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Henry

Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

by Henry on July 22, 2014

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

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Democracy is Bad for Business

by Henry on July 16, 2014

A story that has gotten weirdly little play in the US (I can’t speak for the UK press or the press in other countries) is the pushback by the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms against the democracy movement in Hong Kong. On July 1, over 100,000 people marched in protest against Chinese plans to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. But the Big Four had not only made it clear that they didn’t like the protests – they had threatened that business would pull out of Hong Kong if the protests continued.

The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.The group of pro-democracy activists is calling for 10,000 people to block traffic in the central business district as part of a campaign to put pressure on the Hong Kong government, although if and when this will happen is still under discussion. In the advert, the big four firms warned that protests would disrupt the Hong Kong stock exchange, banks and the headquarters of financial and professional services firms causing “inestimable losses in the economy”. It added that clients of the four firms had reflected further concerns about the wider impact of the protests: “We are worried that multinational companies and investors would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre,” the joint statement said.

This is a quite remarkable initiative. It was published in Chinese rather than English – presumably both to speak more directly to potential protesters, and to make it less likely that it would seep into the English speaking press. According to one of the firms, it was pushed by local branches rather than the accountancy groups’ international management. Even if this is true, the statement is signed in the names of the firms and have not been publicly repudiated.

Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.

Fun summer reading

by Henry on July 14, 2014

Books I’ve read in the last while that I’d recommend:

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Over the last year, there’s been a lot of writing about Edward Snowden (I’ve contributed a fair amount to the genre myself). Most people have discussed either the question of (a) whether domestic NSA surveillance in the US is appropriate and whether it is breaking US law, or (b) the purely political consequences of international surveillance. There’s been relatively little discussion of whether there is a problem in principle with international surveillance, and most of what there has been has concerned the question of whether or not privacy is a universal human right. But the recent Der Spiegel revelations combined with some earlier material points to a narrower but very troubling set of problems for liberal democracies. Cross national cooperation between intelligence services has exploded post-September 11. This cooperation is not only outside the public space but, very often, isn’t well known to politicians either. Such cooperation in turn means that intelligence services are in practice able to evade national controls on the things that they do or do not do, directly weakening democracy. [click to continue...]

George Packer and his problems

by Henry on May 28, 2014

George Packer’s review of Glenn Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is largely based around an argument taken from Max Weber.

Edward Snowden is a child of the internet and at the same time an old American type—the solitary individual whose religion is conscience, and who follows his own regardless of where it takes him. … he type goes back to the English Protestant dissenters who settled the New World in the 17th century. Its most eloquent exemplar was Henry David Thoreau … In the famous hotel-room interview in Hong Kong that revealed his identity on video, Snowden said: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept—and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature—you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large pay cheque for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.” It sounds like the quiet desperation Thoreau attributed to most of his fellow men. But if, like Snowden, you can’t rest until you’ve tested the courage of your conviction by taking radical action, then “you realise that you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is.” …

Not caring about the outcome is what Max Weber, in “Politics as a Vocation,” called “the ethic of ultimate ends,” in contrast with “the ethic of responsibility.” There are many reasons to criticise this ethic and the uncompromising Thoreauvians who wear it as a badge of honour, but one has to admit that the issue of mass surveillance in America would not have come to public attention without a type like Snowden. … Snowden is a libertarian whose distrust of institutions and hostility to any intrusion on personal autonomy place him beyond the sphere in American politics where left and right are relevant categories. A temperament as much as a philosophy, libertarianism is often on the verge of rejecting politics itself, with its dissatisfying but necessary trade-offs; it tends toward absolutist positions, which grow best in the mental equivalent of a hermetic laboratory environment.

There are two problems with this analysis. The first is that it misstates the arguments of Max Weber. The second is that it grossly misrepresents the position of Edward Snowden.

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Political Economy is Political

by Henry on May 27, 2014

The best explanation of the current Piketty-Financial Times brouhaha was written by Mike Konczal a few weeks before it actually happened.

As Foucault argued, the ability of social science to know something is the ability to anthropologize it, a power to define it. As such, it becomes a problem to be solved, a question needing an answer, something to be put on a grid of intelligibility, and a domain of expertise that exerts power over what it studies. With Piketty’s Capital, this process is now being extended to the rich and the elite. Understanding how the elite become what they are, and how their wealth perpetuates itself, is now a hot topic of scientific inquiry.

