Merry X-Mas!

by John Holbo on December 25, 2018

It’s been a busy month for John and Belle. Certain difficulties involved, as you can see from the photo. Hope it’s been a good month for you and yours and that Santa brings you many appropriate gifts.

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Done!

by John Quiggin on December 23, 2018

Today I sent off the corrected proofs of Economics in Two Lessons to the publishers, Princeton University Press #PrincetonUPress. They won’t look at it until New Year, but it doesn’t matter. The book is done, and I can sit down to Christmas dinner with the family knowing it’s off my hands.

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Sunday photoblogging: jet

by Chris Bertram on December 23, 2018

Jet

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Trump gets it (half) right

by John Quiggin on December 22, 2018

Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria (and a large number from Afghanistan) has provoked plenty of criticism, not reduced by the enthusiastic support he has received from Vladimir Putin.

Rather than go over the arguments in detail, I’d like to make a point that seems to be missed nearly all the time. Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years. The last real success was the Camp David agreement in 1978, which created the durable illusion that the US is crucial in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war. Apart from that there has been nothing but failure: Reagan in Lebanon, 40 years of failure on Israel-Palestine, failed confrontation on Iran, incoherent attempts to influence oil supplies, and, of course, the second Iraq War including the rise of ISIS).

Whatever the motives, Trump’s decision to end military involvement on Syria is in line with Obama’s much criticised policy rule “Don’t do stupid shi*t.” Unfortunately, this move has been combined with increased support for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and the Palestinians, and for an incoherent policy towards Turkey. Still, half-right is better than completely wrong.

The immediate point here is not to allocate blame or praise to Trump, but the importance of avoiding reflexive hawkishly responses of the kind emerging from the Foreign Policy Community. More generally, this event stresses the urgency of the need for a progressive foreign policy based on the presumption that military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid. The same is mostly true of military aid, particularly when it is given to dictators who mostly use it to oppress their own people.

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Sunday photoblogging: cobbles

by Chris Bertram on December 16, 2018

Bristol, cobbles

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No planet but this one

by John Quiggin on December 13, 2018

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has just passed through the heliopause and into interstellar space, forty years after it was launched.

On the one hand that’s a stunning technological achievement and a reminder of the wonderful universe we live in. On the other, it’s a reminder that humans will never go out to explore this universe, or even leave Earth in significant numbers.

Although Voyager 2 has passed the heliopause it is still within the gravitational field of the sun. It would take another 30,000 years to fly beyond the Oort cloud which marks the boundary.

These facts could have been computed when Voyager was launched though at the time its mission was limited to five years. But if they had been pointed out as an argument for the impossibility of interstellar travel, the response would surely have been that the problem would be solved by technological progress. Forty years before Voyager was launched, flying across the Atlantic ocean was a major feat. Forty years or so before that, the first heavier-than-air flight was undertaken by the Wright brothers.

Extrapolating one could reasonably expect that forty years more progress would produce massive advances in space travel including human space travel. In fact, though no one knew it at the time, the heroic age of space travel (indeed, of nearly all kinds of travel) had already passed. No one has travelled to the moon since Voyager 2 was launched and, quite possibly, no one ever will. The promise of easy access to space through the space shuttle has been abandoned in favor of the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket. Meanwhile physicists have closed off just about every possible loophole that might allow us to evade Einstein’s conclusion that the speed of light is an absolute limit.

The other achievement of the Voyagers and their successors has been a comprehensive exploration of the planets and moons of the solar system. They have revealed many marvels, but nowhere remotely habitable compared to, say, Antarctica or the Atacama desert.

The biggest lesson of our decades of space exploration is that Earth is the only planet we have.

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Tyler Cowen suggests that Tom Lehrer would have been a member of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

This is provocative – but it seems basically wrong to me. The more trivial reason why is that Lehrer seems to have stayed on the American left.

“I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirize George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them.” In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama”

The more useful answer is that whatever you think about their respective political positions, their orientations to politics are fundamentally different. Lehrer was an iconoclast. The IDW people, in contrast, are iconolaters. IDWers don’t just want to push back against what they believe to be an emerging orthodoxy. They want to defend a pre-existing orthodoxy of their own (which roughly coheres around a common mythology regarding the ‘Enlightenment’ was and what it still has to offer) against it, and they take their own dogma seriously.  This is why the style of IDW tends more towards thin-skinned self-seriousness, and heavy hectoring. You need a sense of the absurd to be funny.

