Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner.

A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy.

Anyway, I recommend Tanenhaus’s article for a variety of reasons: great narrative pace, with that perfect balance of distance and engagement; it blows hot and cold exactly where and when you need it to; and it moves with an almost symphonic sense of time, back and forth across the decades and centuries.

But here are three things I wanted to comment on. [click to continue…]

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My old poker buddy Eric Schwitzgebel has, for some time, been soliciting Top-10 lists from folks who teach SF and philosophy. So I finally got around to contributing. Tell me I’m wrong!

Eric has busted into sf authorship himself since our grad school days. Here’s one of his in Clarkesworld, “Fishdance”. “The two most addictive ideas in history, religion and video-gaming, would finally become one.” It’s good!

One thing I’m going to talk about this semester is the domestication of experience machines. In genre terms, The Matrix is a bit played out. Inception. Been there, done that. Can we agree about that? Also, video games just get normaler and normaler. Yesterday I looked around on the train and I was, literally, the only person NOT playing “Pokemon Go”. True story! It felt a bit weird. They were all off together in an alternate version of the city. I was alone in the real one, with only my headphones and music to keep me warm – like some savage. There are two obvious ways to make virtual life, as an alternative to real life, appealing: make the world really messed up. Make the virtual world nice. Maybe the people behind the scenes don’t need to be Agent Smith-style jerks. The first film to play it this way, in a nice way, is Avalon. But no one saw it. Good film. More recently you get the likes of Ready Player One and Off To Be The Wizard, in which players of games – and games within games, and games within games within games – are increasingly comfortable with the whole biz. Not that there’s no lingering anxiety about the appropriateness of this life strategy! I like to think that one of my all time faves, The Glass Bead Game, is an honored ancestor. Homo Ludens. What’s Latin for ‘man, the player of virtual reality games’?

Of course, I think of myself as more of a cartoonist than an sf author. Since I’m on the subject, here are a couple graphics I whipped up for my module last time, which amused me – although I did it all fast-and-sketchy. I’d really like to remake them carefully, in a Norman Saunders-y style.

The idea is to make fake pulp covers for classic scientific and philosophical thought-experiments. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: hospital

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2016

Outside the Children's Hospital

This week’s picture is quite an old one, of the sculpture outside the then-new Bristol Children’s Hospital which is directly adjacent to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where I spent a good past of the last week following an acute gallstone attack (with associated pancreatitis) last weekend. On the Thursday I had my gall bladder removed (which turned out to be slightly more complicated than anticipated) and by Friday I was home. I’m now resting and recuperating, but basically feeling fine. Some reflections on the experience below the fold.
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Book report

by John Quiggin on August 7, 2016

I’ve been getting lots of free books lately, and the implied contract is that I should write about at least some of them. So, here are my quick reactions to some books CT readers might find interesting. They are

The Great Leveler: Capitalism and Competition in the Court of Law by Brett Christophers

The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War
by Robert J. Gordon

The Sharing Economy:The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundararajan

Econobabble: How to Decode Political Spin and Economic Nonsense by Richard Denniss

Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young by Jennifer Rayner

I’ll be on a panel discussing the last two of these at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Sep 11-16.

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The Kith of the Elf-Folk – Unberufen?

by John Holbo on August 6, 2016

As I believe I have mentioned, I’m teaching Kierkegaard. K is an excellently – some say inordinately – literary-aesthetical sort of fellow, so we want to welcome that quality, when we invite him to come give a talk to our class. But there comes a stage in man’s life when he wearies of undergraduates writing yet another paper about Fight Club and/or The Matrix, or even “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoyevsky. More broadly, there is an academic convention – who knows when it got started? – of nudging the young into equating a work of philosophy to a work of literature/art, i.e. pretending the latter is likely to be, let alone was intended to be, a vehicle for the expression of the former. And so it turns out Hamlet was Shakespeare’s ham-handed attempt to write an essay on Freud, or what have you. These attempted equations invite minor (or major) fraud. (Not that I think this is a major social problem. Mostly it’s just silly and strained.) And for what? You can fit things to things without exaggerating the degree of fit. (Kierkegaard was a weirdo. What are the odds any literary figure, who wasn’t K, ever produced a Kierkegaardian work of literary fiction? Hell, even K had to pretend he wasn’t himself, half the time, to keep from falling into error about his author’s meaning.)

