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Henry

Fourteen years of Krauthammer days

by Henry on April 22, 2017

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the day when Charles Krauthammer announced to the world:

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.

It’s now been 168 months since that confident pronouncement – or, put differently, we’ve seen 33.6 Krauthammer Credibility Intervals come, and then go, without any sign of self-assessment, let alone personal acceptance of responsibility for his prominent cheerleading for a war that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Still out there opining.

Ada Palmer seminar

by Henry on April 20, 2017

The seminar with Ada Palmer on Seven Surrenders and its prequel, Too Like the Lightning is now complete. Below, a list of the participants with links to their individual posts, to make it easier to keep everything together (a PDF will be forthcoming). All posts are available in reverse chronological order here. Comments should be open, for anyone who wants to talk about the seminar (or the books) as a whole.

The participants:

  • Ada Palmer is an Assistant Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago.

The Dystopian Question and Minorities of One [Response to Emrys and Gladstone]

Reappropriated Histories and a Different Set of Tools [Response to Morley and H. Farrell]

Unusual Experience and Second Hand Plato [Response to M. Farrell and Waring]

Not Nothing and Speculating Late [Response to Holbo and Konstantinou

A Dialog on Narrative Voice, Complicity, and Intimacy [Dialogue with Jo Walton]

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Hugo Suggestions 2017

by Henry on March 16, 2017

Time again (seeing as nominations close in a couple of days), for Hugo nominations suggestions, or, more precisely, an excuse to briefly talk about books that I read in the f/sf genre last year and liked a lot.

Best Novel

  • Paul McAuley – Into Everywhere. People in the US don’t read McAuley nearly as much as they should. This, together with his Something Coming Through, is as good as straight science fiction gets these days. I didn’t like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books nearly as much as his other work – these two books are less ambitious, but seem to me to capture better some of what Harrison was trying to do, in using near- and middle-far future science fiction to get at the tropes of consumer society. Sharp, drily funny if you read closely, and does for Childhood’s End what his Confluence books did for The Book of the New Sun. There is infinite hope, but not for us. If you haven’t read any McAuley, try his short story Reef, available for free online. If it gets on with you, the rest probably will too.
  • Dave Hutchinson – Europe in Winter. Again, I don’t think Hutchinson gets the attention he deserves in the US. But this – and the other two books before – are really quite brilliant about Europe, and England’s complicated attitudes to it. The first book, Europe in Autumn is still my favorite of the three, but this is extremely good too – spies, a Europe that has split up into hundreds of odd microstates, and an alternative universe in which the Home Counties have extended in a manner both sinister and avuncular to take over large parts of the globe.
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories. I really liked this for its combination of large scale politics and small scale personal history. It reminded me (despite differences in writing style, subject etc) of Maureen McHugh’s wonderful China Mountain Zhang in the interest that it takes in people’s lives.
  • Max Gladstone – Four Roads Cross. The latest in his Craft sequence of novels, which is available in its entirety for $12 on Kindle – a bargain that you probably won’t regret. Enormous fun, but also very interesting in its take on the politics of globalization (the previous book, Last First Snow very deliberately takes on the question of how the insights of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State could be transferred into a fantasy setting).

Also, two books that I don’t want to see nominated for Best Related Work, if only because they were both published in the UK in 2016, and US in 2017, and probably have better chances next year.

  • Edmund Gordon – The Invention of Angela Carter. I’ve loved Carter’s work since I first came across it – she’s one of the very few supserstars whom I would have loved to meet (I remember plotting as an undergraduate to go to a talk that she was going to give in Dublin; it was cancelled at short notice, because of what turned out to be her final illness). It’s surprising that we’ve had to wait so long for a biography, but this is a really quite wonderful one. It isn’t at all hagiographical (as the title suggests, she happily reinvented facts about herself and her family to come up with an identity that she felt she could get on with), but it conveys her strength, her intelligence, her contrariness and her warmth. I hadn’t realized that David Hume was such an influence on her work (not having read the novel that takes an epigraph from him), nor would I have ever suspected that William Trevor was an admirer of Carter’s work, given their differences of subject matter and style. If Carter wasn’t often formally identified as a genre writer, she was emphatically a fellow traveller, whose work both spoke to fantasy and borrowed from it.
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie. I only figured out who Mark Fisher was after he died last year. I’d read a couple of pieces he had written (especially his interview with Burial), and encountered many of his ideas at second hand, without ever properly realizing that there was a single person behind them. Now, I’m very sorry. This is a wonderful, odd, individual book, which brings together Alan Garner, the last series of Quatermass, M.R. James and others. I desperately want to argue with him, and write at him (it seems to me that his concept of the eerie is very helpful in understanding aspects of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which isn’t nearly as cosy as it appears to the superficial glance), but can’t.

