Dynamist Blog


Prompted by this post by Norman Geras, the bloggers at Crooked Timber have been having fun at the expense of the petty tyrants who insist on reworking perfectly good writing for the sake of their silly rules. Read here, here, and here. (Apparently the copy editors were highly offended by the original post, judging from this apologetic followup on Normblog.)

Copy editors sometimes do improve writing. But, as often as not, the profession selects for people who demonstrate their superiority by knowing rules no one else knows.

My favorite copy editing stupidity: At the NYT, you are not allowed to use the verb design to describe anything that is not physical. You have to say devise. Hence this lovely sentence in my most recent column: "In subsequent research, he and Professor Mayzlin are working with a company to compare results from two types of buzz marketing: a campaign concentrated on opinion leaders selected by marketing executives and a campaign devised by the two professors to emphasize dispersion." That is not a graceful sentence. But all the copy editor cared about was getting ride of "designed."

Thanks to reader George Jong for the tip.


In today's "Diary" entry, David Frum has kind and, more important, interesting comments on TSOS. He's worth reading, even if you're sick of hearing about my book.

On his first point, I would say that he overestimates how worried I am by the potential for biological alterations in pursuit of personal beauty. The potential is creepy, but when you think through the way people actually behave, it becomes far less so. If such alterations are effective and low-cost (in all senses of "cost") as, for instance, hair dye is today, I'm not terribly concerned. Nor do I think such alterations will become the norm unless their cost--in money, time, pain, and risk--becomes relatively low. And, of course, they have to make people look better, or at least look more like they want to look. Bad plastic surgery that's cheap and painless is still bad. (Speaking of which, I just discovered a site called Awful Plastic Surgery, which, despite its name, includes the good as well as the bad and ugly.)

On David's second point, I am indeed far less interested in "high art" than I am in the look and feel of everyday life. Maybe it was all that Renaissance drama I studied in school, but I tend to believe that commercial art can be just as great--and certainly as significant to people's lives--as officially designated ART. That said, I was interested in the observation that a caller made to a radio show I was on in New York. He was an artist, and after hearing my definition of "aesthetics" as pre-rational, non-cognitive sensory communication, he suggested that perhaps we're seeing an aesthetic flowering in everyday life because the art establishment has drained "art" of aesthetics. Good or bad, the art that wins plaudits today is all about narrative and cognition, with any viseral, emotional impact omitted.

As someone who loves abstraction, I'm not down on "modern art." My house is full of it, and Steve and I had a wonderful time this weekend visiting the spectacular new Nasher Sculpture Center. But "conceptual art" generally strikes me as stupid--too unsophisticated in its ideas to be truly conceptual, too preachy to be art. (I'm sure there are exceptions.) Because it relies on cognition, rather than visceral responses, that sort of art is outside my concerns in TSOS. So, for the most part, is the much more important narrative art of our day, a.k.a. TV and the movies.


The excerpt from The Substance of Style that ran in the October issue of Reason is now online. It's a selection from chapter five.


Using its regular "search" box, Amazon now lets you search the complete texts of 120,000 different books--those for which the publishers have given permission--including The Future and Its Enemies. To search a single book, you use the box on that book's page. Writing for Slate, Steven Johnson calls it "The Best Search Idea Since Google". Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jacob Levy checks his own book for mentions of John Rawls and proposes some basic uses for the new search engine:

That corresponds to the results in my index, which is a relief--but I think I'm going to often end up using these text-searches before or instead of using indices. The former shouldn't displace the latter. (For one thing, the OCR technology used for scanning certainly isn't perfect, and so there will be references in books that won't show up in the text searches.) At first glance I suspect that'll be the way lots of researchers use this--go to the listing for a particular book and use the "search inside this book" box, rather than running a massive search-all-books-for-these-words. But the search-all-books has its uses, too-- it makes those publishers' books something more like the articles on JSTOR or LEXIS. It makes it possible to discover books that have references or sections or chapters that are of interest to you even though the book as a whole may not be. And it makes something like a citation index possible using books, something that hasn't been true before.

Jacob correctly suggests that the new feature tends to slow basic book searches, especially for authors' names. Eventually Amazon might want to separate the two search functions. He provides links to other commentshere.

One of the most exciting effects of Amazon's full-text search is that it restores books to students' reference sets. As many a professor has complained, kids these days think if a text isn't on the Internet it doesn't exist. But not much written before the mid-1990s, and very little in books, can be Googled. Hence, for many young (or busy) researchers, most of the world's written knowledge might as well not exist. Amazon's search engine is a great advance for civilization--and for authors. Work that would have gone unread will now be read and, along the way, books that would have gone unsold will now be bought.

