Posts by author:

Henry

Now that the NLRB is considering the question of graduate student unionization again, we’re beginning to see people write pieces suggesting that academic life would collapse if graduate students had bargaining rights. If there’s any use to this particular one (by Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard), it’s that it conveniently bundles a few of the bad arguments together. [click to continue…]

Vindictive billionaires

by Henry on May 26, 2016

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump: [click to continue…]

Polanyi and Clopenings

by Henry on May 24, 2016

This piece by Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber on Polanyi’s double movement, Trumpism, and the difference between left neo-liberalism and the social democratic left is fantastic. Go read it – I’m not going to try to excerpt from it, and certainly don’t think I can improve on it. One of the things that it does, which I’ve wanted to write about for a little while, is to pick up on Polanyi’s notion that labor and land are fictitious commodities – that is, that much of the problem with classical liberalism is that it presumes them to be commodities when really they are not. Konczal and Iber pick out a key quote:

Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance

One very good example of how treating labor as a commodity goes wrong is ‘clopenings’ – near back-to-back shifts, combined with the practice of many employers of requiring their workers to agree to irregular shift work where they may not know until very shortly before when they are supposed to turn up to work. Steven Greenhouse wrote a strong piece on this for the New York Times:

On the nights when she has just seven hours between shifts at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Fla., Shetara Brown drops off her three young children with her mother. After work, she catches a bus to her apartment, takes a shower to wash off the grease and sleeps three and a half hours before getting back on the bus to return to her job. … Employees are literally losing sleep as restaurants, retailers and many other businesses shrink the intervals between shifts and rely on smaller, leaner staffs to shave costs. These scheduling practices can take a toll on employees who have to squeeze commuting, family duties and sleep into fewer hours between shifts. The growing practice of the same workers closing the doors at night and returning to open them in the morning even has its own name: “clopening.” … Last summer, Starbucks announced that it would curb clopenings on the same day that The New York Times published an article profiling a barista, Jannette Navarro, mother of a 4-year-old, who worked a scheduled shift that ended at 11 p.m. and began a new shift at 4 a.m. … But several people who identified themselves as Starbucks employees complained on a Facebook private group page that they still were scheduled for clopenings, despite the company’s pronouncement. One worker in Texas wrote on Jan. 30, “I work every other Sunday as a closer, which is at 10:30 or really 11-ish, then scheduled at 6 a.m. the next morning.” Another worker in Southern California wrote, “As a matter of fact I clopen this weekend.” Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman, questioned the authenticity of the Facebook posts.

Markets, given that they are what they are, treat labour as a commodity. There are obvious efficiencies for firms if they can require their employees to carry out clopenings, or be available at short notice for unexpected shifts. Perhaps, indeed, one could construct a model demonstrating that consumers will benefit in the aggregate – that their venti half skim lattes with an extra shot will each cost one or two cents less if firms can rely on these kinds of labour models. But labour is performed by actual people, with actual families, which often involve children or dependents relying on them. This is a significant part of Polanyi’s point – and modern shift practices in the service economy are an example which should be viscerally tangible to those of us who have had to juggle our work lives and raising kids or looking after other dependents (which is not all of us, but is many of us). Ways of thinking that turn labour into a commodity, divorcing it from the human beings that carry it out, are apt to produce monstrosities.

Screenshot 2016-05-10 13.01.23

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is finally out (Powells, Amazon), so that you can read it too (I’ve been impatiently waiting to share it with everyone I know). As Jo Walton says here, it’s wonderful. It does something that I think is genuinely new (or at least, if other people have pulled it off, I haven’t read them). Palmer is a historian (here’s an interview I did with her on her book about Lucretius’ reception in the Renaissance) and approaches science fiction in a novel way. Her 25th century draws on the ideas of Enlightenment humanism, but in the same ways that, say, America draws on the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. Which is to say that it takes the bits that seem useful, reinterprets them or misinterprets them as new circumstances dictate, and grafts them onto what is already there, throwing away the rest. Palmer does this quite thoroughly and comprehensively – her imagined society is both thrown together in the way that real societies are, and clinker-built (in the sense that she has evidently really thought through how this would be related to that and what it might mean). [click to continue…]

Aristotle: On Trolling

by Henry on May 7, 2016

Via Cosma, this, by Rachel Barney at the University of Toronto, is the best thing I’ve read on the Internets in quite a while. UPDATE: since it has been Creative Commonsed, as I should have spotted immediately, am publishing the whole below the fold, free to all finders, birds, beasts, Elves or Men, and all kindly creatures.

That trolling is a shameful thing, and that no one of sense would accept to be called ‘troll’, all are agreed; but what trolling is, and how many its species are, and whether there is an excellence of the troll, is unclear. And indeed trolling is said in many ways; for some call ‘troll’ anyone who is abusive on the internet, but this is only the disagreeable person, or in newspaper comments the angry old man. And the one who disagrees loudly on the blog on each occasion is a lover of controversy, or an attention-seeker. And none of these is the troll, or perhaps some are of a mixed type; for there is no art in what they do. (Whether it is possible to troll one’s own blog is unclear; for the one who poses divisive questions seems only to seek controversy, and to do so openly; and this is not trolling but rather a kind of clickbait.)