As always, feel free to carp, disagree and (especially) make other suggestions for books worth reading in comments.

De Sade, war, civil society

by Henry on March 8, 2017

The trouble with writing about the first two Terra Ignota books is knowing quite where to begin. They’re dense in ways that much modern science fiction is not. They engage with the existing literature and traditions, but quite unashamedly demand that readers abandon the usual reading protocols. If Gene Wolfe is one obvious point of reference (not only the New Sun books – Bridger seems to have stepped right out of The Eyeflash Miracles), the books are not in the Wolfeian tradition – they’re something of their own – counter, original, spare and strange. Not all of it worked for me, but what did work, worked very well indeed.

Palmer is an intellectual historian. It is a truism of historiography (more precisely – it was a truism when I studied it in graduate school two decades ago, and I hope it still is) that the ambition of studying history wie es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened, is both impossible and undesirable. Every age puts the travails of its predecessors to its own uses, taking up those parts that seem handy, wrenching them as needs be to fit into new machineries, and abandoning those pieces that cannot be made work. What seems to me entirely original in Palmer’s books is how she uses these processes of historical appropriations to build a bridge to a fictional future. Science fiction needs to build worlds that are sufficiently strange to seem alienating, but not so alienating as to be incomprehensible. As I read her (everything I say below may of course be wrong!) Palmer uses parallel misprisions of the Enlightenment to sustain the connection between the imagined 25th century she wants her readers to explore, and the actual 21st century that they inhabit. Both ages interpret and misinterpret the ideas of the Enlightenment to justify and explain a myriad of social institutions. However, they take up quite different parts of the Enlightenment and use them to quite different ends. Most obviously, Providence is far more important to Mycroft Canner (and his peers ??) than it is to us today. Carlyle is taken up for his Great Man theory, while his racism and curdled conservatism are forgotten. Canner’s role as a historian provides another bridge held up by misunderstandings – he explains more than he might explain to a contemporary, because he fancies himself to be writing for future generations, though in point of fact he is writing for the past.

There are many questions I’d like answers to. There are also aspects of the book that I had difficulties with – the plot – all elaborate machinations among a very few people who combine vast power with extreme ability – sometimes seems more a fiction composed by the Humanists of the book than the structure that should contain that fiction. Some, or all, of this is surely intentional – in the second book, one of the characters suggests that his story is as extravagant as that of the Count of Monte Cristo. Palmer – or Palmer’s narrator seems to be subjecting the matter of science fiction to older narrative forms. She also signals that the narrator, while seductive (Canner’s voice is extraordinary, especially when it is digressive) is not at all to be trusted. We’re left, Carlo Ginzburg-like, trying to decipher an entire and complex world whose existence we know of only through the deranged subjectivity of a decidedly odd individual. For me at least, a guide as to why Palmer has written the kind of story she has written would be extremely helpful. [click to continue…]

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Forthcoming seminars

by Henry on March 3, 2017

We’re publishing two book seminars in the very near future. The first is on Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders. That’ll be starting next week, on Seven Surrenders’ launch day. The second is on Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway – that will be happening in April, again when the book is launched. They should both be fun.

Russell Hardin has died

by Henry on February 26, 2017

Russell Hardin died last night. I’m not competent even to begin to assess his overall intellectual contribution. What I can do is talk about what his work meant for me. I read – like pretty well every political science graduate student of my generation, and others previous and since – his seminal book on collective action theory. But how I really got to know him was through his work on trust as an encapsulation of interest. Thanks to the kindness of Margaret Levi, I became involved in the project that she, Russell and Karen Cook were running on trust for the Russell Sage Foundation, and a larger orbit of left scholars interested in rational choice. It was the making of more or less everything that I’ve written since, both directly, and through the people it introduced me to. My dissertation and subsequent book were in large part applications of Russell’s ideas. The single cleanest paper I’ve written not only was a riff on Russell’s arguments, but came out of his suggestion that I should take up an off the cuff comment and develop it to see where it goes. He was far kinder to me than he needed to be.