Many have tried to figure out why the rich are freaking out these days. Their wealth was saved from the financial panic, they are having a very excellent recovery, and they are poised to reap even greater gains going forward. Perhaps they are noticing that the dominant narratives about their role in society—avatars of success, job creators for the common good, innovators for social betterment, problem-solving philanthropists—are being replaced with a social science narrative in which they are a problem to be studied. They are still in control, but they are right to be worried.


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but David Brooks apparently doesn’t know what ‘democracy’ means.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.


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Gene Wolfe is 83

by Henry on May 7, 2014

I’ve been reading my way through the New Sun tetralogy again over the last few months. In honour of the day, one of my favourite passages (as the protagonist, Severian descends a cliff, in a world grown so old that the object of ‘mining’ is not to find seams of raw minerals, but instead to discover the relicts of the past and convert them to use).

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.

Matthew Yglesias, responding to Tyler Cowen and my critique of same.

high levels of income inequality lead to high prices for art. A lot of this reflects higher prices for old paintings by dead artists, but the art market exhibits sufficient efficiency that higher prices also benefit new works by living artists. … The mechanism, basically, is that art-buying is mostly done by very rich people so when very rich people get richer, the price of art gets bid up. When buying power shifts to the middle class they tend to buy more banal things like bigger houses or nicer cars. Whether these price trends are good for the arts is going to depend on a bunch of other questions that the paper doesn’t address. Do higher prices for art works induce artists to become more productive? Does greater output come at the expense of quality? Do people shift into painting from more mass market artistic pursuits (music, movies) or from careers outside the arts? Do higher prices make art less accessible to non-rich art lovers? One can imagine a whole range of different outcomes here. But the evidence that inequality boosts the financial returns to the fine arts — largely by diverting financial resources away from middle class consumption of normal stuff — seems compelling.

By coincidence, I’ve recently finished reading The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor’s wonderful new book on culture and the Internet (Amazon, Powells), which gives a much more jaundiced account of what is happening to art in the age of inequality (see here for an interview which gives some flavor of her thinking). [click to continue...]

Inequality and the arts

by Henry on April 30, 2014

Tyler Cowen on inequality and the arts.

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

Corey has argued that this passage displays a Nietzsche-meets-Hayek logic under which the idle rich serve (and should serve) as cultural taste-setters for the rest of us. Tyler would very likely disagree. But if he were to disagree, I think he’d have to state why it is better for culture that only the independently wealthy and their intimate dependents enjoy this kind of liberty. Cue George Scialabba, in a recent post on the history of Partisan Review.

There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)

This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle–which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture–is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.

If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place). More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself. If freedom from the marketplace is a good thing for culture, then, as per George’s discussion, it surely should be spread around among a wider variety of people.

I’ve just finished Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky sequence (Powells, Amazon). It’s fantasy, based around a rough analogue to Central-Asia-plus-China-plus-bits-of-Rus, in which pasty skinned Westerners are weird and occasional aberrations. It’s also enormous fun. It’s also technically impressive in its grasp of how feudal and tribal societies actually work. Bear really gets the consequences of imperfect information sharing in pre-modern societies and uses it as a core engine of plot. Rather than the usual fantasy model of ‘bunch of disparate comrades united on a single heroic quest,’ it goes for the far trickier ‘bunch of disparate comrades who split up and go in many different directions, most of the time with only the vaguest idea of what the others are doing.’ It pains me to think how much work she must have done to keep track of who knows what at which point, but it pays off. The really nice part is that the villain (who bears a strong resemblance to Hassan-i Sabbāh) is not a commander of the usual armies of mindless hordes. Instead, he mostly has to work through treachery, dissimulation and manipulation of collective knowledge. His magics (which are costly) mostly involve better communication, which allow him both to work more easily with subordinates, and to spread disinformation so that it takes hold quickly, forestalling some alliances while encouraging others. [click to continue...]

