Sunday photoblogging: Swift

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2024

I’ve spent many hours trying to take pictures of these over the past three years and have a large collection of indistinct blurs as a result. But I went back to basics, studied the camera setting, watched a bunch of “how to” videos on YouTube and actually managed this one:

Common Swift

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Bye bye, Tories, hello what?

by Chris Armstrong on July 5, 2024

In the UK, we’re all waking up to the prospect of a new government. The election was an oddity: Labour has converted a modest 35% vote share into a whopping Parliamentary majority; the Tories did somewhat better than suggested, on around 24%, but have lost more than two-thirds of their MPs. (The final figures were closer than most opinion polls suggested). But the election was not a story of Labour advances: they did little to increase their vote share (and neither did the Lib Dems, whose seats went up dramatically, from 11 to probably 71, on a virtually unchanged vote share). The real story was a fracturing of the Conservative coalition, with some voters locally going to Labour, some locally to the Liberal Democrats, and many going to Reform. One big question over the next few years will be how the Tories respond to this fracturing of that coalition. While they have long been divided and in decline, they no longer have Brexit to paper over their differences. Will they tack left, or right? (Answer: Electoral rationality suggests left; the demographics of their membership suggests right). Another is how Labour will attempt to sustain what is in fact a rather fragile electoral advantage in the coming difficult years, given that many wins were narrow, and given that they already appear destined to disappoint many of their voters.

Any predictions, then, about what the next four or five years hold for either Labour or the Conservatives?

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Does Social Media Cause Anything?

by Kevin Munger on July 3, 2024

In the 18 months since I quit Twitter, I can feel the atrophy of my vibe detector. I’m reading more than ever, on Substack and the FT, Discord and group chats — much of the same “content” I would’ve encountered on Twitter, in fact, but without the ever-present spiderweb of the social graph, the network of accounts, RTs and likes that lets me understand not only what someone thinks but what everyone else thinks about them thinking that.

So while I know that I’m missing the vibes, I cannot, of course, know which vibes I’m missing. Knowledge of vibes means never being surprised when someone says something: I know what kind of person they are, and I know what those kinds of people say. This is why Twitter users participate in The Discourse rather than in human-to-human dialogue: given the unknowability of another person, when we openly converse with them, we can always be surprised by what they say.

Although various Discourses now take place both on and between other platforms, the architecture of Twitter is ideal for textual Discourse and it seems to remain the hub.

The first time I was realized I was way off of the main vibe came from the response to Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation. My readers will know that I am extremely sympathetic to at least part of his argument, which I’ll split up as follows:

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If the current Supreme Court had held comparable office in Weimar Germany, that is, its opinion in Trump v. United States would have rendered the judgment in this post’s headline. Never mind that the Weimar Constitution was different from the U.S. Constitution (importantly, in granting emergency powers to the President to rule by decree under Article 48). For, as Justice Sotomayor rightly observes in her blistering dissent, the majority’s decision that the President enjoys absolute immunity for his official acts has “no firm grounding in constitutional text, history, or precedent” (quoting Alito’s characterization of Roe v. Wade in Dobbs).

So let us set aside the law, which has nothing to do with how the Court majority arrived at its opinion. I am here to explore the majority’s mindset, which leads it down the path to utter lawlessness, and opens the door to dictatorship. Justice Roberts disparages this worry as overblown, much as Hindenburg imagined that Hitler was a mere blowhard, no real danger to the Republic. Never mind that Trump, like Hitler, habitually announces his malign intentions in advance–that he will not honor any election that does not place him in office, that he will abuse the powers of the President to wreak vengeance on his enemies, that he will rule as a dictator (on “day one,”–but now the Court has granted him a license for at least a 4-year term). Such announcements are the only times when it is prudent to take Trump at his word.

Roberts, like everyone else on the Court, knows that Trump conspired to overthrow the results of the 2020 election and stay in power by inciting a mob to shut down Congress’s counting of electoral votes. What could make him imagine that Trump’s actions were, if not lawful, then beyond the reach of any controlling law?

