From the monthly archives:

June 2012

The Awl has an interesting piece about papercraft in prison. Obviously that’s the sort of thing boingboing would link to. Next week: prisoner-modded ‘steampunk’ shanks, stylized prison-breaks as YouTube responses to OK Go videos, and associated ‘yardsourced’ projects (Clinkstarter), with all the (brass) trimmings: ‘Help me fulfill my dream of building a giant dirigible in solitary confinement!’ ‘Help me turn my cell toilet into a working trebuchet!’ On a more serious note, the article neglects one of the most notorious episodes in prison papercraft history, from Action Comics #267: [click to continue…]

The Declaration of Independence

by Kieran Healy on June 20, 2012

Charlottesville, June 19th, 2012

The More or Less Unanimous Declaration of the Board of Visitors

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a Board to dissolve the administrative bands which have connected a President with a University, and to assume for themselves the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and the Bond Market entitle them, it is best to do it secretly, quickly, and in the middle of the night.

However, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation, especially when one is unexpectedly faced with large, angry crowds on the Lawn at two o’clock in the morning and a quite stupendous media shitstorm thereafter.

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It’s getting pretty exhausting living inside the Eurozone. We screw up our nerves for the next moment of crisis, which is narrowly averted, only to find that the same old problems lie in wait just around the corner; but worse this time, because they were’t properly sorted out the first time.

Last week’s worries were put to rest for a short while: Greece is still in the Eurozone, the Euro hasn’t imploded, the banks are still open. Spanish banks teetered; a fix was found for the time being. But it doesn’t mean anything has been solved, and the moments of respite get shorter and shorter.

It seems to me that we’re strung out on Dani Rodrik’s trilemma of global politics in an increasingly dangerous way. His contention is that you can only have two of these three things:

‘hyper-globalization’ (in the EU context, the free market in goods and services and mobility of capital and labour);

‘national sovereignty’ (in which national governments have realistic choices to make between options that may be ideologically quite distinct);

and ‘democratic politics’ (in which there is meaningful involvement by actors and electoral accountability for decisions made).

Kevin O’Rourke (whose work I’ve mentioned here before) pointed out that the odd design of the Eurozone was meant to avoid it getting definitively boxed into any two options in this triangle. Trans-national oversight of the currency was delegated to the ECB. Nation states were charged with making fiscal and financial policy within a loose-ish trans-national framework of rules. Democratic debate was expected to internalize the requirements of pooled sovereignty.

But the sharp ends of the trilemma are becoming more and more difficult to span. The fuzzy compromises are under growing strain, and the Eurozone is being pushed into classic trilemma trade-offs. It’s at growing risk of ripping apart entirely.

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Struensee redux

by Chris Bertram on June 18, 2012

A brief note for anyone who remembers “my post from last August”: on the career of Dr Struensee. “A Royal Affair”: is now out, I’ve seen it, and it is excellent. Superb performances from Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander, beautifully shot and with a cracking script. There’s even a guest appearance for _Du Contrat Social_. Don’t miss it!

In his new book, _The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy_, Chris Hayes manages the impossible trifecta: the book is compellingly readable, impossibly erudite, and — most stunningly of all — correct. At the end, I was left with just two quibbles: first, the book’s chapter on “pop epistemology” thoroughly explicated how elites got stuff wrong without bothering to mention the non-elites who got things right, leaving the reader with the all-too-common impression that getting it right was impossible; and second, the book never assembled its (surprisingly sophisticated) argument into a single summary. To discuss it, I feel we have to start with remedying the latter flaw:

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A follow-up post, I suppose. This sequel to the original 40-worst Liefeld drawings post is a wonder and a public service. But here’s the thing: like all good people, I love Jack Kirby and loath Rob Liefeld. But most of the criticisms of Liefeld – namely, it’s so, so anatomically wrong! – could be applied to Kirby. Why do all his characters look like someone poured a pot of ink down their foreheads? What are those things on the women’s cheeks that might be cheekbones but aren’t? But in the one case I feel affection and admiration, in the other, contempt and revulsion. [click to continue…]

The Holy Family Contemplate the Crucifixion

by Kieran Healy on June 15, 2012

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is right.