There was a period at the University of Chicago when Russell, Adam Przeworski and Jon Elster were all teaching in the political science department, arguing with each other, and creating through their agreements and disagreements a vision of what the left should be. I think that vision still has an awful lot to say for it. Of Russell’s later work, the book I like the most is How Do You Know? It’s not as perfect in itself as his books on collective action and trust, but it’s quite characteristic of the ways in which (like Brian Barry) he mixed analytic philosophy with a very practical interest in concrete problems. The questions that he raises – of how our knowledge depends on social and collective structures that we do not really understand – seem very relevant now that many of these structures are behaving perversely or breaking down completely. He will be missed and remembered.

Kenneth Arrow has died

by Henry on February 22, 2017

Arrow was a wonderful economist and from all accounts that I’ve heard, a very good guy. Others are much better able to evaluate the technical contribution than I am. Still, It always gave me a little pleasure that the person who had co-discovered the foundational account of general equilibrium, and more than anyone else, had built the basics of social choice theory was a cheerful social democrat. My old co-supervisor, Colin Crouch, told me about the time that he met Arrow at a conference in the Vatican and wandered off together with him to chat about their bemusement at the odd life chances that had brought two left-wing Jewish boys together to roam the corridors of the Catholic Church’s sanctum sanctorum. Arrow was also a one-time Crooked Timber seminar participant – we’re lucky to have had him, and I’m glad of the contact, however slight and glancing, that editing the piece involved.

The Thousand Day Reich: Civil Society

by Henry on February 1, 2017

Over the next while, I want to write a bunch of posts looking at the Trump administration – and the worldwide surge of right wing populism more generally – through different lenses offered by different books. This may or may not be useful to other people – as much as anything I’m doing it to get my own thoughts in order about the condition we’re in, and the various possibilities for pushing back, using other people’s ideas as a starting point. First: civil society.

One way we can think of Trump and leaders like him is in terms of civil society. On the one hand, people like Daron Acemoglu argue that civil society is the last defense against Trump and his ilk.

This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.

The lack – and in fact active discouragement — of direct social participation in politics is the Achilles’ heel of most nascent democracies. Many leaders of newly emerging nations in the 20th century, who professed as their goal the foundation of a democratic regime, all but prevented the formation of civil society, free media, and bottom-up participation in politics; their only use for it was mobilizing core supporters as a defense against other leaders seeking to usurp or contest power. This strategy effectively condemned their democracies to permanent weakness.

On the other, Stephen K. Bannon, the eminence grise of the Trump administration, describes his fears of foreigners as follows:

Last November, for instance, Trump said he was concerned that foreign students attending Ivy League schools have to return home because of U.S. immigration laws. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country,” Trump said. He paused. Bannon said, “Um.” “I think you agree with that,” Trump said. “Do you agree with that?” Bannon was hesitant. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

Civil society is a notoriously loose term – Marx, Gramsci, Bobbio and a whole host of political theorists and writers in the 1990s mean very different things by it. So how can we make it useful? One good place to start is the work of Ernest Gellner. [click to continue…]

Trumpcare, in its majesty

by Henry on January 28, 2017

The NYT on the artful language of Republicans looking to repeal Obamacare.

Before Mr. Trump stepped into the debate with his call for “insurance for everybody,” Republicans were choosing their words with utmost caution: Their goal in replacing the health law was to guarantee “universal access,” they said, not necessarily universal coverage.

“We will give everyone access to affordable health care coverage,” Mr. Ryan said in early December when asked if Republicans had a plan to cover everyone.

… “No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said on Jan. 10. … The congresswoman “didn’t deliver her remarks exactly as prepared,” the spokeswoman said. In the prepared remarks, Ms. McMorris Rodgers included an important qualification: “No one who has coverage because of Obamacare today will lose that coverage the day it’s repealed” — in the transition to a new market-oriented health care system.

… We’re all concerned, but it ain’t going to happen,” Mr. Cornyn said. He amplified the point, adding: “Nobody’s going to lose coverage. Obviously, people covered today will continue to be covered. And the hope is we’ll expand access. Right now 30 million people are not covered under Obamacare.” A spokesman for Mr. Cornyn said he “meant no one will lose access to coverage.”

