Transactional Trumpism

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2019

The idea that Trump voters were former Democrats driven by economic anxiety, seems finally to have died. As was clear immediately after the election, most Trump voters had previously voted for Romney, and most of the rest were classic swinging voters who had voted for Republicans as well as Democrats in the past. The remnant of the remnant reflected the drift from Democrats to Republicans of less educated whites that long predated Trump (though it may have helped him win the Republican nomination).

Solving that puzzle, though raises another one. Why were so few traditional Republicans repelled by Trump to the extent that they would vote for Clinton, or else abstain. And why does Trump continue to attract such strong Republican support.

One answer is what might be called “transactional Trumpism“. This is the idea that a large group of Republicans dislike Trump’s racism and misogyny, but support him because of his success in delivering a traditional Republican agenda. The problem I have with this explanation is: what success?

The standard items on the list are: Supreme Court appointments, tax cuts and deregulation. But
(1) these things are the absolute minimum that would be expected from any Republican president
(2) Trump has made a mess of all them
[click to continue…]

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David Brion Davis, the pathbreaking Yale historian of slavery and emancipation, whose books revolutionized how we approach the American experience, has died. The obituaries have rightly discussed his many and manifold contributions, a legacy we will be parsing in the days and months ahead. Yet for those of us who were graduate students at Yale during the 1990s and who participated in the union drive there, the story of David Brion Davis is more complicated. Davis helped break the grade strike of 1995, in a manner so personal and peculiar, yet simultaneously emblematic, as not to be forgotten. Not long after the strike, I wrote at length about Davis’s actions in an essay called “Blacklisted and Blue: On Theory and Practice at Yale,” which later appeared in an anthology that was published in 2003. I’m excerpting the relevant part the essay below, but you can read it all of it here [pdf].

* * *


As soon as the graduate students voted to strike, the administration leaped to action, threatening students with blacklisting, loss of employment, and worse. Almost as quickly, the national academic community rallied to the union’s cause. A group of influential law professors at Harvard and elsewhere issued a statement condemning the “Administration’s invitation to individual professors to terrorize their advisees.” They warned the faculty that their actions would “teach a lesson of subservience to illegitimate authority that is the antithesis of what institutions like Yale purport to stand for.”

Eric Foner, a leading American historian at Columbia, spoke out against the administration’s measures in a personal letter to President Levin. “As a longtime friend of Yale,” Foner began, “I am extremely distressed by the impasse that seems to have developed between the administration and the graduate teaching assistants.” Of particular concern, he noted, was the “developing atmosphere of anger and fear” at Yale, “sparked by threats of reprisal directed against teaching assistants.” He then concluded:

I wonder if you are fully aware of the damage this dispute is doing to Yale’s reputation as a citadel of academic freedom and educational leadership. Surely, a university is more than a business corporation and ought to adopt a more enlightened approach to dealing with its employees than is currently the norm in the business world. And in an era when Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, the British government and the IRA, have found it possible to engage in fruitful discussions after years of intransigent refusal to negotiate, it is difficult to understand why Yale’s administration cannot meet with representatives of the teaching assistants.

Foner’s letter played a critical role during the grad strike. The faculty took him seriously; his books on the Civil War and Reconstruction are required reading at Yale. But more important, Foner is a historian, and at the time, a particularly tense confrontation in the Yale history department was spinning out of control.

The incident involved teaching assistant Diana Paton, a British graduate student who was poised to write a dissertation on the transition in Jamaica from slavery to free labor, and historian David Brion Davis. A renowned scholar of slavery, Davis has written pathbreaking studies, earning him the Pulitzer Prize and a much-coveted slot as a frequent writer at the New York Review of Books. He represents the best traditions of humanistic learning, bringing to his work a moral sensitivity that few academics possess. Paton was his student and, that fall, his TA.

When Paton informed Davis that she intended to strike, he accused her of betraying him. Convinced that Davis would not support her academic career in the future—he had told her in an unrelated discussion a few weeks prior that he would never give his professional backing to any student who he believed had betrayed him—Paton nevertheless stood her ground. Davis reported her to the graduate school dean for disciplinary action and had his secretary instruct Paton not to appear at the final exam. In his letter to the dean, Davis wrote that Paton’s actions were “outrageous, irresponsible to the students…and totally disloyal.”

The day of the final, Paton showed up at the exam room. As she explains it, she wanted to demonstrate to Davis that she would not be intimidated by him, that she would not obey his orders. Davis, meanwhile, had learned of Paton’s plan to attend the exam and somehow concluded that she intended to steal the exams. So he had the door locked and two security guards stand beside it.

