From the monthly archives:

January 2016

Sunday Photoblogging: Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2016

Stop! (San Francisco 2009)

Finally upgrading computer and software means that I have the memory and speed (at last) to go through my photo archives and rework things. Here’s a shot from San Francisco in 2009.

Terry Wogan is dead.

by Harry on January 31, 2016

Gruaniad here.

Here’s what I said when he retired in 2009:

His was the first music show I was aware of on the radio, because once in a while our neighbour, Charles Lossock, would drive me to school listening to Radio 2. (Lossock was a “carpet salesman” who seemed to make regular trips behind the Iron Curtain, and was, I think, the first passionate anti-anti-semite I was aware of. A spy, I always figured when I was older). Later, I would pass Wogan’s house on the way to and from school, and every couple of weeks we’d meet, me on my bike, he in his Rolls that didn’t really fit the one-lane road, and I would be pushed into the hedge. It never bothered me. I never thought he suited TV, myself – Blankety Blank was, of course, great, but I always thought Wogan was not very good (though reading the wiki entry makes me wonder if I watched it enough)—talented as he is, it was impossible to find the dull-witted celebrities he interviewed half as interesting or amusing as he was (one of the most uncomfortable bits of TV I’ve ever seen was watching Wogan try to interview a monosyllabic (though wonderful!) James Bolam, who just had nothing at all to say, and nothing Wogan could do would get him to open up). During our stay in the UK early this decade I wrote most of a whole book while listening to Wogan on the X90 to London. And since he’s been available on listen again (I’m not about to wake up at 1 am to listen to him being streamed), I’ve listened twice a week or so, delighting in his flights of fancy. I suspect him of voting Tory his whole life; and surely the TOGs who correspond with him must be almost entirely Tories and UKIPers. Still, he’s brought me a lot of fun. My daughter, last night, became the only person in the history of the world to utter the following: “I hope that Terry Wogan’s retirement isn’t like Brett Favre’s retirement. Dad, we were made to watch Brett Favre’s retirement on TV at school. And it wasn’t even real. Oh, well, I suppose that means it would be good if Terry Wogan’s retirement is like Brett Favre’s”

Well, we’ll all miss him. But I, myself, wouldn’t have missed him for the world.

We Philhellenists

by Neville Morley on January 29, 2016

Like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Jo Walton’s Thessaly novels offer both a celebration and a critique of philhellenism, the love of ancient Greek culture, by staging it and letting the consequences play out. From the beginning, we are presented with the attractions and seductions of the classical tradition. The classical is idealised self-consciously by the generation of Masters, who are plucked out of their lives in later centuries because of their declared allegiance to the wisdom of the Greeks – contrasted with the values of their own times, whether the extremes of religious intolerance or the oppression of women. The return to the classical represents for them liberation, the rule of wisdom and reason, and the exciting possibility of realising an ideal world that had seemed beyond reach in the face of the unyielding structures of medieval belief, the chaotic violence of Renaissance Italy, or strait-laced Victorian values. They are all highly educated people who have found in ancient Greece everything lacking from their own times, and so have yearned for it all their lives. [click to continue…]

A question about group selection

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2016

I’m doing some work on evolutionary models of game theory and need to understand the debate about group selection. It seems pretty clear that the great majority of evolutionary biologists reject the idea of group selection, but I haven’t found an adequate (to me) explanation of why they do so. A crucial problem for me is that the literature seems, without exception as far as I can see, to conflate group selection with co-operation and altruism. But the problem of group selection arises in non-cooperative settings, provided they are not zero-sum.

To illustrate the problem I’m struggling with, suppose that two previously isolated species meet as a result of some change. In one species (peacocks), competition between males for mates takes the form of elaborate, and energetically costly, displays. In the other species (penguins) males compete by providing food to their mates. In all other respects (diet, predators and so on) the two are similar. In particular, they are competing for the same food resources. It seems obvious to me that the penguins, with their more efficient social arrangements, are going to outbreed the peacocks and eventually drive them to extinction.

It seems to me there are only two possibilities here
(a) My reasoning is wrong, and we can’t judge which species, if either, will dominate; or
(b) Even though it involves one group being selected over another, this isn’t what is meant by group selection

I’d really appreciate some help on this. I’m happy to have thoughts from anyone, but I’d most like to hear from actual experts with contact details (mine are on the sidebar, or obtainable through Google).

