Posts by author:

Henry

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.

“The Luck in the Head”

by Henry on April 15, 2014

lith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piketty on Capital: A Footnote

by Henry on April 5, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journalism and Astroturfing

by Henry on March 27, 2014

Back when Nick Confessore broke the Tech Central Station scandal, another journalist wrote a very good piece about the problems that you got when journalism merged into astroturfing.

For years—literally years—I’ve been writing about Astroturf organizing and that trendsetting operation in the trade, DCI —home of that Johny Appleseed of the plastic and the green, Tom Synhorst. Simply put, Astroturf organizers are in the business of creating phony grassroots support, or rather the appearance of grassroots support, for this or that cause. You got the money and the cause? They’ll bring the front groups, the push-polls, the oped payola, you name it. …The secret of ‘turf is a simple one. Advertisements and paid spokesman may influence us to some degree. We hear their opinions, see them on TV and such. But because they’re paid, because they’re essentially advertisements, we also tend to tune them out, or at least bracket them off in our minds. … For years, the trendsetter in Astroturf has been DCI. And a couple days ago, if you were watching really closely, a tiny sentence changed on an out-of-the-way page on the TechCentralStation website. The sentence that read … “Tech Central Station is published by Tech Central Station, L.L.C.” now reads … “Tech Central Station is published by DCI Group, L.L.C.” It wasn’t an accident. It was because this article—‘Meet the Press’ by Nick Confessore—was about to be published by The Washington Monthly.

That journalist was Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Today, as part of its “very cool new section … which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America,” Talking Points Memo published this piece about “the data sharing effort to cure cancer.” [click to continue…]

Anyone Remember Tech Central Station?

by Henry on March 27, 2014

Josh Marshall tells us that he has wonderful news.

Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Ideal Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives? How is it impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations of the 21st century – whether that’s in subsaharan Africa or Appalachia or in congested great cities of the world. Basically, how is and how can science and technology change the lives of people in their every day lives – not only with their gadgets and not only for people who command great wealth, but real world impacts for everyone.

People who’ve been blogging as long as I have may remember another website with PHrMA funding which set out to tell us about the awesome innovating power of innovative innovation, the unlamented Tech Central Station. TCS dished out money to Glenn Reynolds and other bullshit merchants in the marketplace of ideas to provide cover for a whole variety of unsalubrious corporate agendas. Josh Marshall isn’t Glenn Reynolds – the sponsorship is public and I imagine that there’ll be some quality control. But still, PhRMA’s agenda on innovation involves some very, very shitty stuff indeed. There are a whole bunch of big sleazy lobby groups on Capitol Hill, but PhRMA is arguably the sleaziest.

And in that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except maybe losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on shovelling insanely demanding IP requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is impacting high drug prices? What are the cutting edge techniques in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa (with the lobbying help of James Glassman, whose name devoted readers may recognize from previous episodes of sponsored hackery like, well … Tech Central Station). Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

Update – see the comments below for responses from and debate with Josh Marshall, and this follow-up post for more discussion.

All the things I knew I didn’t know …

by Henry on March 25, 2014

This apology by former NSA head Michael Hayden to Angela Merkel is pretty interesting as apologies go.

Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Hayden is very explicitly not apologizing to Merkel for the US tapping her cellphone. He considers this part of the ordinary business of relations between nations; even “good friends.” He’s apologizing because the US was caught doing it, hence putting Merkel in “a very difficult position.” I was in a radio debate with Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe a few months ago, where he drew an analogy between this scandal and the kind of everyday stuff that you know, happens in marriages, when husbands hire private detectives to spy on their wives and makes sure that they’re not cheating and vice versa. Hayden’s apology actually goes one step further in the weirdness stakes – the cheating spouse apologizes not for having cheated, but for not having hid the affair (which he/she still resolutely refuses to confirm or deny) well enough, hence making for social awkwardness. [click to continue…]

Wonders of the Invisible World

by Henry on March 10, 2014

[Warning: Over-long ruminations and significant True Detective spoilers below the fold]

Nic Pizzolato, the executive producer and writer of True Detective says in interview that the show owes a lot to weird fiction writers like Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron. I’ve no doubt that’s true. However, the show’s organizing tensions aren’t those of Ligotti, Barron and their crowd; they more closely resemble those of another and much better writer of the supernatural; Robert Aickman. [click to continue…]

Conor Friedersdorf makes some remarkably wrong-headed claims in a post on gay marriage in the Atlantic.

