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Henry

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.
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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.

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David Bowie

by Henry on January 11, 2016

Comment on his career seems superfluous and almost impertinent. I have difficulty thinking of another recently living musician who so defined the contours of the world I grew up in and lived in. The one thing that’s noticeable to me (at least for the music I know, which is obviously far from everything), is that while you can trace his influence on musicians of pretty well every subsequent generation, it’s hard to discern any significant backlash against him. He was sui generis.

Thomas Piketty seminar

by Henry on January 4, 2016

We have finished publishing our seminar on Thomas Piketty. The participants (with links to their responses) are below.

The whole seminar is available on the WWW here.

If you prefer to read the seminar in PDF form, it’s available here.

If you would like the raw LaTeX file for the seminar (e.g. to remix under the Creative Commons license – see the PDF for more), it’s available here.

Finally, if you spot any typos, feel free to let me know in comments!

Participants:

A placeholder for Piketty

by Henry on December 23, 2015

A quick announcement – we’ll be publishing Thomas Piketty’s response to the seminar in early January, it being the time of year when many readers are likely to be spending time with their family or being otherwise engaged. In the meantime, readers may be interested in the Foreign Affairs debate on economic inequality (which evidently owes a ton to Piketty) and Dan Hirschman’s paper on why Piketty’s work seemed so surprising when it first came out. And to all who celebrate it, happy Christmas, and to those who don’t, happy holidays! Myself, I’ll be spending it with my extended family in the West of Ireland (including Milo, the Crooked Timber Christmas dog

Safe Harbor and the NSA

by Henry on December 16, 2015

Abraham Newman and I have a piece in the new Foreign Affairs, discussing the Safe Harbor decision, and arguing that it’s really an example of the US finding some of its own preferred extraterritorial rules being used against it. Since Foreign Affairs allows me to put the whole piece up for a few months, here’s the full text for anyone who’s interested …

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Piketty, in three parts

by Henry on December 15, 2015

It’s the unfortunate fate of greatly influential books to be greatly misunderstood. When a book is sufficiently important to reshape intellectual and political debates, it escapes, at least to some extent, its author’s intentions. People want to latch onto it and use it as a vehicle for their own particular gripes and concerns. Enemies will distort the book further, some because they dislike the book’s message, others because they feel that they, rather than the book’s author, should have been the messenger adorned by history with laurels. The book will further be subject to the more ordinary forms of misprision and adaptation (some helpful; others less so) that all books are subject to. [click to continue…]

Benedict Anderson has died

by Henry on December 13, 2015

Obituary here. His Imagined Communities was an important book to me, as it was, I suspect, to many other people in the Crooked Timber community. Indeed, it’s the book that made me decide to do graduate studies in political science (how could it not be wonderful to work in a discipline where one could read novels and newspapers to reach grand conclusions about political and social life; I was to find out). He was of Anglo-Irish stock – how much that double alienation (membership of an unintegrated but socially privileged minority within a state based on the usual national myths) shaped his viewpoint has been the subject of a lot of amateur speculation. I liked his book on international anarchism (review here, combined with a review of Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed), but more for the details than the whole. There’s a funny anecdote in it about an assassination attempt on a Captain-General:

With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General’s palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine’s gases from escaping normally.

with further references to how the General was “partly relieved” and to the “diehard colons” of the revolution. I like that he had a low (if somewhat pince-sans-rire) sense of humour, despite his formidable learning and clipped Etonian accent – I can only imagine that he took great delight in smuggling the story and dubious jokes into an otherwise serious and densely researched academic book. More of us should be like him.

Doug North has died

by Henry on November 24, 2015

Obituary here (via Tyler Cowen). He was a fascinating and very important writer and thinker, although his final two books were not as strong as his earlier work. The politics of his ideas are complicated – on the one hand moving away from the efficiency arguments of markets towards political processes of institutional formation, but on the other never precisely able to decide whether and when these political institutions were guided by a logic of lowering transaction costs or by the desire of powerful actors to reap distributional benefits. Path dependence in his work serves more as a stand-in for an explanation than an explanation in its own right, especially given the continuing question (not really resolved in his work or the work of those he influenced) as to why some economies (by his account) changed and began to develop towards the rule of law while others did not. Still, even if he didn’t explain this, no-one else has done an especially good job either. One thing that is likely to get overlooked in his work is his continued engagement with the left. The first time I had had a serious conversation with him, he described himself as a “Marxist of the right,” which seems correct to me (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person he used this self-description with). There’s a good essay to be written on his encounter with Karl Polanyi – this essay (PDF) disagreeing with Polanyi contains the seeds of some of his most crucial arguments. He will be missed.

Beware the commissars of political correctness!

by Henry on November 11, 2015

I actually quite like Jonathan Chait’s work – he’s mostly very competent at a certain kind of centrist trolling. But the tune he’s whistling is getting a little boring. Today, he asks whether we can take political correctness seriously now, and provides his own answer to his own rhetorical question: Yes – And We Must Do It Before It Is Too Late.

It is possible — and, for many sympathizers on the left, convenient — to dismiss these sorts of incidents as just so much college high jinks. “College students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students,” argues Daniel Drezner, in a passage that attracted widespread support on the left. … Colleges have disproportionate influence over intellectual life … the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities … It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. … American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

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