I’m thinking of assigning a few short works that are, to my eye, not Kierkegaardian. But one can make connections, draw lines. For example, Lord Dunsany’s “The Kith of the Elf-Folk”. Here we have spheres of existence, I guess you could say: aesthetic, religious – ethical? (Now we are pushing it.) And there is a nice question, twinkling in the author’s eye: which is higher? How could one be in a position to say? And there is an implied indictment of modern society (who could wish for less?) And there is a lyrical seriousness, yet ironic playfulness. So the question I’m going to ask the kids is: suppose you had to rewrite “The Kith of the Elf-Folk” to be a parable of Kierkegaard’s stages – which it plainly is not. What changes would you have to make? Defend your adaptive edits!

Or maybe that’s a really, really bad question that will produce bad results in my classroom.

But my question for you is a bit different. How great is this story? Pretty great, right? [click to continue…]

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Second thoughts

by John Quiggin on August 5, 2016

In a recent post, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

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More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

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It seems Gary Johnson/Bill Weld have been disappointing to conservatives and right-leaning libertarians (fusionists), looking for an alternative to Trump. For example, Ilya Shapiro, in “Is Johnson-Weld a Libertarian Ticket?”
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Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Although jetlag is is the the more pressing concern.

Now I can get back to drawing Zarathustra! Which reminds me: a few pages went up a few days ago, yet I didn’t flog them here at CT. So: here!


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Trump’s Indecent Proposal

by Corey Robin on August 2, 2016

One of the most storied, Aaron Sorkin-esque moments in American history—making the rounds this weekend after Donald Trump’s indecent comment on Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC—is Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation with Joe McCarthy. The date was June 9, 1954; the setting, the Army-McCarthy hearings.

It was then and there that Welch exploded:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

People love this moment. It’s when the party of the good and the great finally stared down the forces of the bad and the worse, affirming that this country was in fact good, if not great, rather than bad, if not worse. Within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate. Within three years, he’d be dead.

Citing the Welch precedent for the Trump case, Politico perfectly captures the conventional wisdom about the confrontation:

For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone with no skeletons in his proverbial closet, whose integrity was unquestionable, and whose motives were purely patriotic. The audience in the senate chamber burst into applause.

 

But there are two little known elements about this famous confrontation that call that fairy tale into question. [click to continue…]

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Demography and irreligion, one year on

by John Quiggin on August 1, 2016

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about a Pew study predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. But a closer look revealed a surprising prediction for the US, the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050 (emphasis added), while the unaffiliated would rise from 16 to 26 per cent. Given that more than 30 per cent of Millennials are already unaffiliated, that seemed like a surprisingly slow rate of change. However, judging by the comments threads, a lot of readers seemed to find the Pew projections fairly plausible.

A year on, Pew has undertaken a new survey focused on the US election. The headline results are for registered voters, but the results turn out to be the same as for the full sample. The big news: “The non-religious are now the country’s largest religious voting bloc, at 21 per cent of registered voters. The Christian groups reported by Pew add up to 66.7 per cent of the population (my calculation, and emphasis added). Other religions account for 11 per cent (according to the WP) leaving a small residual (maybe “declined to say”).

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Sunday Photoblogging: Sunflower Symmetry

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 31, 2016

Sunflower Since it seems unlikely that Chris will be posting one of his marvellous pictures today, I made this with my iPhone this afternoon – taken from the side of the road somewhere in the South of France.

Ever since my oldest son has developed a deep interest in flower arrangements, I’ve seen more flower art in my house than in my entire previous adult life. But the sunflower doesn’t need arranging: it’s most beautiful standing by itself, or with a few other sunflowers – each of them being a little piece of art in themselves.

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So Donald Trump Jr. went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi this week, where he said, vis-a-vis the Mississippi state flag, which is the only state flag that still invokes the Confederacy, “I believe in tradition.” Those Neshoba County fairgrounds are just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi. The place indelibly associated with the murder of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. So that tells you a lot about Donald Trump. Junior and Senior.

But it also tells you a lot about the Republican Party. Thirty-six years ago, almost to the day, Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the presidency, also went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. There, he said, “I believe in states’ rights.” That, of course, had been the slogan for decades of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Like father, like son; like Reagan, like Trump.

But it also tells you something about the Democratic Party. [click to continue…]

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Pre and Post-Scarcity Ecotheonomics

by John Holbo on July 29, 2016

Erick Erickson:

In Genesis, God put Adam and Eve to work in the garden. There is something soul nourishing about work. When we all get to Heaven we will all have jobs. Getting people comfortable not working sucks their souls away and destroys their families.
Two questions here. [click to continue…]

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DNC Open Thread

by John Holbo on July 29, 2016

Thoughts and feelings. You know you have them.

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