Though assertive, Paton is soft-spoken and reserved. She is also small. The thought of her rushing into the exam room, scooping up her students’ papers, engaging perhaps in a physical tussle with the delicate Davis, and then racing out the door—the whole idea is absurd. Yet Davis clearly believed it wasn’t absurd. What’s more, he convinced the administration that it wasn’t absurd, for it was the administration that had dispatched the security detail.

How this scenario could have been dreamed up by a historian with the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes under his belt—and with the full backing of one of the most renowned universities in the world—requires some explanation. Oddly enough, it is Davis himself who provides it.

Like something out of Hansel and Gretel, Davis left a set of clues, going back some forty years, to his paranoid behavior during the grade strike. In a pioneering 1960 article in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Davis set out to understand how dominant groups in nineteenth-century America were gripped by fears of disloyalty, treachery, subversion, and betrayal. Many Americans feared Catholics, Freemasons, and Mormons because, it was believed, they belonged to “a machine-like organization” that sought “to abolish free society” and “to overthrow divine principles of law and justice.” Members of these groups were dangerous because they professed an “unconditional loyalty to an autonomous body” like the pope. They took their marching orders from afar, and so were untrustworthy, duplicitous, and dangerous.

Davis was clearly disturbed by the authoritarian logic of the countersubversive, but that was in 1960 and he was writing about the nineteenth century. In 1995, confronting the rebellion of his own student, the logic made all the sense in the world. It didn’t matter that Paton was a longtime student of his, that she had many discussions with Davis about her academic work, and that he knew her well. As soon as she announced her commitment to the union’s course of action, she became a stranger, an alien marching on behalf of a foreign power.

Davis was hardly alone in voicing these concerns. Other respected members of the Yale faculty dipped into the same well of historical imagery. In January 1996, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, several historians presented a motion to censure Yale for its retaliation against the striking TAs. During the debate on the motion, Nancy Cott—one of the foremost scholars of women’s history in the country who was on the Yale faculty at the time but has since gone on to Harvard—defended the administration, pointing out that the TA union was affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Historians at the meeting say that Cott placed a special emphasis on the word “international.” The TAs, in other words, were carrying out the orders of union bosses in Washington. The graduate students did not care about their own colleagues, they were not loyal to their own. Not unlike the Masons and Catholics of old. It did not seem to faze Cott that she was speaking to an audience filled with labor historians, all of whom would have recognized these charges as classic antiunion rhetoric.

One of the reasons Cott embraced this vocabulary so unselfconsicously was that it was a virtual commonplace among the Yale faculty at the time. At a mid-December faculty meeting, which one professor compared to a Nuremberg rally, President Levin warned the faculty of the ties between the TAs and outside unions. The meeting was rife with lurid images of union heavies dictating how the faculty should run their classrooms. It never seemed to occur to these professors, who pride themselves on their independent judgment and intellectual perspicacity, that they were uncritically accepting some of the ugliest and most unfounded prejudices about unions, that they sounded more like the Jay Goulds and Andrew Carnegies of the late nineteenth century than the careful scholars and skeptical minds of the late twentieth. All they knew was their fear—that a conspiracy was afoot, that they were being forced to cede their authority to disagreeable powers outside of Yale.

Cott, Levin, and the rest of the faculty were also in the grip of a raging class anxiety, which English professor Annabel Patterson spelled out in a letter to the Modern Language Association. The TA union, Patterson wrote, “has always been a wing of Locals 34 and 35 [two other campus unions]…who draw their membership from the dining workers in colleges and other support staff.”

Why did Patterson single out cafeteria employees in her description of Locals 34 and 35? After all, these unions represent thousands of white- and blue-collar workers, everyone from skilled electricians and carpenters to research laboratory technicians, copy editors, and graphic designers. Perhaps it was that Patterson viewed dishwashers and plastic-gloved servers of institutional food as the most distasteful sector of the Yale workforce. Perhaps she thought that her audience would agree with her, and that a subtle appeal to their delicate, presumably shared, sensibilities would be enough to convince other professors that the TA union ought to be denied a role in the university.

The professor-student relationship was the critical link in a chain designed to keep dirty people out. What if the TAs and their friends in the dining halls decided that professors should wash the dishes and plumbers should teach the classes? Hadn’t that happened during the Cultural Revolution? Hadn’t the faculty themselves imagined such delightful utopias as young student radicals during the 1960s? Recognizing the TA union would only open Yale to a rougher, less refined element, and every professor, even the most liberal, had something at stake in keeping that element out.

