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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It’s more than 5 years since Erik died which, for those who knew him, is quite hard to believe, as he is still a strong voice in many of our heads. Because I know many of our readers knew and admired him or his work (or both!) I thought I’d let you know that a couple of days ago Verso published a volume of essays focusing on his work, edited by Michael Burawoy and Gay Seidman. It contains essays by friends and students who’ve been influenced by him and his work over the years, and the essays engage with, as the subtitle suggests, work done over the whole span of his career. The contributors are: Michael Burawoy, Gay Seidman, Greta Krippner, Kwang-Yeong Shin, Joao Peschanski, Marta Soler-Gallart, Jacob Carlson and Gianpaola Baiocchi, Ruy Braga, Rina Agarwala, Rodolfo Elbert, Peter Ramand, Stephanie Luce and me (I trailed an earlier version of my occasionally rude (by my standards) essay here).

The kindle edition is remarkably well-priced!

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Brad DeLong (in a recent post summarising a joint podcast with Noah Smith) walks back his previous suggestion that it was time for neoliberals, among whom he had numbered himself, to pass the baton to “the Left”.

The political basis for this is that 20 or so Senate Republicans have been willing to pass legislation from time to time, rather than shutting down the government altogether. I don’t find this compelling, but I also don’t want to debate the issue.

Rather, I’m interested in the following remark, which crystallized a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having for some time

”How has the left been doing with its baton? Not well at all, for anyone who defines “THE LEFT” to consist of former Bernie staffers who regard Elizabeth Warren as a neoliberal sellout.”

This is a classic, indeed brazen, motte-and-bailey[1], in which the hard-to-defend bailey “the Left of the Democratic party (of which Elizabeth Warren is a prominent member) is doing badly” is replaced by the motte “THE LEFT (as represented, in this case, by disgruntled former Bernie staffers) is doing badly”.

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Sunday photoblogging: lunchtime

by Chris Bertram on June 2, 2024

At Alderman Moore's Allotments


Something that’s bothered me for a while is the relationship between politics and friendship. Not just close friendship but also people who you are happy to hang out with socially. Some topics – I’d include Brexit, trans rights and Israel/Palestine – are especially divisive in that people who disagree on these seem to find it very hard to tolerate one another. (The woke/anti-woke split is also a marker, though it is tempting just to push back against whoever is being the most irritating and dogmatic in some given context.) Anyway, in those oppositions the other side is, you think, marked by some combination of stupidity and moral perfidy, such that it is impossible to retain the minimal degree of respect that friendship requires.

Except, except, there’s always someone whose personal charm or the fact that something other that politics is the basis for friendship means that they get forgiven or excused even when they say something that’s really off. And who is available makes a difference too: if you are in a small community or a workplace or a family then you may not have to rub along with the people you disagree with, but it is better if you do because you’re inevitably going to be seeing a lot of them.

Here’s something that’s particularly insidious: you don’t know if you disagree with some person, but you suspect, on the basis of some fact about them (religion, ethnicity, age, nationality, etc.) that you might. Though they are someone that seems nice, you don’t have such a deep friendship with them that means a rift would painful. You don’t want to ask them directly, it would be rude, and there seems to be something discriminatory about doing so: “Because you have characteristic X, I suspect you might believe something, and I need to know…” Why ask them if you aren’t going to ask everyone the same question, after all? So you don’t, but you don’t really want to risk discovering that they are, as you think of it, a bigot: that could lead to a painful argument or just mutual embarrassment. So you prefer to avoid, not to engage, and you drift apart through this shunning, which might be mutual: perhaps they also suspect that you are the kind of person who holds the belief of which they disapprove. But you never really know, you just suspect a possibility, an opportunity is lost, and the object of your shunning may be left with the thought that you are no longer having to do with them because of their age, ethnicity, etc. And in a certain sense, they wouldn’t be wrong.


Reports of a death exaggerated

by Doug Muir on May 28, 2024

Here’s a metaphor. There’s an elderly person you’ve known for years.  Not a close relative, no, but someone whose career you’ve followed.  You feel tremendous respect for them, maybe some affection. They’re getting old and frail, but they’ve kept active.  Now and then you might see an article or something, and you’ll think, huh: still with us.

And then something terrible happens, and they’re incapacitated, helpless, unable to speak anything but gibberish. Death seems imminent.

So the family rolls the dice on high risk, experimental brain surgery. And to everyone’s surprise, it works! 

Mostly works. Your friend is still very frail, and they’ve definitely lost a step. The inevitable end has only been delayed.

But — they can speak, slowly but clearly. They can take care of themselves and carry out basic functions. They’re alive. You can talk to them.  They’re even still able to work!  At least, a little.  So you maybe haven’t seen the last article.  It’s an unexpected, surprise reprieve: you have them for a bit longer, another year or two or three.

That’s what it feels like.


Sunday photoblogging: Kilmainham Gaol

by Chris Bertram on May 26, 2024

Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin


A genuine selfmade billionaire

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 22, 2024

I believe that no-one deserves to be a billionaire. In the public realm, defenders of wealth concentration often come up with an example of a person who has created all their wealth themselves – the selfmade billionaire. They didn’t get their money from inheritance or some other form of luck, but from entrepreneurial instincts and efforts. At least, that’s how the argument goes.

The Dutch political philosopher Huub Brouwer and I hold that no-one deserves to be a billionaire (as I am sure many of you do too). And we were thinking that one way to make our (abstract, theoretical) arguments accessible to “Joe the plummer”, is to take an individual case of a selfmade billionaire, and delve into the details of their life story, and then apply the general arguments against the (lack of) deservingness of extreme wealth concentration to such a case study.

The question now is: who would make for the best casestudy – someone very rich (a billionaire or close by) who is perceived to be genuinely selfmade. Names that are often mentioned are JK Rowling, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and, more recently, Taylor Swift. Yet we’re probably running around in small circles, always mentioning the same (famous and visible) people.

Who do you think is the most selfmade billionaire?


Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2024



After a couple days to think on it, I think this post is right on. I just stumbled on a paper that stumbles, badly, over one of my two obvious thoughts about originalism. So let me point that out. [click to continue…]