From the monthly archives:

June 2011

Your Bloomship

by Kieran Healy on June 16, 2011

It’s Bloomsday, or Christmas for intolerable Joyceans everywhere. The Wall Street Journal explains the literary background:

What is it about Joyce’s novel about a day in the life of a fictional Jewish mayor of Dublin, Leopold Bloom, that has inspired an international literary event cum pub crawl cum Halloween parade?

What other Interesting Facts about Ulysses have I been unaware of, I wonder? While I wait for you to enlighten me, I will perform the sacred Bloomsday ritual of genuflecting solemnly before the Poster of Great Irish Writers. You know the one—an obscure bylaw requires it hang somewhere in every Irish bar in America, and certain sorts of pub in Ireland as well. The Great Writers can be classified into various non-exclusive subgroups based on their relationship to Ireland, including “Fled”, “Driven from”, “Disgusted”, “Hated”, and “Drank half”.

Picturing and Poe’s Ligeia

by John Holbo on June 16, 2011

I’m doing some intellectual scratching about re: the nature of pictures and pictoriality. I think one of the best philosophy books on the subject is Flint Schier, <em>Deeper into Pictures</em> [amazon]. I’m not up for writing a full review, but, briefly, he advocates what is in effect a rehabilitated version of the bad old resemblance theory (the best refuted of all theories of the nature of pictures!) Here is Schier’s first draft of an account of iconicity. “A system of representation is iconic just if once someone has interpreted any arbitrary member of it, they can proceed to interpret any other member of the system, provided only that they are able to recognize the object represented.” (44) And pictures are icons, in this sense. [click to continue…]

Reasons to be cheerful, Part 2

by John Q on June 16, 2011

There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the prospects of stabilising the global climate, but there are also some promising developments, so I’ve started a series on this topic.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but Stephen Lacey at Grist (via David Spratt on Twitter) has done much of the job for me, and better than I could have. The crucial point is that the cost of solar photovoltaic electricity has fallen dramatically and is almost certain to fall further. In particular reaching the point where it is the cheapest large-scale alternative to carbon-fuelled electricity generation, and competitive (at reasonable carbon prices and in favorable locations) with new coal-fired power.

This makes for some fundamental changes in the debate over climate change and mitigation, even as it reaffirms the central point that advocates of mitigation have made all along, namely that, with an appropriate policy response, the costs of drastic reductions in carbon emissions will be modest in relation to national or global income.

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Useless book reviews in the FT

by Maria on June 14, 2011

My weekly treat of the Saturday FT is becoming less and less something to look forward to. It’s not just that the fashion shoots are as gauche as those of newspapers everywhere, or that the odious ‘How to Spend It’ bizarrely channels a middle class aspiring to be hot Russian money in London. Nor that Mrs Moneypenny has irrevocably (i.e. on television) revealed herself as a bit of an empty vessel. Nor, even, that my beloved Secret Agent is running out of things to say about the property-acquiring super rich. (I guiltily admit I loved him more when he was melancholy, and still daydream of fixing him up with a friend.) No, my ability to pleasurably drag out the reading for more than an hour is vexed by the increasingly uninsightful and plain old poor value for money that has begun to mark the fiction reviews.

The increasing Americanisation of the FT now has writers review books by their brothers and sisters in arms. The British tradition of publishing book reviews by people who are real-life critics and not part-time cheer leaders and quarterbacks may be nasty, discomfiting and sometimes unfair to writers – and for this I blame editors – but it gives a reader a much clearer view of the essential question; ‘Is it any good?’. I imagine it’s also costing unsung book reviewers their living as money is thrown at superstar writers at the top of the pile.

Case in point: this week’s review by Annie Proulx of a novel, ‘Irma Voth’, by Miriam Toews. Without the name recognition of Proulx, it’s hard to imagine the review being published anywhere except, perhaps, a town newspaper wishing to fill up space and appear cultural by inviting the doyenne of the local book club to write a little something. [click to continue…]

X-Men: First Class

by John Holbo on June 14, 2011

Like everyone else, I’m glad Ta-Nehisi Coates got a NYT op-ed. Unlike everyone else, I haven’t seen X-Men: First Class yet. (Hey, I like comic books.) But I get the general idea, so I’d like to weigh in on the whole Magneto Was Right issue (part ii).

