Sunday photoblogging: Uppsala, stormy sky

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2017

Uppsala - stormy sky

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Tolkien the Utopian

by John Holbo on November 5, 2017

I enjoyed this thread and was very proud of my own ability to stay out of it when the inevitable is-Tolkien-a-racist/fascist? arguments erupted. The thing is: I forgot to refute everyone who wrongly argued that Middle Earth isn’t a kind of Utopia. Then the thread closed. Damn.

I did start the job. In comments, I corrected cited this bit from “On Fairy-Stories”:

“And if we leave aside for a moment “fantasy,” I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the “escape” of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves, but knights and kings and priests. For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products.

“The rawness and ugliness of modern European life”— that real life whose contact we should welcome —“is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.” [Tolkien is quoting a social darwinist at this point] The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the “grim Assyrian” absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction. These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway-station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world-town will do. They may abandon the “full Victorian panoply” for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends.” It is part of the essential malady of such days — producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery— that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faerie one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare (for the evil of the ogre wills it so), but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose — an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not — unless it was built before our time.”

Insofar as it seems to me quite obvious that the production of Tolkien’s own ‘fairy-stories’, from The Hobbit on, is motivated not just by the need for a place to store his made-up languages, but as a cry against the alleged ugliness of modernity – an attempt to wake people up that ugliness, by contrasting with an ideal alternative – it’s utopian. If News From Nowhere is utopian, then Tolkien is.

But, as I said, I forgot the clincher. Off To Be The Wizard is a pretty funny novel. Plotspoilers under the fold.

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The Trinet

by John Holbo on November 2, 2017

Discuss.

Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web

….

We forget how useful it has been to remain anonymous and control what we share, or how easy it was to start an internet startup with its own independent servers operating with the same rights GOOG servers have. On the Trinet, if you are permanently banned from GOOG or FB, you would have no alternative. You could even be restricted from creating a new account. As private businesses, GOOG, FB, and AMZN don’t need to guarantee you access to their networks. You do not have a legal right to an account in their servers, and as societies we aren’t demanding for these rights as vehemently as we could, to counter the strategies that tech giants are putting forward.

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

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What Can I Say?

by John Holbo on November 2, 2017

“Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said during a hearing on Wednesday with executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Depressing, obviously. At a more fundamental level, Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across all human cognitive platforms. It’s hard to think of a technical patch, or a legislative fix, that doesn’t significantly infringe the freedom to think and say (stupid) stuff. It’s like we need a Voight-Kampff test, to separate bots from real people. But, like in the original PKD novel, I’m kind of worried that the humans will start failing.

You can (and should!) identify Russian troll farms and try to weed stuff out, weed it again. Facebook and Twitter can self-police; legislators can make law (well, if theory.) But, in a sense, what we have are online platforms that connect people, and then people being people. Other people are exploiting this. There’s an irreducibility to that. ‘We have met the troll farm, and he is us.’ [click to continue…]

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Clerihew corner (philosophy edition)

by Harry on October 31, 2017

I rediscovered Clerihews at my dad’s house recently, noticing and devouring his copy of The Complete Clerihews. Clerihews were invented by EC (Edward Clerihew) Bentley (author of Trent’s Last Case, one of the greatest detective novels to be written by someone who wrote only one detective novel). [1] They have a strict format: they must be about a person who is reasonably well known, 4 lines, with an AA BB rhyming scheme. They also seem to observe other unstated criteria. They are not cruel, or didactic, and the person about whom they are written must have some sort of substance. Gavin Ewart points out in his introduction to The Collected that they could be used for biting satire but Bentley never does that and he (Ewart) is unaware of them ever being used so. They are gentle. The pay-off would ideally come as something of a surprise, but not be completely irrelevant: Surrealism and whimsy are permitted, indeed encouraged. The name of the subject usually (but not always) comes at the end of the first line, challenging the author to find a good, but non-obvious, rhyme (as you’ll see in a moment he rhymes Plato with potato which is only one part of the genius of my favourite clerihew). There are no rules about rhythm except, as far as I can tell, that if you write several, you should vary the meter. (All Bentley’s clerihews seem to have been illustrated by GK Chesterton: I can’t rival that!).

