That’s another draft post gone

by John Holbo on August 16, 2017

Christ. I keep trying to write posts about Trump. He keeps digging down below the level of the post I was prepared to write. Not for the first time this year do I wish I were a heighten the contradictions guy. Credit where due: the National Review Corner crew are exceeding my expectations in the spine department. I figured it would be wall-to-wall whaddaboutism but they are pretty much calling Trump out. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, sounds like a death-eater afraid to say his name (having not really expected his return).


Not so little ambiguity that it becomes, y’know, clear who we mean. Mitch McConnell is even more studious in skirting around the, erm, subject – and this was days ago:

Trump: “What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right?”

Christ. What about the alt-center? I blame the alt-center. I’m looking at you, Mark Lilla. I’m kidding. This isn’t Lilla’s fault. But it doesn’t sound like he has a lot to say.

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Profiles in Courageosity

by Belle Waring on August 14, 2017

I’m glad the president has finally been pressured to be as tough on actual Nazis as he’s been on Nordstrom Rack.

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What’s left of libertarianism?

by John Quiggin on August 13, 2017

Liberaltarianism

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Sunday Photoblogging: Never forget

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 12, 2017

This is a picture of a memorial in Berlin Mitte, where from 1942 onwards the Nazis brought together 55.000 Jewish men, women, and children. They were then put on transport to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, where they would be brutally murdered. The details on the memorial are pretty effective in reminding us of the scope of the inhumanity that the Nazis brought over Europe, but in the end the message is so simple that even Donald Trump must be able to understand this:

Never forget—resist war—protect peace.

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From a logical point of view …

by Daniel on August 11, 2017

I have now read that “google manifesto”. I read it more out of a desire to forestall people saying “but have you ACTUALLY READ IT?” than out of any expectation that it would contain new or unfamiliar information, and indeed it was your fairly standard evo-psych “just asking questions”, genus differences-in-tails-of-distributions. It’s a mulberry bush that was already pretty well circumnavigated when Larry Summers was still President of Harvard. But what really struck me was that I have changed in my old age; I used to be depressed at the generally very poor level of statistical education, now I’m depressed at the extent to which people with an excellent education in statistics still don’t really understand anything about the subject. I’m beginning to think that mathematical training in many cases is actually damaging; simple and robust metrics, usually drawn from the early days of industrial quality control, are what people need to understand. Let’s talk about distributions of programming ability.
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Five Books

by Henry on August 11, 2017

So there’s a Twitter meme circulating of swiftly listing the five books that are most important to you, which has been going around in other media too. I’ve found myself listing slightly different books to different circles, and find it hard to pick anyway, because: incommensurables. But here are some subcategories:

Five most important novels (non f/sf):

Nights at the Circus
Pictures from an Institution
Pale Fire
Invisible Cities
Red Plenty

Five most important (f/sf):

Little, Big
The Course of the Heart
Book of the New Sun
Celestis
The Dispossessed

Five most important (social science)

The Strategy of Conflict
Seeing Like a State
Plough, Sword and Book
The Sciences of the Artificial
Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach

Too many guys there, obvs – but those are the ones that leaped immediately to mind (which you can take, if you like, as a symptom instead of, or as well as, a recommendation).

What about all of you?

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Millennials are people, not clones

by John Quiggin on August 11, 2017

The Washington Post has an article on millennial attitudes to Trump, broken down by race/ethnicity. The results won’t surprise anybody who’s been paying even minimal attention. Other things equal, millennials are even more hostile to Trump than Americans in general. Of course, other things aren’t equal; as with the population at large, African-Americans most unfavorable to Trump, and whites are least so, though no group is favorable on balance.

What’s surprising, or at least depressing, is the contrarian framing of this as a counter-intuitive finding, against a starting point assumption that millennials should have uniform views. I can’t blame the author of this piece for taking this as the starting point; it’s taken as axiomatic in the vast output of generationalist cliches against which I’ve been waging a losing battle since the first millennials came of age in the year 2000.

Just to push the point a little bit further, this study only disaggregates millennials by race. If, in addition, you took account of the fact that millennials (on average) have more education, lower income and less attachment to religion than older Americans, you would probably find it impossible to derive statistically significant differences based on birth cohort.

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What Really Matters

by John Holbo on August 8, 2017

I tend to post about relatively frivolous stuff. But today is shaping up pretty serious. Global warming report. North Korea and Trump rattling sabers. I’m a pessimist at heart, which makes these headlines so alarming I have trouble thinking clearly. What do I think the really important, consequential issues are for humanity for the next hundred years?  Climate change and environmental destruction generally; the threat of some catastrophic, global war and/or the use, somewhere, of weapons of mass destruction. I guess number three would be: inequality and the threat it poses for the stability of societies and political orders, long-term. Everything else bad looks a lot smaller – more super-structural – than these three. I don’t have a lot of bright thoughts about any of the three. My poor brain likes to think about smaller, nicer things.