Thing is: it’s not just Magneto, it’s the government, going back to the first film. Everyone is right except Professor X. [click to continue…]


by Henry Farrell on June 13, 2011

I liked “Embassytown”: a lot (which will come as no surprise to long time CT readers). It wasn’t perfect. There is a longish section (between the two-thirds and four-fifths mark) which dragged – it had neither the intellectual pyrotechnics nor the pacing of the rest of the book. But where it is good, it soars, and better reconciles literary ambition and sense-of-wonder headkicks than anything else he’s written. It’s hard to compare with any other book – perhaps the closest is Delany’s _Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand_ in its mixture of space opera and linguistic speculation – but the comparison isn’t very close. The writing is more tamped down and Delany’s perverse romanticism is nearly entirely absent. Perhaps the best way to think of the book is as a kind of hard science-fiction, where the ‘hard’ theory that is being played with is linguistic theory rather than speculative physics (now that I think of it, Mieville’s suggestion that his imagined universe is a ‘parole,’ of the ‘langue’ that is the under-lying meta-universe is an obvious hint in this direction). Mieville is not trying himself to contribute to literary theory – but then, when Alastair Reynolds uses weird bits of information theory to come up with a justification for a cloaking device, he is presumably not doing this for the purposes of peer reviewed science. He’s having fun – and so too is Mieville. Some of the concepts – people literally being incorporated into Language as similes by aliens who _need_ concrete referents to think and to speak – are quite wonderful.

I’m not going to write a review of the book (I don’t think it would be possible to top Sam Thompson’s “excellent piece”: for the LRB) – but I do want to point to one interesting resonance between the book and _Iron Council_ (which of course we did a “seminar on”: a few years back. Since there are spoilers, the rest is below the fold.

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Pass the Ferrero Rocher

by Kieran Healy on June 13, 2011

Via Jonathan Davis on the Twitter, the Registration form for the Royal Opera House, which comes with the best drop-down box ever devised. Choose your title! I fear “HE The French Ambassador M” may be taken, however.

Your Majesty

The once unthinkable prospect that US government debt might lose its AAA rating has suddenly become a real possibility. In fact, it now seems about as likely as not. The problem is not so much “can’t pay” but “won’t pay”. The US, like quite a few other countries, has some fairly serious fiscal imbalances, but they aren’t pressing in the short run, and there is plenty of capacity to raise additional revenue or cut spending so as to stabilise the ratio of debt to GDP at a sustainable level.

The problem is that the total value of outstanding debt keeps growing (this would happen even with a stable debt/GDP ratio) and the US Congress requires periodic votes to approve this. They are usually the occasion for some grandstanding, but this time the Republican majority of the House of Representatives is seriously threatening a refusal, unless the Democrats agree to massive (and still unspecified) spending cuts. The due date for raising the debt ceiling passed a while ago, but an actual default is being staved off by some sharp accounting tricks, which will apparently work until 2 August. The other day, to prove they are serious, the Repubs introduced a motion for an unconditional increase in the debt ceiling, with the express purpose of voting unanimously against it, which they did.

At this point, loud alarm bells have started ringing for the big ratings agencies, Standard&Poors and Moodys. They will have to decide, well before August, whether to downgrade US government debt and if so by how much.
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by Belle Waring on June 9, 2011

Recently Pajamas Media’s own Anthony Klavan got some attention in the blogosphere with his moronic provocative contention that men’s bad behavior, ranging from tweeting pictures of their tighty-whities to serial forcible rape, is all the fault of…women!

I blame women. No, really. Women — by which I mean each and every single member of the female gender — you know who you are — need look no further than themselves to explain why Weiner-types behave toward them in this fashion. We men are always hearing complaints from women about how badly we treat them, what pigs we are, how pushy and abrasive… on and on. But what these same women conveniently fail to mention is that this stuff really works on them!….
So, then, ladies — what do you expect? All we guys want is for you to love us. If this is the sort of guy you follow after in droves, this is the sort of guy we’re encouraged to be.

