I’m reading Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). I’m also preparing to lecture on fantasy and fairy tales in my Science Fiction and Philosophy module (fun!) So I am pleased to find the following passage about the forging of the hero Alveric’s blade. The sword is made from thunderbolts, you see, dug up from a witch’s cabbage patch. (She lives in an especially thunder-prone mountain region. Nothing special about cabbage, apparently.) Thunderbolts are unearthly space metal knocked from the sky in thunderstorms. Science fact.

Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. Enough that it was once beyond our Earth and was now here amongst our mundane stones; that it was once but as those stones, and now had something in it such as soft music has; let those that can define it.

So there’s my epigraph for the chapter about the relationship between science fiction and fantasy, when finally I get around to writinbg it. Science fiction is like that sword.

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Catalonia: petition for de-escalation

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 5, 2017

Philosophers from Catalonia are circulating a petition to plead for de-escalation of the current conflict. As this newspaper article reports, and as was confirmed to me by one of the original signatories, the group who took this initiative includes people in favour as well as against independence for Catalonia (and, presumable, some who think “it’s complicated” and have no firm views).

You are all invited to sign in order to call upon both the Spanish and the Catalan politicians to de-escalate and put in place a proper process through with all parties can peacefully engage with these questions, and hence replace confrontation and violence with a proper dialogue.

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The British Dream

by Harry on October 4, 2017

As someone who has had nightmares every night that I can remember since the earliest part of my childhood that I can remember, I love the idea of a British Dream—which is, apparently, Mrs May’s brilliant idea for renewing her premiership (bonus in link—you can see Amber Rudd telling Johnson he has to stand to applaud, and the Rees-Mogg look-alike handing May a P45). It reminds me of Gordon Brown’s search for a new slogan/motto for Great Britain (my personal favourites were “Mustn’t grumble”; “At least we’re not France” and “We’re British, we don’t need a slogan”).

My own version of the British dream would be sitting on a slightly slimy wooden bench, eating fish and chips soaked in vinegar, on a dreary drizzly November evening, next to an oily beach in a depressed seaside town on the North Sea. But yours might be different: lets hear them!

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Catalan referendum – open thread

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 1, 2017

Catalonia is holding a referendum today on secession from Spain. Apparently it’s illegal because the Spanish constitution doesn’t allow anything that can threaten Spanish unity. I haven’t been following the arguments pro and con and don’t know to what extent the separatist views are widely shared among the people living in Catalonia. So I don’t have an informed opinion about Catalonia’s striving for independence, and know from the Belgian/Flemish case how the political background of striving for independence can be very complicated, and how easy it is as an outsider to know half of the facts and sensitivities, and make overly quick judgements on that partial knowledge. But one doesn’t need to have a well-informed view on whether or not this referendum should have taken place, to see that it’s a violation of human rights as well as politically utter stupid of the Spanish government to react with police violence (BBC, Guardian). Anyway, consider this an open thread on the Catalan referendum.

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Sunday photoblogging: at Bouzigues

by Chris Bertram on October 1, 2017

Pézenas-3

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Just a thought. I’m not on Twitter so it works as a post title. It flattered my vanity that, when I googled, no one had made the joke yet.

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Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

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Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.

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Anthem Sprinting

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Tyler Cowen on American reverence for the Star Spangled Banner:

At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen President Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics. We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.

This reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, “The Anthem Sprinters,” based on his experiences in Ireland while working on John Huston’s Moby-Dick. The story isn’t available online (though brief summaries can be found here and elsewhere, but the plot is straightforward enough, concerning an American visitor’s discovery of a peculiar national sport. Since there was a requirement after all cinema performances that the Irish national anthem, a peculiarly lugubrious number called “The Soldier’s Song,” be played, and since Dublin cinema goers were more enthusiastic about getting to the pub to get a round or two in before closing time than about demonstrating their fidelity to the national ideal, they used to rush towards the exits in a class of a race, to avoid having to stay and stand through the rendition. Bradbury’s suggestion that this was transformed from a disorganized herd-like stampede into an actual sport is probably poetic exaggeration, but I don’t doubt that the underlying practice existed.

