Frankenstein’s Children

by Henry on December 30, 2016

This talk by Maciej Ceglowski (who y’all should be reading if you aren’t already) is really good on silly claims by philosophers about AI, and how they feed into Silicon Valley mythology. But there’s one claim that seems to me to be flat out wrong:

We need better scifi! And like so many things, we already have the technology. This is Stanislaw Lem, the great Polish scifi author. English-language scifi is terrible, but in the Eastern bloc we have the goods, and we need to make sure it’s exported properly. It’s already been translated well into English, it just needs to be better distributed. What sets authors like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers above their Western counterparts is that these are people who grew up in difficult circumstances, experienced the war, and then lived in a totalitarian society where they had to express their ideas obliquely through writing. They have an actual understanding of human experience and the limits of Utopian thinking that is nearly absent from the west.There are some notable exceptions—Stanley Kubrick was able to do it—but it’s exceptionally rare to find American or British scifi that has any kind of humility about what we as a species can do with technology.

He’s not wrong on the delights of Lem and the Strugastky brothers, heaven forbid! (I had a great conversation with a Russian woman some months ago about the Strugatskys – she hadn’t realized that Roadside Picnic had been translated into English, much less that it had given rise to its own micro-genre). But wrong on US and (especially) British SF. It seems to me that fiction on the limits of utopian thinking and the need for humility about technology is vast. Plausible genealogies for sf stretch back, after all, to Shelley’s utopian-science-gone-wrong Frankenstein (rather than Hugo Gernsback. Some examples that leap immediately to mind:

Ursula Le Guin and the whole literature of ambiguous utopias that she helped bring into being with The Dispossessed – see e.g. Ada Palmer, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series &c.

J.G Ballard, passim

Philip K. Dick (passim, but if there’s a better description of how the Internet of Things is likely to work out than the door demanding money to open in Ubik I haven’t read it).

Octavia Butler’s Parable books. Also, Jack Womack’s Dryco books (this interview with Womack could have been written yesterday).

William Gibson (passim, but especially “The Gernsback Continuum” and his most recent work. “The street finds its own uses for things” is a specifically and deliberately anti-tech-utopian aesthetic).

M. John Harrison – Signs of Life and the Kefahuchi Tract books.

Paul McAuley (most particularly Fairyland – also his most recent Something Coming Through and Into Everywhere, which mine the Roadside Picnic vein of brain-altering alien trash in some extremely interesting ways).

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin. The best SF book I’ve ever read on how small human beings and all their inventions are from a cosmological perspective.

Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang.

Also, if it’s not cheating, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (if Kim Stanley Robinson describes it as a novel in the SF tradition, who am I to disagree, especially since it is all about the limits of capitalism as well as communism).

I’m sure there’s plenty of other writers I could mention (feel free to say who they are in comments). I’d also love to see more translated SF from the former Warsaw Pact countries, if it is nearly as good as the Strugatskys material which has appeared. Still, I think that Ceglowski’s claim is wrong. The people I mention above aren’t peripheral to the genre under any reasonable definition, and they all write books and stories that do what Ceglowski thinks is only very rarely done. He’s got some fun reading ahead of him.

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Education: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

by John Quiggin on December 29, 2016

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at education.

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Public Services: Excerpt from Economics in Two Lessons

by John Quiggin on December 28, 2016

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at public goods and publicly funded services
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Happy Christmas, Timberteers

by Maria on December 25, 2016

milo-xmas-2

Milo sends best wishes from London to all the CT gang. OK, whatever, he’s a dog. He’s only eaten three or four baubles and so far today is more or less continent.

Wishing everyone who’s part of CT a great Christmas, Hannukah, holidays and all the rest of it.

Bit of a weird one, this. I can’t quite find it in myself to write ‘happy New Year’ on everyone’s cards as who knows what’s in store, and the very things that made 2016 so disastrous will make 2017 … oh, well.

Here’s another dog picture.

milo-xmas-3

Be more dog, guys. Be more dog.

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All Around My Hat

by Harry on December 24, 2016

Weird memory. 1985, in some sort of lecture room in Kings College overlooking the Strand. A song starts to fade in, seeming to come from the road below. “Whatever You Want, Whatever You Need….etc”. It gets louder and LOUDER. A new song begins, using the same chords… “Again and Again” maybe? It’s impossible to ignore. We look down at the street and there they are, moving along slowly on a flatbed truck. The lecturer has no idea who the band is. In fact, some of the kids at Kings then are so posh they don’t seem to know. Impressive. I guess that’s the only time I’ll see Status Quo live.

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Public Ownership: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

by John Quiggin on December 24, 2016

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at public ownership.