In his article, Davis concluded with these sentences about the nineteenth-century countersubversive:

By focusing his attention on the imaginary threat of a secret conspiracy, he found an outlet for many irrational impulses, yet professed his loyalty to the ideals of equal rights and government by law. He paid lip service to the doctrine of laissez-faire individualism, but preached selfless dedication to a transcendent cause. The imposing threat of subversion justified a group loyalty and subordination of the individual that would otherwise have been unacceptable. In a rootless environment shaken by bewildering social change the nativist found unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.

Though I don’t think Davis’s psychologizing holds much promise for understanding the Yale faculty’s response to the grade strike—the strike, after all, did pose a real threat to the faculty’s intuitions about both the place of graduate students in the university and the obligation of teachers; nor did the faculty seem, at least to me, to be on a desperate quest for meaning—he did manage to capture, long before the fact, the faculty’s fear that their tiered world of privileges and orders, so critical to the enterprise of civilization, was under assault. So did Davis envision the grotesque sense of fellowship that the faculty would derive from attacking their own students.

The faculty’s outsized rhetoric of loyalty and disloyalty, of intimacy (Dean [Richard] Brodhead called the parties to the conflict a “dysfunctional family”) betrayed, may have fit uneasily with their avowed professions of individualism and intellectual independence. But it did give them the opportunity to enjoy, at least for a moment, that strange euphoria—the thrilling release from dull routine, the delightful, newfound solidarity with fellow elites—that every reactionary from Edmund Burke to Augusto Pinochet has experienced upon confronting an organized challenge from below.

Paton’s relationship with Davis was ended. Luckily, she was able to find another advisor at Yale, Emilia Viotti da Costa, a Latin American historian who was also an expert on slavery. Da Costa, it turns out, had been a supporter of the student movement in Brazil some thirty years before and was persecuted by the military there. Forced to flee the country, she found in Yale a welcome refuge from repression.

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Gene Wolfe has died

by Henry on April 15, 2019

One of the great authors of our time

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.

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The eye of the needle, again

by John Quiggin on April 14, 2019

The US college admissions scandal is rolling on, seemingly endlessly. There’s been a lot of discussion of moral decay, hypocrisy and more. But no one seems to have mentioned the central point. The number of places in the Ivy League and similar schools
has remained almost unchanged for decades, even as the demand for those places has been swelled by a wide range of factors, most notably by the growth in all forms of inequality, which is mediated in part by unequal access to education. Parents who want their children to maintain their position in the scale, or climb upwards, need to facilitate that access if they can.

There’s no fair way of allocating that limited set of places*, and, even if there were, the existing system is full of arbitrary roadblocks to some and loopholes for others. The standard way of allocating scarce goods in a market system is through willingness to pay, and that plays a big role in the process. But since an open market isn’t an option, willingness to pay isn’t enough on its own, and can’t be tied to directly to the admission decision. What you want, as this story says of Harvard is “well-off, multi-generational Harvard families [who] pay higher tuition and give more money” (ideally over a long period). Unsurprisingly, parents with money, but without the required social access have sought more direct methods of buying a way in for their children.

Catching and prosecuting a few parents isn’t going to change this, and neither is any reform of the admissions system. The problem can only be resolved by reducing inequality in society as a whole, and particularly, by increasing access to high quality post-school education. I have no clear idea how this goal should be pursued in the US, given the stratification entrenched in the system. Given the numbers involved, there’s a strong case for focusing on free access and more funding for community colleges, ideally with a transition path to four-year institutions. But I don’t understand the system well enough to know whether this would work. Regardless, the US case provides a warning for countries like Australia, where the leading universities (the so-called “Group of 8”) are keen to put more distance between themselves and the rest.

  • An system based solely on test scores, such as the SAT, would not be as obviously arbitrary as the current one. But it would clearly favor those with the resources to get test prep tutoring and so on. The Japanese example is not encouraging, at least from a distance.

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Good news day

by John Quiggin on April 10, 2019

Two big pieces of news for me today. This morning I got the first physical copy of my book Economics in Two Lessons.

Then, I got the news that, for the first time in my career, I’ve had an article accepted in Econometrica, the top theoretical journal in economics. It’s full of arcane maths, drawing heavily on the expertise of my co-author Ani Guerdjikova, but the key implication is simple. If people aren’t equally good at predicting movements in asset prices, restrictions on the set of assets available to them may improve economic welfare. This undermines the general presumption that financial deregulation will be beneficial.