Here are three of Bentley’s best:

The intrepid Ricardo
With characteristic bravado
Alluded openly to Rent
Wherever he went.

It was rather disconcerting for Hannibal
To be introduced to a cannibal
Who expressed the very highest opinion
Of cold pickled Carthaginian

And my favourite of all:

Although the dialogues of Plato
Do not actually mention the potato
They inculcate strongly that we should
Seek the Absolute Ideal Good.

The unwritten strictures rule out certain subjects. It seems morally dodgy to be whimsical about President Trump, for example (Bentley does one about Goebbels and Hitler, and it doesn’t feel right at all, especially when you learn it was written in 1939); and just difficult (though not impossible, and I don’t think dodgy) to be whimsical or surreal about Jacob Rees-Mogg (how can you be surreal about a person who declares himself, correctly, an embodiment of the surreal?). Bentley tends toward historical subjects – kings, presidents, philosophers, musicians, literary figures – with just a smattering of his contemporaries, most of whom are no longer household names, represented (Captain Wedgewood-Benn features – with luck there will always be a Benn about whom to write clerihews).

So, I’ve been trying to write some. They’re hard!

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The week after Open Access week

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 30, 2017

It was Open Access week last week, but I was too busy trying to meet the deadline today for submitting my book manuscript to Open Book Publishers. That sounds like a good excuse if one cares about open access, right? I slept too little for too many days, so don’t expect any creative thoughts or subtle analyses from me tonight. But here’s two interesting things I discovered while having a look on the web figuring out whether anything interesting happend during Open Access week.
First, Cambridge University digitalised the PhD dissertation of Stephen Hawking and put it online. Apparently the website crashed when that got announced. Any Cambridge University alumni who want to make their PhD dissertation Open Access are invited doing so (no more need to go to the reading room and sign a fat notebook that one has accessed a particular PhD dissertation, as I once did. Although, I should confess, it felt like an adventure. But it’s highly inefficient obviously).
Second, for some weeks now, Open Book Publishers has been offering the PDFs of all of their books open access, to celebrate the 100th book they published (their regular regime is to have the books as html open access and selling the PDFs for a few pounds, or else the author can pay a fee for making the PDF open access). Importantly, this may only last for another a day or two (I am drawing from my memory when I saw a tweet on that about two months ago), so while it lasts it may be worth checking out their collection of books in the humanities and the social sciences, such as Naom Chomsky’s Delhi Lectures, Ruth Finnegan’s book on Oral literature in Africa or textbooks on maths for university. All for nothing. Because, as their slogan goes, knowledge is for sharing.

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The end of fossil fuels

by John Quiggin on October 30, 2017

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end to new sales with target dates ranging form 2030 to 2040.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and his Australian counterpart Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.

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Should someone leak those Brexit reports?

by Maria on October 29, 2017

Writing isn’t cathartic, though reading can sometimes be. Last week’s post about my disillusionment with the UK, a country wracked by its own wilful austerity and now taking out its pain on its immigrants, was taken to heart by many among the three million other EU citizens living here. I’m glad about that, because many of them felt that few people are expressing their sense of loss and anger. But I am especially struck by one comment; “Yes, but what about the duty of hope?”

The “duty of hope” is a phrase used by some involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to actively remind each other that at many (realistically, almost any) points along the way, it’s all looked disastrous, but that if they’d indulged in the perfectly rational feeling of hopelessness, they would never have gotten anywhere. Life goes on. It has to. So what’s next?

Anyone who has access to some or all of the UK government’s reports analysing the likely effects of Brexit on UK industry should consider doing what they can to get them into the public domain. The reports were commissioned by the government and contain materially important information the UK needs to help it decide what to do next. There is a massive public interest in learning what they say.

