Joho the BlogMarch 2013 - Page 2 of 2 - Joho the Blog

March 27, 2013

Why homosexuality looks like a decision

Note that in the following, I’m figuring out something that is probably obvious to everyone except me.

The other day I found myself expostulating, “How can anyone think people choose which sex they’re attracted to???” (Yes, with three question marks. I was expostulating.) I followed this with the well-worn, “If they think homosexuality is a choice, then they must also think that heterosexuality is. But at what point in their lives did they really make a choice between finding boys or girls hot? Never!!!”

My argument is not a good one. For at least some anti-gay folks, it poses a false equivalence. I think.

Thinking that gays choose their sexual “preference” but straights do not appears to be a contradiction until you factor in some assumptions about nature and temptation. So: God set it up so that humans naturally are drawn to the opposite sex. But we can be tempted toward all sorts of sins: We can lust after a neighbor’s spouse. We can be drawn toward liquor. We can be tempted to shoplift. We all face many different temptations of varying degrees of badness. Good people resist temptations as firmly as they can. Homosexuals give in to their temptations, and even flaunt them.

Thus, the proper equivalence isn’t between heterosexuals and homosexuals deciding which gender they’ll desire. It’s between homosexuals giving in to their temptation (same-sex sex) and heterosexuals giving in to their temptation (adultery, promiscuity, or some such). The equivalence isn’t in the choice of temptations but in the reaction to those temptations.

I’m not agreeing, of course. I fly my rainbow flag high. But this helps me to understand what otherwise looks like an argument so incoherent that it’s incomprehensible how anyone could actually hold it. It’s not incoherent, given a certain set of premises. It’s coherent…but wrong.

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March 23, 2013

The pleasure of minor illness

I am a delicate little flower. If my body temperature goes up 1%, I lose the ability to understand anything more complex than the Spartacus* series on Starz. I enter a recovery state that can only properly be called “wallowing.”

I have something a bit flu-like. It hit full force on Thursday afternoon. (To the person next to me on the plane: I am truly sorry.) I hope to be sort of back at work on Monday, and to be non-contagious enough to attend the family Seder that night. But in the interim, I’m on my back wondering just how much of my incapacity is due to my privilege. I can take days off. I can sleep in a warm spot. I can watch truly awful cable TV. I can let myself feel miserable.

And in fact, I’m not wondering at all. I know that self-indulgence is 90% of my illness. In fact, like many Americans, I have fond memories of sick days as a child, being brought cocoa and noodle soup by a loving mother, not only certain that I would be well soon, but also dreading the return to normalcy.

It must be a weird, modern, and isolated thing that a class of people can look on some types of illness as a respite, a luxury. When else in history have we had the confidence that a small disease would turn out well and the means to be so pampered while ill?


The new season of Spartacus is bad. In the first season (which I’m not proud of having watched), because the show was willing to kill off characters, there was something at risk in the fights. It was a bit like Project Runway with swords. This new season is all hackity hackity, constantly surly characters, gratuitous nudity, and low growling voices I can’t understand but don’t need to. It’s spurring me to get well so I won’t have to watch it.

If I could give the show three things, my gifts would be:

  1. Definite articles

  2. Indefinite articles

  3. Some nice trousers. Maybe gaberdine.

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March 16, 2013

What The New Yorker doesn’t say about Aaron

I first read Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz too quickly. But it doesn’t skim well. I found that encouraging.

I finally sat down to read it thoroughly a couple of days ago, and liked it very much. It’s beautifully written. More important, she does not have an hypothesis to bolster or an explanation to flog. She begins and ends with long quotes from the people around Aaron, without commenting on them. She is not arguing that he killed himself because he was clinically depressed — with the political subtext that comes from that reading — and she is not arguing that he killed himself because grownups overly burdened him, or even because of prosecutorial overreach. Larissa lets Aaron, his friends, and his family speak for themselves.

You come out of the piece with the idea that Aaron was complex, and that life wasn’t easy for him. The writer of the article’s subhead over-simplifies this into the sort of simple Theory of Aaron that the article itself avoids: “Aaron Swartz was brilliant and beloved. But the people who knew him best saw a darker side.” The article is more about complexity than darkness. It ties Aaron’s path from idea to cause to his moral commitments and to his many-cornered personality. Given the impossibility of capturing any human life in words, it does a good job.

