“The Luck in the Head”

by Henry on April 15, 2014


A new collection of Ian Miller’s art is out today. When I was in my early twenties, I was mildly obsessed by Miller’s graphic novel collaboration with M. John Harrison, The Luck in the Head, to the point that a few years ago, when I could finally afford to, I bought a couple of the originals, including the ‘Procession of the Mammy’ shown above (reproduction isn’t wonderful; it’s far sharper and not nearly as drenched with red in real life).

I thought about this graphic novel, and the Harrison short story it built on a lot last year, when Margaret Thatcher died. Neil Gaiman describes in his introduction to Harrison’s work how:

For me, the first experience of reading Viriconium Nights and In Viriconium was a revelation. I was a young man when I first encountered them, half a lifetime ago, and I remember the first experience of Harrison’s prose, as clear as mountain-water and as cold. The stories tangle in my head with the time that I first read them – the Thatcher Years in England seem already to be retreating into myth. They were larger-than-life times when we were living them, and there’s more than a tang of the London I remember informing the city in these tales, and something of the decaying brassiness of Thatcher herself in the rotting malevolence of Mammy Vooley (indeed, when Harrison retold the story of “The Luck in the Head” in graphic novel form, illustrated by Ian Miller, Mammy Vooley was explicitly drawn as an avatar of Margaret Thatcher).

He doesn’t mention (but then it’s an aside) how Harrison and Miller’s collaboration captures the contrast between Thatcher’s role as emblem and her frailty as a human being. In the picture, she’s already become a kind of ritual object, carted around to no particular purpose beyond display. Like the teapots that are the helmets of her supporters, she’s been superannuated and put to new uses, in ways that are both ludicrous and sinister. Another panel shows her after the procession, without her wig, shaven-headed, exhausted and empty, pushed along in a bath-chair by a lackey wearing a fish-head mask (a reference both to Miller’s art – he likes to draw fish – and to an incident in Harrison’s short novel In Viriconium). Miller and Harrison depict Thatcherism not as the revolution it believed itself to be, but as an aftermath where the symbols have been emptied of all meaning. Put another way, the senescent Thatcher depicted by Miller and Harrison’s Mammy Vooley represents less a foretelling of Thatcher’s own decline, than the decay of the movement that she represented (a decay which was already present in its moment of full flowering).


The Color Of His Presidency

by John Holbo on April 15, 2014

That’s the title of this really good (in my opinion) Jonathan Chait cover article in New York Magazine. At this point it would be customary for me to extract a nut graph but, you know, that results in a lot of squirrels fighting it out in comments about just the nut. I think the whole article deserves considerate discussion. So do that instead. (I will be Chait’s defender! Although, of course, if someone picks on one of the places where his foot slips … well, I can’t defend that.)

UPDATE: Sorry, original link was to a subsection not the whole article. And original post title was a subsection title, not the actual article title. Not that it really matters.


Not Actually Sunday Anymore Sunday Photoblogging

by Belle Waring on April 14, 2014

It’s cool that Chris and Ingrid were meeting up recently; Maria came here to have roti prata with me and John in Singapore just the other day. Maybe someday in the future perfect subjunctive all the CT authors could have met one another. Maybe someday we could all meet up at once and have a killer party! I would like it to be…on Ortygia in Syracuse, I think (the one in Sicily). It would be OK if it were in a different city too. HK would be cool. Mataram isn’t exactly a city, but it still might be nice to meet on Lombok somewhere. I took this photo on Lombok week before last, looking East off the Southwest coast. If it were clear and you looked to the left you could see Bali across the Lombok strait, three mountains one behind the other, about as big as the knuckle line of your fist held out at arm’s length. This is also the Wallace line, which divides Eurasian flora and fauna from Austronesian. Storms marching towards us across the marsh and then the river, and up the bluff, and then whiting out the screened porch with rain and then hammering the tin roof with a thousand pebbles taught me as a child that clouds get really full and black and then water up and falls out the bottom. It’s just science.


Sunday photoblogging: Staircase

by Chris Bertram on April 13, 2014

I met up with Ingrid recently and she reminded me that we had plans to run a regular photoblogging series at Crooked Timber, indeed, we actually started one. So here’s a re-start. This is the staircase at the Musée des Beaux Arts at Nancy, France, taken last summer. Here’s hoping that other CTers will join in.


The Stale Catnip of Contemptsmanship

by John Holbo on April 12, 2014

I have resisted writing about the Brendan Eich Mozilla affair. Literally. The ‘resisted’ bit is literal, I mean. Every day, for more than a week, I have expended non-trivial willpower to post nothing. It’s the moral equivalent of a giant bag of snacks in the kitchen of my mind. Unopened. That I am so distracted by the knowledge that someone, right now, is writing something wrong on the internet about Brendan Eich, is a sign I am a glutton for empty calories of falsehood.

