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The Peripheral

by Henry on January 22, 2015

Attention conservation notice: A blogpost on the William Gibson book of the same name, with copious spoilers. At the very best, it presents a crudely simplified reading of one skein of the book, without any of the ambiguity and negative capability stuff that makes the novel fun. At worst, it’s both boring and completely wrong.

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Collective Intelligence 2015

by Henry on January 16, 2015

A conference plug for this event: I spoke at last year’s version and found it great (there’s a lot of interesting work happening at the interstices between data science and the social sciences, and this is a very good way of keeping up with the state of the art). The submission deadline is two weeks away.


Marriott Hotel, Santa Clara CA
2700 Mission College Blvd, Santa Clara, CA 95054
(408) 988-1500

The topic areas for collective intelligence include:

The evolution of collective intelligence
Human and social computing
The emergence and intelligence of social movements
Collective response to environmental constraints
The spread and containment of rumors
Collective robustness, resilience, and stability
The evolution of scientific intelligence
Collective intelligence in plants and non humans
The Wisdom of Crowds & prediction markets
Collective search and problem solving
Collective memory
Emergent organizational forms
The intelligence of markets and democracies
Technology and software that make groups smarter
Collective Intelligence in the new journalism
Crowd solutions to policy problems and crises

Conference Organizer:Scott E. Page, University of Michigan
Program Chairs:Deborah M. Gordon, Stanford University
Lada Adamic, Facebook

Social democrats in the twin-peaked world

by Henry on January 6, 2015

Paul Krugman wrote last week about the rise of a ‘twin peaked’ world in which the global poor are doing much better, as are the extremely rich, while the working class are doing badly in comparative terms. He asks:

Who who speaks for those left behind in this twin-peaked world? You might have expected conventional parties of the left to take a populist stance on behalf of their domestic working classes. But mostly what you get instead — from leaders ranging from François Hollande of France to Ed Milliband of Britain to, yes, President Obama — is awkward mumbling. (Mr. Obama has, in fact, done a lot to help working Americans, but he’s remarkably bad at making his own case.)

The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.

There’s plausibly a structural story behind the inability of conventional leftwing parties to challenge conventional orthodoxies and respond to the needs of their traditional constituency. They haven’t really relied on this constituency for a long time. Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that it deserves, perhaps because it came out after its author’s death. But Mair – an expert on the evolution of political parties and party systems – makes a strong case that leftwing parties in Europe today have become profoundly disassociated from their voters. This is in part because of ordinary people withdrawing from political parties – the membership of mass parties has collapsed over the last few decades. However, it is also because the elites of parties don’t rely on mass membership to provide resources – instead they rely on resources from the state and networks where they are firmly embedded with other elites. The result is that European political parties rather than representing their constituents to the state, tend to represent the state and its imperatives to their constituents.

This helps explain the extraordinary haplessness of mainstream leftwing parties faced with the politics of austerity. It’s reinforced by the politics of the European Union, which was purpose designed as a non-democratic space (into which, however, bits of democracy have crept over time).

Despite the seeming availability of channels of access, the scope for meaningful input and hence for effective electoral accountability is exceptionally limited. It is in this sense that Europe appears to have been constructed as a protected sphere, safe from the demands of voters and their representatives.

National policies are constrained by EU institutions such as the European Central Bank and other institutions, which are designed to be non-majoritarian ones “from which parties and politics are deliberately excluded.” The result is that:

insofar as competing policies or programmes are concerned, the value of elections is steadily diminishing. Thanks to the European Union, although crucially not only for that reason, political competition has become increasingly depoliticized.

European voters, mainstream European parties and European leaders have increasingly learned how to live without effective participatory democracy. And now it’s biting the social democratic left. The withering of links between leftwing parties and their electoral base, combined with the movement of real decision making to the European level, leaves these parties in the cold. They neither know how to connect to voters any more, nor have any real program for change on those occasions (thanks to exhaustion with their opponents) they actually win office. It’s little wonder that so many of their voters are defecting.

My God! It’s Full of Arse!

by Henry on December 19, 2014

I think that anyone who sits down to read the Wieseltier decades of critical reviews in The New Republic will notice that at some mysterious philosophical level a great many of those hundreds of essays seem to cohere. It is not because they display a particular ideological bent or follow a political line. Something deeper is at work, which I do not know how to describe. (It is a task for a philosopher-historian.) I note a nearly uniform predisposition against the doctrines of determinism, whether they be scientific or economic or identity-political. There has always been, in any case, an intellectual ardor, as if the entire “back of the book” were asmolder with passion—a passion for the creative labors of certain species of writers and artists and thinkers. For the uncorruptible ones, for the ones-of-a-kind, for the people who are allergic to fads and factions and the stratagems of self-advancement. Perhaps the entire section has been animated by the belief, keen and insistent and unstated, that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people. This is not the sort of belief that researchers will declare one day to be scientifically confirmed. But it has the advantage of generating a hot-blooded criticism—occasionally cruel or trigger-happy, but always intense, which means thrilling.