In America, there is plenty of homophobia, plenty of anti-gay bigotry, and plenty of people whose antagonism to gays and lesbians is rooted in hatred. Sometimes the language of religious liberty is used to justify behavior that is anything but Christ-like. But the Slate article is implicitly trafficking in its own sort of prejudice. The working assumption is that homophobia, anti-gay bigotry, and hatred are obviously what’s motivating anyone who declines to provide a service for a gay wedding. … . In [Christian] circles, there are plenty of ugly attitudes toward gays and lesbians, as well as lots of people who think gay and lesbian sex and marriage is sinful, but bear no ill will toward gays and lesbians themselves.
[click to continue…]

You may want to not just focus on the obvious questions. My gloomy prediction: it’s going to transform Europe’s debate about energy, in a largely negative direction. The current battle between environmentalists and business interests about how to deal with global warming is already heavily lopsided in favor of the business interests. Very shortly, it’s going to be a three way battle between (1) environmentalists, (2) business interests, and (3) people arguing that European security requires energy independence (many of (3) being funded by (2), which doesn’t mean that they don’t have a point). Efforts to find a quick and dirty way of escaping dependence on Russian gas are likely to focus on fracking as the obvious low cost alternative, and will ditch regulations that get in the way of hydraulic fracturing a-go-go. This, in turn, will create new and powerful business interests who have an interest in keeping the fossil fuel racket going as long as possible. Which means that Europe will scuttle backwards even more quickly from its global commitments, and from any process that might oblige it to make new ones. And then, basically, goodbye to any hope of tackling global warming in this generation or the the next, since Europe is the only major global actor plausibly willing to push for action.

There may be plausible counter-arguments to this (obviously – I’m not an energy economist). It could be, for example, that renewables can be scaled up quickly and easily enough to provide an alternative source of energy security. It could be that there’s some basic logical or factual flaw in my argument (wouldn’t be the first time). I’d really, really love to be wrong on this. But at the moment, I’m not seeing how.

Short Announcements

by Henry on March 1, 2014

(1) Three Quarks Daily is resuming its prize for best blog post in politics and social science. People should vote – there’s a decent prize – but should strongly consider posts on less well known blogs by less well known bloggers, since most of the social value of prizes like this comes from disseminating information on good writers who might otherwise not get attention. I liked this by Quinn Norton, and this piece by Xavier Marquez, myself.

(2) The Baffler has a blog and indeed has had one for a while, with good posts like this by George Scialabba. It also, obviously continues to have good articles, like this piece on Cambridge, MA and Aaron Swartz, and this takedown of Andrew Sorkin’s Dealbook. As well as other good articles that aren’t made freely available online too …

More on US hypocrisy

by Henry on February 24, 2014

The piece that Marty Finnemore and I wrote on US hypocrisy and Snowden has led to a follow up debate at Foreign Affairs. Michael A. Cohen of the Century Foundation wrote a rebuttal to our piece; Marty and I wrote a response to the rebuttal. Foreign Affairs allows us to put up a version on the WWW for six months – so here it is, for comments, disagreement etc.
[click to continue…]

The Liberal Surveillance State

by Henry on January 19, 2014

Long time readers of Sean Wilentz will remember him for greatest hits like his notorious piece on the “cutthroat, fraudulent politics that lie at the foundation of Obama’s supposedly uplifting campaign,” involving “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights,” or his claim that not only was Obama’s “most obvious change to liberal politics” the color of his skin, but Obama was the second coming of Jimmy Carter and a starry-eyed Russia-hugger to boot. So it’s very, very weird to see Wilentz criticizing Edward Snowden on the grounds that his “disgruntlement with Obama … was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive politics” – given his own track record on Obama’s brand of progressivism, why on earth would he believe this to be a problem?

But then the whole article – an attempted hack job on Snowden, Greenwald, Assange and the liberals who like them – is weird like that. In one sense, I can understand why the New Republic went for it – it’s perhaps the purest exercise in even~the~liberal~New Republic~ism that the magazine has published since its change in ownership. Yet it’s also so obviously intellectually shoddy and incoherently argued that you’d have thought that any half-way competent editor would have decided that no amount of contrarianism was worth the damage to the magazine’s brand. [click to continue…]

Dwarf Fortress: A Marxist Analysis

by Henry on January 7, 2014

It is telling in this regard that previous versions of the game used to have an internal monetary economy, with dwarves receiving payment for labor and buying commodities collectively produced in turn. But contradictions occurred between the dwarves’ collective possession of the means of production and the commodified basis for such an economy, and it became unworkable within the game. The game’s designers have abandoned it, and its only remnant is the ability to produce coinage, fulfilling no real purpose. (Indeed, this right of monarchs only achieves true significance beyond questions of prestige in the mercantilist period of absolutism, arguably.) Trade exists, of course, as it does in all feudal societies. This takes the classically feudal form of long distance trade undertaken in dedicated seasons with definite trading partners, the trades themselves taking place at the equivalents of the yearly fair-sites of high medieval France and Italy.

With additional Durkheim and Bloch too! (via David Auerbach on Twitter)

Update: It’s catching