Thus, my new policy. I am allowed to eat as many stale snacks of falsehood as I want. I’m opening the Brendan Eich bag. Now. By commencing to write this post I have opened the bag. The temptation is increasing! But I’m … just going to let it sit, getting good and stale. It’s already sort of stale. I did manage to wait more than a week. If, after staleness really sets in, I still want to partake, I may do so. At which point I just may manage to do so moderately, in proportion to such true nutritional content as I may add.

Going forward, let it be so! Fresh truths and stale falsehoods served! [click to continue…]


The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. [click to continue…]


Sue Townsend is Dead

by Harry on April 11, 2014

Sue Townsend is also dead. Guardian obit here. I have a small supply of Adrian Mole books, which I give to students (even if, sometimes, I don’t know them well) who have prolonged illnesses—or sometimes just to cheer them up. I have no idea whether it works for them, but it pretty much always works for me.



Richard Hoggart is Dead

by Harry on April 11, 2014

Richard Hoggart is dead, at 95. BBC obit here; Guardian obit here. His first book, The Uses of Literacy is still in print after 58 years. I was struck by this para from the Guardian obit:

Late in life he wondered if his readiness to serve on committees was a byproduct of a childhood that had left him “unusually glad to find myself wanted”. Yet he was sceptical about the idea that these compulsions had stopped him from producing another Uses of Literacy. “Did you really expect that I would?” he asked an interviewer. “I didn’t. That’s the sort of book that – if you’re lucky – you can write once in a lifetime.”


Teaching Rawls after Piketty

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2014

We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas, that there’s a lot to talk about. Still, I think I’ll permit myself to share a few thoughts that I had about the way in which reading Piketty might impact on teaching political philosophy, and, specifically, teaching Rawls and the difference principle.

A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 and was composed during the period the French call the trente glorieuses . During that period it was easy to believe that the power of inherited wealth had melted away and that we were living in a new era of more equal opportunity, with careers open to talents and income inequalities largely explained by the differences in talent and ability that the parties in the original position were denied knowledge of. To be sure, 1960s America (like 1960s Europe) hadn’t accomplished that social-democratic meritocratic ideal, but it was kind of visible in embryo, waiting to be born. Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with, but in its toleration of some inequality for the greater good (and particularly for the benefit of the least advantaged), Rawls’s view was recognizably connected to a then-emerging social reality.
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Good Cheer

by Belle Waring on April 10, 2014

Soultrain.com sort of alleges itself to have the HD video, but I can’t find it there. In any case, this is a great song, killer outfits (I want all those! All I own is the pants of the dude with the hat. Hm. OK, her pants, but I don’t like them on me.) and Don Cornelius is rocking…just…is that tie 6 full inches wide? It is, right? Right on.

Wishing you peace, love, and soul, gentle readers.


To the point of collapse, and beyond

by Maria on April 8, 2014

I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.

ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:

“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about.
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Two speculations and an announcement following up on previous posts on Talking Points Memo and sponsored content. First, the reason why TPM and some other policy/politics sites are moving towards sponsored content looks to me to have a lot to do with the advertising market. Politics junkies are not specifically attractive subjects for advertising, as one can tell from the ads in most policy focused print journals (which tend towards mobile phones with big friendly buttons for elderly people etc). I would guess that policy focused websites have relatively low clickthrough rates for standard ads, and in any event standard ads are a game where Google dominates (and is able to squeeze websites). Hence, sponsored content is an obvious way of monetizing readers – it allows people trying to sell a policy message to persuade policy focused readers more easily, using formats which strongly resemble the ways that these readers are used to consuming journalistic information rather than advertising.

Second, I suspect that editors of policy websites do not think of sponsored content as standard advertising, since it isn’t, no matter how they justify this comparison to the public and themselves. Instead, they implicitly distinguish between ‘respectable’ organizations, which they could plausibly take sponsored content from without damaging their reputation and self-conception too much, and ‘unrespectable’ organizations which they don’t want anything to do with. Big Beltway lobby groups, no matter how evil, fit into the first category. Religious cults and governments fit into the second. I would be prepared to bet a good deal of money that Josh Marshall would not have treated a proposal from the Church of Scientology for a ‘sponsored channel’ on psychological science as advertising content which you accept because if you start refusing you are entering into an editorial role etc etc etc. He’d have refused it, because it would have damaged TPM’s credibility. NB too that sponsored content from the Church of Scientology in a political magazine is not a crazy hypothetical.

The point isn’t that TPM, or other media groups are unusually hypocritical here or uniquely susceptible to getting into bed with problematic organizations. We live in a fallen world, where it’s hard to remain pure, and where many people and organizations arguably behave worse. I would bet significant amounts of money that Marshall wouldn’t accept a deal with the Chinese government to run sponsored content in an ‘East Asian Politics Channel.’ I would be completely certain that he would absolutely refuse a deal where the Chinese government had some editorial control over this hypothetical channel’s contents. It turns out that many universities aren’t quite so fussy.