But in the days after reading it, I’ve been bothered by something that Larissa leaves out. You don’t come out of it with a sense of what Aaron accomplished or of the impact of those accomplishments. I understand that Larissa was not attempting to write the definitive biography, and that she was more interested in exploring Aaron’s character in the context of those who loved him. But I’m afraid that a reader who comes to her article without knowing what Aaron actually did will leave with the impression that Aaron was too feckless and inconstant to translate his passions into achievement.

If Larissa decides to turn her article into a book, it will be important to bring readers to understand the maturity of Aaron’s achievements. Without that, a portrait of Aaron — no matter how open and beautiful — is necessarily misleading.

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March 13, 2013

[2b2k] Events are not the facts

The Tunisian newspaper Tunis Afrique Presse ran a story on the four priorities announced by that country’s new prime minister. It’s a straightforward story, and it is told in a factual, straightforward way.

But now I want to understand it. I know that some of the people involved in the revolution were disappointed that the new government was so Islamist. I know a moderate politician was assassinated there recently, which has destabalized the coalition government. But that’s about it for me. (I’m an American.) So, I read the four priorities of the new prime minister in the Tunisian article, and they seem positive from my point of view. But are they? Perhaps they are disappointing, or fail to address some key point, or are code for repressive policies. I don’t have enough context to know.

So, I go to Google and find a BBC article that fills in much of the context that I need. For example, I didn’t know the country has both a president and a prime minister. I couldn’t have told you anything at all about the coalition government, other than that it’s led by an Islamist party. To understand, we have to be just far enough away.

But what I really needed came from an “analysis” by Jim Muir embedded in the BBC article. Muir’s first paragraph says:

There was little in the announcement from Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh to inspire Ennahda’s [the ruling party] many critics to drop their opposition to the Islamist-led establishment in Tunisia.

Aha! Now I understand!

Of course, I’m assuming that Muir and I share some basic values, and that he’s attempting to give a sincere and honest assessment. I assume that based on cues: It’s the BBC, it’s marked as “analysis” and not “opinion,” the rhetoric isn’t obviously skewed away from my own views. To understand we need to have a lot in common with the person we’re learning from. I would thus be foolish to seek out, say, a Jihadist as my first source, although it might be quite interesting to read such a source as a second source.

We are right to learn what happened from people with whom we share values and assumptions because that way we don’t have to initially dig through a whole bunch of stuff that is either wrong from our point of view or incomprehensible to that point of view. But there’s also another reason:

I want to know what happened. But what happened in Tunisia was not that some personage uttered some words. What happened was that the Islamist party failed to forge a coalition that is likely to bring that country stability. In the same way, what happened last November was not the aggregated sum of factual accounts of how people marked X’s on ballots, and was not even the county-by-county vote tallies. If you started to tell me all of that, I’d be shouting until blue in the face, “But who won the election????” because that’s what happened. Events happen, and events have meaning, which means they only show up from a point of view. Events at the level of knowledge are not a mere recital of facts.

Newspapers for a long time have realized that much of their continuing value comes from the analyses they provide, not just the reportage. But the newspapers’ culture still tends in the other direction. And if you’re not sure that’s right, ask yourself why the analysis was a sidebar to the reportage, instead of the other way around.

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March 10, 2013

[2b2k] The increasing opacity of facts

First a disclaimer: Facts matter. The world is one way and another. It is entirely possible to be wrong. Not all statements are true. The statement “That is true for your but not for me” is almost always nonsensical. Ok? Can we proceed?

In an argument, facts — or, more precisely, statements that assert facts — usually are presented as stopping points. If it’s a fact, it’s a fact, and there’s no arguing with facts. If we are challenged to back up our facts, we’ll point to the source where we learned the fact. This is a delegation of authority: I don’t know how lung-less grasshoppers breathe, but this biology text — which is perhaps cited by Wikipedia — does. And how did that text learn it? It probably doesn’t tell us. And if it cites another source, I’m probably not going to be able to find it (unless I happen to be at a university with a generous set of journal subscriptions). And there’s a very good chance that ultimately I’m not going to be able to find out how the original source figured it out. Not all facts are opaque in this way, but many are, and we generally don’t mind when they are, since we probably invoked the fact to stop a line of discussion anyway.