A Parade of Improbabilities

by Henry on April 29, 2014

cover-revolutionsUK

Felix Gilman’s new book, The Revolutions is out (Powells, Amazon) . It’s very, very good. The novel starts from the strange blend of middle-class self improvement, encounter with (and misappropriation of) ideas from Asia and social change that led to an explosion of occultism in the late Victorian period. In Gilman’s fin-de-siecle London, the theosophists’ view of the universe was actually right (or, if not right, at least possessed of a convincing verisimilitude), allowing him to mix astral travel, lordlings of dubious personal character, ruthless newspaper magnate-magicians with a planetary romance involving diaphanous Martians, now exiled from their ruined world to its two moons. But it’s a Gilman book, hence tricky. The title combines the “revolutions of the spheres,” that occultists must calculate to travel outside the boundaries of the Earth, with the revolutions in human understanding, as people really began to understand the nature of cosmological space and geological time.

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Happy Krauthammer Day

by Henry on April 22, 2014

The day has rolled around again when we celebrate Charles Krauthammer’s linking of his, and his administration friends’ credibility to a confident prediction about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

We’ve had over twenty five five month periods since then. There have been lots, and lots of words from Charles Krauthammer in the interim (most recently – pushing against disclosure of political funding because people might be mean to rich donees). Discoveries of Iraqi nuclear weapons? Not so much.

Max Weber’s Birthday

by Henry on April 21, 2014

Max Weber was born 150 years ago today. People should read his two seminal essays, Science as a Vocation, and Politics as a Vocation (PDFs), if they haven’t already. Both are rambling, but with nuggets of genuine genius. To mark the occasion, the famous closing paragraphs of Science as a Vocation (these words carry a very different resonance after Nazism and the Holocaust than before)

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’—that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.

As long time readers may recall, I am not a big fan of Elsevier and was a public advocate of the position that no-one should submit to Elsevier journals at a time when it was neither profitable or popular. However, reading this article about Elsevier’s new policy of issuing take-down notices against authors who publish their work on university websites has made me change my mind. Now, I think that everyone should submit as much of their work to Elsevier as they possibly can. Any article that has even a modest chance of success. People should bear through the revise and resubmit process as many times as it takes. Once the piece has finally been accepted, then, and only then, should they withdraw the article from consideration, and then publish it on their university or personal website with an “accepted by Elsevier Journal x and then withdrawn in protest,” together with a copy of the acceptance email (containing the editor’s email address etc).

I do foresee a couple of possible wrinkles in this plan. Perhaps disgruntled elder colleagues might frown upon this (although in some fields at least, disgruntled elder colleagues seem entirely on board with pushing against Elsevier). Non-tenured faculty might want to think a little about the benefits and disadvantages before deciding they wanted to do this. This said, I could imagine senior faculty or tenure letter writers who would find this kind of thing wholly admirable, and to be congratulated, not punished (I know that I would). If this campaign actually took off, Elsevier would doubtless try to disrupt it, by e.g. obliging prospective authors to sign a contract agreeing to publish in the journal if accepted. However, I could also see any such efforts backfiring – most journals would be damaged by such a policy, since many academics (especially prominent and well published ones), would see forced contracts as presumptuous and insulting. Doubtless, there are other flaws that readers can point out.

However, I can’t imagine that the journal’s peer reviewers would have much ground for complaint. Their job is to help improve academic work that is eventually publicly circulated (in other words their loyalty should be to the field, rather than to the journal). Journal editors would probably be unhappy, but really, at this point, no-one should want to be the editor of an Elsevier journal. I’m perfectly OK with academic publishers who don’t try to extract monopoly rents, just as I’m OK with various forms of open publishing (I happily do both). But Elsevier relies both on the willingness of scholars to submit work and their willingness to review it, to make extortionate profits by effectively selling academics’ labor back to the academy. Current proposals to target Elsevier seek to withdraw this labor in one or the other way. Another possibility (which is the one I’m suggesting, albeit without a great deal of serious thought) is to subvert the current system and make it unsustainable in other ways, by extracting the kudos that acceptance in some Elsevier journals can bring out from the obligatory signing away of rights that goes together with agreeing to let the journal actually publish your piece. In a world where ever fewer academics discover articles by actually picking up the journals, this kind of strategy is at least thinkable.