Well then, the troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed. And the community has some good in common, and this the troll must know, and what things promote and destroy it: for he seeks to destroy. Hence no one would troll the remotest Mysian, or even know how, but rather a Republican trolls a Democratic blog and a Democrat Republicans. And he destroys the thread by disputing what is known to be true, or abusing what is recognised as admirable; or he creates fear about a small problem, as if it were large, or treats a necessary matter as small; or he speaks abuse while claiming to be a friend. And in general the troll says what is false but sounds like the truth—or rather he does not quite say it, but rather something very close to it which is true, or partly true, or best of all merely asks a simple question about the evidence for climate change. Hence the modes of trolling are many: the concern-troll, the one who ‘sees the other side’, the polite inquirer into the obvious. For the perfected troll has no need of rudeness or abuse, or even of fallacy (this belongs rather to sophistic or eristic, and requires making an argument): he only makes a suggestion or indication [sêmainein]. [click to continue…]

Brad DeLong is Seeing Red

by Henry on April 25, 2016

Brad DeLong has a post where he looks to be trying to resurrect the Left-neoliberalism wars, issuing minatory warnings about the dangers of a perspective in which:

There is a Movement, the Movement is good because the Movement is supported by the class whose interest is the general interest and by Correct Ideological Thought, and all progressives must support the movement.

He furthermore quotes an old post of mine so as to revive his previous suggestion that I’m a card carrying member of this purportedly disastrous tendency. I’m a genuine admirer of much of Brad’s work – but not of when he gets on his full Redbaiting (which usually seems to happen when he is personally exercised, or when someone says something that could be construed as being rude to Larry Summers). Some clarifications, in response to Brad’s post: [click to continue…]

Today is Krauthammer Day #13

by Henry on April 22, 2016

Again, it’s Krauthammer Day. Today is the unlucky thirteenth anniversary of the day when the prominent pundit announced:

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.

As of today, we’ve had five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months and five months, and another month on top of that of Charles Krauthammer’s credibility problem. He’s still opining.

Samuel Beckett on the Quantified Self

by Henry on April 13, 2016

We’ve already had Janice Rogers Brown on Samuel Beckett as feel-good self-help guru. Now (from a bit of Molloy I was reading last night), here’s Beckett on the quantified self movement, half a century before it was a movement.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.12.59 AM

Update: I hadn’t realized that today was the 100th anniversary of Beckett’s birth.

2016 Hugos

by Henry on March 24, 2016

As usual, my list of the Hugo eligible books for this year (as well as short story collections), meant less as a form of canvassing (especially given that nominations are about to close) than of solving the commitment problem of getting me off my arse to talk about books that I liked and didn’t like. Necessary qualification – the very best novel that I read last year isn’t available yet – Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning – a book that has the potential to remake the genre. It’ll be out in a couple of months, at which point I’ll have more to say.
[click to continue…]

Bitcoin Frenzy

by Henry on March 10, 2016

I’ve a piece in today’s Financial Times about the political fights racking the Bitcoin community.

Bitcoin, the decentralised, mainly digital currency that is neither issued nor guaranteed by central banks, has always seemed like a magic trick. … Radical libertarians have desperately wanted to believe in it … Politics disappears and a combination of technology and cryptographic proofs is conjured up in its place. Unfortunately, the magic is wearing off. Some of the technological innovations associated with bitcoin will stick around. The political project will not. … As more people have started to use bitcoin, the system has grown more unreliable.The problem is that coming up with a fix requires political agreement. Because there is no centralised authority within bitcoin, there is no one who can impose a mandate. … This free-for-all demonstrates the main problem of technological libertarianism. It does not escape politics but temporarily displaces and conceals it. … The apparent value of bitcoin depends on a suspension of disbelief. It is hard to see how the illusion can work when the magicians are punching each other out on stage.

NB one error which crept in (completely my fault) during the editing process: “protocols to make the blocks bigger so that more bitcoin are released at one time, speeding up transactions” should just read “protocols to make the blocks bigger, speeding up transactions.” NB also, more interestingly, this piece by Ben Thompson at Stratechery, which I wish I’d seen before writing my own, especially since it has a couple of lovely and apposite quotes. [click to continue…]

Jo Walton Seminar

by Henry on February 10, 2016

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

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

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

The participants:

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

Maria Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Original Sin.

Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. Gods Behaving Badly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook’s algorithms are not your friend

by Henry on February 7, 2016

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Gods Behaving Badly

by Henry on February 2, 2016

WARNING – COPIOUS SPOILERS ABOUT BOTH BOOKS

It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading. [click to continue…]

Millian Liberalism and the Irish Famine

by Henry on January 28, 2016

Tyler Cowen has a piece today responding to Kevin Drum, and arguing that one can’t easily disassociate progressivism from eugenics:

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today. I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. … The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. … they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong. … Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.

It’s hard for me to read a defense of “Millian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century” and not think about the response of Millian liberalism and associated forms of thought in political economy to the Irish famine in which a million or so people died, and a million emigrated. [click to continue…]

Aaron Swartz died three years ago today

by Henry on January 11, 2016

The New Press has put out a book collecting some of his writing. I contributed a short piece, as did some other people who knew him; since my contract allows me to, and since no-one conceivably wants to buy the book to see what I have to say, I’m putting it below the fold.

[click to continue…]