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John Holbo

A couple months ago I made fun of an ‘inspired by Steely Dan’ Apple Music playlist that seemed to be basically a random assortment of tracks by bands, all of which had covered one Steely Dan song at some point. As I put it at the time: “Also, the Mountain Goats?”

How wrong I was! Their new album, Goths, is out. It’s a glorious, slick, lounge jazz-tinged demonstration that Danliness is next to godliness, albeit not gothliness. It also sounds like Prefab Sprout circa Steve McQueen, yet another good thing. YouTube has not hoovered up the tracks yet, but here’s a nice acoustic cover of “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds” (an early release from the album that didn’t quite do it for me; but the acoustic version sounds great. John Darnielle does the deceptively-simple-counter-rhythm strumming thing, which keeps life interesting, and his voice is sweet and clear. No guitar on the album itself.) From the album, I recommend “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement”; also, “Wear Black”; also, get all your Gene Loves Jezebel nostalgia out with “Abandoned Flesh”.

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Every Picture Tells A Story

by John Holbo on May 19, 2017

Col. A. Miller, Maj. C. Spatz, Mrs. C.B. Spatz, Anna Spatz, Sgt. Tanner (LOC)

Wonder what this one is. Please offer your best attempt at Maj. and Mrs. Spatz fanfic in comments. (I love the Flickr Library of Congress photo feed.)

Huh, so that happened.

by John Holbo on May 19, 2017

It’s been a couple days since we had fresh Trump thread – mayfly life cycle of the news cycle, pegged to POTUS attention span! (Trump: the shallow state vs. the Deep State!) [click to continue…]

Kenneth Clark on Velazquez

by John Holbo on May 15, 2017

No one is willing to wait in moderation for God-knows-how-long on a Sunday to see their comments to my Samurai Jack post finally show. Evidently, it’s just not worth the trouble! Well, here’s some more elevated art criticism. I’m reading a Kenneth Clark essay on Velazquez, and he’s remarking on how we prefer the buffoons and dwarfs. “Take away the carapace of their great position, and how pink and featureless the King and Queen become, like prawns without their shells.” That’s true! He looks like a prawn. Her, too. How did I miss it before? [click to continue…]

Samurai Jack, Season 5

by John Holbo on May 14, 2017

12 years after Season 4 left us hanging, we get Season 5! I’m up to episode 8. It’s a bit harsher than the original – not really so appropriate for little kids. Normally I disapprove of that grim-dark development arc. But in this case it works out great. The story is great. The characters are great. Jack is back, and the animation is drop-dead gorgeous. Samurai Jack has always been one of my stylistic favorites. It hits a UPA flat-style cartoon modern sweet spot between a bunch of other influences: Kurosawa, Frank Miller, Bruce Timm, with a Mary Blair color palette and Eyvind Earle backgrounds. Season 5 is the most beautiful yet. They’ve taken it to next level.

 

Comey and Hypocrisy

by John Holbo on May 10, 2017

It is not hypocritical in the least for Democrats to be outraged about Comey over the Clinton business and also to be outraged over Trump’s firing of Comey, apparently to hinder FBI investigations of Trump and his associates. (One presumes Trump has a motive for the firing and the official reason is obviously not the real one.)

If Republicans try to troll Democrats – and I see that they already are – here’s the short, sharp response: we all agree that someone may deserve to be punished, but also that proper procedures for punishing them need to be observed. This is not hypocrisy. It’s the rule of law. If I say Smith should be arrested for capital crimes, and then I am outraged when Smith dies in custody in a suspicious manner, suggesting the police might be covering their own crimes, I am not a hypocrite. The firing is like that. If you care about the rule of law, you are outraged that Comey was fired today. If you care about the integrity of US elections, you are outraged he wasn’t fired before. There is no tension in the view that the rule of law is good, yet the integrity of elections is also good. If Republicans want to make the case that one or both of these are bad, or that it’s wrong to want both, let them make their case openly and honestly.

I decided it was about time to reread the classics. Fantastic Four #11, to be exact.

In this scene the FF are reading from the mailbag. (Ben has, once again, been temporarily turned human by one of Reed’s serums. It won’t last.)

What is Reed going to say, you wonder? Well, wait no longer, loyal Marvelite! Just click and read under the fold! ‘Nuff said! [click to continue…]

Adults In The Room

by John Holbo on May 5, 2017

Yanis Varoufakis’ new memoir sounds pretty damn interesting.

He’s in Washington for a meeting with Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary and Obama confidant. Summers asks him point blank: do you want to be on the inside or the outside? “Outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions,” Summers warns.