All in all, a good day!

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Pinker polymathic

by John Quiggin on April 8, 2019

The New York Times has a piece pushing the idea that nuclear power is the solution to our environmental problems. It’s familiar stuff, citing the French success in the 1970s, the promise of Gen IV and small modular reactors, and so on. Indeed, two of the authors had an almost identical piece in the Wall Street Journal in January. What’s most interesting is that the set of authors[1] this time includes Steven Pinker, who seems to be spreading his claims to expertise yet more broadly[2].

None of the authors has any training or expertise in economics, AFAICT. So, they make extreme claims such as that South Korea and China can build nuclear plants at one sixth the cost of the US. With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the 2GW Vogtle project in Georgia. That looks like coming in at about $20 billion or $10 billion/GW. Optimistic estimates of Chinese costs are around $3.5 billion/GW or one third of the US price, not competitive with new renewables under most conditions.

Moreover, it might have been worth mentioning that South Korea has stopped new nuclear power and China hasn’t started a new project in three years. In both cases, renewables have undercut even the lowest estimates of the costs of nuclear.

Also striking is a sudden shift in the argument about halfway through. The article begins reasonably enough, pointing out that the success of the French model in the 1970s depended critically on the large-scale deployment of a small number of standardised designs. (That wasn’t the only crucial feature, as I’ve pointed out before.) That contrasts sharply with the current situation where nearly every new plant is First Of A Kind, or close to. They point to US efforts to promote new nuclear power, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, recently passed through Congress by big margins (361 to 10 in the House, and a voice vote in the Senate).

Then suddenly, the article shifts gears, claiming that the crucial problem is irrational public fear of radiation, nuclear accidents and so forth. The obvious question to raise is: how does this supposed climate of fear manifest itself? Obviously not in a Congress, generally notable for bitter partisan division, where pro-nuclear legislation sails through with negligible opposition. Nor is there any evidence of significant resistance at the regulatory level, where numerous plants have had their licenses extended.

With the abandonment of the nearly-complete VC Summer project, the only nuclear plant now under construction in the US is the two-reactor Vogtle project in Georgia. Googling for Vogtle protests, I found numerous links to protests from shareholders, customers and others concerned about the massive cost overruns of the project. But the only anti-nuclear protest I could find was back in 2011, and appeared to have no effect at all on the project.

Perhaps they mean that we should drop all the expensive safety precautions added since 1979, and go back to Generation II technology like that used in France. If so they should say so

The myth that nuclear power would roar ahead if only public fear could be overcome is comforting to nuclear fans. But the truth is that the technology is doomed by economics.


fn1. The only author with any relevant expertise is Staffan Qvist who works on Gen IV reactors and has previously written policy pieces with our own Barry Brook.

fn2. I also write on lots of different things. On the blog, I’m happy to state my views on all kinds of topics, as I would in ordinary conversation. But when I write for the general public, citing my professional affiliation, I try to stick to areas where I have some claim to expertise.

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Kirstjen Nielsen

by Henry on April 8, 2019

Kirstjen Nielsen has resigned from her position as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. While there, she was responsible for overseeing some of the most egregious policies, including caging children and separating them from their parents, a policy which she appears to have lied about. Perhaps there are real extenuating circumstances that will emerge, or perhaps she will publicly repent for what she was involved in. Both seem unlikely.

Jesse Eisinger at ProPublica thinks that Nielsen might quickly find a berth at a think-tank, university center or similar institution.


Different people have different limits. Nielsen is some distance beyond mine. If she gets a position at a think-tank, university center or similar, I will not participate on any panel that involves anyone from that think-tank, center or other institution. I will not participate in any event where the institution plays an organizing role, nor will I associate myself in any way that might reasonably be seen as providing active support for that institution. If you feel similarly, I invite you to sign your name below (it may take some time for your signature to get past our commenting system) or, if you have a bigger or different platform, to take this idea and roll it out yourself.

[I should note: this is not a collective post by Crooked Timber, although I would guess that many/most/perhaps all others here will agree].

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Tivoli: the Gardens of the Villa d'Este - faces

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Friend of CT, Andrew Brown, dug this memo out on the occasion of the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, a few weeks ago.

This memo was sent in June 1994 to Sergio Cellini, who was, iirc, the chief advertising man at the Independent then. I was both the religious affairs correspondent and the editor of a weekly computer page.

