Signal to Noise

by Maria on June 6, 2017

On Saturday night, a couple of hours after the attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, I was on the Tube carrying a suitcase and backpack, trying to figure out the best route home that avoided the closed stations. A South African guy was sitting nearby. He inveigled an Italian man opposite him into chat. Within two stops, the South African was teaching a British woman some dancing steps while the Italian sang them some weird, sloppy waltz, a couple clapped not quite in time, the woman’s friends recorded it in hope of a viral moment, and the rest of us acted like proper Londoners and looked slightly irritated while also pretending nothing was happening.

It was kind of a nice moment, being light-hearted and international and the kind of thing we all say is so very London. The woman soon gave up in embarrassment and sat down in a trill of supportive giggles from her friends. The Italian got off and reminded us to get the very drunk South African as far as Collier’s Wood. With the state of him, though, he’s probably still sleeping it off at the end of the line in Morden.

On Sunday night, I checked email for the first time in two weeks and responded to a media request on Theresa May’s suspiciously prompt statement that the attacks were due to US tech firms providing “safe spaces” to terrorists. She’s made a career out of cutting police resources while increasing their powers. I guess this makes sense on some collectively sub-conscious level, like an anorexic I once knew who baked endlessly and gave it all away. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Mount Pleasant Terrace

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2017

Mount Pleasant Terrace

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An Hypothesis About 2018: Collapse And Replace

by John Holbo on June 4, 2017

What’s going to sink Republicans is not some scandal, let alone errant Trump tweet, but healthcare. It’s us-vs-them fun and games, but if you don’t have your health, and you can’t afford a doctor, how fun is that? The Republicans are not going to repeal-and-replace. The Trump administration is doing its bit to undermine Obamacare. “Collapse and replace” is it. Minus ‘replace’. Democrats should run on that. If Republicans collapse health care, you should replace them. Democrats should start using ‘collapse’ in a transitive sense. The Republican plan is to ‘collapse the system’ and they have no replace plan. Let Republicans talk their way out of that one. They for sure aren’t going to legislate themselves out of that being the way of it. [click to continue…]

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Golden Hill

by Henry on June 1, 2017

 

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is finally being released in the US in a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pretend for a moment to be unbiased (I read an early version, and loved it). I don’t want to talk too much about its plot, for fear of spoilers, but this, by Abigail Nussbaum is very useful in how it talks about what Spufford is up to without giving it away:

There’s another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel’s big secret. And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be. Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard’s narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con. This turns out to be both true and not true. What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him. It is also—and to modern readers in particular—something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York’s economy runs. The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement. Running through the novel is Richard’s awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean. It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we’ve spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.

Building on this, Golden Hill is a very important book about America, in ways that may not be obvious to those who read it merely for the picaresque. Spufford’s America is the America of the mid-eighteenth (and, in a postscript, the early nineteenth) century. New York is a town with several thousand inhabitants, frightened and suspicious of cosmopolitan visitors from London (although in one wonderful set piece of writing, the sparks from a bonfire preconfigure the New York that is to be). Spufford’s American provincials are Tories to a man, rousting out Papists and toasting the King (the book’s strong implication is that ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ patriotism arose half-by-accident, from maneuverings over taxes and who got what – see also on this Peter Andreas’ wonderful history, Smuggler Nation).

The most striking continuity between the old pre-Revolutionary America and the new is racism, which the book suggests (if I read it right) is more fundamental to American identity than independence. It may seem odd to compare an apparently light-hearted historical novel to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tradition he represents, but, when read through carefully and read again, Golden Hill isn’t particularly light – it’s looking to make a very serious point.

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The Color of Law

by Harry on May 31, 2017

I just finished Richard Rothstein’s brilliant—and far from uplifting—book The Color of Law. It’s been getting a lot of favorable press, and rightly so.

The book accepts (for the sake of argument, maybe—Rothstein is always parsimonious in his arguments) the principle that Chief Justice Roberts puts forward when he says that if residential segregation ‘is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications’. It is devoted to showing that, contrary to the prevailing myth that residential segregation (between whites and African Americans) is a product of a private choices it is, in fact, a product of government policies, all the way from the Federal level to the most local level, and this is true in the North as well as the South. Housing segregation in the US is de jure, not de facto. And… it shows just that. He makes his case in careful, meticulous detail, but in unfussy and inviting prose, packed with illuminating stories that illustrate the central claims.