So now I have to name-drop a little: This morning at SxSW I spent an hour with Stephen Wolfram, which is a rare treat; he is as completely fascinating as you think he is. He mentioned that a particular Nobelist had recently reluctantly acknowledged that most of the models being proposed these days are algorithmic and computational, just as Wolfram had predicted. Models are at the high end of the knowledge chain. At the lower end, there are facts, and WolframAlpha is about deriving facts algorithmically from a vast store of data. But computers often solve problems in ways completely other than how a human would; Wolfram’s example was differentials. In many of these cases, while a computer programmer might be able to understand the algorithm, no one could reproduce the outcome except by using another computer. So, in a very real sense, these computed facts are opaque not because the sources are untraceable — WolframAlpha curates the data that drive the site — but because they were not derived by a human intelligence.

Thus, we have knowledge without understanding not only at some of the highest levels of human knowledge, but also increasingly at the factual layer.

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March 7, 2013

Are brands people, my friends?

The always thoughtful Terry Heaton [twitter:TerryHeaton] has posted a provocative thesis, which is expressed in the post’s title: “How Brands Can Behave as People (And Why They Should).” Terry writes:

Futurist Stowe Boyd believes that we’ve entered a stage of “social business” in which “brands will try to look and feel as much like people as possible, online.”

Terry cites two examples of this, both during the Superbowl power outage: Oreos tweeted a photo with the caption “You can still dunk in the dark,” and Audi tweeted something about bringing LEDs to the stadium (which may be an Audi reference that I don’t get). Brands, says Terry, need to play “by the rules of human interactivity instead of the hierarchical ‘driving’ of behavior.” This means not only tweeting humorously in real time, but being more menschlich: “New York ad agency Young & Rubicam has been studying consumer behavior for decades and shocked the world last year by noting a 391% spike in ‘kindness and empathy’ as a favored brand attribute among consumers.”

Terry gives five practical rules for these new persona-brands. These rules are ethical and sensible. But they also raise interesting issues. In particular, rule #3 says:

  • No selling whatsoever.

  • No calls to action not based in participation.

  • No gimmicks. None.

  • Nothing artificial or fake.

And #5 says “Be personal.”

But brands acting like people is artificial and fake, and how can you be personal when you’re not a person? So, on the one hand, I want to dismiss this idea. But on the other hand I want to hand it to Terry. The ability of a company to sally forth into social media is, I believe, giving rise to what Terry and Boyd are pointing to: a new type of entity that acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, is not a duck, and that fools no one into think it’s a duck.

Companies used to do something like this when they would personify their product and their brand: green giants, cookie elves, prepubescent dough balls. Some of these became figures of popular culture. But that’s not what Terry is pointing to. The Oreo tweet didn’t come from a cartoon character acting like a cookie. It came from Oreo, which is obviously not itself a particular cookie, and is also not the same as Nabisco or Kraft Foods Inc. You read the tweet understanding that it came from some marketing folks who are talking for the cookie and for the company. The closest entity I can think of is: the Oreo tweet came from the brand. Pure brand. No mediation through a character. Pure brand.

I’m guessing that part of the charm comes from our recognition that there are people behind the brand’s tweets. And we seem to like that. Those people seem to be like us. They have a sense of humor. They don’t have to run all their tweets through focus groups. Nor do they have to dress up in some stupid mascot costume or hire an actor to speak like a squeaky-voiced chipmunkâ?¢ or something.

Businesses have always had this problem. They are not people and thus seem phony and manipulative when they try to speak like people. But businesses do need to speak via social media, or, as we used to say in the Cluetrain days, join the conversation. Some have done so by empowering people from their marketing staff â?? usually young folks â?? to speak for them on Twitter and the Eff Book, often using their own names along with their corporate identification. That makes sense and it sometimes works. I expect it’ll continue. But I suspect we’ll see a growth in the construction of social brands that are like what the brand would be if it were a person, and that is understood as having real individuals behind it.

