Jo Walton Seminar

by Henry on February 10, 2016

Here are the posts in our seminar on Jo Walton’s books, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings (the third book, Necessity, comes out in June). This one has been fun.

If you want to link to the entire seminar, all the posts are available here.

Alternatively, here’s a list by participant (with biographies for non-Crooked Timber regulars).

The participants:

Ruthanna Emrys’s short fiction—featuring Lovecraftian social justice activists, heroic xenopsychologists, and golem librarians (not all at once)—has appeared at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, and Analog. Winter Tide, her first novel, will be available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal and Twitter. Under the Lemon Tree, Distracted by Chores.

Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Original Sin.

Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Gods Behaving Badly.

Sumana Harihareswara is a project management consultant and open source expert living in Queens, New York. She co-edited the 2009 speculative fiction anthology Thoughtcrime Experiments and frequently speaks and performs at WisCon and writes about tech and fiction at Geek Feminism. You can follow her on Twitter or on Identi.ca as @brainwane; her personal blog is Cogito, Ergo Sumana. Intertextuality, Feminism, and Reinforced Arguments in Thessaly

John Holbo blogs at Crooked Timber. Walton’s Republic.

Neville Morley is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol and author of such significant works on classical antiquity as ‘Civil War and Succession Crisis in Roman Beekeeping’ and ‘Thucydides, History and Historicism in Wilhelm Roscher’. He blogs at The Sphinx Blog and is on Twitter at @NevilleMorley. We Philhellenists.

Ada Palmer is a historian, an author of science fiction and fantasy, and a composer. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago. Her first novel, Too Like the Lightning, Book 1 of the four volume science fiction series Terra Ignota will come out in May. It’ll blow your mind (editorial interjection by HF). Plato vs. Metaphysics, or How Very Hard it Is to Un-Learn Freud.

Leah Schneibach is a staff writer for Tor.com and the Fiction Editor of No Tokens journal. Her story, “Bracelet,“ received an Honorable Mention in Lumina’s 2013 Fiction Contest, judged by George Saunders. Her fiction has been published in Lumina and Anamesa, and her criticism has appeared on Electric Literature. She is currently working on a novel about an unhealthy relationship between a teenage stand-up comedian and a depressed math teacher. Leah is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA Program in Fiction, where she worked with Brian Morton, David Hollander, and Nelly Reifler. She was also Assistant Fiction Editor for Lumina. In previous lives she has worked with the Center for Independent Publishing, Co-Directed the Education Department for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, received an M.A. in Religious Studies from NYU, and wrote serious academic papers on Harry Potter’s place in the literary canon while earning a B.A. from New College of Florida. Thinking Through Violence in The Just City and The Philosopher Kings.

Belle Waring blogs at Crooked Timber. Socrates as Mary-Sue.

Jo Walton is a fantasy and science fiction author. Her books have won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. Her new novel in the Thessaly sequence, Necessity, comes out in June. A Dialogue with a Very Odd Bibliography.

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A Dialogue With a Very Odd Bibliography

by Jo Walton on February 10, 2016

I was sweeping the sand in the palaestra one morning when Sokrates came along with Apollo, deep in talk. “Ah, Crocus,” Sokrates said when he caught sight of me. “Just the person we need to add to our conversation. Ruthanna believes that leaders should have varied experience, that this would make them more excellent. What do you think?”

“Plato says in the Republic that everyone should be immersed in one thing, that people have only one excellence,” I said. “But this has always seemed strange to me. Workers, by our very nature, are intended to work. I am a philosopher, but I am also a robot, and I have robot excellence. In addition, I have long held that there are forms of art that are more akin to philosophy than to craft, though they naturally require skill in crafting. I further believe that it does no harm to engage in other tasks, such as this raking sand, which leaves the mind free to contemplate. But I had not considered that diversity of work might actually be a benefit.” [click to continue…]

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Socrates as Mary Sue

by Belle Waring on February 9, 2016

The genuinely Platonic way to discuss The Just City would be to not talk about it at all after the introductory section of the post, and instead use it as the springboard for a discussion about something tangentially related. Additionally, we should go Unfogged style: the post should be short and all the action should take place in the comments, in which I will be kind of a dick to everyone (“how would this be different than the usual?” you ask!) and, more controversially, cut out the content of everyone’s replies and paste in slightly weaker arguments that suit my purposes better. But this doesn’t seem like a very good idea, even if it is a very Platonic idea.