It was headed “Cheap advertising for the paper: outmanoevering[1] the Guardian”

The Guardian is vigorously attacking the market for science and computer journalism.

Amongst other things, it has formed a link with Compuserve, the largest commercial provider of electronic information to home computers in the world. Compuserve has more than 2m customers and is growing fast. Any of these will be able to read selected articles from the Guardian, write to specialists there, and talk amongst each other.

We can’t afford the investment of time or money to do that.[2] But we can be smarter.

I propose that we experiment in distributing a weekly edition of the paper [3] over the Internet, a global computer network with at least 20m users, of whom 30,000 are in this country. It is possible to rent space on a sort of electronic billboard for less than
£75 a month.[4] That amount of space would enable us to make available practically the whole text of a whole week’s newspaper if we wanted to. I propose instead that we simply put together a sampler of interesting and amusing articles each week, perhaps
with some of our better photographs.[5]

This would be accessible from almost anywhere in the world for the price of a local phone call.

It would be much easier to read and more attractive to look at than whatever the
Guardian does with the relatively archaic technology offered by Compuserve. It would, however, be entirely separate from the paper’s own computer systems, so that there could be no security risk.

Unlike Compuserve, the Internet is not commercial. It is not even an organisation. It is a loose global association of co-operating networks, most of which were developed to link universities, using Government funding. Until recently it was extraordinarily
difficult for amateurs to use. However, a new program called the World Wide Web makes the Internet astonishingly easy and simple to navigate.

Demon Systems, who are the most successful suppliers of Internet services to the consumer market in this country, have just started to rent out “Pages” on the World Wide Web. We could have one running within four days[6] of a decision, for a £50 set-up fee and a modest monthly rental. As things stand at present, we would make no money, except indirectly. But Demon are working on ways to do business over the Internet in future, so that browsers could fill in a form on-screen and order back issues, or other merchandise, from us using their credit cards.[7]

In the meantime, we would be given a weekly report on how many people accessed the service, which would give us a clear idea of how large the potential market is.

Obviously all newspaper will have to move into this sort of market eventually. Doing it through Demon now allows us to do so quickly, cheaply,and flexibly.

[1] I still can’t spell that word
[2] These were the long years of the Independent’s commercial retreat
[3] I dunno: maybe call it “The Guardian Weekly” or something like that.
[4] This is hard to believe, but I will have checked the figure with Demon. In retrospect it is unlikely they had anything like the capacity.
[5] Might actually have been feasible, since we printed in black and white
[6] The old Indie had put together a printed Saturday godslot in three days from when I put the idea to Andreas WS (without having commissioned anyone, so that was fun). The Guardian, fifteen years later, took nine months to build a section of Comment is Free, web only, for religious matters.
[7] Though this was sent to the advertising manager, the idea that we could sell ads on the web had not occurred to anyone. The paper was to be an advertisement for itself

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Late to a really great party

by Maria on April 4, 2019

Book thread: Henry’s yesterday about Linda Nagata also mentioned Robert Charles Wilson’s ‘Spin’, a thoroughly brilliant novel I feel like the last person in the world to have read. Mysteriously, an unread copy of it had been shuttling back and forward between my ‘shelve’ and ‘chuck’ piles – neither Ed nor I had bought it. I picked it up last month and my delight in reading it was only very slightly marred by a wish that I’d read it long ago, especially before other books that are essentially paler versions. That reminded me of one of my aunts who pressed Middlemarch on me when I was 18. For reasons I can’t defend, I only actually read the book at about 40. Greater regrets with this one, because it really does feel like one of those books you read repeatedly through life, concentrating on or being open to different aspects corresponding to how we all change and grow. (and also shrink)

Then I’m reminded of a very dear friend who’d never read a Russian novel. Oh, the evenings we spent, asking ‘But Anna Karenina, you must have read that? No? Really none? How about Crime and Punishment?” Then a couple of years ago it turned out he’d gone away in between times and has basically now read every classic Russian novel ever translated into English.

So, shoot. What books have you resisted for years, that turned out to be just as brilliant as everyone had said?