The government’s argument is that the information will weaken its negotiating position. I believe that argument is moot. The government’s negotiating position could hardly get any weaker. It has been weakened by the too-early triggering of Article 50, the calling of a disastrous general election, and by putting power over the process into the hands of parochially ignorant and ineffective ministers. If the government cared about the strength of its position, it would have developed a stronger one, and handled it better, tactically. Secondly, if the UK position is, to the few who know the worst, so fatally weakened by this information, then that information is too important for the country to remain ignorant of.

There are efforts already to get the information into the public domain. Freedom of Information requests have been made and denied. Questions have been put in Parliament. A petition by MPs has been submitted. All have been repelled. An attempt to force a judicial review of the compelled secrecy of the documents is ongoing. Occasionally, there are calls for whistle-blowing. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Lloyds Building, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on October 29, 2017

Lloyds Building, Bristol

Over a month without taking a picture at all, so I decided to get out with a camera on Friday.

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Working to Rule

by Maria on October 23, 2017

“Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

That’s what I mostly say these days when asked about British politics. Up to about a year ago, I was an active member of a political party and involved in a fair amount of volunteering. I saw myself as being part of things, an enthusiastic party to the social contract. Those days are done.

I’ve been an immigrant in four different countries, and in only one of them did I ever feel at home. I used to tell this story about being a civil liberties lobbyist in the UK in the early 2000s. I’d go and do a briefing over tea and biscuits with some member of the House of Lords. They’d start a little in surprise at my accent, and then the meeting would go on as normal, with me offering talking points about the surveillance and police state as counter-productive in fighting terrorism. Then at the end, when the business of the meeting was finished and everyone relaxed and munched the biscuits, the peer would make a point of telling me how much they liked Ireland, had relatives there, had visited or wanted to, some day. As if they were saying “It’s ok for Irish people to lecture us on human rights and terrorism, now.” My story was about tolerance and civility, and how no way could an Arab have a similar meeting in Paris or Washington D.C.

Maybe it’s just as well we white, well-to-do professionals are getting the same stick other immigrants or minorities always have. The gloves are off. An Italian friend was accosted by two men in the cinema queue in Oxford and told to “go home”, for the crime of speaking Italian. (Because she’s a badass, she bought them popcorn and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.) A woman I met last week was abused in the street for speaking Polish on her phone. I can pass until I open my mouth, and if I try I can sound fairly British. But I don’t want to.

Perhaps the UK only feels significantly nastier because it now treats white, middle class EU people more like how it treats the brown-skinned, less connected, less wealthy, or less likely to be able to kick up a stink people. My kind can still get a Guardian sad-face piece if the Home Office messes us around. We have our liberty and our voice. But can any of us say we know what is going on in, say, Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or that its secrecy, authoritarianism and arms-length contractual deniability are not the perfect conditions for institutional abuse? We’ve all heard that kind of story a dozen times, but can no longer even be arsed to say “never again”. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: cormorants or shags?

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2017

Cormorants, or shags?

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag….

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Judaeo-Christian (updated)

by John Quiggin on October 22, 2017

My son Daniel pointed out to me a feature of Trump’s speech to the laughably named Values Voters summit which seems to have slipped by most observers. As summarized by Colbert King in the Washington Post

Telling a revved-up Values Voter audience that he is “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values,” Trump suggested to the crowd, which already thinks a “war on Christianity” is being waged, that invoking “Merry Christmas” is a way of fighting back.

But “Happy Holidays” is exactly an expression of Judaeo-Christian values, coined to embrace the Jewish Hanukkah as well as Christmas. In this context, King’s suggestion that “Happy Holidays” is secular misses the point. The majority of secular Americans celebrate Christmas (happily mixing Santa Claus, carols, and consumerism). They say “Happy Holidays” as a nod to religious diversity among believers, not because they feel excluded from Christmas.