John says, it’s proof that Republic is science fiction! Because what happens when your characters set out to build the city which that one part of Plato’s Republic describes, plausibly only for the purposes of drawing an analogy to the well-ordered soul? You get SF. And maybe you learn something about being a good person? Maybe not, though.

I’m interested in what makes a character a Mary Sue. It’s a useful term (though problematic as I will say below). Some characters really are Mary Sues to the point that the way they effortlessly overcome all obstacles becomes an obstacle to reading. I love Anne McCaffrey, but Dragonsinger, fails as a novel due to the improbably perfect, talented, totally in the right, musical genius Menolly who has NINE fire-lizards. The first book in the trilogy is excellent, making one even more annoyed. On the other hand, every fantasy novel involves wish-fulfilment at some level, or characters who overcome all odds. Harry Potter is a Mary Sue if we put things that way, and yet it’s not a helpful or interesting thing to say about the Harry Potter series. Can Socrates be thought of usefully as a Mary Sue? I would say yes. His many straw enemies make for a lot of unsatisfying triumphs. [click to continue…]

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I posted the other day about the UK government’s proposal to ban charities from using government funds to try to influence policy. Many commenters thought “nothing to see here, no big deal”. Now it appears that the clause applies quite generally to organizations receiving government grants, stating:

The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.

The implementation guidance then includes the following:

Q12: Where departments use third party organisations (either public, private or charity sector) to administer grants on their behalf, will the clause need to be included in the T&Cs between the third party and the grant recipient? A: Yes. Departments will need to ensure that the clause is included in all grant agreements that the Department ultimately funds, subject to exceptions signed off by Ministers. This guidance should be shared as necessary.

Unless ministers grant specific exceptions then, government grants to bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to conduct research into policy, must not aim to “influence legislative or regulatory action”. The same would go for university-based researchers in receipt of government money vie HEFCE or the Research Councils. Still more absurd than this is the picture that emerges when the clause is combined with the government’s own “Impact Agenda” which forms part of its “Research Excellence Framework”. Under this, university researchers who apply for grants are required to demonstrate “impact” which may include influencing government policy, but it will now be a contractual condition that you may not do this thing that you must do.

Given that this is so irrational, I’m tempted to conclude there must be a misunderstanding here. The alternative is that the clause will be enforced selectively against bearers of unwelcome news.

(Alerted to this by Martin O’Neill on FB).

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Today’s WTF moment brought to you by the legal department

by Eszter Hargittai on February 8, 2016

There are plenty of absurd trademark cases out there, but I feel like this one is hitting new levels of crazy.

It [Delaware North] even trademarked the phrase ‘Yosemite National Park’ for use on T-shirts, pens and mugs, making one wonder why a private company should have exclusive rights over the name of a national treasure.

This LATimes story has the context.

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I have graded 300 undergraduate papers about why Plato’s Republic is stupid. Not the book itself, but the plan of Plato’s hypothetical city. Even when I offer students four, five, six different essay topics, some instinct almost always compels them to take on the plan of the city and how evil, impossible, tyrannical, nonsensical, cruel, absurd, dysfunctional, and doomed they think it would be if put into practice.  So, when I read The Just City and its sequels, I couldn’t stop thinking about that instinct, those papers, and how one of the great wishes these books grant is the wish of anyone who teaches Plato to see a more mature and developed examination of the same question.  The tragedy of student papers is that the authors have only a week between first meeting the giant mountain of mind-bending ideas that is Plato’s Republic and having to write about it.  Even the best can’t get past the first glance reaction because it is a first glance reaction.  Which is why my favorite way of going through The Just City is to review my mental list of the standard undergraduate reactions to the Republic, and look at what Jo Walton, a Plato veteran who has chewed on the same problem for years, can do. [click to continue…]

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The English columnist Nick Cohen had a piece on immigration in yesterday’s Observer. For those who don’t know his work, Cohen is a former left-wing radical journalist who has now renounced “the left” for its supposedly regressive views and who, post-epiphany, lashes “liberals” and others in the pages of the Spectator and Standpoint. A Paul Johnson for a new generation.

His latest effort is full of his trademark jibes that “the left” is soft on Putin, together with swipes at stock figures such as the “no-platforming student dogmatist”. But let’s leave the fluff and the fury aside and concentrate on the substance of his piece. [click to continue…]

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It’s a gas

by John Holbo on February 8, 2016

I think it unlikely that Kasich will get elected and reunite Pink Floyd, to play “Money”. But it would be a scene rich in irony.