One could perfectly well bemoan this development. After all, it is phony down to its core. Brands aren’t people, and the people pretending to be a brand are terribly constrained in what they can say and do by the requirement that they advance the brand. These people-brands are not folks you’d become friends if only because they won’t shut up about Oreos and Audis. But, I’m assuming that by this time we’re smart enough to understand that a talking brand has a ventriloquist behind it.

Further, these social brands may erode the wall between the authentic and the inauthentic. Yay.That’s a wall that needs to come down anyway because the concept of authenticity makes even less sense now than it ever did. Our Web selves are constructed selves. If tweeting Oreos can help us recognize that, then they’ve done us a service, in addition to being quite delicious.

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March 6, 2013

[2b2k] Cliff Lynch on preserving the ever-expanding scholarly record

Cliff Lynch is giving talk this morning to the extended Harvard Library community on information stewardship. Cliff leads the Coalition for Networked Information, a project of the Association of Research Libraries and Educause, that is “concerned with the intelligent uses of information technology and networked information to enhance scholarship and intellectual life.” Cliff is helping the Harvard Library with the formulation of a set of information stewardship principles. Originally he was working with IT and the Harvard Library on principles, services, and initial projects related to digital information management. Given that his draft set of principles are broader than digital asset management, Cliff has been asked to address the larger community (says Mary Lee Kennedy).

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Cliff begins by saying that the principles he’s drafted are for discussion; how they apply to any particular institution is always a policy issue, with resource implications, that needs to be discussed. He says he’ll walk us through these principles, beginning with some concepts that underpin them.

When it comes to information stewardship, “university community” should include grad students whose research materials the university supports and maintains. Undergrads, too, to some extent. The presence of a medical school here also extends and smudges the boundaries.

Cliff then raises the policy question of the relation of the alumni to the university. There are practical reasons to keep the alumni involved, but particularly for grads of the professional schools, access to materials can be crucial.

He says he uses “scholarly record” for human-created things that convey scholarly ideas across time and space: books, journals, audio, web sites, etc. “This is getting more complicated and more diverse as time goes on.” E.g., author’s software can be part of that record. And there is a growing set of data, experimental records, etc., that are becoming part of the scholarly record.

Research libraries need to be concerned about things that support scholarship but are not usually considered part of the historical record. E.g., newspapers, popular novels, movies. These give insight into the scholarly work. There are also datasets that are part of the evidentiary record, e.g., data about the Earth gathered from sensors. “It’s so hard to figure out when enough is enough.” But as more of it goes digital, it requires new strategies for acquisition, curation and access. “What are the analogs of historical newspapers for the 21st century?” he asks. They are likely to be databases from corporations that may merge and die and that have “variable and often haphazard policies about how they maintain those databases.” We need to be thinking about how to ensure that data’s continued availability.

Provision of access: Part of that is being able to discover things. This shouldn’t require knowing which Harvard-specific access mechanism to come to. “We need to take a broad view of access” so that things can be found through the “key discovery mechanisms of the day,” beyond the institution’s. (He namechecks the Digital Public Library of America.)

And access isn’t just for “the relatively low-bandwidth human reader.” [API’s, platforms and linked data, etc., I assume.]

Maintaining a record of the scholarly work that the community does is a core mission of the university. So, he says, in his report he’s used the vocabulary of obligation; that is for discussion.

The 5 principles

1. The scholarly output of the community should be captured, preserved, organized, and made accessible. This should include the evidence that underlies that output. E.g., the experimental data that underlies a paper should be preserved. This takes us beyond digital data to things like specimens and cell lines, and requires including museums and other partners. (Congress is beginning to delve into this, Cliff notes, especially with regard to preserving the evidence that enables experiments to be replicated.)

The university is not alone in addressing these needs.

2. A university has the obligation to provide its community with the best possible access to the overall scholarly record. This is something to be done in partnership with research libraries aaround the world. But Harvard has a “leadership role to play.”

Here we need to think about providing alumni with continued access to the scholarly record. We train students and then send them out into the world and cut off their access. “In many cases, they’re just out of luck. There seems to be something really wrong there.”