Insistence on “Merry Christmas”, by contrast, is a repudiation of the claim implicit in “Judaeo-Christian”, namely, that Jews and Christians have essentially the same beliefs and worship the same god, and that the differences between the two are ultimately less important than the commonalities. On any interpretation of Christianity in which all who reject Christ (including, I imagine, most of us here at CT) are damned, “Judaeo-Christian” is a much more pernicious version of political correctness than “Happy Holidays”.

I haven’t got to a proper analysis of this, so I’ll turn it over to commenters.

Updated A lengthy and sometimes heated comments thread, from which I’ll extract the following: “Judaeo-Christian” has been used in all sorts of ways, from an inclusivist way of speaking about the two main religious traditions historically present in European and the US, to a “supersessionist” Christian doctrine, in which Judaism is an imperfect forerunner of Christianity, to a code word for Islamophobia. Obviously, Trump and his audience were mainly using it in non-inclusive ways. Even so, there’s no way it can be consistent with a purely Christianist objection to “Happy Holidays”. The contradiction reflects the collapse of modern conservatisim into “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble thought”.

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Lafcadio Hearn In The Days Of The Machine

by John Holbo on October 20, 2017

A few months ago I read Flaubert’s Temptations of St. Anthony, translated by Lafcadio Hearn. At the time there was a niggling, nagging thing in my brain. I knew I had read some philosopher/intellectual discussing – pontificating about – the thought of Lafcadio Hearn. But where would I have been reading about that? ‘Lafcadio’ is, of course, an unusual name, mostly associated with lions that shoot back, so ‘Lafcadio Hearn’ is a name to conjure with. But conjure what, and when, where? But this week I solved the riddle. Here is my favorite passage from E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909): [click to continue…]

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Utopian Commonplace Book

by John Holbo on October 18, 2017

Per my previous post, I’m thinking about utopia/dystopia. Do you have any fun quotes from philosophers or poets? Here are a few: [click to continue…]

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The Book of Dust

by Harry on October 18, 2017

In late 2001 I had caught up with work enough to treat myself to leisure reading on my (at that time long) commute to and from work (Oxford to London). I can’t actually remember why I started reading it, but I was immediately gripped by His Dark Materials, and one dreary December morning was sitting on a Circle line train reading The Amber Spyglass when I noticed a young girl (12?, 13?) staring at me. I ignored her as best I could. As we pulled out of Edgware Road she pestered the man next to her (who, I quickly realised was her dad) and said something while pointing at me. Maybe she had recognized me from my recent one minute appearance on the BBC World News?[1] Then, that old familiar feeling: the train stopped between stations. I continued to read. She continued to stare. I was bemused rather than uncomfortable, but was relieved when we all got off at Euston Square and the father leaned over to me and said “She’s been admiring you ever since you got on the train because she’s never seen an adult reading her favourite book”. I grinned in acknowledgement and thought of saying “Oh yes, well, tell her I’m a professional philosopher” but thought that would sound pretentious and silly.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is published tomorrow. I guess that girl is in her late twenties now. And I bet that, like me, she has ordered it to arrive the day of publication but will wait until she can read it without distraction. I wish I could get it for her, but instead I’ve ordered it for a former student around the same age whose cat is named Pantalaimon.

[1] Not a success. I had been invited to comment on the 15th announcement of the government’s ‘new’ plans for schools: I had studied the policies in great detail (several times, over the course of the several times the same plans had been announced as if they were brand new and treated by the press as if they were, indeed, brand new—I think that was the period which undermined my taste for reading newspapers), and had prepared a minute or so of good things to say about them, but had failed to listen to the news on my way to the studio, so had not heard Campbell talking about “bog-standard comprehensives”. The interviewer opened with that phrase, which I’d never heard before, so I spent the entire time trying not to giggle and have no idea what I actually said.

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