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A term whose time has come round again.

by Henry on January 23, 2017

CBS News:

U.S. government sources tell CBS News that there is a sense of unease in the intelligence community after President Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters on Saturday. An official said the visit “made relations with the intelligence community worse” and described the visit as “uncomfortable.” Authorities are also pushing back against the perception that the CIA workforce was cheering for the president. They say the first three rows in front of the president were largely made up of supporters of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition):

CLAQUE (Fr. claquer, to clap the hands), an organized body of professional applauders in the French theatres. The hiring of persons to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times, and the emperor Nero, when he acted, had his performance greeted by an encomium chanted by five thousand of his soldiers, who were called Augustals. The recollection of this gave the 16th-century French poet, Jean Daurat, an idea which has developed into the modern claque. Buying up a number of tickets for a performance of one of his plays, he distributed them gratuitously to those who promised publicly to express their approbation. It was not, however, till 1820 that a M. Sauton seriously undertook the systematization of the claque, and opened an office in Paris for the supply of claqueurs. These people are usually under a chef de claque, whose duty it is to judge where their efforts are needed and to start the demonstration of approval. This takes several forms. Thus there are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbours to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handerkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in in a good humour, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.

Should President Trump finally decide to outsource this, along with everything else, there’s excellent precedent for a market-based private-sector solution.

2009

by Henry on January 20, 2017

DSC_0258 (1)

A photo I took back in 2009 (I lucked into a great ticket at the last moment when I ran into someone I’d known in Dublin who had a couple of extra, and no-one to give them to). Consider this an open thread on today, if you want to discuss it.

Empire Games

by Henry on January 16, 2017

Just finished an advance copy of Charles Stross’s Empire Games, which is coming out tomorrow – recommended (NB – no spoilers below, except for the most abject social science geeks). I haven’t gotten as much out of his last couple of Laundry Books as the earlier ones (I prefer the horror-to-jokeiness balance to be weighted a little more in favor of horror) but I liked this sequel to his earlier Merchant Princes books quite a bit.

Specifically, it returns to the economic-development-theory fan-service that Paul Krugman liked so much in the earlier books, and ramps it up. It’s certainly cheeky to have an organization called the Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence with the goal of furthering domestic development through grabbing great ideas from elsewhere (in this case parallel universes) and looking to use them to build up domestic production capacity without allowing dangerous foreign dependencies to develop. I suspect that the nice clockwork theory that this MITI is working on is going to start popping escapements all over the place in the sequels. See also: cross-dimensional deterrence theory. I’m not going to say any more, so as to avoid spoiling actual plot developments, but if you liked the earlier books, you’ll almost certainly like this one, and if you’re looking for social-science literate entertainment, you should read it too, but likely you should read the prequels first to avoid hopeless confusion.

Algorithmic price fixing

by Henry on January 9, 2017

This FT article is pretty interesting:

The classic example of industrial-era price fixing dates back to a series of dinners hosted amid the 1907 financial panic by Elbert Gary, then chairman of US Steel. In a narrow first-floor ballroom at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, men controlling 90 per cent of the nation’s steel output revealed to each other their respective wage rates, prices and “all information concerning their business”, one attendee recalled. Gary’s aim was to stabilise falling prices. The government later sued, saying that the dinner talks — the first of several over a four-year period — showed that US Steel was an illegal monopoly.

Algorithms render obsolete the need for such face-to-face plotting. Pricing tools scour the internet for competitors’ prices, prowl proprietary databases for relevant historical demand data, analyse digitised information and arrive at pricing solutions within milliseconds — far faster than any flesh-and-blood merchant could. That should, in theory, result in lower prices and wider consumer choice. Algorithms raise antitrust concerns only in certain circumstances, such as when they are designed explicitly to facilitate collusion or parallel pricing moves by competitors.

… a German software application that tracks petrol-pump prices. Preliminary results suggest that the app discourages price-cutting by retailers, keeping prices higher than they otherwise would have been. As the algorithm instantly detects a petrol station price cut, allowing competitors to match the new price before consumers can shift to the discounter, there is no incentive for any vendor to cut in the first place.

“Algorithms are sharing information so quickly that consumers are not aware of the competition,” says Mr Stucke. “Two gas stations that are across the street from each other are already familiar with this.” This episode suggests that the availability of perfect information, a hallmark of free market theory, might harm rather than empower consumers. If the concern is borne out, a central assumption of the digital economy — that technology lowers prices and expands choices — could be upended.