Elected politicians have little power; Wall Street and a network of hedge funds, billionaires and media owners have the real power, and the art of being in politics is to recognise this as a fact of life and achieve what you can without disrupting the system. That was the offer. Varoufakis not only rejected it – by describing it in frank detail now, he is arming us against the stupidity of the left’s occasional fantasies that the system built by neoliberalism can somehow bend or compromise to our desire for social justice.

And:

The first revelation is that not only was Greece bankrupt in 2010 when the EU bailed it out, and that the bailout was designed to save the French and German banks, but that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy knew this; and they knew it would be a disaster.

This charge is not new – it was levelled at the financial elite at the time by leftwing activists and rightwing economists. But Varoufakis substantiates it with quotes – some gleaned from the tapes of conversations and phone calls he was, unbeknown to the participants, making at the time.

I enjoyed his interview with Doug Henwood back in March. He seems to think moderately well of Macron, which makes me feel a bit better.

The One-Body Problem

by John Holbo on May 3, 2017

From a Laurie Penny piece last month for The Baffler, “The Slow Confiscation of Everything: How To Think About Climate Apocalypse”: “As David Graeber notes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the ideal psychological culture for the current form of calamity capitalism is an apprehension of coming collapse mated bluntly with the possibility of individual escape.”

That’s a Cory Doctorow thought. More specifically, how can humanity defeat the distinctive sorts of bullshit moral self-delusion that are the bastard progeny of that blunt mating? Evil snowcrash of snowflakes, melting, each trying to be The One. Cory credits Graeber (among others) right there on his acknowledgement page. And I might add: Penny immediately mentions Annalee Newitz’ new book, Scatter, Adapt, And Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction – which bears an effusive Doctorow blurb: “… balanced on the knife-edge of disaster and delirious hope.”

Call it the one-body problem. I’ve only got the one, you see …

Meanwhile, what matters is: you know, humanity. [click to continue…]

Hey, Kids, Comics! – Vienna Genesis Edition

by John Holbo on April 23, 2017

I have been down my work hole for weeks. Apologies, plain people of Crooked Timber. Also, I haven’t worked on On Beyond Zarathustra for months. Maybe that’s even worse. Gotta get back into the good stuff over the summer. Here is a downpayment. I’ve found the first occurrence of a Dr. Seuss-style tree in Western art. It’s from the Vienna Genesis, which is pretty awesome proto-comics and you should check out all the pages at Wikipedia.

I don’t recall Scott McCloud saying anything about this in Understanding Comics. If you want to read a confusing scholarly discussion, try Franz Wickhoff on Roman Art. I think it’s the earliest occurrence of ‘continuous narrative’, also ‘illusionism’. And his use of the latter is eccentric, so you are sure to be the life of the party discussing his ideas!

Some Weekend Music – Live Performances On Video

by John Holbo on April 8, 2017

Live performances often don’t translate well to the medium of tiny YouTube videos … but: [click to continue…]

Syria

by John Holbo on April 8, 2017

I don’t have much to say; perhaps you do. The hell of it is (as several commentators have noted): it doesn’t seem like a distinctively Trumpish response – fire off missiles, let God sort ‘em out. That bit seems as American as apple pie, and President Clinton might well have done the same. The Trumpish part is: willingness to bear the expense of Tomahawks, plus the imponderable downside risks such action entail; plus unwillingness to accept any Syrian refugees – comparatively simple, easy, open, safe, hence morally logical as the latter course of action would seem to be.

The attitude that you can mix mandatory harm-infliction with humanitarianism is less baneful than the attitude that you must do only harm, by way of achieving good ends. But neither attitude is what I would call sane.

Do pundits take some hypocritic foreign policy oath before they are allowed to opine: first, do some harm? Literally no one thinks Trump has any plan for improving the situation in Syria. That would be crazy. Why would you be heartened to see someone blowing things up without any plan? Why would the sight of huge gouts of American hellfire ever seem like a heuristic indicator of increased human welfare?

Raphael Crucifixion

by John Holbo on March 19, 2017

I want you to look at a picture and give me some responses to questions. The picture is Raphael’s so-called Mond Crucifixion. Here’s a large version. Kindly open it in another tab. Admire it for a minute in a mood of sophisticated discernment. (It’s a nice painting, so this shouldn’t be too painful.) Now stop looking at the picture and answer a few questions for me. Close the tab. Put the image from view. [click to continue…]

Heroes and Aliens

by John Holbo on March 17, 2017

“I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” – Thomas Carlyle [the real one, from an 1820 letter]

“So there I was, thinking: is this a space alien? Is this kid insane?” – Too Like The Lightning

‘¿How is the world weird lately?’
< you wouldn’t understand. > – Seven Surrenders