Now, it’s very likely that I’ll be assassinated by a crack team of female ninjas before I can hit “post” (they are all hot 22-year old Japanese women who may also subject me to intensive questioning, should anyone in the Valley be at a loss for movie ideas.) But I am about to reveal a huge secret here: OPPEC. That is, Other People’s Pussy Economic Consortium. Note that the “People” who own the pussy in this case are the women themselves, contrary to traditional usage. But think about it: women, taken as a whole, have control of all the pussy in the world. That is some valuable assets right there. What could be more natural than the formation of a cartel?
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APT on Nussbaum

by Henry Farrell on June 8, 2011

The new “Association for Political Theory blog”: is running a roundtable on Martha Nussbaum’s _ Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities_ at the moment. From the “first post:”:

bq. I agree with pretty much everything Martha Nussbaum is saying. She’s preaching to the academic-robed choir in which I’m a full-throated member. Most days these days I share her alarmist mood regarding cutbacks in the humanities and the liberal arts overall. … But I must if I must say: the book, too often, bores me. I read certain passages, they sound like buzzwordy boilerplate, they sound like declaimed mini-lectures, they sound like cut-and-paste clip-jobs from longer Nussbaum tomes, they sound like academic blah blah blah (with citations), and my eyes gloss over. … It’s too preachy. Its form of presentation is didactic, not Socratic, even as it explicitly celebrates Socratic interactions. … After a few head scratches, I found myself recoiling at such lines as “The future of the world’s democracies hangs in the balance” (p. 2) or that a humanities-educated person approaches problems as a “citizen of the world” (p. 7). … I would never get away with that missionary language in a small seminar of sly undergraduates (they would mock: what’s the difference between a world citizen and an intergalactic one?).

This is not a unique perception – George Scialabba has a “lovely review”: of a similar Nussbaum text from a decade or so ago, demonstrating that she has been apotheosized into that ineffable blandness which is usually reserved for cross-university faculty taskforces and other such higher entities. Myself, I’ve always been reminded of the description of President Robbins in Randall Jarrell’s “Pictures from an Institution”:

bq. About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the president of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs, and lo! the two were one. (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers – that gives, even, the typographical errors at the end of the book).

She did write well once, so perhaps better yet to compare this book (which I started, but emphatically failed to finish) to what New York would have looked like, had Bill Murray failed in his mission in _Ghostbusters I_ – a wasteland of gelatinous marshmallow, beneath which the ruins of once tall buildings can vaguely be discerned. I probably shouldn’t be as annoyed as I am by Nussbaum’s bad prose and inability to say anything interesting or original. There is a useful social function in repeating the obvious, again and again, in technocratic language. But it surely doesn’t make for fun reading.

Fritz Scharpf on the Eurozone mess

by Henry Farrell on June 7, 2011

This “recent lecture”: by Fritz Scharpf provides the most compelling analysis of the political fallout of the eurozone mess that I have yet seen. Readers who aren’t familiar with political science debates on democratic legitimacy may find the opening pages hard going. But they should persevere. The synthetic analysis of the initial politics of the euro, and of the roots of the German monetary regime are excellent (although for my money he puts too much of the blame on the ECB, and too little on the governments of countries like Ireland, which were, as “Niamh has noted”: less models of fiscal rectitude than temporarily lucky), and provide a lot of detail that is poorly understood among US commentators. But his conclusions are even more interesting and depressing. I quote at length, because blog readers are disinclined to read PDFs, and because this piece deserves wide circulation.

bq. The opposite is true under the “rescue-cum-retrenchment” program that is presently being enacted. Here, all cruelties must be proposed, defended, adopted and implemented over an extended period by the national government. In fact, the program amounts to a greatly radicalized version of the supply-side reforms adopted in Germany during its (much milder) recession before 2005 – which destroyed the political support of the Schröder’s Red-Green government. But whereas Schröder had the chance of developing and defending self-chosen reforms, governments in Greece, Ireland and Portugal must implement policies which are likely to be seen as dictates of Commission bureaucrats and of self-interested foreign governments trying to protect their own banks, investors and export industries.

bq. If these are extremely difficult political conditions, they will be exacerbated by the distributional implications. … As was true in Germany, the inevitable result will be a rise of social inequality and social protest. …. EMU member states cannot expect any help from the European level in managing the macroeconomic imbalances that are induced by European monetary impulses that do not fit the specific conditions of the national economy. Instead, they are expected to deal with potential imbalances through the use of their remaining policy instruments − but in doing so, they will be constrained by the rules of the Excessive Deficit Procedure and they will be controlled by the Commission’s discretionary interventions under the Excessive Imbalance Procedure.