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Welcoming the new boy at school

by Harry on December 21, 2016

When I was 13 a new boy called Matthew Arnold arrived at my secondary school. It wasn’t the beginning of the year, just some random autumn day—not even a Monday. 15 minutes before the bell went for school Ms. Bolton brought him to me through the drizzle, told me his name, and told me to look after him and introduce him to people. He wasn’t in my class, and Ms. Bolton had never taught me, so God knows why she asked me to do it—I was not the friendliest, or the most socially adept, kid, by a long shot. He was taller than me, gangly, with big NHS specs, and more socially awkward. Being the new kid could be a cruel experience, as I later discovered myself.

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The economics of open borders

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2016

A colleague recently sent me a paper on the economics of open borders, by John Kennan, which I hadn’t known of before, though it came out in 2013.
Kennan’s conclusion is striking

Liberal immigration policies are politically unpopular. To a large extent, this is because the beneficiaries of these policies are not allowed to vote. It is also true, however, that the enormous benefits associated with open borders have not received much attention in the economics literature.20 Economists are generally enthusiastic about free trade. But if free movement of goods is important, then surely free movement of people is even more important.
One conclusion of this paper is that open borders could yield huge welfare gains: more than $10,000 a year for a randomly selected worker from a less-developed country (including non-migrants). Another is that these gains are associated with a relatively small reduction in the real wage in developed countries, and even this effect disappears as the capital–labor ratio adjusts over time; indeed if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.

So, is Kennan right about the benefits of open borders? And if so, is there a way of transferring some of those benefits to already-resident wage earners who would otherwise lose, or at least not gain, from expanded migration?
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Racist incidents on campus

by Harry on December 20, 2016

My campus—like, no doubt, a good number of others—has been afflicted over the past 18 months or so by what seems like a rise in the number of racist incidents. We made the headlines recently, when someone attended a football game with an Obama mask on and a noose around his neck. (Oddly enough, the football stadium did not have a standing rule against people attending with nooses round their necks – and I am not sure how you can reasonably introduce such a rule frankly when you are about to introduce a rule that people can attend carrying guns). But there have been other, to my mind nastier (because anonymous) incidents. Nazi and other white-supremacist symbols scrawled here and there; “Heil Hitler” salutes in the face of two girls leaving sorority known (by those in the know which, bizarrely, includes me) to have a preponderance of Jewish members; racist graffiti in the bathrooms, etc. I say it ‘seems’ like a rise, because we don’t know how well reported incidents were before we introduced a specific mechanism for distinguishing racist and other ‘hate and bias’ incidents from general bad behaviour a couple of years ago. If there has really been a growth in incidents, that would be easy to explain. But one point of the post is to ask what the evidence suggests about whether there actually has been an increase on other campuses.

The other is to tell a little story about one of the lesser-known incidents. I tell the story because it is mildly amusing, but also because it hints at a different response to such incidents than that which has been publicized so much by the anti-coddling brigades. (I should say that students on my campus do not seem to demand coddling, though you might think that my response in the vignette below was a coddling response).

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Open thread: best books of 2016

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2016

An open thread for commenters to recommend their favourite books of 2016.

I’ll start with Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (Allen Lane).

Trying to understand my country in the light of the EU referendum vote, I picked up a copy of Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class. I’m glad I did. Hanley is now an academic at Liverpool John Moores and lives a life shaped by the culture and expectations of Britain’s middle class, nourished, as she explains, by a diet based on mackerel and pulses. But this isn’t where she started. Life began on a vast working-class estate on the edge of Birmingham, Chelmsley Wood, a place to where many families had been decanted as part of the post-war social democratic experiment, and where they’d stayed. The book is about social class and social mobility, about getting from there to here, and about the “walls in the head” that make the transition a matter of profound anxiety and which stop many people from leaving at all. It is also about divisions within the working class, between those who cope with their subordinate status by keeping up appearances, and those who don’t, between those who read the Mirror and those who read the Sun. As Hanley puts it in the introduction: “Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if your are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life.”

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Sunday photoblogging: Hebron Road

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2016

Hebron Road, Bedminster, Bristol_

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Monopoly and Regulation: Excerpt from Two Lessons book

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2016

Here’s another excerpt from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. Rather than work sequentially, I’m jumping between:

Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
and
Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

In the section over the fold, I’m looking at monopoly and regulation. Next up, public ownership.

As usual, praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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New-ish Crime Writers — the East Coast

by Harry on December 16, 2016

Well, the big news is that the new Tana French (The Trespasser) and the new Peter Robinson (When the Music’s Over) are both out and both brilliant.