So what do you think? Am I right those are the big three? Are we screwed, long-term, because of them? Are you a pessimist or an optimist about the survival of humanity, the continuation of civilization in something like the form we know, past the next 100 years?

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Bandwagonesque-esque

by Belle Waring on August 8, 2017

Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard released a kind of weird yet good? new album. “Oho so what!” you say. “I’ve always been meh on Death Cab For Cutie, Belle Waring, I’ll have you know.” I wish you would let me finish what I’m saying, ever! I agree. Anyway, it’s a song for song cover of Teenage Fanclub’s 1991 Bandwagonesque. This is cool as a concept album theme, and I have a soft spot for concept albums. Also, Bandwagonesque is a sublime album whose Big Star greatness was lost in the decade’s welter of grunge, so, why not cover it in its entirety? Gibbard put it this way to NPR:

“Bandwagonesque is my favorite record by my favorite band of all time,” Gibbard writes via email. “It came along at a pivotal time in my musical life, and I’ve loved it for over 25 years. It’s been such a blast taking these songs apart to see how they work and then putting them back together again.”

This is worthy-sounding but the weird thing is that he put them back together just the way they were put together in the first place. I mean, maybe there should have been new dovetail joints, or different instruments, or that part at the end of “What You Do To Me” where it fades out seconds before the end and then comes back could have been altered fractionally? The song which is changed the most is the opener “The Concept”, which he extended and made more shimmery and it is indeed a legit good cover.

However I am in a strange state of aesthetic suspension about the rest of the cover album. Is it good? I have listened to it more than once, which is a positive sign, but its main virtue was in making me listen to the actual album more? I haven’t really listened to it in ages BUT WHY NOT?!?? Now, it could be that I have deep-seated psychological problems and that’s why. Or that I have deep-seated psychological problems unrelated to my failure to listen to an album I really love for ages. That’s more likely actually. My psychiatrist would probably agree with that latter thing. ANYHOO. In short, the cover album is way too by-the-numbers, but the songs are so amazing, and his voice so well-suited to the harmonies that by some conservation of good music principle it is also good, I guess? (John likes it more than I, I think.) Additionally the production quality is a bit higher, so perhaps what I really want is a beautiful re-master.

I tried to explain/debate this problem with my brother in law but he has always been meh on Death Cab For Cutie and actually had never heard of Teenage Fanclub. So I asked him if he loved Big Star and he was fractionally slow in responding with some word that by the high questioning pitch audible just as he began aspirating was clearly going to be “well” or something like that so I said “nonononononononono. Nononononono.” You know, like a normal person would. He doesn’t love Big Star. That’s OK! Some people have a tiny chunk missing from their soul that—no, not that either; I guess some noble lovable folk just don’t love Big Star and I have to laboriously reconstruct my worldview now to accommodate this ill-shaped fact.

He actually attributed it to a well-known problem of not having listened to them as a young enough person to become truly obsessed ever. It’s not that he doesn’t ever like new music, he just doesn’t then sit there and listen to it endlessly on repeat, memorizing the lyrics, and crying slightly to himself. But nothing prevents you from doing this so I recommend it highly! Well, you don’t need to cry quietly to yourself—what if you aren’t emo like me the album is a real barn-burner after all? It’s true that there will probably never be music as emotionally important to you as music you listened to when you were 16 or 20 or whatever…but only probably. It varies from person to person. I recommend having various shattering emotional crises at different ages so the music you listened to obsessively then can pierce your heart with simultaneous love of music and hangover sadness at the same time! Wait, I’m not sure I do so unreservedly, but it does work. The real moral of the story here is that you should listen to Tennage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque; Jesus it’s so good. And hey, the other is good too?

What about you guys? Do you have music you first heard when you were 35 that you love deeply? 55? Do you love Big Star as is right and proper? Should I go back and listen to Death Cab For Cutie; it’s not like I didn’t have some songs I liked when they first came out? Did my new favorite album come out ten minutes ago and you have to tell me about it now? What’s the score?

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Sunday photoblogging: Sunflowers, before the evening rain

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 6, 2017

I’ll be posting the Sunday Photoblog for a few weeks – Chris is occupied with other things. I only have my (old) smartphone at my disposal to make pictures, but I love making some shots when I’m walking, despite that they never capture the real thing. Here’s one from an evening walk in the South of France two weeks ago, half an hour before it started to rain.