bq. … member states in the reformed Monetary Union will indeed find themselves in the worst of three worlds. Like the provinces or cantons in a federal state, they lose control over the instruments of macroeconomic management, and they are likely to suffer from uniform national policies that do not fit their regional economy. At the same time, however, the EU budget is miniscule in comparison to the budget of federal states, there are no European taxes and there is no European social policy to alleviate interregional imbalances. Instead, member states are expected to cope with all economic problems by relying entirely on their own policy resources. In contrast to members of the earlier EMS, however, EMU member states cannot use these policies autonomously, but are subject to the intrusive supervision and potential punishment imposed by supranational authorities – which are not themselves democratically accountable and have no reason to be politically responsive to the citizens affected by their policies. In fact, no democratically accountable national government in a federal state has ever claimed such control over the fiscal, economic and social policy choices of its constituent provinces, states, Länder or cantons.

bq. From the perspective of citizens in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the European and international agencies imposing the “rescue-cum-retrenchment” program are not, themselves, supported by democratic legitimacy. … political resignation, alienation and cynicism, combined with growing hostility against “Frankfurt” and “Brussels”, and a growing perception of zero-sum conflict between the donors and the recipients of the “rescue-cum-retrenchment” programs, may create the conditions for anti-European political mobilization from the extremes of the political spectrum. In the worst case, therefore, the attempts to save the Euro through the policies presently enacted may either fail on their own terms, or they may not only undermine democracy in EU member states but endanger European integration itself.

Tom Slee on Adapt

by Henry Farrell on June 6, 2011

An “excellent and provocative review”: The nub of the critique:

bq. Tetlock divided his experts into foxes (good at many things) and hedgehogs (good at one thing) and argued that hedgehogs are over-confident because they “reduce the problem to some core theoretical scheme’… and they used that theme over and over, like a template, to stamp out predictions”. And that’s exactly what Harford does here. He sees evolution as a fox-like strategy (trying many things and selecting a few) but doesn’t notice that at the level of individual species, evolution gives us both foxes and hedgehogs, and both do perfectly fine. Once the contradiction at the heart of the book is clear, it is not surprising that the book itself cherry picks examples where trial-and-error has succeeded, or where eggs-in-one-basket has failed. But such stories, while entertaining, make a notoriously shaky foundation for any kind of general structure, and so it proves here.

Or, to put it a little more abstractly, mechanisms of evolutionary selection and processes of wilful experimentation are not the same thing. Read the whole thing. I’m also looking forward very much to Tom’s forthcoming take on Duncan Watts’ _Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer_, which I liked a lot (although I suspect that Kieran might have some “sharp words to say”: about Watts’ discussion of the effect of presumed consent defaults on organ donations).

… is a question that might be asked of Professor AC Grayling, the media don and pundit who has launched the “New College Of The Humanities, and who is proposing to charge undergraduates £18,000 per year for three years (by way of comparison, an MBA from the London Business School will set you back £49,900 for the full two year course). Further thoughts on whether this represents simple value-for-money, let alone a brand new direction for the world, below the fold.
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Neo- and Post-

by John Q on June 6, 2011

At afternoon tea today, one of my colleagues raised the point that, particularly in Europe, the prefix neo- is automatically taken to be pejorative, with neo-liberal as the obvious illustration. It struck us that the corresponding, positively weighted prefix is post- , as in post-Keynesian, post-Communist and so on. [1]

My thought on this is it reflects an underlying progressivist assumption, shared even by many people who would reject explicit claims about historical progress. Given this assumption “post-X” is good, since it represents an advance on X, while “neo-X” is bad since it represents a reversion to X, implying the existence of some Y which must be post-X.

Feel free to provide counterexamples, contrary explanations and so on

fn1. The exception that proves the rule is post-modern, which is now often pejorative, but was entirely positive when it was coined.

The American Economic Association has announced that from July 1st, “double-blind reviewing” will be dropped for the American Economic Review (being the flagship journal in the economics profession), and the 4 other journals which the AEA publishes. Here’s the full statement on their website:

Upon a joint recommendation of the editors of the American Economic Review and the four American Economic Journals, the Executive Committee has voted to drop the “double-blind” refereeing process for all journals of the American Economic Association. The change to “single-blind” refereeing will become effective on July 1, 2011. Easy access to search engines increasingly limits the effectiveness of the double-blind process in maintaining anonymity. Further, it increases the administrative cost of the journals and makes it harder for referees to identify an author’s potential conflicts of interest arising, for example, from consulting.

So, how good are these arguments?

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