From the monthly archives:

January 2009

Like Chris, I don’t find a lot in Chapter 2 of Cohen’s book that I didn’t already find in Chapter 1. It seems an attempt to make the basic argument more sharp and technical, without actually making it more plausible or clear. No harm done, I suppose.

So let me try to make a different sort of connection, ripped from the headlines. Cohen is concerned that a certain sort of ‘kidnap’ case makes trouble for Rawls. Basically, the trouble is this: you might describe a policy of paying off kidnappers as prudent – wise, rational – but you wouldn’t call it just or fair. There is a problem using actual kidnap cases to illustrate, because they tend to get lurid in irrelevant ways. And it may seem tendentious to port conclusions about kidnap cases directly over to the tax and social policy system. It invites the question: are you just assuming that capitalism amounts to mass kidnapping? It occurs to me that our contemporary bailout worries provide better and clearer illustrations of what Cohen is really getting at. So here goes. [click to continue…]

Book cover contest (including $$ prize)

by Eszter Hargittai on January 30, 2009

I invite you to put on your creative thinking caps and participate in the book cover contest now running over at Worth1000 for my methods edited volume called Research Confidential. The winner receives $150 and the chance to have the design show up as the book cover.

You may recall the thread here a while back regarding the book’s title. I received many great suggestions. In the end, an idea I got from Jonathan Zittrain won out. That said, the subtitle “Solutions to Problems Most Social Scientists Pretend They Never Have” came from a suggestion on that CT thread submitted by reader Vivian.* Many thanks to both! (In fact, many thanks to all who participated in that helpful thread and convinced me to abandon my original idea.)

The title is not the only idea for which I owe JZ thanks. I’m following in his footsteps by running a contest for the cover design. His book on The Future of the Internet – And How To Stop It ended up with its cool cover this way.

The contest page gives a brief summary of the book and some ideas I have for a cover design although I’m very eager to see all sorts of other suggestions. The site also lists technical specifications for submissions. The contest runs for a week. If you can think of friends who are good at this sort of thing, please pass the word along. And thanks to my publisher, The University of Michigan Press, for supporting this idea.

[*] A note to reader Vivian: I’ve tried to figure out who you are so I could contact you and see how you felt about having your full name included in the book’s Acknowledgments. Please let me know your thoughts on this.

Cohen on Justice and Equality reading group (2)

by Chris Bertram on January 30, 2009

Chapter 2 of G.A. Cohen’s new _Rescuing Justice and Equality_ addresses an argument in favour of the difference principle put by Brian Barry (as a reconstruction of Rawls) in his _Theories of Justice_. The argument has two stages: in the first, an equal distribution is established as the only _prima facie_ just distribution; in the second, a move away from equality is licensed, so long as it is a move to a Pareto superior distribution. Barry’s argument for the first stage is essentially that there is no cause of an unequal distribution that would justify its inequality: so there is, at a fundamental (i.e. pre-institutional) level, no argument based on desert or entitlement that would provide a justifying explanation of an unequal distribution. Such inequalities, are therefore, so this argument claims, _morally arbitrary_. The argument for the second stage is consequentialist: it would be irrational to insist on an equal distribution if it were possible to move from it to a distribution where some people were better off and none were worse off. (Insisting on equality in these circumstances looks like a levelling-down.)

From the point of view of Cohen’s engagement with Rawls, it is hard (for me) to see that this chapter adds much to the previous one. Cohen invites us to imagine an initially equal distribution D1 and a Pareto superior distribution D2. It looks as if we should prefer D2 to D1, because some people do better and no-one does worse. But, he says, let’s imagine another equal distribution, D3 which is Pareto superior to D1. Why couldn’t we move from D1 to D3 (rather than D2)? He canvasses various explanations, but the central point, as before is that the naturally-talented are only willing to put the additional (worst-off improving) effort in under conditions of inequality (D2) rather than under the equal net reward available under D3. There isn’t, therefore, an objective barrier to the feasibility of equality at the D3 level, just a justice-denying choice on the part of the already talented.

The real interest of the chapter lies, I think, elsewhere and is hinted at by Cohen in his reference to Nozick at p.90 fn. 11. It is the assumption, which Barry clearly shares, that the removal of the morally arbitrary causes of the holdings that people have ought to privilege equality as the just initial distribution. Why isn’t equality just as morally arbitrary as an initial starting-point as inequality? This, of course, is the point pressed by my late colleague Susan Hurley in her _Justice, Luck and Knowledge_ (esp. ch. 6). The right response to that worry is to provide a positive argument for equality as a morally privileged starting-point rather than relying on it being some default position after the removal of morally unequalizing arbitrary factors.