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Advice on faculty job application letters

by Eszter Hargittai on July 2, 2024

I’m hosting a couple of professionalization discussions for our PhD candidates and postdocs this summer, informal conversations to help them navigate the crazy academic job market. A few weeks ago we discussed job talks as the department had just had a bunch of candidates visit (very different schedule here in Europe than the US) and we’ve had quite a few such talks over the past few years. Debriefing seemed like a good idea. After that conversation, people requested that we have a session specifically about job application letters so that’s coming up next. I’m writing now to seek your input on what works and what doesn’t. I can imagine that some of this is field-dependent, but I also suspect many aspects are generalizable.

My experiences with reading letters are a bit ridiculous in terms of volume at this point. I’ve been at the University of Zurich for eight years and have served on as many search committees. These have mostly concerned my own department (communication and media research), but a couple of times it was a search in political science and now one in sociology. It is standard to have people from other departments (and even other universities) on search committees here, very different from US practice (in my experience). I had also served on several search committees while at Northwestern and have served as an external member on some committees elsewhere in Europe so you can do the math on how many letters I’ve read over the years.

One of my biggest pieces of advice is for candidates to show rather than tell committee members about their accomplishments. I always cringe when I read things like “I am a leading researcher in the area of” (especially since most of these positions are for junior scholars, but I don’t like to see this even from a senior scholar). Rather than stating that “I’m a very accomplished scholar,” applicants should list their tangible accomplishments such as “I have published in x, I have won award y, I currently hold competitive fellowship z.”

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Sunday photoblogging: good morning!

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2024

Sometimes you have to go looking for photos, but this is what greeted me when I got up to make the coffee the other morning.

Good morning!

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So my wife took this picture in our garden yesterday, here in Kigali, Rwanda:

May be an image of bird

Take a close look.  This little bird — about the size of an American cardinal, or a European robin — is facing us.  It’s also facing the sun, though you can’t see that.  It is holding two twigs with its little claws, and… it’s puffing out its breast feathers in a very weird way.  It looks like a breeze is ruffling them.  But there is no breeze.

So we did a quick look-up and found: this is Colius Striatus, the Speckled Mousebird.  Long tail, “scruffy” crest, check.  Thin, rather hairlike breast feathers, check. Very common across tropical Africa, okay.  And then this:  

“Speckled mousebirds… can often be spotted roosting in groups where they’ll buff up their feathers. They do this to allow more sunlight to hit their bodies which helps speed up the fermentation process.”

Wait, what?

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Sunday photoblogging: Narbonne Cathedral (2015)

by Chris Bertram on June 23, 2024

Narbonne Cathedral

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Occasional paper: Fungal banking

by Doug Muir on June 20, 2024

So in the last couple of decades we’ve discovered that many plants rely on networks of soil fungi to bring them critical trace nutrients. This is a symbiotic relationship: the fungal network can access these nutrients much better than plants can, and in return the plants provide the fungus with other stuff — particularly energy, in the form of glucose sugar, made from photosynthesis.

It turns out this relationship is particularly important for large, long-lived trees. That’s because trees spend years as seedlings, struggling in the shade of their bigger relatives. If they’re going to survive, they’ll need help.

The fungal network gives them that help. The fungus not only provides micronutrients, it actually can pump glucose into young seedlings, compensating for the sunlight that they can’t yet reach. This is no small thing, because the fungus can’t produce glucose for itself! Normally it trades nutrients to trees and takes glucose from them in repayment. So it’s reaching into its own stored reserves to keep the baby seedling alive.

Gosh that’s beautiful isn’t Nature great! Well… yes and no.

Because the fungus isn’t doing this selflessly. The nutrients and glucose aren’t a gift. They’re a loan, and the fungus expects to be repaid.

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Sunday photoblogging: Iceland (2011)

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2024

Looking back from the edge of Langjökull

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Waiting for the nova

by Doug Muir on June 15, 2024

“You’re always building models. Stone circles. Cathedrals. Pipe-organs. Adding machines. I got no idea why I’m here now, you know that? But if the run goes off tonight, you’ll have finally managed the real thing.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s ‘you’ in the collective. Your species.”

— William Gibson, Neuromancer


Sometime in the next 100 days, a star will explode.

The star’s name is T Coronae Borealis, and normally you can’t see it without a telescope: it’s too far away. But when it explodes, you’ll be able to see it just fine. It won’t be the brightest star in the sky, or anything like that. But it will be a reasonably bright star — “second magnitude”, if you’re an astronomer or a nerd — in a place where there was no star before.

