Category Archives: meta

August 13, 2014, 9:26 pm


It’s time to shut down The Edge of the American West. It’s been a long run, and I’ve enjoyed it, but blogging has become less compelling over the last year or so. I want to stop before writing for Edge actively becomes a chore. The blog has already had a number of lives, and different configurations, but I suspect that this is the last one. I’m proud of what I did here (and proud of what others did as well). Thanks for reading it.

The Chronicle will keep the archives of the blog running for the foreseeable future, so everyone’s wisdom will still show up in Google searches now and then. I’d like to thank all those who wrote large and small things for the blog – Vance, Kathy, my army of guest bloggers – for their efforts. I’d especially like to thank Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway for starting up the blog and making it something that (even) William Gibson appreciated.

David Silbey

June 15, 2012, 4:38 pm

On Scalzi’s Redshirts and historical narrative.


John Scalzi‘s Redshirts is great fun, and honestly, I read it because I expected it to be great fun, and I got what I expected. But it also made me think seriously about how historians handle narrative.

It is no spoiler to say that the book is about the peripheral characters who, in Star Trek, get killed to advance the plot – or really, not even to advance the plot, just to give a sense of great stakes to the story. Kirk, Spock, Chekhov and some random crewperson in a red shirt beam down to the planet. The person in the red shirt – the redshirt – is going to get killed, because they’re expendable and we need to know how deadly the threat is this week. The poor redshirts aren’t people, they’re cannon fodder – not for the Enterprise, mind you, but for the script-writers. Even if their details get filled out a bit, it’s only in the service of giving their deaths greater…

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December 22, 2011, 10:35 am

This history blog has its own history.

August 13, 2009, 4:46 pm

Even if Obama did it (which he didn’t), at least he did it discreetly.

In a belated comment on this post, David Brewster links to a photograph he took that neatly brings the conversation back to the subject of this blog:

This image also debunks one of those vicious smears about the pair.  (This other one?  Not so much.)

June 24, 2009, 12:36 pm

One never expects the hangover, despite all the evidence

The blogospheric dynamic often resembles that of a particularly raucous frat party.  Someone gets the idea in their head to dance on a table.  Suddenly dancing on tables with a bottle in hand is  the best idea to occur to anyone, not dancing on tables is a sign of depravity, and the drunken boys surrounding the table chanting “Chug! Chug! Chug!” reinforce the dancer’s dubious choice.  Hours later the dancer comes to, facedown in a lampshade, and, at this particular party, wondering what on earth he could have done in his stupor to earn the plastic green beads roped around his neck.

Do not mistake my silence on Iran for a lack of interest.  Like everyone else, I’m reading the blogs and the tweets. I find the regime’s violence abhorrent.   I sympathize with the protesters.  They look like the nearby counterparts of my friends and students.  I am impressed by their courage, and I …

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June 7, 2009, 3:53 pm

For pseudonymity.

We’re a partially pseudonymous blog (it’s an open secret that I write all Ari’s posts, for example, and mine are written by a collective of political prisoners forced, a la Clockwork Orange, to consume Atlas Shrugged and Pat Boone around the clock). So we have a stake in the outing of publius by Ed Whelan.

But the case looks pretty clear: Whelan, cross that Eugene Volokh had shown him wrong and noticing publius agreed with Volokh, outed publius—after publius told him he had professional and personal reasons for wanting to remain pseudonymous.

There isn’t even the problematic case for outing as presented in Outrage to justify this; publius’s secrets had no bearing on the argument at hand. I can see no reason at all except the desire to strike at an antagonist.

You can make a case for pseudonymity from first principles, and maybe our philosophers here would like to do it, but…

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April 14, 2009, 12:24 pm

Philosophical relevance, irrelevantly.

Leiter asks, considering this Kristof piece:

Why do members of the educated public think that it is an objection to philosophical inquiry that it is unintelligible to them (or that it does not have immediate application to the quality of life of pigs, say), whereas no one would think to put such objections against esoteric work in the natural sciences?  Are other humanities subjected to this same expectation of “practical relevance and intelligibility”?

From discussions with other colleagues in the humanities, they are subject to the same expectation, one as old as the hills, or at least the Gorgias: how is that going to make money and benefit society?   (I think philosophers get more questions about pot.) Yet I think there’s an explanation specific to philosophy in the answer to the first question.


February 17, 2009, 4:37 pm


Some line has been crossed, here.

January 30, 2009, 9:43 am

Higher education, expectations, crisis, catastrophe.