Of course, the ever-short-sighted Authors' Guild, which not long ago was criticizing Amazon's used book sales, doesn't like the new search, not one bit. Students might look things up without buying the books!!!! They might make copies for their friends!!!! They might do online things they could do by...going to the library. And authors won't get paid extra. (If the AG could outlaw libraries and used book stores, it probably would.) For the full AG statement, see this post by Eugene Volokh. Jacob Levy comments here.


George Will has kind things to say about The Substance of Style in his column today. (More permanent archives here and here.) Thanks to the many readers who alerted me to the piece and especially to blogger Geitner Simmons, who got an early look at the piece.


In Saturday's NYT, ideas guru Edward Rothstein writes about The Substance of Style. I wouldn't exactly call it a careful reading--in particular, Rothstein appears to have barely skimmed chapter four's discussion of aesthetic meaning--but the piece should intrigue a few people.


Chief Wiggles's site reports that operations are underway to sort and ship toys (and other goods) to Iraqi kids:

The first packages at the warehouse are being prepared to send over to the Chief. Each box is been opened, inventoried and repackaged for sending. Dr. Jolie Harris' box was the first to be opened and we wish to thank him for all the dental supplies! They are desperately needed.

For more information on the toy drive and how to help, see the Operation Give site. I've set up an Amazon Wish List to allow easy ordering. (Type in my name. Please let me know if you have any problems.)


Francisco Gil Diaz, the finance minister of Mexico (and a former Friedman student), was the lunch speaker at the Fed conference today, and a very impressive one. Here are a few tidbits from his talk:

He told an interesting story about what happened to Mexico's refrigerator industry after his country unilaterally eliminated its trade barriers in 1985. Before that time, Mexican refrigerators were all made in a single factory, which was supplied by a single compressor monopoly, because the government had determined that "the industry of refrigerator compressors was saturated." Mexican refrigerators "worked exactly as John Kenneth Galbraith would predict." They had a "planned obsolescence" of about three months. So when protectionist barriers were lifted, everyone expected the industry to go under.

Exactly the opposite happened. The refrigerator maker thrived. Within less than a year, it had captured almost the entire U.S. market for small single-door refrigerators (think hotel honor bar). And its domestic refrigerators were now reliable. Turns out the company was very good at making refrigerators, and now it could import reliable compressors. Mexican refrigerator buyers benefited, but so did U.S. buyers and the Mexican manufacturer.

Oil used to be 90% of Mexico's exports, with all other goods a mere 10%. Now the numbers are reversed, even though the price of oil has gone up. Again, much of this progress happened before NAFTA, as a result of the flexibility and competition unleashed by Mexico's unilateral elimination of trade barriers.

Gil Diaz believes the PRI's legislative gains will actually help President Fox's programs, because now the PRI thinks it has a good chance to retake the presidency. As a result, legislators more willing to cooperate on reforms that improve the likelihood that PRI will inherit a sound economy.

Since NAFTA, the correlation between U.S. and Mexican industrial production has gone from 50% to 99%. As soon as the U.S. economy turns, the same thing happens in Mexico. That's been bad news the last couple of years but Mexico has been gaining industrial employment since September, when industrial production also turned up here. "We're more tightly linked to the U.S. economy than some U.S. states," he said, comparing the countries first to a married couple and then correcting himself to say, "We're more like Siamese twins than a married couple."

To reduce the corruption endemic in the customs process, Mexico is taking out the human element, "bringing automation to every part of the process." First, the customs service eliminated its in-house cashiers, allowing customs payments at banks. But that permitted graft at the banks, so now all payments must be made via the Internet. Customs offices have Internet access, but most people simply use Internet cafes or other sites.


I spent the day at the Dallas Fed's "Free to Choose" conference. Aside from attending, I subbed for Amity Shlaes of the Financial Times (and previously the WSJ) as a panel moderator, thereby assuring that Friedman's journalistic legacy was represented along with his more obvious contributions to economic science and policy entrepreneurship. His old Newsweek columns back had a big effect on me and, I believe, on Amity as well.

Tyler Cowen has blogged a bit about the conference. He focuses on an exchange between Milton Friedman and Gary Becker regarding whether the government should be in the money business.

Tyler also links to the conference blogging of Matt Mullenweg, whom I met this afternoon. His blog has lots of photos and will probably include one of Matt and me later.


"Say what you like about Osama bin Laden. He's done wonders for the defamation [libel] bar," a British barrister told journalists after a recent hearing in one of a load of libel suits filed by Saudis whom media reports have alleged have ties to terrorists. The suits take advantage of Britain's pro-plaintiff libel law to attack American as well as British critics. Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball report. Read the whole thing.

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