Rather, it’s that the categories of ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ that journalists (or, for that matter, academics and university administrators) work with, are sociological, rather than stemming from deep principle. They’re open to question and criticism. PhRMA – the organization that Talking Points Memo is working together with is a ‘respectable’ player in Washington DC politics. It’s a big policy actor, with deep pockets and a lot of influence. It is also in my opinion (and the opinion of most scholars working on access to knowledge issues), an organization that has done a lot to corrupt political debate in the US and elsewhere, pushing for policies that have led to widespread misery and indeed (e.g. in the case of AIDS drugs in South Africa), deaths. Hence the announcement. Over the next while, I’ll be looking to publish pieces from a variety of sources talking about the political activities of PhRMA and the pharmaceutical industry in general. One of the reason why PhRMA gets away with so much is because a lot of people don’t know what it has been responsible for. In an ideal world, PhRMA would be treated, like the Church of Scientology, as a pariah. Over the next few weeks, I hope we’ll be able to make the case for why.


Best Video Ever

by Belle Waring on April 8, 2014

This is really for Straightwood, because I know the deeply meaningful and fully explained nature of this video of 50 Cent dubbed over a Jehovah’s Witness exhorting deaf students to abstain from masturbation will appeal to your keenly honed and not in any way homosexual aesthetic.


Ha, just kidding! Sorry, sensei! It’s actually me, your friendly yet irreverent and over-enthusiastic Belle Waring. I read so much manga, dudes. So much. In Singapore, we use the metric system and everything, (which is way more rational, except for acres which are totes intuitive and based on a meaningful connenction to the land) so I know for certain I read a metric f$^Kton of manga. There are just piles around, and John is like “we’re reading Black Butler now?” Me: “Mmmmmaybe. Zoë said she was going to stop reading it at volume VIII. [For free, online at mangareader.net (since we only own I-V) which, OMG it’s gonna kill the print business! But no, because it bitens the ween.] There were about to be zombies (she’s scared of zombies). 1hr 15 minutes later she said the zombies weren’t as bad as she thought. Sebastian’s hot, so.”

The truth is that we never acquire great amounts of anything until a) John has already bought the full (iff sub 20, for he is an frugal Oregonian) run. Then, slowly, like a hopeful NYC resident of his new summer house in Bridgehampton feeding corn to deer, he coaxes us out by telling us that these are, in fact, excellent manga such as normal people read, and we all ignore him and say things like “you bought the hardback edition of Lois Lane: Superman’s Girlfriend, which is like a moving, 12-minute-long youtube-tribute-to-Paul Walker supercut of the Fast and Furious movies, except of superdickery—we don’t believe a word you say, man. Saying you wanted to read the entire thing to us aloud over a series of like 20 f&c*#ng nights ironically is not a valid objection.” And you shouldn’t feed the deer because they are adorable vermin and they eat every single thing you have every planted that is not actively poisonous to deer (don’t think this isn’t a bigass section at at the nursery). That’s why we haven’t read 20th Century Boys, despite owning the books. Or b) the other way we get stuff is I start to like it (this is the win scenario for my children). When I started reading Naruto, we had volumes 1-23. We now have volumes 1-66, roughly 8 weeks later. Why am I reading thousands of pages of comics about ninjas? Oh, golly, I thought you’d never ask!
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Piketty on Capital: A Footnote

by Henry on April 5, 2014

I’m sure that there’s going to be plenty more discussion here on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (there’s lots of good arguments to be had, but it is every bit the major work that people say it is), but in the meantime, a correction. Dean Baker, in a somewhat grumpy review, says:

Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.

I’ve been seeing the Gates quote circulate a bit among left-leaning friends, very likely because of its structural similarity to a notorious claim by a rather different big sweeping economics book that precipitated a lot of derision (nb though that Gabriel Rossman, despite repeated calumny from He Who Must Not Be Named, decided in retrospect that the mistake wasn’t that big of a deal). Whichever which way, Dean’s use of the Piketty quote is unfortunately rather misleading. What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):

“As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?), it may be useful to recall that the US economy was much more innovative in 1950-1970 than in 1990-2010, to judge by the fact that productivity growth was nearly twice as high in the former period as in the latter, and since the United States was in both periods at the world technology frontier, this difference must be related to the pace of innovation.”

In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes. This is quite unambiguous in context, especially as Piketty has talked some pages before about Gates’ actual role (in a brief discussion of operating systems). Taken out of context, as it is in Baker’s review, it wrongly suggests that Piketty is ignorant or sloppy to a quite extraordinary degree.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that this is deliberate dishonesty on Baker’s part. I can see how this kind of mistake can happen (I rely on notes myself when writing reviews; there but for the grace of God …). I also think that the broader point that Piketty’s book has little to say about institutions is a fair one. But Baker’s misattribution to Piketty of a bewilderingly stupid-sounding claim that Piketty obviously does not make is the kind of thing that could go viral (and already is going semi-hemi-quasi viral). Thus, I think, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just not so.

Update: Dean Baker has modified his review to say that the Gates bit was a “throwaway line,” which helps imo clarify his real disagreement.