Red Plenty Coda

by Henry on June 14, 2012

Two things as the seminar wraps up (Cosma Shalizi is writing a response to comments which I will link to, but which will be hosted on his own site, since CT plays badly with the math script that he uses). First, a pointer to blogger and sometime CT commenter Adam Kotsko’s review of _Red Plenty_ at “The New Inquiry”: People should go read. Second, a thank you. Without disparaging individual contributions to other seminars, I think that this was the best seminar we’ve done here (obviously, this is my personal opinion; not at all necessarily endorsed by other bloggers here etc). Part of this is due to Francis – for writing the book (which couldn’t have been better aimed at CT’s sweet spot if it had been written for this purpose and this purpose alone), and for his lovely three-part response. Part of this is due to the many splendid contributors who wrote posts for the seminar. And part of it is thanks to the commenters – we’ve hosted many good conversations over the years, but this has been something rather special. I find it difficult to make it clear just how grateful I am to all of you who have participated in this. Seeing how it has worked out has made me very happy.

Update: Cosma’s post, responding to various points is “here”: Since Cosma’s blog doesn’t have a comments section, feel free to use the comments section of this post to discuss …

Response: Part 3

by Francis Spufford on June 14, 2012

5. History and comedy

I agree strongly with Rich Yeselson that praise for the novelty or innovativeness of the book’s form has been overplayed.  The overall patterning of it is fiddly, but the pieces of which the pattern is made are as straightforward as I could make them, and not just because as I get older, I increasingly think that simple is more interesting (and difficult to achieve) than complicated.  It’s also, as he says, that I had lots of very well-established precedents to draw on.  On the historical novel side, the whole Tolstoy-does-Napoleon recipe for dramatising the viewpoints of the grand historical figures, and the equally available rule of thumb that tells you how to mix the documented and the imagined to create the illusion of comprehensiveness.  And, drawing on SF, I had the scientist-fictions of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson to follow.  My Kantorovich very clearly has the DNA of Le Guin’s Shevek and Robinson’s Sax Russell in him.  Not to mention – as I’ve carefully confessed in the notes – that the whole alternation of character-driven scenes with italicised authorial narration is lifted straight out of Red Mars. And collections of linked short stories that fill in different vertebrae of a narrative spine are not exactly unheard-of, either, from Kipling to Alice Munro.  I am proud of the two ‘machine’ sections, set in Lebedev’s logic and Lebedev’s lungs, one in which determinacy produces indeterminacy, the other  in which the arrow goes the other way; and the messages of approval from George Scialabba’s amygdala cause fluttering in my own; but it’s not like Don DeLillo doesn’t already exist, and Pynchon, and for that matter Nicolson Baker.  It’s not as though there isn’t a blazed trail for paying imaginative attention to system.

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The Comic Sans Song

by John Holbo on June 14, 2012

Zoe picked Comic Sans for her school report on tigers. I explained to her that many people would take issue with the selection of this font for body text in a long document, particularly one of an academic nature. Even as display type it is suspect. I explained about Microsoft Bob and that whole sad history. That said, it’s the best font in the world for someone like her, so she shouldn’t worry about it. Used in moderation.

Body Monoculture

by John Holbo on June 13, 2012

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a couple months back, I found this gallery of classic images of Venus – downsized courtesy of Anna Utopia Giordano and Photoshop. (The gallery was down for a while, so I didn’t post about it at the time. But now I see it’s up again.) Coates also linked to this post by Bob Duggan, responding to the Photoshopped images. I disagree with almost everything Duggan says. The grotesque results do not in any way shape or form show that there is anything grotesque about the thin, modern beauty standards the artist means to critique (I assume this is the intent.) It’s like trying to prove that moustaches are funny by drawing moustaches on famous paintings. You could also perform the exercise in reverse. Take some reasonably iconic superthin female image and give it the Titian treatment – or the full Rubens – and I’m sure the results would be incongruous and funny. It wouldn’t prove hips and stomachs are themselves inherently hilarious.