The post below is about half common-sense reasoning about the current crisis and half bloggy speculation about its effects on the higher-education biz. Much of it is brain dump, though there are a few useful links thrown in. You have been warned.

January 12, 2009, 10:37 am


This graph, from David Beckworth, is pretty hilarious. It’s unfair, but who minds unfair?

Thanks to commenter, uh, David Beckworth, for pointing this out.

I think what this picture best illustrates is the peril of getting drawn into a debate over the recovery question and the recovery question alone. The New Deal did a lot more than just set about a plan for recovery. For one thing, it saved some considerable number of people from starving, which is a nice thing. For another, it gave us a significantly reformed system of regulating economic downturns: a re-drawn Federal Reserve System, the FDIC, the SEC (which, prior to its gutting, was a pretty good thing), Social Security (which includes not only old-age but also unemployment insurance), and a variety of other similar measures. For yet another, it set about hauling the South out of poverty—a project at which nobody had…

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January 9, 2009, 9:17 pm

Candidates should be no more than 15 inches high at the withers.

My first thought was that this proposal is beyond bizarre.  My second thought is it’s beyond bizarre, but worth kicking around a bit because it hits on some interesting issues about the profession.

So, there’s a perception that academic pedigree, i.e., where one did one’s Ph.D. and with whom one worked, particularly who wrote one letters of recommendation, matters disproportionately much to search committees, to the detriment of equally good but less prestigious candidates.  And there’s a stickiness problem, because it is commonly believed that one’s first job sets the course of the rest of one’s career, meaning that if it’s true that pedigree matters too much, there are plenty of people not getting good jobs their first time out, and having no real way to recover.

Portmore’s solution: candidates should submit blind dossiers, including blind letters of recommendation.

I think this i…

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January 9, 2009, 1:44 pm

Maybe a gift card?

Several people ask of the WPA graphing question, why not use a log scale? Commenter Stinky (no, I don’t know who s/he really is) kindly supplies a graph showing just this. For my money, it speaks for itself—which is to say, it screams, “don’t use me!”

We want to accomplish two things: (1) show how very outsized a chunk of money went to highways and (2) show also meaningful distinctions among lesser expenditures.

The log scale permits (2) while pretty much wiping out (1), unless you know how log scales work. I don’t think the likely consumers of such a graph do really know. But I’m wrong, Stinky says.

January 9, 2009, 8:39 am

Change your own diapers.

It’s conventional wisdom that when the economy is bad, college enrollments are up.  Yglesias recommends that 2008-2009 college grads, unable to find employment*, should go to grad school.

Bad idea.  There are two kinds of graduate school.

  1. Kinds you pay for.  Law, MBA, most master’s programs.  Professional degrees.
  2. Kinds you don’t.  Ph.D. programs.

There are some cross-overs, but I will ignore them.  (If you’re getting a scholarship to Columbia law, odds are you didn’t just decide to study law because the economy was bad.)

In the first category, one does a short (two-three year) program, incurs a soul-crushing amount of debt, and then has a degree which arguably makes one more employable.  As Neddy is fond of saying, “J.D. is not Latin for ‘meal ticket’”, and it’s entirely possible that one’s employment prospects are just the same two-three years down the road, except now one…

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January 7, 2009, 10:12 am

Speaking of authoritah.

I suppose that the Paulbots and assorted libertarians weren’t enough, so Ari had to call down the wrath of I/P opinion. While that’s raging away, let me welcome as a regular contributor the estimable David Silbey, whose work regular readers already know. (One example; another.) For some reason he wants to join a blog that, having won a Cliopatria, can attain no greater height. We are grateful.

January 3, 2009, 4:57 pm

It’s always already been the end of epic film.

Whether he knows it or not—and “he” being Adam Kotsko, I’ll bet he knows it—this Weblog post is less about the formal fit between epic and the television serial than the relation of film to the episodic form.  I know that sounds backwards—what with MOVIES! being PRESENTED! on SCREENS! the SIZE! of WYOMING!—but the compounded facts of run time and the modern American attention span necessitate we consider film the proper realm of the self-contained episode.  Even films which promise sequels announce their completion in terms of whatever -ology they embrace. 

Films should be about something in the original, locative sense of the word.  They should surround some subject matter, be “on every side” “wholly or partially,” as per the OED.  They should be self-contained.  Not that they shouldn’t be sweeping—you can frame Guernica or a sublimely panoramic view of the Hudson River and…

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