[Remember the rules: no commenting unless you’ve read the book.]

Ever More Zombies!

by John Holbo on January 30, 2009

The Little Professor points us to the forthcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen’s beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen’s classic novel to new legions of fans.

She then suggests some additional titles. I can’t believe she left out War and Peace and Zombies, however. Now 50% longer! And you’d have these great contrasts between the command styles of the Prussian and French and Russian and zombie generals. (Writes itself.)

But Marvel comics is ahead of the literary curve, as always, with Marvel Zombies. They specifically explore one possibility that Miriam sees as needing careful treatment: what if a vampire became a zombie? A vambie! (In related news: witchaloks!)

UPDATE: Come to think of it, this old literary mash-up post – continued here – is even funnier than zombies. In all modesty.

John Martyn is Dead

by Harry on January 30, 2009

In the fall of 1981, while living in a squat in Kentish Town and working at some disused church in Hampstead making an absurd number of placards for the upcoming CND demonstration in order to distract attention from the ubiquitous SWP banners, I listened to Solid Air nearly every day. My much older friends all said that it was best listened to while stoned but they may just have been teasing me for my notorious abstemiousness. A couple of years later I rode my rickety old bike from Oxford to Aylesbury (and back) to watch him (one of the few musicians I’ve bothered to see live). He was exquisite. Seeing that documentary about him a couple of years ago, it was clear he didn’t have long to live. BBC obit here. The youtube clips of his recent performances, though badly recorded, make it seem that he remained a great performer till the end. But this is the one:

All You Zombies

by Kieran Healy on January 29, 2009

To be honest, watching the anchors and reporters draaaaaaag out the joke and gnaw it to death makes it clear that the real zombies are holding down well-paying jobs presenting local news. I especially liked the vox pop with the caption “Jane Shin / Drove by sign”.

Response, Part 2

by Charles Stross on January 27, 2009

3. Thank God it’s Friday … (Ken MacLeod)

What can I say? I _think_ Ken nailed most of the easter-eggs in “Saturn’s Children”. (There’s a really tongue-in-cheek piece of meta-commentary implicit in the title — a book about what might appear at first sight to be a libertarian utopia, given that we have engineered the right kinds of libertarians to inhabit it — riffing off the title of an earlier book by a noted British libertarian/conservative ideologue; but at this point the tongue is so firmly embedded in the cheek that its owner is in danger of acquiring a fistula.)
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Response, Part 1

by Charles Stross on January 27, 2009

*1. Stross on development economics (Krugman)*

Civilizations are complicated.

That statement ought to be ploddingly obvious to the point of banality, but it’s astonishing how often it seems to elude pundits, politicians, and — yes — science fiction authors.

As Paul Krugman observes, we don’t really know why development economics started working better around 1980. I’d go further: I’m not sure 1980 wasn’t simply a coincidence. All we know for sure is that given access to a sufficiency of tools and ideas, _sometimes_ a nation or group of nations (or a region within a nation — huge parts of China’s interior still remain locked in peasant farming poverty) figures out how to build institutions and infrastructure at a dizzying rate, only slowing when they near the then-prevailing state of the art. (Which itself is moving forward only slowly.)
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Charles Stross book event

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

A New Year, a new Crooked Timber book event. But instead of one book, we’re covering a dozen or so, all written by Charlie Stross, exploring different forms of the SF genre from postcyberpunk to alternate history and beyond. For this we need an all star cast, and, in addition to several CT regulars (Henry, both Johns and Maria), we have contributions from Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong and Ken MacLeod. Between us, we’ve managed to cover nearly everything. Glaring exceptions include the Laundry series, which every fan of Len Deighton and HP Lovecraft should read, and Glasshouse. I’ve added an open thread at the end of the seminar, for those who want to discuss what we missed.

For those who haven’t read Stross, start off with Maria Farrell who shows why you should. As Maria says, “Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man”, and her essay shows some of this amazing range. With that to whet your appetite, it’s probably best to jump randomly to whatever sounds most interesting, but for those who prefer some order, I’ll give a summary of the seminar, mainly in chronological (reverse blog) order.

Starting off with a heavy hitter, we’ve got Paul Krugman writing on The Merchant Princes, considered as a thought experiment in development economics. Of course, as Paul points out, these books are first, and foremost, great fun. But, unlike others in the ‘between alternate timelines genre’ Stross focuses on the big question: how does an agrarian society respond to a sudden irruption of modern industrial technology?