It won’t last, of course. The new star — “nova” is the term, which of course just means “new” in Latin — will shine for a few days, then gradually fade back into obscurity.

Maybe you’ve heard of a supernova? Okay, so this isn’t that. This is it’s less spectacular little cousin, the plain and simple nova. A nearby supernova would light up the sky, potentially glowing as bright as the full Moon. This will just be a middling bright star that will (to our eyes) appear from nowhere and then, over a few days or weeks, fade away.

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The edge of extinction

by John Q on June 14, 2024

Referring back to this 2002 post defining “neoliberalism”, I find the claim that the “The (UK) Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. That wasn’t one of my more accurate assessments, and I’m bearing it in mind when I look at suggestions that the party is now “facing a defeat so dramatic it may not survive.” (that’s the headline, the actual suggestion is that the future may be one of “long periods of Labour with occasional periods of Conservative governments”
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Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call legislative elections in France, following a strong showing for the extreme-right-wing Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen constitutes an extreme risk. No doubt he thinks that either the RN will fail to get as many seats as they hope under France’s two-stage election system or he calculates that since he will remain President he has the option of another dissolution as soon as the right-wing government experiences a dip in popularity. Whatever his calculation, his immediate strategy rests upon the notion that a Republican Barrier exists to keep out Le Pen: the idea being that all those parties opposed to Pétainism and collaboration with the occupiers in WW2 can be relied up to favour one another over the RN in the second round of elections where two remaining candidates compete.

This notion has already come under severe strain, however, as the President of the Gaullist Les Républicains party, Eric Ciotti, has to the outrage of most of his fellow leaders, proposed an alliance with the extreme right [update, Ciotti has now been expelled from the party] and Macron himself has sought to exclude La France Insoumise, the far left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the Republican family. (Perhaps he hopes that LFI voters will back his party anyway in the second round. If so, he’s been irrationally optimistic.)

In any case, I think the whole idea of a Republican Barrier, as currently formulated, is based on the idea that the divisions of 1940 (which themselves to some extent echo divisions of the 1890s, the Second Empire, the Restoration and before that the Revolution), are salient to modern voters irrespective of the policies actually pursued by “Republican” parties, which, to be honest, may not differ all that much from those of the far right. Granted, divisions based on which side grandpa and even great-grandpa were on can be surprisingly enduring: consider Ireland where the divisions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, centre-right pro-capitalist parties both, have persisted for decades based on the opposing sides of a civil war now a century old.
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On Student protests and academic freedom

by Eric Schliesser on June 11, 2024

In an earlier post (here), prompted by some writings by Jacob T. Levy, I defended the idea that student protests can fall under academic freedom. My argument for this starts from the fact that while many universities can have mission specific interpretations of the latitude and constraints on how they interpret academic freedom (non-trivially constrained also by local legal context), all universities share a mission in being committed to knowledge discovery, knowledge transmission, and preservation of knowledge.

That being so, student protests can play a two-fold role in furthering this mission in light of scarce resources (not the least time): first, they are a means of articulating what is worthy of academic attention and what ought to be the focus on discovery. Most student protests fit easily under this role. This fits quite naturally with Max Weber’s account of how to think about the philosophy of social science and the vocation of a scientist. Second, student protests can themselves be seen as experiments in living and as such they can have epistemic benefits to the academic community, and wider society. I won’t repeat the argument for these points here, but will modestly develop them below.

If this much is correct, then universities have a defeasible obligation to be respectful of students protests and, perhaps, even to facilitate student protests in light of their academic mission. It’s defeasible because the epistemic benefits of student protests may come in conflict with other projects on campus with non-trivial and potentially much higher epistemic benefits—say research labs or regular instruction. It’s also defeasible because some protests may be prima facie at odds with the particular mission of the university as such—in this way academic freedom is very unlike freedom of speech! So, ideally, a code that governs student conduct on campus recognizes the need to accommodate the possibility of student protests (without trying to regulate it in fine detail).

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Sunday photoblogging: wisteria at Iford

by Chris Bertram on June 9, 2024

Iford Gardens, Somerset

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