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Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats and the Avon

by Chris Bertram on February 7, 2016

Redcliffe flats and the Avon

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Facebook’s algorithms are not your friend

by Henry on February 7, 2016

Alex Tabarrok makes an argument that I don’t think is at all a good one.

BuzzFeed article predicts that Twitter will soon move from a time-ordered feed to an algorithmic feed, one that shows you tweets that it predicts you will like before it show you lesser-ranked tweets. Naturally, twitter exploded with outrage that this is the end of twitter.
My own tweet expresses my view ala Marc Andreessen style:


It is peculiar that people are more willing trust their physical lives to an algorithm than their twitter feed. … How many people complaining about algorithmic twitter don’t use junk-email filters? I want ALL my emails! … Think of the algorithm as an administrative assistant that sorts your letters, sending bills to your accountant, throwing out junk mail, and keeping personal letters for your perusal. The assistant also reads half a dozen newspapers before you wake to find the articles he thinks that you will most want to read that morning. Who wouldn’t want such an assistant? Moreover, Facebook has billions of dollars riding on the quality of its assistant algorithms and it invests commensurate resources in making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs. … By trusting the machine intelligence to filter, you can open yourself up to a much wider space of information.

Cory Doctorow prebutted that exact argument-from-self-driving-cars eleven years ago – many others have made similar arguments about non-transparent algorithms since. But the point can be developed further.

Alex’s more fundamental claim – like very many of Alex’s claims – rests on the magic of markets and consumer sovereignty. Hence all of the stuff about billions of dollars “making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs” and so on. But we know that the algorithm isn’t supposed to be attuned to our wants and needs. It’s supposed to be attuned to Facebook’s wants and needs, which are in fact rather different.

Facebook’s profit model doesn’t involve selling commercial services to its consumers, but rather selling its consumers to commercial services. This surely gives it some incentive to make its website attractive (so that people come to it) and sticky (so that they keep on using it). But it also provides it with incentives to keep its actual customers happy – the businesses who use it to advertise, gather information on consumers, and market their products using tactics of varying sneakiness. If Alex’s imaginary administrative assistant is going to do our filing for free, he’s also going to keep asking us, increasingly insistently, why we haven’t yet switched our house insurance to Geico (while surreptitiously chucking mail from rival insurance firms into the trash).

When Twitter – a company that is notoriously a service in search of a business model – tells us that “Twitter can help make connections in real-time based on dynamic interests and topics, rather than a static social/friend graph,” it probably wants to increase user growth and stickiness to keep investors happy. But it also probably wants it easier to market products, push sponsored tweets etc without it being quite so clear that they are bought and paid for. After all, that’s where its profit model lies. The extent to which social media allows you to ‘open yourself up to a wider space of information’ in some uncomplicated way depends on whether it’s in the interest of the for-profit providers of this media to open you up to the kind of information that you might have wanted ex post had you had enough time and search capacity ex ante. That, contra Alex, is at best going to be a vexed question for Twitter and its ilk.

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I blogged a few months ago about the various moves the UK’s Conservative government has put in place that seek to cement its ability to govern without effective opposition. Since then there have been various developments, including the entirely predictable loss of a million voters from the electoral rolls. Some of those names may be restored, but they will have been absent from the register at the moment used to calculate the size of constituencies with the consequence that MPs from leafy affluent places will represent populations much smaller that poor post-industrial ones. Restrictions on trade unions are steaming ahead (including “reforms” that will deprive Labour of most of its funding), and plans to repeal the Human Rights Act are still on the way.

This morning’s atrocity involves government plans to prevent charities and the voluntary sector from using any funding they’ve received from government to lobby for changes in policy or expenditure. The proposal is the result of lobbying from the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Charities won’t be completely silenced. If they have funds that are raised from private sources then they can use these for advocacy. It isn’t clear from the reports whether funding from sources like the Big Lottery or local government (what’s left of it) will be covered. The effect of these restrictions will be that there will be fewer voices advocating for the poor and dispossessed in areas like housing, mental health provision, or policy towards refugees and asylum seekers. Charities who point out the effects of benefit sanctions on welfare claimants or the conditions in immigration detention centres may find that they are under a duty to demonstrate that the salary of their talking head on radio or TV didn’t come from public funds. Meanwhile, the corporate sector, being “private” can lobby away all it likes.