Millian Liberalism and the Irish Famine

by Henry on January 28, 2016

Tyler Cowen has a piece today responding to Kevin Drum, and arguing that one can’t easily disassociate progressivism from eugenics:

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today. I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. … The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. … they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong. … Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.

It’s hard for me to read a defense of “Millian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century” and not think about the response of Millian liberalism and associated forms of thought in political economy to the Irish famine in which a million or so people died, and a million emigrated. [click to continue…]

Six Essential Readings on Donald Trump

by Corey Robin on January 28, 2016

As we move into the last days before Iowa, it’s useful to review some of the very best things that have been written on Donald Trump. Much of it is recent.

1. Hands down, I’d say Jodi Dean has penned the central text for understanding Trump.

Donald Trump cuts through the ideological haze of American politics and exposes its underlying truth, the truth of enjoyment. Where other candidates appeal to a fictitious unity or pretense of moral integrity, he displays the power of inequality. Money buys access — why deny it? Money creates opportunity — for those who have it. Money lets those with a lot of it express their basest impulses and desires — there is no need to hide the dark drives when there is none before whom one might feel shame (we might call this the Berlusconi principle). It’s the rest of us who bow down.

As Trump makes explicit the power of money in the contemporary US, he facilitates, stimulates, and circulates enjoyment (jouissance). Trump openly expresses the racism, sexism, contempt, and superiority that codes of civility and political correctness insist be repressed. This expression demonstrates the truth of economic inequality: civility is for the middle class, a normative container for the rage of the dispossessed and the contempt of the dispossessors. The .1 % need not pretend to care.

The freedom from civility, the privilege of enjoying superiority, incites different responses, all of which enable people to enjoy — get off on — this political round.

Some of the underpaid and exploited enjoy through Trump. Not only does he give them permission to…

2. Earlier this week in Salon, Steve Fraser offered a bracing comparison between Trump and his most important predecessor: [click to continue…]

Walton’s Republic

by John Holbo on January 28, 2016

“It was the most real thing that had ever happened.”
– Jo Walton, The Just City

Thanks to Jo Walton for writing an SF novel in which people, including a pair of gods, try to realize Plato’s Republic. (I’ve only read the first Thessaly novel, The Just City. So if what follows is premature? That sort of thing happens.)

This is an experimental novel. Succeed or fail, you learn from an experiment. But even well-constructed experiments can be failures. That’s the risk.

Logically such a thing should exist. A novelization of Plato’s Republic, I mean. How can no one have written this already? But can such a damn thing be written ? Surely it will fail as a novel, somewhat, at some point. But how? Only one way to find out. [click to continue…]

Under the Lemon Tree, Distracted by Chores

by Ruthanna Emrys on January 27, 2016

One of the great appeals of the Thessaly series is the implicit invitation: join us in Socratic dialogue beneath the lemon tree, arguing practical philosophy with the best company from all of history.  But I am not a philosopher king, and definitely not a Gold of the Just City. As evidence, between the first and second sentences of this paragraph, I took ten minutes to reassure a baby who’d pinched her finger in a dresser drawer. Over the past couple of days I’ve engaged in crafts and cleaning, cooking and political argument and snarky write-ups of old horror stories. [click to continue…]

Hillary Clinton is taking flak today for her summary repetition of the white supremacist Dunning School of historical interpretation, which held that the attempt in the 1860s and 1870s to provide African Americans with their civil rights was a terrible imposition on the white folks of the South.

[Lincoln] was willing to reconcile and forgive. And I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly.

But instead, you know, we had Reconstruction, we had the re-instigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.… let’s also think about how we do try to summon up those better angels, and to treat each other, even when we disagree, fundamentally disagree, treat each other with more respect, and agree to disagree more civilly, and try to be inspired by, I think, the greatest of our presidents.

I’ll leave critiques of the Dunning School in other hands because I think they’re obvious, sadly, and Clinton should really know better. I’ll even forgo detail on the obvious point that if you’re a modern Democratic presidential aspirant asked who’s the greatest of the US presidents, your answer is Franklin Roosevelt.1 Instead I want to focus on Clinton’s counterfactual: “had [Lincoln] not been murdered”. [click to continue…]

Democrats need to choose a real candidate not a symbolic one

by Eszter Hargittai on January 26, 2016

Paul Starr has an excellent piece on why Democrats need to vote for Hillary Clinton in the upcoming primaries. I have no doubt that some of you who have other views will want to chime in, feel free. I just ask that you read the whole piece first and address points made in it rather than engaging in general hand-waving so as to improve the chances of a meaningful exchange.