Perhaps a modern Tom Lehrer would indeed skewer the pieties of the left. Any broad social movement tends towards dogma. All dogmas produce some absurdities, and for that matter, tragedies. But the left is hardly the only source of such pieties, or, perhaps, the most important one. The piece that Tyler links to also has this section:

On the other hand, there are certain dead horses that still merit kicking, such as the late Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of the songs in the show. I say that not out of animosity toward him especially, but because of what he represents. I have been amused over the years at the number of scientists who have enjoyed the song without ever realizing that it was about them.

It’s hard not to be reminded of the ‘we’re only interested in the neutral scientific inquiry’ line that many IDWers take on race and IQ, and the Left’s Hostility and Open Debate.*

Lehrer was entertainingly impatient with the people whose politics he agreed with, but his true venom was reserved for an altogether more important set of shibboleths. Not political correctness, but the Cold War fusion of unthinking patriotism and technocratic politics. There are analogies to that fusion today, but I don’t think they’re on the left.

Update: as happens pretty well every time that I write a post responding to Tyler, whether agreeing or disagreeing, there’s a raft of comments with personal invective aimed towards him, and/or complaining that I shouldn’t be engaging him. And as before, I’m deleting all such comments – opinions about my engagement have already been amply expressed, and there are plenty of other places on the Internet you can express your derogatory opinions about him (or, for that matter, me).

  • When I once had the misfortune to be criticized online by Jordan Peterson, I spent several days dealing with multitudes of politely insistent followers demanding that I engage them in lengthy debate on race and IQ, to the point that I eventually had to write this post to fend them off). NB that I am quite sure that Tyler is no more enthusiastic about race-IQ nutters than I am.

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Britain convicts human rights defenders of terrorism offence

by Chris Bertram on December 10, 2018

In the UK every day is Brexit day, but today more than most because our hapless Prime Minister’s attempts to persuade Parliament to back her “deal” have run into the sand. The wall-to-wall coverage means that there’s every danger that the state’s victimization of human rights defenders will not get the coverage it should. The Stansted 15 are a group who took direct action to prevent a flight deporting people from taking off from Stansted Airport last March. Originally charged with “aggravated trespass”, the prosecutors sought and received permission to accuse them of an obscure terrorism offence involving intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, a provision of the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act. This was brought in after the Lockerbie bombing of 1988 and carries the possibility of life in prison. The judge in the case instructed the jury to ignore all arguments to the effect that the defendants had prevented a greater evil. It is clear however that they have indeed prevented a great evil, since several of those whose deportation they prevented have now had their cases reassessed and have been granted leave to remain in the UK. I blogged the other day about Candice Delmas’s book A Duty to Resist. At least two of her grounds of justified resistance are plainly at stake in this case: first by preventing the refoulement of people to jurisdictions where they face persecution, the Stansted 15 were acting in accordance with the natural duty of justice to uphold just institutions in a case where states try to subvert or ignore those institutions; second, the Samaritan duty, acting to prevent great harm and human rights violations to individuals, is in play. The most plausible defences of state authority base themselves on the fact that states make justice possible: in this case it is those who have acted against the state and now face prison who have acted in defence of justice.

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Hack Gaps and Noble Lies

by John Holbo on December 9, 2018

These days we are healthily cynical about the omnipresence of motivated reasoning in cognition and communication. Everyone is working to fool everyone, starting with themselves. (It used to be you had to read Nietzsche to learn this stuff. Ah, those were the days.) [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Bristol dawn

by Chris Bertram on December 9, 2018

Bristol dawn

Still getting used to the new camera, but there was some fantastic light first thing this morning.

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Saturday art blogging: making art with the help of AI

by Eszter Hargittai on December 8, 2018

Remember those days when you would discover a Web site and completely lose track of time as you got sucked into its amazingness? I hope you have some time, because I am about to point you to such a site.

The video below is purely for the purposes of showcasing multiple images at once not because I think such a video is particularly interesting in and of itself. The generated individual images are. My hope with the video is for you to get a sense of what’s possible with the Deep Dream Generator. You upload an image and then select one of their available styles or upload another image to serve as the basis of the style that will be applied to your main image. Needless to say, the possibilities are endless.

I show you the styles I used below the fold and give you some additional rendered examples from other base images. [click to continue…]

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A small piece of good news for the global climate

by John Quiggin on December 8, 2018

The market price of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is plummeting, having dropped by 10 per cent over the last couple of days, and 50 per cent over the past month. The bubble that reached maximum expansion a year ago is gradually deflating.

The good news is that a lower Bitcoin price makes the energy-wasting process of Bitcoin mining unprofitable for many, so lots of miners are turning off their servers. Most estimates of the marginal cost of mining are around $4500 per coin, but the market price has just fallen to $3500.