Of course ministers don’t like being told about the effects of their policies. But good government, as opposed to good politics, requires that they find out what those effects are. And that means they need independent people to tell them. And it means that the voiceless need advocates to counter the lobbying of corporate-sponsored think-tanks and lobbyists. In other areas of policy, the government is keen the vaunt the “independence” of those who advise them, frequently mentioning this as a feature of, for example, the Migration Advisory Committee, a body consisting of economists appointed by government, who answer questions set by government, according to criteria devised by government. There, “independence” has a legitimating function for policy. What the UK government doesn’t want is independent voices who give it accurate information about the effects of its policies. It wants the public conversation to be dominated by supine journalists fixated on the Westminster narrative who work for private media conglomerates. The voices it wants are those who don’t care about the people who don’t matter. When the consequences are horrendous, ministers will probably complain that nobody told them.

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6 Nations!

by Chris Bertram on February 5, 2016

Another year, and the Six Nations has rolled around again, a competition between the also-rans and second-bests in world rugby. Thoughts? Predictions? For me, being an England supporter will be harder than ever. England have decided that the solution to their endemic problems is to appoint Eddie Jones. Well, I suppose he did somehow get Japan to beat South Africa. Jones promptly picked the odious eye-gouger and biter Dylan Hartley as captain. Though I’m tempted to insist on the Scottish and Irish bits of my family tree at this point, I fear it is too late and I will simply have to live with the shame.

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The Just City and The Philosopher Kings are two of the purest examples I’ve ever read of “a novel of ideas”. Being novels of ideas means that scenes that would be gut wrenching or stomach-churning in other books are instead only jumping off points for the real work –complex, constant thought, and the moral consideration that comes with it. I wanted to take a few minutes and look at the way scenes of rape and violence are woven into the thoughtfulness of the book. [click to continue…]

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DJ Earworm 2015

by Belle Waring on February 5, 2016

The Plain People of Crooked Timber: Belle. What is your deal even. You said you would post trivial idle thoughts alla time and instead you just ghost. And you haven’t even posted your annoying end-of-the-year mix of all the sucky songs from the previous year!

Well, gentle readers, I…I don’t have a great excuse because surely if I can play Candy Crush and lie awake at night looking at Pinterest for three solid hours I could post something. But I feel as if I should post something intelligent if I haven’t said anything in so long! I get similar email guilt; the feeling of shame at not having checked my email recently enough becomes a crippling barrier which prevents me from checking my email in a vicious cycle of anxiety. This is because contrived anxiety is actually more manageable than motivated anxiety. Our life is kind of sucking right now? One thing that’s awesome is that my mom, who got diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain over a year ago, is not merely alive and in charge of her faculties, but felt well enough to fly the 24 hours to Singapore and stay for a month. We went to Ubud in Bali also, to this villa that was just the schwaa. (The following is not, though it appears to be, the least helpful, most out of touch with reality advice because it is useful to our Antipodean readers/contributors who, it appears, must perforce go to Bali with some frequency because the entire population of Australia appears to be there at all times. Villa Bali is the best. It’s only economical if there are several of you, like four minimum, but then you have your own kitchen, can go to the grocery store and don’t need to pay for any restaurants so it can easily be cheaper than a mid-range hotel and is 50x more fun.) OTOH, Stage IV lung cancer sucks! It’s normally the stage when they tell you, “you’re about to die, bro.”


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On Tuesday night, Alexandra Schwartz, a critic at The New Yorkerposted a piece criticizing the young supporters of Bernie Sanders. Ordinarily, I’d be mildly irritated by an article titled “Should Millennials Get Over Bernie Sanders?” In this instance, I’m grateful. It clarifies the dividing line between Sanders’s supporters in the electorate and the liberal journalists who can’t abide them.

First, some context. Exit polls from Iowa, according to Vox, show that “Sanders absolutely dominated young adult voters, in a way that even Barack Obama couldn’t in 2008.” Eighty-four percent of voters under 30, and 58% of voters between 30 and 44, cast their ballots for Sanders. More generally, as countless articles have noted, younger voters are shifting left, embracing ancient taboos like socialism and other heresies.

Schwartz finds this all puzzling:

Bernie would not be pressing Hillary without the support of the youth of America, a fact that I—a voter north of twenty-five, south of thirty—have pondered over the past few weeks with increasing perplexity.

Why are young people, she asks, ”rallying behind the candidate who has far and away the most shambolic presentation of anyone on either side of this crazy race?”

A second’s Google search turns up an answer: [click to continue…]

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