Beyond the scholarly record, there are issues about providing access to the cultural record and sources. No institution alone can do this. “There’s a rich set of partnerships” to be formed. It used to be easier to get that cultural record by buying it from book jobbers, DVD suppliers, etc. Now it’s data with differing license terms and subscription limitations. A lot out of it’s out on the public Web. “We’re all hoping that the Internet Archive will do a good job,” but most of our institutions of higher learning aren’t contributing to that effort. Some research libraries are creating interesting partnerships with faculty, collecting particular parts of the Web in support of particular research interests. “Those are signposts toward a future where the engagement to collect and preserve the cultural records scholar need is going to get much more complex” and require much more positive outreach by libraries, and much more discussion with the community (and the faculty in particular) about which elements are going to be important to preserve.

“Absolutely the desirable thing is share these collections broadly,” as broadly as possible.

3. “The time has come to recognize that good stewardship means creating digital records of physical objects” in order to preserve them and make them accessible. They should be stored away from the physical objects.

4. A lot goes on here in addition to faculty research. People come through putting on performances, talks, colloquia. “You need a strategy to preserve these and get them out there.”

“The stakes are getting much higher” when it comes to archives. The materials are not just papers and graphs. They include old computers and storage materials, “a microcosm of all of the horrible consumer recording technology of the 20th century,” e.g., 8mm film, Sony Betamax, etc.

We also need to think about what to archive of the classroom. We don’t have to capture every calculus discussion section, but you want to get enough to give a sense of what went on in the courses. The documentation of teaching and learning is undergoing a tremendous change. The new classroom tech and MOOCs are creating lots of data, much of it personally identifiable. “Most institutions have little or no policies around who gets to see it, how long they keep it, what sort of informed consent they need from students.” It’s important data and very sensitive data. Policy and stewardship discussions are need. There are also record management issues.

5. We know that scholarly communication is…being transformed (not as fast as some of us would like â?? online scientific journals often look like paper versions) by the affordances of digital technology. “Create an ongoing partnership with the community and with other institutions to extend and broaden the way scholarly communication happens. The institutional role is terribly important in this. We need to find the balances between innovation and sustainability.

Q&A

Q: Providing alumni with remote access is expensive. Harvard has about 100,000 living alumni, which includes people who spent one semester here. What sort of obligation does a university have to someone who, for example, spent a single semester here?

A: It’s something to be worked out. You can define alumnus as someone who has gotten a degree. You may ask for a co-payment. At some institutions, active members of the alumni association get some level of access. Also, grads of different schools may get access to different materials. Also, the most expensive items are typically those for which there are a commercial market. For example, professional grade resources for the financial industry probably won’t allow licensing to alumni because it would cannibalize their market. On the other hand, it’s probably not expensive to make JSTOR available to alumni.

Q: [robert darnton] Very helpful. We’re working on all 5 principles at Harvard. But there is a fundamental problem: we have to advance simultaneously on the digital and analog fronts. More printed books are published each year, and the output of the digital increases even faster. The pressures on our budget are enormous. What do you recommend as a strategy? And do you think Harvard has a special responsibility since our library is so much bigger, except for the Library of Congress? Smaller lilbraries can rely on Hathi etc. to acquire works.

A: “Those are really tough questions.” [audience laughs] It’s a large task but a finite one. Calculating how much money would take an institution how far “is a really good opportunity for fund raising.” Put in place measures that talk about the percentage of the collection that’s available, rather than a raw number of images. But, we are in a bad situation: continuing growth of traditional media (e.g., books), enormous expansion of digital resources. “My sense is…that for Harvard to be able to navigate this, it’s going to have to get more interdependent with other research libraries.” It’s ironic, because Harvard has been willing to shoulder enormous responsibility, and so has become a resource for other libraries. “It’s made life easier for a lot of the other research libraries” because they know Harvard will cover around the margins. “I’m afraid you may have to do that a little more for your scholars, and we are going to see more interdependence in the system. It’s unavoidable given the scope of the challenge.” “You need to be able to demonstrate that by becoming more interdependent, you’re getting more back than you’re giving up.” It’s a hard core problem, and “the institutional traditions make the challenge here unique.”