That situation won’t last long. Every couple of weeks (more precisely, every 2016 blocks) Bitcoin adjusts the difficulty of the pointless algorithm used to mine coins, so as to ensure a steady flow of around one every 10 minutes. As mining effort has declined, the difficulty is reduced, which means less electricity wasted per Bitcoin.

The rapidity with which Bitcoin prices are falling give some hope that the entire disastrous episode will soon be over. If the current rate of decline (50 per cent per month) is maintained, Bitcoins will be worth less than dollar coins in a year’s time, and their impact on electricity demand will be negligible. That’s equivalent to taking a small country like New Zealand off-grid.

In this context, it doesn’t matter whether Bitcoin miners are using renewable energy or coal. The opportunity cost of the electricity they use is the coal-fired electricity that would otherwise be displaced by renewables.

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A philosophical experiment about inequality

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 3, 2018

Crossposted by co-writer Tim Meijers at Justice Everywhere

Political philosophers often engage in thought experiments, which involve putting hypothetical persons in hypothetical scenarios. However, it is often challenging to find ways to involve real, non-hypothetical, people with the questions we are dealing with, aside from the more traditional ways to engage in outreach such as debates and opinion pieces. Recently, the Fair Limits team* – which studies the plausibility of upper limits in the distribution of economic and ecological resources – attempted a new way to engage the public by making use of a participatory “veil-of-ignorance” thought experiment. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging, and an appeal

by Chris Bertram on December 2, 2018

Southville-2

Here’s a row of houses in Southville, Bristol near where I live. I’m hoping to have a burst of photographic activity now, having just taken delivery of a new camera, a Panasonic G9, last week.

And now for an appeal: Bristol Refugee Rights, where I’m chair of the board of trustees, is a charity providing support, advice, education, meals, social space and other services to refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants in the Bristol area. Funding is always tight, and we desperately need to raise £29,000 to keep our advice services running. We’ve started a crowdfunder to this purpose, and I’d urge everyone (especially if you like these Sunday photos) to contribute.

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Abusive Legalism

by John Holbo on December 2, 2018

‘Norm erosion’ has been a debated thing for a while. Good norms have been undermined by Trump. But does it make sense to push back against that by defending norms, rather than, say, the good?

It’s useful to narrow it down. This President, in this era of hyper-partisanship, is a peculiarly unconstrained beast, legally. (Not just in the old, familiar imperial presidency sense.) There isn’t much Trump could do to get Republicans to impeach him. So impeachment is off the table as a check on Presidential abuse of power. In a narrow, legal sense, the immunity of a sitting President from prosecution, plus arguable exemption from conflict of interest laws, plus theoretically unconstrained pardon power, means on paper, a lot of ‘get out of jail free’ cards. No one would have aimed for this result. It’s obviously bad to have no check on Presidential corruption. (Maybe the emoluments clause is going to save us. We’ll see.)

So you get what Matthew Yglesias calls ‘abusive legalism‘, which is a bit narrower than ‘norm erosion’.

Andrew McCarthy is a good example. In his latest piece he objects to Mueller’s investigation – as he always does – on the grounds that there is no clear, overarching, blackletter ‘collusion’ crime in the prosecutor’s cross-hairs.

Note that word: crime. There are many wrongs that are not crimes, activities that are immoral, mendacious, unseemly. If we are talking about cosmic justice, all these wrongs should be made right. But prosecutors do not operate in a cosmic-justice system. They are in the criminal-justice system. The only wrongs they are authorized to address — the only wrongs it is appropriate for them to address — are crimes.

Note the attractive, exculpatory impersonalism of ‘cosmic injustice’. If awful stuff comes to light in l’affaire Russe, but it can be made out that there wasn’t a technical law against it; or if there is some law, but still some last ‘get out of jail free’ pardon card to be played – then Trump isn’t guilty – nor can Republicans be said to be at fault for turning a blind-eye. It’s the universe. Ergo, anyone who is upset about corruption is just some kooky, wild-eyed cosmic justice warrior.

The position is self-undermining within the scope of the piece itself. McCarthy is indignant that Mueller is violating prosecutorial norms – not breaking laws. But McCarthy doesn’t, therefore, chalk Mueller’s wrongdoing up to the cosmos’ injustice tab and shrug it off. But there’s an attractive pseudo-purity to such legalism. Adhering to the letter of the law is a good thing. ‘There’s no norms, dude’ is not the winning way to spin bad behavior. ‘We ONLY uphold the rule of law’ is how to spin norm erosion positively.

I think probably the most effective tack, rhetorically, is to force the likes of McCarthy to own the apparent perversity of the allegedly principled result. Namely, the right thing to do is to not expose serious Presidential corruption, since, weirdly enough, it isn’t illegal.

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