I can’t help wondering if Berman is making some class of a highly elliptical bid to be nominated for the Bad Sex Award (subsection on intellectual affairs). Discuss, if you really have to.

(1) “By”

(2) “David”

(3) “Bernstein”

That is all.

Cheney and Manning: A Modest Proposal (Repost)

by Henry on December 9, 2014

I’m reposting this in advance of the release of the torture report, and because (via Digby), the ACLU is making a similar argument in all seriousness.

Consider an effort to measure the misdeeds of the ‘global war on terror.’ On the one side of the balance sheet, we have Richard B. Cheney. This gentleman, now in private life, is a self-admitted and unrepentant perpetrator of war crimes – specifically, of ordering the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Along with other senior members of the Bush regime, he is also guilty of the outsourcing of even viler forms of torture through the extraordinary rendition of individuals to regimes notorious for torturing prisoners (including the dispatch of Maher Arar, who was entirely innocent, to the torturers of Syria). The Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for prosecuting Cheney, or other Bush senior officials, for their crimes. While Obama has effectively admitted that they were torturers, he has indicated, both through public statements and continued inaction, that he would prefer to let bygones be bygones.

On the other, we have Chelsea Manning. She appears to be a confused individual – but her initial motivation for leaking information, if the transcripts are correct, were perfectly clear. She was appalled at what he saw as major abuses of authority by the US, including incidents that he witnessed directly in Iraq. There is no evidence that her leaking of information has caused anything worse than embarrassment for the US. Yet she is being pursued by the Obama administration with the vengefulness of Greek Furies. While Manning was being kept in solitary confinement, and treated in an inhuman fashion, Richard Cheney was enjoying the manifold pleasures of a well-compensated private life, being subjected to no more than the occasional impertinent question on a Sunday talk show, and the inconveniences of being unable to travel to jurisdictions where he might be arrested.

It would appear then that the administration is rather more prepared to let bygones be bygones in some cases than in others. High officials, who ordered that torture be carried out and dragged the US into international disrepute, are given an ex post carte blanche for their crimes, while a low-ranking soldier who is at most guilty of leaking minor secrets at the lowest levels of classification, was treated inhumanely and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.

So here’s my proposal. It’s perfectly clear that Richard B. Cheney will never be prosecuted because a prosecution would be politically inconvenient. If that’s the Obama administration’s decision (and it’s pretty clear that it is the Obama administration’s decision), then the administration should own it. The president should grant Richard Cheney a pardon for his crimes. Simultaneously, as an acknowledgement that the high crimes of state officials should not go unpunished while the lesser crimes of those who opposed the Iraq war are exposed to the vengefulness of the military tribunal system, Chelsea Manning should receive a complete pardon too.

I can’t imagine that Richard B. Cheney would like getting a presidential pardon. Indeed, I rather imagine that he’d vigorously protest it. It would serve as the best formal acknowledgment that we’re likely to get that he is, indeed, a criminal. Obviously, it would also be an unhappy compromise for those who think that he should be exposed to the full rigors of the law. But I personally think that it would be an acceptable compromise (others may reasonably disagree), if it were applied to both sides rather than just one.

(Originally posted with minor differences here

Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan’s forthcoming piece on the ‘superiority of economists’ is a lovely, albeit quietly snarky, take on the hidden structures of the economics profession. It provides good evidence that e.g. economics hiring practices, rather than being market driven are more like an intensely hierarchical kinship structure, that the profession is ridden with irrational rituals, and that key economic journals are apparently rather clubbier than one might have expected in a free and competitive market (the University of Chicago’s Quarterly Journal of Economics Journal of Political Economy gives nearly 10% of its pages to University of Chicago affiliated scholars; perhaps its editors believe that this situation of apparent collusion will be naturally corrected by market forces over time). What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy (as Paul Krugman acknowledges in a nice self-reflective piece) is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of economists are reading the piece (we’re all monkeys, fascinated with our reflections in the mirror). Equally unsurprisingly, many of them (including some very smart ones) don’t really get Fourcade et al’s argument, which is a Bourdieuian one about how a field, and relations of authority and power within and around that field get constructed. As Fourcade has noted in previous work, economists’ dominance has led other fields either to construct themselves in opposition to economics (economic sociology) or in supplication to it (some versions of rational choice political science). Economists have been able to ignore these rivals or to assimilate their tributes, as seems most convenient. As the new paper notes, the story of economists’ domination is told by citation patterns (the satisfaction that other social scientists can take from economists having done unto them as they have done unto others, is unfortunately of limited consolation). Yet if you’re an economist, this is invisible. Your dominance appears to be the product of natural superiority. [click to continue…]