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Dark Matter

by John Holbo on August 5, 2017

I’m home after a hectic summer. Regular blogging can resume.

Two nice, long-view, effectively retrospective new music reviews: Douglas Wolk on Brian Eno re-releases from the 70’s; Carl Wilson on Randy Newman’s newest.

(Full disclosure: I know Douglas and Carl – a bit – so I could be praising their review work because of that personal acquaintance. It’s possible I think their reviews are terrible and foolish, but I want them to remain as nodes in my social network.)

As I believe I mentioned, I spent a lot of driving time this summer listening and re-listening to Newman’s back catalogue, all the major studio albums. I got into Bad Love for the first time. “Shame” is a great track. It got me impatient for the new album – Dark Matter – to drop. It’s now out. It’s great. This guy has got this singer-songwriter thing down. He could go far. The satire-with-sentiment, gravel-goes-down-better-with-syrup recipe. Why does the title track have only 3,300 YouTube hits after 3 days? Doesn’t YouTube get what funny is? (Why hasn’t anyone done a thing where they make unofficial videos for Newman’s really outrageous songs out of bits of Pixar and Disney films? Seems logical.)

Randy Newman wrote the greatest song about ELO ever. It’s a better joke about “Mr. Blue Sky” than the Baby Groot dance. (The new ELO album is actually good, too. Great power pop track: “Dirty To The Bone”.)

I am deeply appreciative of how Newman once made Paul Simon croon the lines, “A Year Ago, I met a girl/I thought we’d hit a massive groove/But she dumped me”.

Also, one of the best songs about New Wave music: “Mikey’s”. “Didn’t used to be this ugly music playing all the time/ Where are we, on the moon?”

Now, Brian Eno. (Belle loves Brian Eno every bit as much as I love Randy Newman, but we both appreciate both, I think.) Similar figures in a way. Almost too smart for their own good – eclectic, influential, but mostly through others. Did a lot of stuff in the 70’s. I’ll just sign off with Brian Eno yodeling in 1974. That’s amazing.

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The nuclear renaissance dies, forgotten and bankrupt

by John Quiggin on August 2, 2017

Unless you were paying very close attention, you probably haven’t seen the news that construction of two Westinghouse AP-1000 nuclear reactors at the Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina has been abandoned, following the bankruptcy of Westinghouse earlier this year. There are two more AP-1000 reactors under construction at the Vogtle site in Georgia, which are also likely to be scrapped. Either way, this seems the right moment to mark the end of the nuclear renaissance which offered high hopes in the early 2000s. The biggest remaining carbon capture and storage project, the Kemper plant in the US, was also abandoned a month ago.

So, at this point, there is no alternative to the combination of renewables, storage and energy efficiency. This would be a good moment for those environmentalists who accepted and promoted the nuclear story to recognise that any further efforts in this direction can only harm the prospects for a low-carbon future.

More soon on this, I hope

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First of all, let nobody say Christopher Nolan lacks a sense of humor: for the second time, he’s kept Tom Hardy under a voice-distorting face mask for almost an entire movie. I am morally certain that Nolan understands this as a wink to the audience as well as a challenge to Hardy; the director likes a little reference, even if, say, it’s an incongruous one to nineteenth-century British literature. Which is why I’m also morally certain that if you think Nolan’s Dunkirk does not include the larger narrative of British history, you’re missing the point of the movie.

Spoilers follow, I suppose.

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I read the same piece by Jacob Levy that Chris liked, but didn’t agree with the core argument. Below the fold, why: [click to continue…]

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A trolley problem

by John Quiggin on July 26, 2017

I’ve generally been dubious about trolley problems and similar thought experiments in ethics. However, it’s just occurred to me that an idea I’ve tried to express in the economistic terms of opportunity cost, without convincing anybody, might be more persuasive as a trolley problem. So, let’s start with the standard problem where the train is about to kill ten people, but can be diverted onto a side track where it will kill only one.

In my version, however, there is a second train, loaded with vital medical supplies, which is about to crash. The loss of the supplies will lead to hundreds of deaths. You can prevent the crash, and save the supplies, by diverting the train to an alternative route (not killing anybody), but you don’t have time to deal with both trains. Do you divert the first train, the second train, or neither?

Hopefully, most respondents will choose the second train.

Now suppose that the first train has been hijacked by an evil gangster and his henchmen, who will be killed if you divert it, but will otherwise get away with the crime. As well as the gangsters, the single innocent person will die, but the ten people the gangster was going to kill will live.

The impending crash of the second train isn’t caused by anybody in particular. The region it serves is poor and no one paid for track maintenance. If the train doesn’t get through, hundreds of sick people will die, as sick poor people always have, and nobody much will notice.

Does that change your decision?

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