Here are some of the basic mechanisms through which government in some cases reinforced and in other created housing segregation:

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I’ve been thinking about this Gideon Rachman piece over the last 24 hours:

despite her cautious phrasing, Ms Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach. … it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years …Ms Merkel was unwise and unfair to bracket the UK with Trump’s America. In the climate change discussions, Britain sided with the EU — not the US. … if Ms Merkel’s government pursues the Brexit negotiations in the current confrontational spirit — demanding that the UK commit to vast upfront payments, before even discussing a trade deal — she risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lasting antagonism between Britain and the EU. It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the Nato context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to Nato — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.

Not so much the broader argument (which I disagree with, but in obvious ways) than what the specifics say about the current state of Financial Times liberalism. [click to continue…]

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Is The Living Easy Yet?

by Belle Waring on May 30, 2017

Summer is stipulated to begin on Memorial Day in the US. I’m pretty sure everyone else just starts it on June 1 like normal people. At any rate it’s almost summer in the northern hemisphere. Here in Singapore the days are lengthening by…seconds and headed for the solstice when the day will be 3 minutes longer than the night—which is totally imperceptible. Why not listen to Hot Hot Summer Day, an underappreciated but very awesome song from the Sugarhill Gang.

The more obvious classic is DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s Summertime, which has the advantage of having a great video.

Is it hot where y’all are? Are your kids about to get out of school and be on your hands the whole summer? Do you have screentime limits for them so people don’t just play video games and dork around on the loserweb all day? We are struggling to implement this. (Perhaps because this may be one of those ‘do as I say not as I do’ situations.) International school here ends on the 16th and John needs to be back in early August, so on the 20th we begin our dizzying yearly trek across all of fracking America, including stops in Arizona, D.C., West Virginia, and South Carolina, flying via Japan and Los Angeles. Kind of a drag but got to see that beloved family. Tell me of your plans Plain People of Crooked Timber (I am aware that they may be ‘work all summer you idiot; not everyone is an academic or has children to entertain’).

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Sunday photoblogging: Redcliffe flats

by Chris Bertram on May 28, 2017

Redcliffe Flats

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Less is more

by John Quiggin on May 28, 2017

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

  • Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.
  • The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says
    most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.
    [1]
  • As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

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I stayed up on election night to watch the results come in (can’t wait till June 8th, that’s going to be a thriller!). I had a bad feeling about the whole thing starting the moment I walked on campus that morning, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the result by about 7.30 pm (Central). But I stayed up anyway, partly because I that’s just what I do, and partly because the first test match between England and India started at 10 pm, and I couldn’t wait to see Haseeb Hameed, whom everyone was talking about. And, indeed, you could see why they were talking about him (as Aggers said, in frustration at the England camp trying to dampen down pressure: “Are we supposed to pretend we’re not seeing what we are seeing?”; or, imagine being 19 and hearing Geoffrey describe you as “a proper opening bat”).

But the player who really shone that night was Moeen Ali, who, fortunately, was still in when I awoke the next morning. And that seemed particularly fitting to me, because he seems to be the embodiment of everything Donald Trump isn’t.

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Drug Wars

by John Quiggin on May 25, 2017

I got a preview of Drug Wars by
Robin Feldman and Evan Frondorf
. It’s not about the War on Drugs, but about the devices used by Big Pharma to maintain the profits they earn from their intellectual property (ownership of drug patents, brand names and so on) and to stave off competition from generics. Feldman and Frondorf propose a number of reforms to the operation of the patenting system to enhance the role of generics. I’m more interested in a fundamental shift away from using intellectual property (patents and brand names) to finance pharmaceutical research.
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A couple months ago I made fun of an ‘inspired by Steely Dan’ Apple Music playlist that seemed to be basically a random assortment of tracks by bands, all of which had covered one Steely Dan song at some point. As I put it at the time: “Also, the Mountain Goats?”

