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Rationalism and the True Knowledge

by Henry on May 15, 2015

The introduction to the American edition of The Star Fraction contains Ken MacLeod’s second-most famous dictum – “History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine.” The Fall Revolution books are all about history and people trying to make it (or perhaps more accurately, histories, and people trying to make them). They’re also books that reflect a very specific historical period – when the Berlin Wall had fallen or was about to fall but the Washington Consensus had yet to gel – a moment where the cold logic of nuclear deterrence still held, sort of, while the political transformation of Eastern Europe and the new market anarchism of Sachs, drugs and rock and roll was starting to get going. Maybe the closest thing to the manic intensity of the first three books (and chunks of the fourth) is the Zone of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – black markets, hustlers, ideas, freewheeling politics, and the frozen arc of the Rocket still hanging above it all. They’re also (and much more so than Pynchon, whose zaniness is often forced) very funny books – they don’t play anything for obvious laughs, but are riddled through with intellectual black comedy.

Ken MacLeod Seminar

by Henry on May 5, 2015

A public service announcement: we’ll be publishing a seminar on Ken MacLeod’s books next week, with contributions from me, Sumana Harihareswara, Farah Mendlesohn, Cosma Shalizi and Jo Walton, as well as Ken himself. It’s shaping up to be a lot of fun.

“That Notoriously Picky Publication”

by Henry on April 25, 2015

Gene Wolfe, from the introduction of his collection, Storeys from the Old Hotel:

Perhaps the best way to explain it is to tell you something about “In the Old Hotel,” a short piece you’ll read not far from the end. At about the time the winter of 1980-81 was fading, my wife Rosemary and I rode a crack train called the Empire Builder from Chicago (where we live) to Seattle and back. Sitting in the observation car in the back, I wrote six very brief stories. When we got home, I typed them up and sent them with no great hope to The New Yorker.

With no great hope. One tends to gamble with short pieces – if they are accepted, they will bring a noticeable gain in prestige; if they are not, little has been lost. All in all, I suppose I’ve submitted at least twenty stories to The New Yorker.

This time I got a surprise – one of the six, “On the Train,” had found a home; it’s still the only success I’ve had with that notoriously picky publication. Furthermore, the letter of acceptance revealed that the junior editor who had read all six had wanted to accept another, “In the Old Hotel,” but had been overrruled. Needless to say, “In the Old Hotel” at once became a great favorite of mine.

This is a very long winded way of saying that Gene Wolfe clearly cares about The New Yorker. Which makes it even nicer that they have just published a very good profile of his work and life. I’ve written about Wolfe before – if you like this passage you’ll very likely fall in love with his work, and if you don’t, then you probably won’t. Whichever way you end up, he has written many great books and stories, and I’m happy to see him getting a little of the recognition he deserves from a publication that he clearly values.

Krautmas came two weeks early this year

by Henry on April 22, 2015

Today is Charles Krauthammer day, the twelfth anniversary of the day when Charles Krauthammer opined:

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.

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 another four months on top since then. But still no nuclear weapons. Some time in the last twelve months, the transcript of Krauthammer’s remarks finally slipped into the AEI’s memory hole; fortunately, the remarks are preserved for posterity at the Internet Archive.

Unfortunately, Charles Krauthammer is still writing pieces like this one on the proposed Iran deal, from April 9. Krauthammer complains of Obama:

You set out to prevent proliferation and you trigger it. You set out to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability and you legitimize it. You set out to constrain the world’s greatest exporter of terror threatening every one of our allies in the Middle East and you’re on the verge of making it the region’s economic and military hegemon.

This is a … remarkably un-self-aware … set of fulminations coming from a pundit who advocated invading Iraq as the second stage of a Grand Master Plan which would precipitate regime change in Iran by demonstrating “the fragility of dictatorship” next door. How exactly did that work out? Right. And I think we’ve already touched on Charles Krauthammer’s magisterial grasp of anti-proliferation issues – the man who confidently opined that we needed to go into Iraq, because Saddam “is working on nuclear weapons [and] … has every incentive to pass them on to terrorists who will use them against us,” should really just shut up. Forever. And not only shut up, but devote the rest of his life to doing whatever pathetically inadequate things he can to make up for the strategic and humanitarian catastrophe that he helped cheer-lead. Of course, Charles Krauthammer has no intention of shutting up. Which is why I’m marking this squalid anniversary yet again.