Which is not to deny that the superthin standard is grotesque, in a technical sense: it’s extreme and unrealistic to the point of caricature. Duh. But it seems to me that what is objectionable here, if anything, is not the extremity but the standardization. It’s also quite puzzling. Why is beauty culture (per the specs of the fashion industry) such a stable, monolithic body-type monoculture? Feel free to pipe up about how you like ’em with more meat on the bone, so you must be a feminist! (So do I!) But that’s not really what I’m asking. People – men and women – in fact find a wide variety of female body-types attractive. Fashion is all about variety and the new. It seems natural enough to me that the fashion world should gravitate to extremes, and that power-law-type distributions should tend to apply. But fashion is way more than 80-20 in favor of a very particular flavor of thinness. (Or am I wrong?) And thin has been in for a long time. Setting aside whether/to what degree this is to be condemned and/or something done about it, why is it this way? In your expert opinion.

Why don’t we get more change and multi-polarity in ‘ideal’ body-types from the fashion world?

Is it just that fashion designers like to draw nine-heads tall stick figures. And it all flows from that?

Prebuttals, part 2

by John Quiggin on June 13, 2012

The facts about inequality in the US, and increasingly in other developed countries, are now so clear-cut that the defenders of the status quo have little solid ground left on which to stand. So, they are mostly confined to arguments that have already been effectively rebutted. As new talking points emerge, it’s become increasingly easy to pick them out before they are fully formed and have a prebuttal ready.

That’s the case with data showing that income inequality arises mainly from differences in current incomes* rather than from inheritance. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, the absence of large inherited inequalities is a logical consequence of the fact that the distribution of income in the postwar generation was relatively equal.

Sure enough, here’s the prebutted talking point, stated by John Cochrane[1], who asserts

There are a lot of facts: the widening distribution comes from a skill premium, not inherited wealth.

He goes on with some older points, long rebutted

It’s new people getting rich, not the old rich keeping more money. It’s pretax income, not the rich keeping more money.  Consumption inequality is much less than income inequality. And so on.

In reality, income mobility is falling not rising, and the tax system has become less progressive not more. And I’ve dealt with the consumption inequality point here and here.

fn1. This is a bit disappointing to me. In his technical work in finance theory, which overlaps with mine, I’ve found Cochrane to be admirably precise in his analysis and sensible in his comments on the critical issue of the equity premium. But his contributions to the broader public debate over the past few years have been very poor (of course, there are plenty who say the same about me).

* As JW Mason points out in comments, much of the growth in income for the rich has taken the form of capital gains rather than higher salaries. Piketty and Saez rank income-earners based on income net of capital gains, which obscures this fact.

Shorter David Brooks on Followership

by Henry on June 12, 2012

(original here).

Update: Even if Brooks doesn’t, you know, deign to mention it, his column is obviously a response to Chris Hayes’ _Twilight of the Elites_, a book which I can’t pretend to be objective about for various reasons, but which I can enthusiastically and unobjectively encourage you to buy and read (Powells, Amazon).

Elinor Ostrom

by Kieran Healy on June 12, 2012

Elinor Ostrom, a great voice for good social science, and good in social science, has died. A political scientist by training, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. She did a great deal of important work on the creation and management of common-pool resources. Reading her work, it always seemed to me that she was the best kind of researcher—the sort who really cares about getting the right answer to a real empirical problem, even if the problem is very hard and the answer is very tricky.

Response Part 2.

by Francis Spufford on June 12, 2012

3. Pretending to be Russian, pretending (not) to be a novelist

I’m delighted that that Antoaneta Dimitrova finds my portrait of late-Soviet mediocrity in the Party authentic.  It seemed to me to be one of the most immediate anti-ideal forces in the Soviet environment, working briskly from the get-go against all beautiful dreams, that the perverse incentives of the place on the human level had made it inevitable, after the revolutionary generations were gone, that it would be staffed at the top by those who were best at getting along in a tyranny, rather than by those who were most devoted to the tyranny’s aims.  Hence the rise under Stalin of Brezhnev’s generation of vydvizhentsy, ‘promotees’, scrambling to seize the chance for upward mobility represented by the purges, and then that generation’s reproduction of itself in the 1960s and 70s, once it was setting the incentives, from among the greediest, most amiably shameless, most opportunistic of the young. 

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