PD James has died

by Henry on November 27, 2014

Guardian story here. Harry is, I think, the official Crooked Timber PD James aficionado, and likely has far more interesting things to say than I do. Obviously, I disagreed with her politics, and I disliked her main character, Adam Dalgliesh, in direct proportion to the tender regard that she lavished on him. But she was excellent in describing disagreeable but interesting characters, and especially disagreeable but interesting women. She also had an astute sociological eye for the distinctive worlds that middle-class women in certain vocations and professions (viz. nursing in Shroud for a Nightingale) created amongst themselves in the interstices of the workplace before feminism. While she was unsentimental about the dynamics of mutual dislike and competition among women in these worlds, I felt that she missed them, and I sometimes wondered how much of her conservatism was grounded in a positive sense of loss.

Confessional Brezhnevism and Brian Farrell

by Henry on November 12, 2014

The Boston Review have just put up a piece I wrote on Ireland’s internal Cold War, which wasn’t about politics, but religion. My generation (and Kieran’s; and Maria’s) grew up in an Ireland where the Catholic Church’s control of politics and society was visibly rotting away from inside, but still strong enough to foreclose the alternatives. It was like Brezhnevism – a dying system, but one strong enough to make it difficult to imagine what life would be like if it were gone.

One vignette from the piece, describing the moment when Bishop Eamon Casey was revealed to have had a long term relationship and child resulting from same.

The day the news broke, I met one of my professors, who had a sideline as a scrupulously evenhanded television host, wandering across campus in dazed delight. “It’s over,” he said. “They’ve lost.” He was right.

I didn’t name the professor, although I didn’t exactly make it hard to figure out who he was. He was Brian Farrell (no relation), a very well known academic, intellectual and television host and interviewer, who died a couple of days ago at the age of 85. I don’t know what he’d have made of the piece – he very carefully kept his politics to himself. This is the only moment when I ever saw him break cover. Yet I don’t think this revealed any political or religious animus on his part, so much as a small-l liberalism, a straightforward pre-political desire that people be allowed to live their lives and love whom they wanted to, without having to live in fear of social ostracism or of losing their job. It must have been very hard to be gay, or living in an unmarried relationship in Ireland in the 1970s, and it still wasn’t especially easy in the 1990s. The Eamon Casey scandal undermined the religious and social institutions which made it so very hard, so that prejudice, while it continued, mostly went underground. This, I think, is why he was so happy.

That brief conversation with Brian, beside the ugly artificial lake at the center of University College Dublin, is the moment when it became clear to me that Ireland was finally, irrevocably, changing. It’s a different memory of Brian than most people who grew up watching Irish TV will have – his public persona was as a rather formal and mildly acerbic interviewer, who regularly grilled evasive politicians. Yet in person, even if you didn’t know him particularly well (I just knew him as a student taking his MA class on Irish politics) his decency and kindness came through. He will be very much missed.

Big Brother’s Liberal Friends

by Henry on October 27, 2014

I’ve an article in the new issue of The National Interest looking at various liberal critiques of Snowden and Greenwald, and finding them wanting. CT readers will have seen some of the arguments in earlier form; I think that they’re stronger when they are joined together (and certainly they should be better written; it’s nice to have the time to write a proper essay). I don’t imagine that the various people whom I take on will be happy, but they shouldn’t be; they’re guilty of some quite wretched writing and thinking. More than anything else, like Corey I’m dismayed at the current low quality of mainstream liberal thinking. A politician wishes for her adversaries to be stupid, that they will make blunders. An intellectual wishes for her adversaries to be brilliant, that they will find the holes in her own arguments and oblige her to remedy them. I aspire towards the latter, not the former, but I’m not getting my wish.

Over the last fifteen months, the columns and op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post have bulged with the compressed flatulence of commentators intent on dismissing warnings about encroachments on civil liberties. Indeed, in recent months soi-disant liberal intellectuals such as Sean Wilentz, George Packer and Michael Kinsley have employed the Edward Snowden affair to mount a fresh series of attacks. They claim that Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and those associated with them neither respect democracy nor understand political responsibility.
These claims rest on willful misreading, quote clipping and the systematic evasion of crucial questions. Yet their problems go deeper than sloppy practice and shoddy logic.

Great bad writing

by Henry on October 25, 2014

I used to think that David Brooks deserved some sort of George Orwell ‘best bad modern writing’ award for a phrase in his old attack on Markos Zuniga Moulitsas.

The Keyboard Kingpin, aka Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, sits at his computer, fires up his Web site, Daily Kos, and commands his followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs, to unleash their venom on those who stand in the way.

