Via Tyler Cowen, we have the chart on the right from Eric Crampton. It shows book shipments [see update below] from Amazon by decade of publication, with a sharp dropoff in 1922 because books published before then are in the public domain while books published after that are still in copyright. (And probably will be forever since Congress keeps extending copyright protection whenever the current term is close to running out.) Presumably, people are buying lots of pre-1922 books because they're cheap. In fact, lots of classic books are free in their e-editions.

But there's something about this chart that doesn't feel right. If I believe it, people have bought as many books published in the 1910s as in the 2000s. Cheap or not, that just doesn't seem plausible. That's a helluva lot of copies of Ethan Frome and In Flanders Fields to compete with The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter. There must be an explanation for this, but I can't quite figure out one that sounds right. Any ideas?

UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed this up because I hate videos and didn't watch the embedded video that explains the chart. This doesn't show shipment data, it just shows number of titles in the Amazon warehouse, taken from a random sample of 2,500 fiction titles. Out of those 2,500 titles, about 340 of them were published in the 1910s.

So this doesn't mean that Amazon is actually selling lots of books from the 1910s, which was a fairly dismal decade for classic fiction. It just means that Amazon stocks a lot of titles from the 1910s. This is still sort of surprising, but surprising in a different way. It also has a more obvious explanation: old titles that are out of copyright are very profitable for Amazon, so it's eager to stock them even if they don't sell in huge quantities. That says something about copyright, but perhaps not quite what we initially thought.

Was the Ghost of Contraception Wandering the Halls of the Supreme Court?

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 10:11 PM PDT

Over at NRO, Benjamin Zycher offers up some speculation:

One trivial thought that I have not seen elsewhere: I wonder if the Left/Obama/Kathleen Sebelius didn’t shoot themselves in the backside when they decided to apply a chainsaw to the religious liberty of the Catholic hospitals, etc. That episode, I think, brought out in sharp relief the unprecedented degree of coercion inexorably inherent in Obamacare, the eagerness with which the Left employs it, and the thoughtlessness with which the Left is willing to destroy the institutions of civil society as they pursue their political goals. They really believe that people of religious faith are simpletons standing in the way of ever-greater individual dependence upon Leviathan.

And so I have a sense — but no direct evidence — that Kennedy and perhaps Roberts may have recoiled in horror from the prospect of Obamacare more deeply than otherwise might have been the case, as they were confronted with the prospective wholesale descent into economic fascism that is the very essence of Obamacare.

Putting aside the overwrought language, which is practically obligatory on the right these days, I wonder if there's anything to this? Roberts and Kennedy are both Catholic, and it's hardly a stretch to suppose that even if neither of them literally recoiled in horror, they certainly might have felt personally affronted by the whole contraception squabble. It's at least conceivable that it may have turned one or two wavering votes to uphold into likely votes to overturn.

Chart of the Day: Conservatives Don't Trust Science

| Thu Mar. 29, 2012 5:59 PM PDT

A new study by Gordon Gauchat takes a look at public trust in science and finds that it's unchanged over the past few decades for most groups. The one exception is conservatives, whose trust in science has plummeted:

This is not because conservatives are a bunch of undereducated yahoos. In fact, quite the opposite:

Conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time....In addition...conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree []. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

In other words, this decline in trust in science has been led by the most educated, most engaged segment of conservatism. Conservative elites have led the anti-science charge and the rank-and-file has followed.

This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.

An interesting side note to this is the startling lack of trust in science among moderates. After a drop in the 70s, it's stayed pretty steady for the past 30 years, but it's stayed steady at a very low level. Until recently, moderates trusted science significantly less than either liberals or conservatives. Is this because moderates have always viewed science as a politicized enterprise, something they're especially sensitive about? Or because moderates are just generally less engaged with elite institutions? Or because moderates have a higher overall degree of skepticism about everything than either liberals or conservatives? It's a mystery.

More here from Chris Mooney, whose hypothesis Gauchat was testing.