I’m sure that I’m not the only imported American to find the required sincerity of American nationalism a bit disorienting – it’s not what I grew up with in a country where even the greenest of 32 counties Republicanism was shot through with ambiguities. It’s not just a right wing thing either (the Pledge of Allegiance having been famously written by a socialist). Nor did I realize until the recent controversy that one of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” apparently looks forward to the death of American slaves freed by the British who fought in their regiment. A little more ambiguity and anthem-dashing might be no bad thing.

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Of Penguins and Power

by Yochai Benkler on September 25, 2017

In Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly, Henry follows up his response to Cory’s Walkaway by claiming that peer production failed, and arguing that the reason I failed to predict its failure is that I ignored the role of power in my analysis.

Tl;dr: evidence on the success/failure of peer production is much less clear than that, but is not my issue here.  Coase’s Penguin and Sharing Nicely were pieces aimed to be internal to mainstream economics to establish the feasibility of social sharing and cooperation as a major modality of production within certain technological conditions; conditions that obtain now.  It was not a claim about the necessary success of such practices.  Those two economist-oriented papers were embedded in a line of work that put power and struggle over whether this feasible set of practices would in fact come to pass at the center of my analysis.  Power in social relations, and how it shapes and is shaped by battles over technical (open/closed), institutional (commons/property), ideological (cooperation/competition//homo economicus/homo socialis), and organizational (peer production & social production vs. hierarchies/markets) systems has been the central subject of my work.  The detailed support for this claim is unfortunately highly self-referential, trying to keep myself honest that I am not merely engaged in ex-post self-justification.  Apologies. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Renaissance courtyard, Pézenas, France

by Chris Bertram on September 24, 2017

Pézenas

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A rare outbreak of unanimity on PFI

by John Quiggin on September 19, 2017

I’m doing some work on privatisation and wanted to look at recent UK experience with the Private Finance Initiative. So, I Googled for PFI in the last year (as Google personalizes searches, your mileage may vary). The result is a surprising degree of unanimity. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that

  • PFI is a disaster, enriching private firms at the expense of the public
  • The other side is (mostly) to blame

[click to continue…]

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Chelsea Manning and Harvard

by Henry on September 18, 2017

It occurs to me that it may be worth spelling out more explicitly the logic of why I think the Harvard Kennedy School has gotten itself into trouble. So here goes. The Harvard Kennedy School Dean, Doug Elmendorf’s statement is here. The key sentences, as I read them:

Some visitors to the Kennedy School are invited for just a few hours to give a talk in the School’s Forum or in one of our lecture halls or seminar rooms; other visitors stay for a full day, a few days, a semester, or longer. Among the visitors who stay more than a few hours, some are designated as “Visiting Fellows,” “Resident Fellows,” “Nonresident Fellows,” and the like. At any point in time, the Kennedy School has hundreds of Fellows playing many different roles at the School. In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.

… I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum.

[click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Étang de Montady

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2017

Étang de Montady

Back to Sunday Photoblogging. I’ve been on hiatus from CT due to some family matters, and others have taken up the photoblogging job. This is the Étang de Montady as seen from the Oppidum d’Ensérune (both near Béziers in Languedoc). Both have Wikipedia entries, so please consult, but the story is that monks constructed this in the 13th century. They drained the swamp/pond by creating a drain at a central point which flows through an underground culvert and the radial ditches that result force the fields into their triangular pattern.

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Harvard Kennedy School (discussion)

by Henry on September 15, 2017

This post is a stub, intended to allow people to discuss the Harvard Kennedy School decision to revoke its invitation to Chelsea Manning, since the main post comments section is being used as a petition.

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