“You know I’m sincere, Caesar, in my way. I love the Eighteenth Century. I fell in love reading about it at the Senseminary, that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with the sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too. I wanted to do that, run an experiment like the American experiment, or greater. I couldn’t resist the chance to finish what my heroes started, not just the humanitarians like the Patriarch and the Romantics like Jean Jacques, but the underbelly, La Mettrie, Diderot, De Sade. The Enlightenment tried to remake society in Reason’s image: rational laws, rational religion; but the ones who really thought it through realized morality itself was just as artificial as the artistocracy and theocracies they were sweeping away. Diderot theorized that a new Enlightened Man could be raised with Reason in place of conscience, a cold calculator who would find nothing good or bad beyond what his own analysis decided. They had no way to achieve one back then, but I did it. I raised an Alien.” – Seven Surrenders

This post will be something like a Thomas Carlyle style sampler – (un)commonplace book – for potential readers of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota novels. (You’ve never read Carlyle? That’s quite normal! We shall remedy the defect, slightly.) The Palmer-related point will be something like this. These novels are great! But very weird. She writes like she thinks she’s … Thomas Carlyle or something. That, or I don’t know what. (She doesn’t mention Carlyle by name in her “Author’s Note and Acknowledgement”, but she keeps naming characters after him.)

I don’t propose this as some secret key to the novels. I am sure there is no one Code at the root of it, waiting to be named ‘Carlyle’ (or anything else). But I am only one voice around the table here, so I hope a spot of overemphasis shall not be taken amiss. (Seldom have I read sf novels with so much philosophy packed in, which I’m not inclined to describe as having a philosophy, or being attempted thought-experiments. I mean that in the nicest way.)

I myself have a bit of a Carlyle bug in the ear — sf related one, even. When I teach “Philosophy and Science Fiction” I talk about H.G. Wells, The Time-Machine. (By the by, I must mention that Adam Roberts has been tearing it up, Wells-wise.) I talk about why there’s a sphinx. I talk about Oedipus and the Riddle. I have a bit to say about how maybe Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present — that chapter, “The Sphinx” — is of interest to students of the history of science fiction. Cosmic vision of looming, long-term Truth behind curtain of present life!

“How true … is that other old Fable of the Sphinx, who sat by the wayside, propounding her riddle to the passengers, which if they could not answer she destroyed them! Such a Sphinx is this Life of ours, to all men and societies of men … Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle, is as a heavenly bride and conquest to the wise and brave, to them who can discern her behests and do them; a destroying fiend to them who cannot. Answer her riddle, it is well with thee. Answer it not, pass on regarding it not, it will answer itself; the solution for thee is a thing of teeth and claws … With Nations it is as with individuals: Can they rede the riddle of Destiny? This English Nation, will it get to know the meaning of its strange new Today? Is there sense enough extant, discoverable anywhere or anyhow, in our united twenty-seven million heads to discern the same; valour enough in our twenty-seven million hearts to dare and do the bidding thereof? It will be seen!—”

We have Nietzschean science fiction, of course; Hegelian science fiction — Olaf Stapledon oughta hold you. Why not Carlyle-style sf?

Let’s start with my epigraphs, above. [click to continue…]

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Durkheimian Utilitarianism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2017

This post continues what has evolved into my critical series on Jonathan Haidt (see parts 1 and 2). The burden of the first two posts was: probably a good time to talk about justice, eh? So let’s. I’m going to split it into two, so I can kvetch about how Haidt is confused about Mill (this post), then try to do better myself (next post).

I got email about my last post (not just comments!) suggesting Haidt could do better than I give him credit for. I am 100% sure this is correct. I reconstructed Haidt’s argument with a conspicuously cloudy Premise 3: “something something plurality something pluralism something diversity?” I am sure Haidt could tighten that one up. Yet it does not seem to me he, in fact, has. In this post I am going to lay out textual evidence. Having done my best to expose the logical worst, I’m going to close this post by trying to say how he got into this hole. Honestly, I think I get it. He wants to have his Mill and eat his Durkheim, too. Best of both. I also get why he might feel his bridge from Durkheim to Mill might be load-bearing.

First, a basic point about the sense of ‘justice’ at issue in this post. (A sense we will have to broaden if and when I get around to the follow-up.)

Haidt is, we know, concerned about under-representation of conservatives in academe. There are two possible grounds for such concern.

1) It’s distributively unfair, hence unjust to conservatives, if there is viewpoint discrimination against them, as a result of which they fail to gain employment (or they lose employment).

2) It’s intellectually damaging to debate to have few conservatives present in conversations in which, predictably, liberals and conservatives will find themselves at odds.

I have no idea what Haidt thinks about 1. His arguments concern 2, so I’m going to focus on that. Justice as in: optimal intellectual balance. Epistemic justice. Justice as in justification. Not distributive justice.

On we go. [click to continue…]