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“Vast”

by Henry on April 2, 2019

Today is a big day for some of us. Linda Nagata’s follow-up to the Nanotech Succession books, Edges is coming out. The third book in that previous series, Vast, is one of the great unrecognized SF classics of the last twenty years.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss suggests that one of the wellsprings of science fiction was the Victorians’ discovery that human beings were not at the center of the universe, were at most a temporary florescence in a process of evolution that had continued for billions of years before, and might continue for billions of years after. He describes the sense of radical alienation that this provoked, quoting a passage from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels where a character discovers a fossil in a cliff. This describes how humans, for the first time, really had to think about the age of things and their own cosmic unimportance. This perspective of deep time has been an important engine of science fiction ever since. Olaf Stapledon’s work provides one version. H.P. Lovecraft’s another (but that perspective is far more skilfully developed by Caitlin Kiernan, who is a paleontologist as well as writer)

Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo winning novel, Spin provides a famous take on what happens when human beings are forced to confront cosmological time. Vast  provides another, and in my opinion, even better one. Her characters have wandered out into a galaxy that is a battlefield from a civil war that ended thirty million years ago, still littered with weapons that are half-plague half-social contagion and vast autonomous spaceships, guided by colonies of “philosopher cells” that operate like cellular automata turned lethal. The human longing for transcendence becomes a trap that can enfold even those who are aware of its dangers in its sticky embrace. As one of the key characters reflects in a previous novel, looking at an insect that has wandered into his collection of carnivorous plants.

Lot wondered if the fly would have followed the sundew’s sweet scent if it could have comprehended the danger ahead of time. And he decided that it probably would have. Consciousness did not negate instinct. It only provided a post for self-observation.

Much current science fiction is sentimental, using a cold universe as mere backdrop for heartwarming stories about people with difficult backgrounds making new families for themselves. Vast, in contrast, isn’t even slightly sentimental, though it is  about family – unorthodox family, whose members often don’t particularly understand each other, and grow further apart as they speciate. The lesson that Vast has – if it has a lesson, any more than the universe has one – is the need to adapt and change.

I don’t want to say any more, for fear of spoilers, except to recommend that you read it, if you at all think that you might want to. It deserves to be rediscovered, and folded back into the main story of science fiction, rather than merely serving as a well of hidden inspiration. It’s the third in a series, but I read it before the other two, and found that the additional sense of alienation and in media res enhanced the story rather than detracting from it. Alastair Reynolds, whose books are deeply influenced by it, had the same experience. You can then dive into the earlier books as an excavation of the prehistory.

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading Vast and its prequels in preparation for the new book’s launch. Twenty years later, the rest of the field has still to catch up with it.

 

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Rebalancing rights

by John Quiggin on April 2, 2019

That’s the title of a collection of papers published by the Green Institute, including one I posted here a little while ago. Lots of people were involved but Tim Hollo was the prime mover on this one.

Over the fold, a statement of my view that property rights, notably the rights of corporationsl are socially constructed. That view isn’t universally shared, to put it mildly, so feel free to respond.

[click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Strasbourg Cathedral

by Chris Bertram on March 31, 2019

One from back in 2013

Strasbourg Cathedral-3

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Three things have made me think about why the way we do policy is wrong; the European Parliament passed the Copyright Directive, privileging IP over everyone else and locking in the current Big Tech players it affected to despise; climate breakdown rumbled on through a wave of public protests with no meaningful way to connect public concern to parliamentary processes and build in future harms to present decisions; and it emerged that more than one new housing development around where I live have ‘playground apartheid’, where kids living in the less expensive apartments aren’t allowed to play in the parks being created.

I was really, really, really not going to write about this as I finally have some energy and emotional wherewithal to crack into a shedload of deadlines, but then Chris Marsden – who you should follow if you’re interested in tech – tweeted this:

“Because @Europarl_EN is abolishing the future, I thought I’d time travel back to when we thought evidence based policy was worth a try”

And of course Chris is right. We are abolishing the future. Our policy processes are broken not just horizontally – they privilege lobbyists over citizens for reasons anyone who’s ever heard of a collective action problem will understand – but temporally. [click to continue…]

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Rights of Nature, but not natural rights ?

by John Quiggin on March 24, 2019

There’s an interesting article by Anna Grear in Aeon, criticising the idea that Nature should have human-style rights, and linking to the website of the Centre for Humans and Nature, which has lots more interesting discussion.

I’ve recently written a contribution to a forthcoming book by Tim Hollo, in which I take the opposite view. My central point is that corporations are routinely treated as persons for legal purposes, and that the effect is frequently harmful to Nature. There is in my view, no reason in principle, not to give legal standing to representatives of Nature, similar to that given to the representatives of social constructions like corporations. A lengthy extract over the fold.

[click to continue…]

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