It’s hard to beat squadrons of venom-unleashing rabid command-lambs. But then, when doing some background reading for class in re: Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech, I came across this plea from Joseph Joffe:

who will save the American posterior once the chickens of aloofness come home to roost?

Who? Who indeed?

I envision America so:


I’m sure that there’s a lot of other policy writing with terrible metaphors out there that I’m unaware of. Feel free to provide in comments.

The Tomb of the Unknown Deserter

by Henry on October 24, 2014

Last year, I wrote a post building on James Scott’s argument that we should memorialize deserters. Today, I see a piece at Deutsche Welle saying that Austria is doing just that.

A monument to deserters from the German army during World War II has been unveiled in central Vienna. This follows decades of controversy over recognition and compensation in Austria. The monument on Ballhausplatz in central Vienna, right by the Chancellery, was unveiled on Friday in the presence of Austrian President Heinz Fischer and representatives of the government and victims’ rights groups. … Around 30,000 conscientious objectors and deserters from the German Wehrmacht were sentenced to death by the Nazi military courts from 1939 to 1945. An estimated 20,000 of them were executed, including 1,500 Austrian nationals. It took three years for all sentences to be overturned by the Recognition Act and deserters or their progeny granted compensation payments on a complex individual case basis.But the complete blanket rehabilitation only came into effect in 2009 – amid fierce opposition from Austria’s right wing parties.

Gobrey, Smith, Hume

by Henry on October 15, 2014

I wanted to note this disagreement between P.E. Gobry and Noah Smith because it allows me to pull out my favorite underappreciated David Hume quote.


Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different. … Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers.


One way of systematically understanding the world is just to watch it and write down what happens. “Today I saw this bird eat this fish.” “This year the harvest was destroyed by frost.” “The Mongols conquered the Sung Dynasty.” And so on. All you really need for this is the ability to write things down. This may sound like a weak, inadequate way of understanding the world, but actually it’s incredibly important and powerful, since it allows you to establish precedents. … A second way of systematically understanding the world is repeated observation. This is where you try to make a large number of observations that are in some way similar or the same, and then use statistics to identify relationships between them. … The first big limitation of empirics is omitted variable bias. You can never be sure you haven’t left out something important. The second is the fact that you’re always measuring correlation, but without a natural experiment, you can’t isolate causation. Still, correlation is an incredibly powerful and important thing to know. … Experiments are just like empirics, except you try to control the observational environment in order to eliminate omitted variables and isolate causality. You don’t always succeed, of course. And even when you do succeed, you may lose external validity – in other words, your experiment might find a causal mechanism that always works in the lab, but is just not that important in the real world.


Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.

This, from Ars Technica, is pretty extraordinary:

In the early 2000s, William “Trip” Hawkins—founder of video game publisher Electronic Arts—was living the good life. … Hawkins had a peculiar way of keeping his cash flow up; he wasn’t paying all the taxes connected to the proceeds of some of his stock sales. Instead, he participated in a tax sheltering setup designed to produce on-paper “monetary losses” to offset the gains. The scheme was all done through accounting firm KPMG, which used convoluted Swiss and Cayman Islands deals that eventually raised the eyebrows of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax auditors. The IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board eventually cried foul. In 2002, the IRS notified Hawkins’ lawyers that the tax shelters, accounting for about $60 million in claimed losses, wouldn’t be allowed for the tax years 1997 to 2000. This meant that Hawkins would be on the hook for millions in back taxes on all those EA stock profits. Still, Hawkins continued living a jet setter’s life until around the time he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2006. For instance, a government legal filing said that Hawkins’ private jet had cost $11.8 million in 2000 and had an “operating” cost of $1 million annually.

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Workplace Freedom: A Primer for Alan Dershowitz

by Henry on September 22, 2014

Alan Dershowitz expresses his opinion on academic freedom, the Salaita case, and why UIUC natural scientists appear to have been less likely than social scientists and humanities people to support him.

Some, including Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who backed Summers and opposed the tenure bid of Norman Finkelstein, the controversial former political scientist at DePaul University, have a more cynical take. Dershowitz said that in his experience, academics working in STEM tend, “in general, to be more objective and principled, and those in the humanities tend to be ideologues and results-oriented, and believe it’s the appropriate role of the scholar to use his or her podium to propagandize students.” Dershowitz said he believed personal opinion had influenced how those human sciences viewed both the Salaita and Summers cases, and that scientists were likelier to examine the evidence impartially. “I would bet anything that 99 percent of the people who are demanding that [Salaita] be restored tenure would be on the exact opposite side of this if he’d been making pro-Israel but equally uncivil statements,” he said.

There is a very strong case to be made against “results oriented” ideologues in the academy but I think that it isn’t quite the case that Dershowitz is making.
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