The argument here, if it is right, is twofold. One – that even without direct collusion, firms’ best strategy may be to act as if they are colluding by maintaining higher prices. Firms have a much weaker temptation to ‘defect’ from an entirely implicit bargain by lowering their prices so as to attract more customers, since there are unlikely to be significant gains from so doing, even in the short run. The plausible equilibrium is something that might be described as distributed oligopoly. Harrison White once defined a market as being a “tangible clique of producing firms, observing each other in the context of an aggregate set of buyers.” With super-cheap information, it doesn’t have to be a clique any more to be tangible.

The second is that where there is direct collusion, the information burden on regulators is much higher. For example, one may plausibly imagine that oligopoly-type outcomes might emerge as a second-order outcome of the aggregated behavior of automated agents. One might also imagine that it might be possible artfully to tweak these agents’ behavior in such a way that this will indeed be the most likely result. However, proving ex post that this was indeed the intent will likely at best require a ton of forensic resources, and at worst may be effectively impossible.

NB that both of these can happen entirely independently of traditional arguments about concentration and monopoly/oligopoly – even if Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber etc suddenly and miraculously disappeared, these kinds of distributed or occulted oligopoly problems would be untouched. If you take this set of claims seriously (the evidence presented in the FT piece still looks tentative tentative), then the most fundamental problem that the Internet poses is not one of network advantage, increasing returns to scale and so on advantaging big players (since, with a non-supine anti-trust authority, these could in principle be addressed). It’s the problem of how radically cheaper communication makes new forms of implicit and explicit collusion possible at scale, squeezing consumers.

Brexit and Labour’s Disaster

by Henry on January 5, 2017

A piece I wrote on Brexit and the UK party system has just come out in Democracy. More than anything else, I wrote the article to get people to read Peter Mair. I didn’t know Mair at all well – he was another Irish political scientist, but was based in various European universities and in a different set of academic networks than my own. I met him once and liked him, and chatted briefly a couple of times after that about email. I wish I’d known him better – his posthumously edited and published book, Ruling the Void is the single most compelling account I’ve read of what has gone wrong in European politics, and in particular what’s gone wrong for the left. It’s still enormously relevant years after his death. The ever ramifying disaster that is the British Labour party is in large part the working out of the story that Mair laid out – how party elites became disconnected from their base, how the EU became a way to kick issues out of politics into technocracy, and how it all went horribly wrong.

The modern Labour Party is caught in an especially unpleasant version of Mair’s dilemma. Labour’s leaders tried over decades to improve the party’s electoral prospects in a country where its traditional class base was disappearing. They sought very deliberately and with some success to weaken its party organization in order to achieve this aim. However, their success created a new governing class within Labour, one largely disconnected from the party grassroots that it is supposed to represent. Ed Miliband recognized this problem as party leader and tried to rebuild the party’s connection to its grassroots. … However, as Mair might have predicted, there weren’t any traditional grassroots out there to cultivate. … Mair argued that the leadership and the base were becoming disengaged from each other, so that traditional parties were withering away. Labour has actually taken this one stage further, creating a party in which the leadership and membership are at daggers drawn, each able to stymie the other, but neither able to prevail or willing to surrender.

Columbia and grad student unionization

by Henry on January 3, 2017

It’s not surprising that businesses are likely to take advantage of the incoming Trump administration’s hostility to unions. It’s infuriating that some academic institutions are looking to do the same. Graduate students in Columbia University just voted to organize, citing frustrations with late pay, poor working conditions and so on. The university administration is looking to challenge the vote before the National Labor Relations Board on transparently specious grounds.

In its objections, Columbia said that during the election, “known union agents” stood within 100 feet of a polling place — an area voters had to pass through in order to vote — and had conversations with eligible voters. Columbia also faulted the regional body of the N.L.R.B., saying a last-minute decision not to require voters to present identification might have allowed ineligible voters to cast ballots. Columbia said a board representative improperly removed an election observer.

Given that there was a 2-1 majority in favor of unionization, this argument is, bluntly, horseshit. There are no plausible grounds for thinking that the vote would have gone differently had there not been “known union agents” (whatever that might mean) within 100 feet of voting, nor that there was voter fraud. This is nothing more and nothing less than Columbia deciding to take advantage of a new presidential administration, and an NLRB where an incoming majority of board members will see their mission as gutting the union movement through whatever means and cases present themselves.

At the moment, there appears to be a Facebook petition but I don’t use Facebook. I hope very much that Columbia faculty members put pressure on the university administration to reverse this shameful decision. If the leaders of the unionization effort want support from non-Columbia faculty members (and non-Columbia people more generally), I hope they get that too (and will try to provide updates should there be further information).