Following this up, John Quiggin on a problem more directly relevant to most CT readers: how does a modern industrial society respond to a sudden irruption of electronically accelerated financial technology? Accelerando provides the best imagination of possible paths to a Singularity that I’ve read. Of course, as current events tell us, there are different kinds of singularity.

Next, another star of the SF movement’s Scottish fraction, Ken MacLeod, on Stross’ latest venture, Saturn’s Children, a piece of Heinleiniana set in a post-human future, where femmebots, rendered effectively redundant in the absence of human males, intrigue with robot gigolos. Brad DeLong riffs off Ken’s reference to Asimov’s Three Laws to discuss the constitutional status of robotic ex-slaves and that less concrete but more powerful form of artificial/fictive humanity, the corporation.

John Holbo writes, as expected, at Holbonian length, with no possibility of a summary. As a teaser, I’ll quote his second para “Someone should rewrite Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a Wodehouse novel, with the title Absolutely Jeeves! (Alternate, Kierkegaardian version: Beer and Trembling.)” Read on and all will be explained (sort of).

Coming back to a more classic mode of SF review, Henry Farrell writes on Halting State, which he argues is the best novel Stross has written. In comments, I favour Accelerando and invite all comers to lost their Fave Five. Still, as Maria says it’s hard to beat a novel that includes the line “Nobody ever imagined a bunch of Orcs would steal a database table…”. And as Henry’s post shows, there’s more to be learned about post-sovereignty and the erosion of political authority in Halting State than if you spent the same time reading pontificatory opinion pieces about the inevitable breakdown (or triumph) of the EU.

Finally, Charlie Stross replies, in two parts. To my mind, this is usually the best bit of a CT book event, when we get to understand some of the author’s motivations and look behind the finished product of a book, and Charlie doesn’t disappoint. I won’t try to summarise, but encourage readers to jump straight in.

Why you should read Charles Stross

by Maria on January 27, 2009

Science fiction is, more than anything, a literature of ideas. And Charles Stross has more ideas than is probably healthy for one man. How many writers truly grapple with what it is to be human, with or without post-human technology? Accelerando bravely risks alienating you from the characters by propelling them off into multiple iterations far removed from the original meat-space versions. It reminded me of the second half of Wuthering Heights, when the original cast of characters is dead or unrecognizable, and a set of translucent copies play out the same drama. Less satisfying emotionally, but it makes you grasp intuitively the big questions beneath; what is free will? Am I the same person I was before puberty, when I left home, or even this time last year?
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State of chassis

by Henry on January 27, 2009

Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Halting State for my money, is Charlie Stross’s best science fiction novel. Not his most fun novel – that award collectively goes to the slightly-borked-alternative-reality Merchant Princes series that Paul talks about. Nor his most wildly inventive novel (which is surely Accelerando). But it’s the novel where fun and speculation come together most successfully. It works both as an entertaining read and as a fascinating discussion of an encroaching low-level singularity. It’s one of the best pieces of sociological-political extrapolation that I’ve ever read.
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In honor of Manfred Mancx, Charles Stross’ venture altruist/seagull/submissive/catspaw/posthuman protagonist in Accelerando – who tries to patent six impossible things before breakfast, or something like that – here are a couple of possibilities to start things out. [click to continue…]

I Feel an Attack of Constitutional Law Coming on…

by Brad DeLong on January 27, 2009

Ken Macleod wrote:

Thank God that Charlie chose [Friday] as his late-Heinlein legacy text for Saturn’s Children…. Its eponymous heroine’s problem is that she’s human, but hardly anyone recognises her humanity – a situation with real-world resonance enough. She needs to find a place where she can be herself and belong. Stross’s heroine, Freya, has a more intractable anguish. She’s in love with humanity, and particularly fixated on the male of the species…. Unfortunately for her, Homo sapiens (along with almost all eukaryotic life) has been extinct for centuries. For a femmebot like Freya – a hard-wired sex machine so much a creature of male fantasy that her bare feet can grow high heels – this is deeply frustrating….

Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots… minds are modelled on the human brain, mangled by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, and driven by impulses they have inherited without understanding. The result is one of the most physically attractive and ethically revolting societies conceived in SF: a system-spanning, star-striving community most of whose inhabitants are slaves…. I could have done with more detail on the (well-sketched) outline of how the ruling class rules through corporate personhood and property rights, using and abusing what remains of humanity’s laws (as well as Asimov’s). There can’t be many SF books where there are fewer infodumps than the reader wants, and it’s a strong point of this one that it is….