A few quotes, but I recommend reading the full piece.

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president.

And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president. That is a choice Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire ought especially to be weighing with the first caucuses and primary only days away.

..

Republicans and conservative media have been outdoing each other in their denunciations of Hillary Clinton. They will hardly believe their good fortune if Sanders turns out to be the Democratic candidate. A campaign against a 74-year-old socialist senator from Vermont writes itself. For a change, the right-wing media would not have to make anything up.

..

Sanders tells us that the political system is rotten and corrupt. But anyone who believes that government is rotten and corrupt has to be worried about making it more powerful, especially in a way that has such personal effects as health care does. This is the contradiction at the root of Sanders’ rhetoric.

Read the full piece.

Unknown knowns

by John Quiggin on January 26, 2016

In September 2002, according to Politico magazine, Donald Rumsfeld received a report (mostly declassified in 2011) stating that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s putative weapons programs was essentially worthless. For example, the report says:

Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program is based largely—perhaps 90%—on analysis of imprecise intelligence

The report was seen by Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defense Secretary and now an adviser to Jeb Bush, but wasn’t shared with President George Bush, or with other members of the Administration, such as Colin Powell. And despite his musings about known and unknown unknowns (unsurprisingly the subject of some sardonic comment in the Politico piece, Rumsfeld showed no doubt in his public pronouncements about the supposed weapons.

This report ought to be (but won’t be) enough to discredit Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz once and for all. Given that they knew that the claimed legal basis for the war relied on spurious intelligence, both are guilty of the crime of a war of aggression. More to the point, in terms of US political debate, a Defense Secretary who sends thousands of US troops to their deaths in pursuit of a goal he knows to be illusory ought to be condemned out of hand.

On the other hand, does the report help to exonerate those who advocated war based on the spurious intelligence being pushed by Rumsfeld? Not to any significant degree. The fact that Rumsfeld was a four-flusher was obvious in December 2002, when Saddam denied having any weapons. As I observed at the time

In the standard warblogger scenario, the declaration was the trigger. Once it came out, the US would produce the evidence to show Iraq was lying and the war would be under way … Instead, Iraq is denying everything but the US is in no hurry to prove that Saddam is lying … The only interpretation that makes sense is that, despite all the dossiers that were waved about a few months ago – including satellite images of ‘suspect’ sites – the Administration doesn’t really have anything

Anyone who wasn’t already committed to war could have followed the same reasoning, and many did.

Shackleton Solo; Journey’s End

by Maria on January 25, 2016

This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. Podcast by podcast, day by day, step by freezing, wind-blown step, Henry Worsley has been documenting his solo trek at the South Pole. He was no under-prepared amateur. It was his third trip to the pole and his first time doing it alone. He was following the route of Anglo-Irish merchant navy officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago. Although Scott’s journey is better known, Shackleton is respected for having run a tighter expedition and, crucially, for making the necessary sacrifices in glory-seeking and his own food rations to bring all his men home. He famously said of his second expedition ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and it is.

Stuck in his tent for two days, too ill to move, Worsley finally called for rescue late last week. He died yesterday of peritonitis that caused multiple organ failure.

Every day for the past couple of months, Worsley has been doing a daily update on his progress and talking about what it is like to be alone and pressing on through some of the worst conditions on earth. E, who served under Worsley, had been following the podcasts. (Most nights he would get into bed and put it on, and I would grumpily roll over and tell him to use his headphones.) At the end of each recording, Worsley would answer questions, many of them from the children who listened in each day. There was something sweetly old-fashioned about that. He would satisfy questions like ‘what is it like to celebrate Christmas on Antartica?’ with a condensed but not unrealistic description of life in the white darkness.

I will never understand why people want to climb Everest or walk to the Pole. The human drive to ‘conquer’ landscape and survive in hostile environments is wholly alien to me, and probably to most of us. It just seems to be one of those quirks that the human race throws up from time to time, and without which we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s not an instinct that finds much outlet in late capitalist life. Most of us are not very brave. Most of us avoid physical discomfort and unnecessary exertion whenever we can. But in ways epigenetic and day-to-day practical, most of us depend on people who do not.

Worsley wasn’t a thrill-seeker or a for the hell of it risk-taker, or one of those people who only feels truly alive when he is fighting for his life. He was doing this trek for a reason, and he was doing it because he could. It can sometimes be easier for officers to slot back into civilian life, and he felt a deep obligation to support military charities that help wounded and other soldiers in transition. Worsley had already met his fundraising goal. He was just thirty miles from journey’s end. He was almost there. He was almost home. The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.