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March 4, 2013

Othello and The Sopranos: Two comedies

I’ve been listening to the wonderful Emma Smith lectures/podcasts about Shakespeare. Wow, is the world better because we can take for granted that there is a supply of such wonders that a full lifetime could not experience them, all available for free.

But what I meant to say is she makes the point that Othello is a tragedy that’s structured as a comedy. Perhaps Shakespeare, having spent the past decade or so writing within genre boundaries, was mixing up the genres on purpose, she suggests. The comedic structure of Othello is obvious as soon as she points it out: a dumb trick with a handkerchief, that in a comedy would have been the pretext for a lovers’ quarrel that lasts the length of the play, instead triggers a cascade of jealousy and fury that culminates in one of the most wrenching scenes Shakespeare ever wrote.

I’ve long thought that The Sopranos — yes, I know The Sopranos isn’t Shakespeare — was sort of like this: comic characters, comic situations, with tragic results. Also, the same structure is true of the accidental brain-blowing-out scene in Pulp Fiction (you know, the one in the car). The Pulp Fiction scene lacks tragedy because we don’t know the dead character, and it devolves further into comedy as the only implication is that it makes a mess of the car. The Sopranos usually let us know its characters better, so it got closer to tragedy. And Tony and Carmella arguably approached true tragedy: one of the advantages of “100-hour narratives” (hat tip to Steve Johnson) is that characters can be developed until they are deep and vivid even though the writing of each of those hundred hours doesn’t come close to Shakespeare.

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March 2, 2013

Changing where you work is changing your job

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about why where you work is not about the quality of your life so much as about the substance of it.

Judging from some of the reaction, I should emphasize that if the only way to save Yahoo were to require everyone to come to work every day, that would certainly be the right decision. But it seems clear to me that Marissa Mayer was sending a signal with this policy, for surely there are some people who were working productively from home. So, if the new policy is a signal and is not actually required to save Yahoo, then I think she has underestimated how disruptive a signal it is. [To late to stick in a spoiler notice? That was the essence of my op-ed.]

Also, CNN.com has stripped out the links, I’m pretty sure unintentionally. Here they are:

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[misc] The Wars on Terrorism, Al Qaeda, Cancer, and Dessert

Steve Coll has a good piece in the New Yorker about the importance of Al Qaeda as a brand:

…as long as there are bands of violent Islamic radicals anywhere in the world who find it attractive to call themselves Al Qaeda, a formal state of war may exist between Al Qaeda and America. The Hundred Years War could seem a brief skirmish in comparison.

This is a different category of issue than the oft-criticized “war on terror,” which is a war against a tactic, not against an enemy. The war against Al Qaeda implies that there is a structurally unified enemy organization. How do you declare victory against a group that refuses to enforce its trademark?

In this, the war against Al Qaeda (which is quite preferable to a war against terror — and I think Steve agrees) is similar to the war on cancer. Cancer is not a single disease and the various things we call cancer are unlikely to have a single cause and thus are unlikely to have a single cure (or so I have been told). While this line of thinking would seem to reinforce politicians’ referring to terrorism as a “cancer,” the same applies to dessert. Each of these terms probably does have a single identifying characteristic, which means they are not classic examples of Wittgensteinian family resemblances: all terrorism involves a non-state attack that aims at terrifying the civilian population, all cancers involve “unregulated cell growth” [thank you Wikipedia!], and all desserts are designed primarily for taste not nutrition and are intended to end a meal. In fact, the war on Al Qaeda is actually more like the war on dessert than like the war on cancer, because just as there will always be some terrorist group that takes up the Al Qaeda name, there will always be some boundary-pushing chef who declares that beefy jerky or glazed ham cubes are the new dessert. You can’t defeat an enemy that can just rebrand itself.

I think that Steve Coll comes to the wrong conclusion, however. He ends his piece this way:

Yet the empirical case for a worldwide state of war against a corporeal thing called Al Qaeda looks increasingly threadbare. A war against a name is a war in name only.

I agree with the first sentence, but I draw two different conclusions. First, this has little bearing on how we actually respond to terrorism. The thinking that has us attacking terrorist groups (and at times their family gatherings) around the world is not made threadbare by the misnomer “war against Al Qaeda.” Second, isn’t it empirically obvious that a war against a name is not a war in name only?

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