Plot.… I felt an apologetic authorial nudge when the device Freya couriers from Mercury to Mars turns out to be hidden inside a black-painted statuette of a bird of prey…. When the main plot-engine does catch fire, though, we’re definitely along for the ride, and the ending is a slingshot that does the Heinlein (and Asimov) influence proud.

So, Mr Stross … your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your rights-savvy cold eye on a story about a revolt in an anarcho-capitalist penal colony on the Moon…

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Thank God it’s Friday

by Ken MacLeod on January 27, 2009

… that Charlie chose as his late-Heinlein [1] legacy text [2] for Saturn’s Children – and not, say, Time Enough for Love. Friday, for all its flaws, is a good act to follow. Its eponymous heroine’s problem is that she’s human, but hardly anyone recognises her humanity – a situation with real-world resonance enough. She needs to find a place where she can be herself and belong.

Stross’s heroine, Freya, has a more intractable anguish. She’s in love with humanity, and particularly fixated on the male of the species, her One True Love. Unfortunately for her, Homo sapiens (along with almost all eukaryotic life) has been extinct for centuries. For a femmebot like Freya – a hard-wired sex machine so much a creature of male fantasy that her bare feet can grow high heels – this is deeply frustrating.

After the living, life goes on. Humanity’s final and perhaps fatal achievment has been to create its own replacement, in the multifarious forms of robots, who have gone loyally on to create their dead creators’ Golden Age SF dream of the Solar System. Their minds are modelled on the human brain, mangled by Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, and driven by impulses they have inherited without understanding. The result is one of the most physically attractive and ethically revolting societies conceived in SF: a system-spanning, star-striving community most of whose inhabitants are slaves.

Given this set-up, it’s surprising how much fun there is to be had. Freya may pine for her One True Love, but she’ll take sex where she can get it – and in an environment where almost any object may be conscious and randy, this results in a great deal of consensual polymorphous perversity. She is screwed by a space shuttle (within which she is securely strapped). She is fucked by a hotel (which is called Paris, though I waited in vain for the matching hotel-name shoe to drop). There are more allusions to kink than you can shake a rod at, some of which (I suspect) whizzed right past my head. There’s a scene where the set-up of endless porn movies segues into the breathy language of romantic novels. There’s an even funnier scene where a femmebot meets a robot gigolo.

Intellectually, too, it’s fun. The long-running argument between Evolution and Intelligent Design provides something of a running gag. (The Darwinists have ancient texts from the Creators, the ID advocates have evidence: blueprints, specs, purchase orders … ) The nitty-gritty of the robot body is original and believable. I could have done with more detail on the (well-sketched) outline of how the ruling class rules through corporate personhood and property rights, using and abusing what remains of humanity’s laws (as well as Asimov’s). There can’t be many SF books where there are fewer infodumps than the reader wants, and it’s a strong point of this one that it is.

Plot … well, it wasn’t a strong point in Friday. It’s stronger here, and complex, but I felt an apologetic authorial nudge when the device Freya couriers from Mercury to Mars turns out to be hidden inside a black-painted statuette of a bird of prey … When the real issue at stake becomes clear, half the novel has passed in the rataplan of Freya’s bouncing around half the planets in the System. When the main plot-engine does catch fire, though, we’re definitely along for the ride, and the ending is a slingshot that does the Heinlein (and Asimov) influence proud.

So, Mr Stross … your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your rights-savvy cold eye on a story about a revolt in an anarcho-capitalist penal colony on the Moon.

1. Charles Stross, months and months ago: ‘Everyone wants to write a Heinlein juvenile! But it’s late Heinlein that got on the best-seller lists! Yes, I know they’re fat! Inside every late-Heinlein there’s a good SF novel screaming to get out!’ Or words to that effect.

2. A term coined by Farah Mendlesohn, by analogy with ‘legacy code’ in programming.

Money makes singularity

by John Quiggin on January 27, 2009

Money makes singularities. The most obvious example is hyperinflation, where a gradual rise in prices gets built into expectations and institutions and accelerates, feeding on itself (and the capacity of the printing press to add zeroes) until prices are doubling daily and rising a million-fold within a month. It’s this kind of thing that led Richard Feynmann to suggest that we should talk of “economical” rather “astronomical” numbers. Eventually, hyperinflation collapses on itself, and trillions or octillions of currency units disappear or are replaced by something new, and hopefully more stable.

Singularities can go in both directions. Only in a monetary economy is it possible to generate a depression, in which goods go unsold because those who would trade them lack the money to do so. The downward spiral of a depression shares many of the viciously circular characteristics of a hyperinflation, but in reverse.
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