Sucky Hugos

by Henry on April 5, 2015

So apparently the Hugos suck this year, thanks to an organized voting campaign. See Patrick Nielsen Hayden on the voting campaign, which seems to be in part a product of internal disputes within the field (various right wing people upset that f/sf isn’t ‘their’ field any more, and belongs to teh_women/teh_gay/teh_PoC) and in part overspill from Gamergate. I don’t know many of the slate of nominees put up by the campaign, with the minor exception of Marko Kloos (whose self-published book I read and thought was unexceptionable military SF with the usual odd politics), and the unlovely John C. Wright (whose work and political opinions remind me of Gene Wolfe if Gene Wolfe had been subjected to an involuntary lobotomy). I did read and like Katherine Addison’s (Sarah Monette’s) The Goblin Emperor (although I liked her Melusine books even more) but apart from that I don’t have much advice to prospective Hugo voters on what they should vote for. What I do have is opinions on other work that didn’t get nominated but that seemed to me to be worth reading, and I hope that CT readers have too. One of the important functions of awards is to point readers towards good work that they otherwise might have missed. Since the Hugo Awards won’t be doing much of that this year, other people should do what they can.

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John Sladek Had Ted Cruz’s Number

by Henry on March 26, 2015

Ted Cruz on … well himself.

The similarities between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and 16th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei are remarkable, according to Cruz. In an interview on Tuesday with the Texas Tribune, the newly-minted presidential candidate compared himself to … Galileo when discussing, of all things, whether climate change was actually occurring. “Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers,” Cruz said. “You know it used to be it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.” … “Anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate. What do they do? They scream, ‘You’re a denier.’ They brand you a heretic,” Cruz added.

The late John Sladek discusses the ubiquity of this trope among crankish defenders of pseudoscience (specifically palm-readers) in his glorious book, The New Apocrypha.

Palmists are of course in no doubt as to who was right. As with all cranks, they feel they haven’t been given a fair hearing and that orthodoxy is ganging up on them. [quoting palmistry author Noel Jaquin] “The reward of the pioneer is so often the ridicule of his fellow-men. We are not very much more just today. Of recent years men of genius have been deprived of their living and literally hounded to death by the ridicule of their more ignorant brethren.” How true, how true. They laughed at Galileo, they laughed at Darwin, they laughed at Edison … and they laughed at Punch and Judy.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

by Henry on March 17, 2015

And as a St. Patrick’s Day present, a lengthy article on Ireland, written by an American journalist, which (a) hasn’t a hint of stories about fairy rings and the Little People, and (b) actually gets things right. Patrick Radden Keefe’s story on Gerry Adams and the murder of Jean McConville does an excellent job at summarizing multiple perspectives on a complex story, while making it clear which of those perspectives is most believable. And this, on Gerry Adam’s Twitter account:

Adams is now sixty-six and a grandfather, and his evolution into an approachable grandee has found its surreal culmination on Twitter. He intersperses studiously boring tweets about small-bore political issues with a barrage of cat pictures and encomiums to sudsy baths, rubber duckies, and Teddy bears. (“I do love Teddy bears,” he told the BBC. “I have a large collection of Teddy bears.”) One characteristic tweet, from last January: “Dreamt I was eating Cream Eggs. Woke up this morn. Pillow & beard covered in chocolate & cream thingymebob.” The Irish writer Damien Owens has likened all this to “Charles Manson showing you his collection of tea cosies.”

Terry Pratchett has died

by Henry on March 12, 2015

Fuck. Although we knew it was coming, and I am glad if he went out (as I am guessing) on his own terms. Guardian obituary here. I’m pretty sure that his books will continue to live, just as PG Wodehouse’s books have continued to live, although they were very different comic writers. Both were liberal in a small-l sense of the word, but Pratchett’s liberalism was very much more worldly. I’ll always have a particular fondness for the enlightened despot, Lord Vetinari and for the model of hydraulic Keynesianism in Making Money. And for the Ramtop Mountains, an antiquated technology joke that has long outlived its original meaning. And the constellation of the Small Boring Group of Faint Stars, which I bored my nine year old with the day before yesterday. And where Rincewind has seen his life flash before his eyes so many times that he can nap during the boring bits. And the gods’ celestial habitation – Dunmanifestin. And Wyrd Sisters, which is perfectly paced as a novel, with particular attention paid to the standing stone that refuses to be counted and the castle (if my memory is correct) designed by an architect who had heard of Gormenghast but didn’t have the budget. And I could keep on going, and going, and going, which is the point.

The Dread Pirate Roberts as Statebuilder

by Henry on February 20, 2015

My new piece at Aeon.