The Bitter Butter Battle Book

by John Holbo on January 25, 2016

Rod Dreher has a great quote today from Edwin W. Edwards:

“With me, the people know the butter might be rancid, but it’s going to be spread on their side of the bread.”

Dreher’s point: “That’s Trump for you, ain’t it? I bet he’ll win the GOP primary in Louisiana going away.” [click to continue…]

In praise of unconferences

by Eszter Hargittai on January 25, 2016

Depending on your profession, you likely go to conferences regularly, anywhere from annually to every few months. One aspect of conferences is that they are relatively predictable. They usually have a set schedule that is known to attendees ahead of time. While there may be the occasional session that surprises or an unusual hallway conversation that is unexpected, these are rare. So what if you want to be surprised? Where can you go if you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone? What is a good venue for learning about something far afield from your expertise? Cue a well-organized unconference.

Unconferences are meetings that don’t have a set agenda until participants show up and create one. There is a structure to the timing of sessions, but attendees fill up the grid with whatever topic they deem of interest for a session at the beginning of the in-person meeting. Then participants decide which sessions they want to attend. And if it turns out that they are not enjoying where they are, the law of two feet means that they are welcomed to get up and leave to find another group or activity.

For the past several years, I have had the great pleasure of attending ORDCamp, an unconference held in Chicago in January made up of some extremely creative people (many of whom are from the area, but a good chunk of whom fly in from various parts of the US and beyond, in January to Chicago, yes). ORDCamp is the brainchild of Brian Fitzpatrick (former Googler, more recently founder and CTO of Tock) and Zach Kaplan (founder and CEO of Inventables). Attendance doesn’t cost anything to participants, but it is by invitation only. Google and Inventables have been footing the bill with lots of people and organizations pitching in to provide food, drinks, gadgets to try out, lots of supplies for various sessions, and an embarrassment of riches in the swag bag box.

[click to continue…]

I have a long piece up at The Chronicle Review on public intellectuals. It’s an adaptation of the keynote address I gave last fall at the Society of US Intellectual History. Here are some excerpts…

What is a public intellectual?

As an archetype, the public intellectual is a conflicted being, torn in two competing directions.

On the one hand, he’s supposed to be called by some combination of the two vocations Max Weber set out in his lectures in Munich: that of the scholar and that of the statesman. Neither academic nor activist but both, the public intellectual is a monkish figure of austere purpose and unadorned truth. Think Noam Chomsky.

On the other hand, the public intellectual is supposed to possess a distinct and self-conscious sense of style, calling attention to itself and to the stylist. More akin to a celebrity, this public intellectual bears little resemblance to Weber’s man of knowledge or man of action. He lacks the integrity and intensity of both. He makes us feel as if we are in the presence of an actor too attentive to his audience, a mind too mindful of its reception. Think Bernard-Henri Lévy.

Yet that attention to image and style, audience and reception, may not only be not antithetical to the vocation of the public intellectual; it may actually serve it. The public intellectual stands between Weber’s two vocations because he wants his writing to do something in the world. “He never wrote a sentence that has any interest in itself,” Ezra Pound said of Lenin, “but he evolved almost a new medium, a sort of expression halfway between writing and action.”

The public intellectual is not simply interested in a wide audience of readers, in shopping her ideas on the op-ed page to sell more books. She’s not looking for markets or hungry for a brand. She’s not an explainer or a popularizer. She is instead the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world. The transformation she seeks may be a far-reaching change of policy, an education of manners and morals, or a renovation of the human estate. Her watch may be wound for tomorrow or today. But whatever her aim or time frame, the public intellectual wants her writing to have an effect, to have all the power of power itself.

To have that effect, however, she must be attuned to the sensitivities of her audience. Not because she wishes to massage or assuage them but because she wants to tear them apart. Her aim is to turn her readers from what they are into what they are not, to alienate her readers from themselves….

Though the public intellectual is a political actor, a performer on stage, what differentiates her from the celebrity or publicity hound is that she is writing for an audience that does not yet exist. Unlike the ordinary journalist or enterprising scholar, she is writing for a reader she hopes to bring into being. She never speaks to the reader as he is; she speaks to the reader as he might be. Her common reader is an uncommon reader.

[click to continue…]