How wrong I was! Their new album, Goths, is out. It’s a glorious, slick, lounge jazz-tinged demonstration that Danliness is next to godliness, albeit not gothliness. It also sounds like Prefab Sprout circa Steve McQueen, yet another good thing. YouTube has not hoovered up the tracks yet, but here’s a nice acoustic cover of “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds” (an early release from the album that didn’t quite do it for me; but the acoustic version sounds great. John Darnielle does the deceptively-simple-counter-rhythm strumming thing, which keeps life interesting, and his voice is sweet and clear. No guitar on the album itself.) From the album, I recommend “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement”; also, “Wear Black”; also, get all your Gene Loves Jezebel nostalgia out with “Abandoned Flesh”.

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Prickly questions

by Henry on May 22, 2017

Many CT readers will already be familiar with the recent effort by two scholars to repeat the Sokal hoax, as they understood it, by getting a bottom-feeder journal to publish a piece on imagined penises and global warming. Steven Pinker declared a smashing victory


albeit maybe slightly prematurely. James Taylor at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians

The first journal that Bognossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this “hoax”…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.

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The fidget spinning fad and disability discrimination

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 21, 2017

Here’s an important article by Aiyana Bailin, who argues that the recent fidget spinning fad shows something disturbingly:

Something that was considered entirely pathological and in dire need of correction when done by disabled people is now perfectly acceptable because it is being done by non-disabled people

So here we see disability discrimination at work. For some neuro-atypical and disabled people, stimming is a way to reduce stress, and indeed also to concentrate better. But often they are told not to do this. The same holds for other forms of behaviour that neurotypicals consider ‘abnormal’. The fidget spinning just shows how much of a social convention, and hence form of domination, those social norms regarding ‘normal behaviour’ are, and that at least some of those conventions are biased against the needs of some groups of disabled people and neuro-atypicals.

Earlier this week, I came across another example. A therapist told me that social skills training for autistics entails, among other things, that they learn to look at the eyes of another person when talking to them. But why would that be a desirable good? What, except for some social convention, would make it that it is considered inappropriate not to look at the person you’re talking to? Why can’t we just accept it to be as it is – that for some people, it’s easier to have a conversation if they do not have to look you into the eyes?

But the good news is that the article by Aiyana Bailin gives us an opportunity to learn something. I suspect it will eye-opening to many of us. It’s an example of how disability discrimination works, and examples may well be more effective in showing the working of disability discrimination than some abstract theory. Yet it’s an example of a more general problem that Bailin wants to draw our attention to:

But the power structure is still there. There’s still a rigid hierarchy of who gets to decide which behaviors are normal or pathological. There’s still a societal subtext that tells people who are different “be less like yourself and more like us.” We need to work on that.

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Would you eat bugs? How about a dog?

by Eszter Hargittai on May 21, 2017

In my German class in Zurich this week, we read a piece about how important bugs may be to the future of feeding the planet thanks to being high in protein and having considerably lower environmental costs for production. Several of my classmates seemed visibly disturbed by this. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bugs before – have you? – but I don’t have a problem with the concept. I’m not a vegetarian and don’t see why I should be any more put off by bugs than a cow or a chicken. If I think about the origins of a cow or a chicken, I may wince, but I still like the food. Why would that be different with bugs?

In the domain of animal consumption, Switzerland tends to garner outrage, because it is legal to eat cats and dogs. This may be disgusting to many Europeans and Americans, but it’s not at all uncommon in countries elsewhere such as in Asia. It is clearly in many ways a cultural issue. While many Europeans and Americans don’t think twice about eating cows and pigs, they are not on the menu elsewhere. (I purposefully said “cow” and “pig” in that last sentence instead of “beef” and “pork”. Why don’t we just say the animal at hand? I enjoyed the ponderings on this MetaFilter thread about that question although didn’t really get a satisfying answer.)

Growing up in Hungary, I ate cow tongue on occasion, something quite tasty, but clearly revolting to some who had never considered it (I base that on personal experiences talking to folks elsewhere about it). Unless you are a vegetarian, it seems it would be hard to make the case that one animal is okay while another is not as long as it is produced and prepared under healthy conditions. (And let’s not even get started on how much of the meat we consume anyway would not qualify as such!) Should pet Miss Piggy be an easier case for dinner than pet dog Spot?

Curiously, the author of the piece advocating for bugs as a source of nutrition and who herself eats them said that she is a vegetarian due to ethical reasons. I cannot reconcile then, how she can justify eating bugs. Anyone want to defend her position?

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