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John Holbo

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!

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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?

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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…]

Not-Normal, To Be Sure. But How Normal Is That?

by John Holbo on February 18, 2017

Trump is not normal. He should not be treated as normal. I quite agree. But how normal has it been in US politics for a not-normal possibility to loom, as a real possibility?

We don’t write histories of the New Deal as “The Period When, But For An Assassin’s Bullet, Huey Long Might Have Changed Everything”. We call that period: The New Deal.

We don’t write histories of the Clinton Era as “The Period When, If He Hadn’t Dropped Out, Before Getting Back In, Ross Perot Might Have Been President”. We call those years: The Clinton Years.

If Trump had lost in 2016, I don’t know what era we would be in but it wouldn’t be “The Almost-Trump Years”.

We don’t do Almost Black Swan, when it comes to labeling eras. But, as in horseshoes and hand-grenades, ‘almost’ ought to count for something. Huey Long and Ross Perot are the populist ringers that occur to me as obvious Trump analogs. How many radical ‘almosts’ have their been, over the years? Suppose you went back through your US history textbook, reheading all the chapters. What are the biggest, craziest ‘almosts’ that barely weren’t?

This is, to repeat, not an argument for regarding Trump as normal.

Howl’s Moving Castle

by John Holbo on February 11, 2017

It’s good to see that National Review is awakening to the threat of one branch of government being afflicted by lunacy and threatening to ride roughshod over the other branches, and the Constitution.

I’ve been seeing much Facebook bemusement this morning over this opinion piece by Eugene Kontorovich.

More broadly, constitutional structure supports examining only executive statements to interpret executive action. When Trump made his most controversial statements, he was private citizen. He had not sworn to uphold the Constitution, or to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. He was, in this sense, a legally differently obligated person. His policies and their relation to the Constitution would presumably be affected by his oath — that is why the Constitution requires it.
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Purity, Partisanship, Pluralism

by John Holbo on February 7, 2017

A lifetime ago – in subjective Trump-time! – I made a post about how pussyhats are potent symbols. Social justice! Purity politics. Sacred values. This seems obvious to me. Then again, as a young man they made me read Durkheim. (There’s a myth about the U of Chicago: they make you read all Plato-Thucydides-Tocqueville, all the time, your first year. In my experience they had so many darn anthropologists, many of us spent our first year reading Geertz, Boas, Benedict, Levy-Bruhl, others. Not anything Allan Bloom might have approved for our tender-minded consumption. Anthropologists are mad, you see, so keep them busy lest they make trouble. They were tasked with instilling ‘core values’ in the young: relativism! Yes, yes, Durkheim is a structural functionalist. Close enough for scandalizing rubes and maroons! Ah, mid-80’s memories.)

The point of my pussyhat example was to to illustrate my allegations about blindspots and contradictions in Jonathan Haidt’s popular writings on the subject of partisanship, PC and pluralism. Things got hot in comments. (Not everyone has read Durkheim, it must be.) Then Haidt showed up in comments (Crooked Timber gets results!) He linked to a post he made, rebutting mine. So now I’m going to rebut the rebuttal. [click to continue…]

Card-Carrying ACLU Member

by John Holbo on January 30, 2017

I just joined. Sent ‘em some money. They’re going to need it. We’re going to need them.

Morgan And (Pseudo) Science Fiction

by John Holbo on January 23, 2017

My older daughter was feeling pretty low so I said I would read to her while she did some drawing. Normally that means Moomin books or Discworld or something. Tonight, she was in the mood for more scholarly fare. She requested: King Arthur’s Enchantresses, Morgan and Her Sisters In Arthurian Tradition, by Carolyne Larrington (a book I got her a few years ago, but which proved a bit much then.)

So I’m reading about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin, so forth, and this bit comes up, which I think I may include in my science fiction module, next time round.

Is Geoffrey’s Morgan supernatural or human? Did she acquire her magical powers from the Other World, or is she simply an educated, mortal woman who has actively studied the knowledge she wields?

Geoffrey gives us no origin story. But our author writes: [click to continue…]

Moral Polarization and Many Pussyhats

by John Holbo on January 22, 2017

I agree with a lot in this piece by Will Wilkinson. But I disagree with stuff he says after asking the question ‘why is our moral culture polarizing?’

One place to start is to ask why it is that people, as individuals, gravitate to certain moral and political viewpoints. Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” theory—which shows that conservatives and liberals have different moral sensibilities, sensitive to different moral considerations—is perhaps the best-known account. But there are others.

In a 2012 piece for the Economist, I surveyed some of the research in personality psychology that indicates a correlation between political ideology and a couple of the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—conscientiousness and openness to experience, in particular—and then connected that to evidence that people have self-segregated geographically by personality and ideology. It’s an interesting post and you should read it.

The upshot is that liberals (low conscientiousness, high openness to experience) and conservatives (high conscientiousness, low openness) have distinctive personalities, and that there’s reason to believe we’ve been sorting ourselves into communities of psychologically/ideologically similar people.

Wilkinson goes on to talk about other, non-Haidt stuff that contributes to polarization. I like that better. (I think Wilkinson does, too.) But I want to grouse about Haidt, who I think has done interesting empirical work but who commits what I regard as terrible howlers when it comes to moral theory, and when it comes to reasoning about practical, normative implications of his work. [click to continue…]

Bodies In Motion; Kittens At Tea

by John Holbo on January 17, 2017

I like to relax at night with a spot of sketching. I would like to improve my capacity to render human anatomy accurately. My gesture drawing could be more – gesture-y. The girls and I are resolved to branch out into animation. TVPaint, here we come! (Or is that more than we can manage? We shall see.) The internet is a glorious source of free reference material. Fine books exist, and a few sit on my shelf. But a new site launched today, which looked good enough to make me open my wallet and pay for a yearly subscription. They are having a 50%-off deal, launch day only. And you can look around for free. It’s nicely done. It’s fun to look at.

Or perhaps you prefer vintage 1914 kittens, courtesy of the Library of Congress Flickr feed, celebrating 9-years of Flickr Commons.

Happy 9th Birthday, Flickr Commons! (LOC)

Algorithmic Price Fixing, Amazon Variations

by John Holbo on January 14, 2017

Henry’s post was interesting. It reminded me of an anecdote passed along by an acquaintance, who shall go nameless.

The individual in question is involved in publication of limited run, high quality art books. You can’t do that if you can’t make significant profit, per unit. (‘Volume volume volume!’ doesn’t hack it if you lack volume.) Medium-length story short: [click to continue…]

Derek Parfit Has Died (Physically)

by John Holbo on January 2, 2017

Parfit was a great philosopher, and derived a mildly unfair advantage from looking more than a bit like Peter O’Toole. If you just read Reasons and Persons, then looked at a lineup of Ph.D.’s in philosophy, I think you’d probably go: ‘that’s the guy! Gotta be!’ Also, Reasons and Persons is definitely the major work of philosophy most deserving of being rewritten in ‘plan your own adventure’ format. ‘If you think the resulting hivemind will still be you, turn to page 347. If not, turn to page 360.’ That sort of thing.

Let us extend his identity ensure that his psychological life rolls on, albeit in a branching way, by remembering him well. Psychological connectedness and all that.