Ulbricht built the Silk Road marketplace from nothing, pursuing both a political dream and his own self-interest. However, in making a market he found himself building a micro-state, with increasing levels of bureaucracy and rule‑enforcement and, eventually, the threat of violence against the most dangerous rule‑breakers. Trying to build Galt’s Gulch, he ended up reconstructing Hobbes’s Leviathan; he became the very thing he was trying to escape.

HR Tips from Roman slave owners

by Henry on February 6, 2015

A few people in the previous thread pushed me to say more about my underlying theory of trolling, and why Jonathan Chait’s piece (and much of his previous oeuvre) should be categorized as very talented trolling of the second magnitude. I don’t have one – instead I’m trying to suggest that we should evaluate trolling in aesthetic terms. This obviously implies that we can’t and shouldn’t try to come up with a Grand Unified Perspective on Trolling, since aesthetic judgments, a la Bourdieu, are inevitably drenched with positional politics and personal circumstances. I will say that in my personal opinion Chait wasn’t particularly artistically successful (it wasn’t an especially subtle or elegant troll, and entirely lacked that subtle sense of irony that I like myself in a really first rate bit of trollage) but certainly succeeded in getting the crowds out. Hence, the Michael Bay comparison – lots of explosions, noise and box office, but not very much else.

This new piece by Jerry Toner at Aeon is in my opinion a much more successful example, if not quite of trolling, then of something closely related.

Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world. … Like the weak manager who hides behind the Human Resources department when there is firing to be done, some Roman masters clearly baulked at the violence intrinsic to their system. But most openly embraced taking the unpleasant acts that being a master entailed, seeing them as a means of advertising their power and virility. … Small perks could make a big difference to morale. Masters sometimes made a point of checking the slaves’ rations personally to show them that they were taking an interest in their welfare. … Even when treated relatively well, slaves naturally longed for freedom. This desire could be turned to great advantage by the master. It was a carrot with which to motivate the slave to work diligently and honestly. … In Gellius’ retelling of the famous Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion, the slave Androcles put up with undeserved floggings every day. It was only after endless abuse that he finally took the tremendous risk of running away. No doubt there are few wage slaves who do not also dream of throwing off the yoke of their mundane existence and becoming ski-instructors, writers, or their own self-employed masters. Modern managers must make their staff feel that they are earning enough, or have the possibility of earning enough, that these dreams are possible, however remote they might be in reality.

It took me a couple of reads, and some consultation with a third party, before I was reasonably sure that this was a beautifully constructed satire. It’s so deadpan, and so close to the tone of a certain kind of glib-management-theory-building-on-the-new-institutional-economics-book, that the reader isn’t sure whether this is seriously meant or pince-sans-rire. And this is what brings it close to trolling. Its underlying logic is similar to a Jonathan Swift style Modest Proposal, but Swift is all visible saeva indignatio . He takes the language and assumptions of English elite debates on the Irish question and uses them to dress a solution that is objectively appalling. The reader is discomfited – but has a very clear understanding of Swift’s intention. Toner, instead, strands his reader in a kind of Uncanny Valley of intentionality, with a proposal that may, or may not be seriously meant. It’s a much more profound sense of intellectual discomfort. I don’t think that the piece is trolling – but it evokes a feeling of intellectual confusion that’s related to the kinds of confusion that really good trolling produce. So that’s not, obviously, a definition of first rate trolling, or even an example of it. But it maybe sort of helps all the same.

Belle-ing the Chait

by Henry on February 2, 2015

So Jonathan Chait has responded to his critics, sort of. The core claim:

The story’s critics have repeated their claim that I am personally upset so often, they have come to take it as an obvious fact. (“It’s understandable that Chait, and the many others who agree with him,” writes Amanda Taub faux-sympathetically, “find it so upsetting to be on the receiving end of what he refers to as ‘P.C.’ criticism.”) … If there were a single sentence in the story expressing self-pity, it would be widely quoted by the critics, but no such line can be found. (Belle Waring, unable to find any quotes substantiating her characterization of my views, actually goes so far as to invent her own quotes that supposedly describe my thinking.) Nor is such a sentiment hidden, lurking somewhere outside the text. I don’t feel victimized in any way by political correctness or (as some have alleged, in one strange variant of the charge) by new media, which has been a boon to me. I feel, with regard to my career and my place in American society, things have never been better. The response partly reflects the p.c. culture’s inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments rather than reflections of the author’s own identity.
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The Peripheral

by Henry on January 22, 2015

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

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Collective Intelligence 2015

by Henry on January 16, 2015

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


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

The topic areas for collective intelligence include:

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

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

Social democrats in the twin-peaked world

by Henry on January 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My God! It’s Full of Arse!

by Henry on December 19, 2014

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

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