Now to the East Coast; a study in contrasts. First we have Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels. The heroine is an archeologist at what seems like a rather shambolic new University on the Norfolk coast; her cases all involve old bones of some sort, but the murders are, mostly, reasonably recent. The world is about as cozy as you’ll find in new crime fiction; people basically like each other though you may not like the central cop, a self-absorbed Lancastrian who is partly redeemed for the reader by the mysterious liking that an oddly named Druid who works in a technical capacity at the University (yep) has for him. The plots are satisfying, the writing fluent, the characters predictable but (with the exception of the cop) broadly likeable. They’ll each take you a few hours to read—frivolous fun, like a Cosmo. Warning (which MIGHT be a minor spoiler): as with Sophie Hannah, but more so, the first book will make you anxious that the supernatural is going to play some sort of explanatory role—its ok, it doesn’t. Start with The Crossing Places .

David Mark’s Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy books do not resemble a cosmo at all. Set in Hull, they are as dark as you imagine the worst winter day being there—in fact, I only know Hull through these novels, and I don’t think that I have once imagined sunshine there. It’s noir, without relief. The villains are evil and ruthless and some of the cops no better. McAvoy starts the series as an officer suffering the consequences of whistle-blowing on some sort of corruption in the force. He’s lucky to be under the protection of a capable senior officer, Trish Pharaoh, and also to have a spouse who is (I think implausibly) adoring and understanding. But the plots are satisfying, and after the first novel, The Dark Winter, McAvoy grew on me quite a bit. Through several of the novels we see the emergence of a shadowy and apparently invincible organized crime syndicate, which Pharaoh and McAvoy are required to deal with, if not defeat. Mark is excellent with minor characters and subplots, and presents a world which, despite (or maybe because of) the prevalence of evil, is much less black and white than most crime writers prefer. Highly recommended if you have a reasonable tolerance for particularly vicious murders.

IS there a series set in Lowestoft? Or Southwold?

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“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth …” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West – Reanimator”

Years ago I made a parody Christmas book mash-up of Lovecraft/Haeckel/Clement Clark Moore. I called it Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness: A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep. I made print versions but then took them down (they weren’t quite it.) Yet it lived, lurking beneath the surface, in the form of a perennially popular pair of Flickr albums and this old Hilo post. Hidden, winter sun-dappled tide pools of hideous, unfathomable, happy depths for kiddies to dip their toes in! But 2016 is the year of fake news. You can’t spell ‘fake’ without the ‘Haeckel’. So my fraudulent yet innocent concoctions have wandered and, eventually, been mistook for genuine Victoriana. Oh, well. I can’t completely blame them. Real Victorian X-Mas cards are often dark and weird. Hence the joke.

Caliginous gloom is the best disinfectant. If, as some whisper, ‘even death may die’, then perhaps it is possible to quash a rumor that Haeckel actually designed X-Mas cards. Accordingly, I have seized the seasonal opportunity to republish and set the record straight. A new, improved version of the print edition is now on Amazon! It is also available on Kindle. Somehow Amazon not seen the connection yet, but I imagine that will resolve itself. (Also, I made slightly different covers for the two editions. Which do you prefer?)

For impoverished urchins, with nary a penny to spare, yet high-speed internet access, I have updated the Flickr galleries with some higher quality images. The old ones were skimpy. My most popular images, Blue Boy and Feeding Birdies, are available in larger sizes. Some others, including several of my favorites. (Maybe I’ll get around to doing all of them. But not today.)

Boy Blue and Blue Jelly (front)

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Conscription and the media narrative on refugees

by Chris Bertram on December 13, 2016

The world is watching the denouement in Aleppo, with stories emerging of massacres, particularly of young men (and probably by young men). A story I read from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent reported that such is the shortage of manpower for the Syrian army that other young men, emerging from eastern Aleppo, are being immediately conscripted into the Syrian army. A Syrian refugee I heard speaking the other day said there was no choice but to leave because you would either be killed, or you would be forcibly enlisted and forced to kill others. And many of the young Eritreans who find their way to Europe are also fleeing conscription (they face indefinite military service). This is hardly a new thing. The last major exodus of Americans fleeing the jurisdiction of their state was of young men who were evading the Vietnam draft.

James C. Scott, in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed writes of state conscription as one of the main reasons why the subjects of states flee to the hills, to a zone outside of state control. There are few such zones today, and those that there are may be governed by forces even less appealing that the states that conscripts are fleeing from.

This all got me thinking about some of the media narrative on refugees over the past few years. The preponderance of young men has been treated by those who want to keep refugees out as a reason for suspicion. The “genuine” refugees for the newspaper columnists are mothers and children. It is the toddler drowned on the beach, like Aylan Kurdi, who elicits public sympathy. But young men are often the ones with most reason to flee. It is they who face the starkest choice between killing and being killed. No wonder they predominate.

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