From the monthly archives:

February 2016

The three party system

by John Q on February 29, 2016

Warning: Amateur political analysis ahead

Looking at the way politics has evolved over the past 25 years or so, in the English-speaking world and beyond, I have developed an analysis which is certainly not original, but which I haven’t seen set down in exactly the way I would like. Here’s the shorter version:

There are three major political forces in contemporary politics in developed countries: tribalism, neoliberalism and leftism (defined in more detail below). Until recently, the party system involved competition between different versions of neoliberalism. Since the Global Financial Crisis, neoliberals have remained in power almost everywhere, but can no longer command the electoral support needed to marginalise both tribalists and leftists at the same time. So, we are seeing the emergence of a three-party system, which is inherently unstable because of the Condorcet problem and for other reasons.

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Sunday photoblogging: Hebron Road burial ground

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2016

Hebron Road burial ground, frosty morning

A little over a month ago Belle and I published the new edition of Reason and Persuasion, our Plato book. (She did the translations of three dialogues; I provided the commentary, illustrations and bookmaking.) Ta-DA! Well, actually it was more what one calls a soft launch. Since then I’ve got all the publication outlets squared away for the time being. You can get it on Amazon, in paper or in Kindle format. Making a workable Kindle version was an education in itself. Reflowable text and approximately 500 spot illustrations is a tough combo. It’s like practicing the fine art of flower arrangement in a sloshing bucket. It’s like trying to arrange all the little marshmallows inside the jell-o. But enough about my lifestyle choices. I set up Kindle matchbook so this thing that almost overwhelmed me is free if you buy the modestly-priced paper version. Good deal! I think the nicest-looking edition may actually be the fixed layout iBooks version (same as the GooglePlay and Kobo versions, if that’s how you like to play it.) Graphics are all very crisp.

As I was saying: we launched, and, since our lawyers told us we couldn’t use Harry Potter in the title, sales have been … modest. (Hey, it’s the fourth edition of a Plato book that is also available as free PDF’s. Did I mention: free PDFs?) We’ve been bobbing along in the low 6-digits, sales-wise, on Amazon. Checking Amazon rankings more than once a month is a thoroughly unhealthy form of fetish worship. Yet I confess to a moment of depression when we slipped below the 1,000,000-mark, albeit only briefly. Would it be too much to ask for the world to acknowledge that there are maybe not a million books better than mine? But then I checked Amazon UK and, like Spinal Tap in that scene in the film, was cheered to see we were charting! (Presumably 2 people bought the book in a matter of hours, producing this anomaly.) I screencapped, in case glory never came again: [click to continue…]

Is an exchange rate like a national share price?

by Daniel on February 24, 2016

So, this morning I had a brief Twitter conversation with Simon Jack, the economics editor of the Today programme, about a metaphor he used to introduce an interview on the subject of the British Pound’s sharp devaluation as the EU exit referendum was launched. The line which annoyed me at seven o’clock this morning was:

“I think of the exchange rate as something like a national share price, and ours has been falling”

See below for why, although I understand the point he was trying to make, I think this is not a good way to think of exchange rates…

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Pen and Ink Week: The Collector

by John Holbo on February 24, 2016

Following up my Franklin Booth post, how about I do a series of comics and art posts this week?

I made a fine recent purchase on Comixology: Sergio Toppi’s The Collector. If you don’t know Toppi, a Google image search will give the flavor. The comic is pretty ok. The Collector is a cool-looking, mysterious dude who collects precious antiquities. He always gets what he wants. He’s like an amoral Indiana Jones. There are supernatural elements. Mostly you read it for the art: [click to continue…]

Mistake it ’til you make it

by John Holbo on February 24, 2016

Whew! My Dreher post comments are running kind of long. Clearly, Crooked Timber needs fresh content. OK, I just realized that two things I’ve been thinking about this week – Rod Dreher’s Ben-Op plans, and Franklin Booth’s pen-and-ink style – are kind of the same. Franklin Booth? Via Lines and Colors, I found this nice page of fairly high-quality scans. This sort of stuff (click for larger):


That’s pen-and-ink, because Booth was trying … well, I’ll just let Wikipedia explain:

His unusual technique was the result of a misunderstanding: Booth scrupulously copied magazine illustrations which he thought were pen-and-ink drawings. In fact, they were wood engravings. As a result, this led him to develop a style of drawing composed of thousands of lines, whose careful positioning next to one another produced variations in density and shade. The characteristics of his art were his scale extremes with large buildings and forests looming over tiny figures, decorative scrolls and borders, classic hand lettering and gnarled trees.

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A Disquieting Suggestion

by John Holbo on February 22, 2016

As CT-regulars know, I am a compulsive reader of Rod Dreher’s blog. The occasion for today’s post is this Dreher post. He quotes a reader:

Obergefell was clearly a crisis point for social conservatives. We lost the public debate on gay marriage; but more important was how we lost. Gay marriage showed that there was a great gap between what social conservatives want to say, and what the rest of the public is willing or able to hear. In short, what the process revealed was the inability of social conservatives to articulate, in a publicly convincing way, the basis of their own beliefs. The most striking fact about the whole process was this inarticulacy. When the crucial time came, SCs could not find the words to explain what they believed. For me, that was the crucial “revelation.”

I think you’ve decided that the problem is a retreat from Christian foundations of moral understanding. But whatever the cause is, we have a continuing responsibility to try to articulate these values in a way that is comprehensible in a secular debate — to correct our own inarticulacy. We have a responsibility to articulate our values, whatever their religious grounding may be, in a way that makes sense to people who do not necessarily share that grounding.

Dreher sort of agrees and then goes on for a while. And, I have to say: I still honestly don’t know what Dreher’s argument is. I’m not even totally sure he thinks Obergefell was wrongly decided. (I know he thinks it will lead to excesses but that’s a separate question. You could be opposed to affirmative action, and think Brown v. Board of Education led to affirmative action, without thinking Brown was wrongly decided. You could also think Brown was wrongly decided, in a technical sense, yet admirable in its effects.) I was going to write a long post dismantling all the problems I think I see in this post. But, you know what? – been there, done that.

Let me try a fresh approach. [click to continue…]

Peak paper

by John Q on February 22, 2016

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft, with some links.
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Sunday photoblogging: Rouen gargoyles

by Chris Bertram on February 21, 2016

Rouen - Gargoyles

D&D for Me and for Thee

by Maria on February 19, 2016

I went to a conversation the other night. It was between David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro and the approximately two thousand people watching them.

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’. (That said, he came across as a lovely man, and one who has come carefully to terms with his necessary public persona.)

But, guess what, according to David Mitchell, Michael Chabon not only played D&D but was a dungeon master to boot. I wonder what other contemporary writers played D&D or who *must* have done? It would make me like them a little more, too.

A friend writes:

I am putting together a teaching workshop in my department that will focus on strategies for reaching out to students who have gone missing or are falling behind. Any suggestions of short things to read that I could circulate ahead of time?

I don’t know of any short readings, but thought that some CTers might and that, even if not, a post might generate a discussion worth reflecting on.

All I have are anecdotes and I’m inhibited from telling them because the people involved might recognise themselves — the more detailed the anecdote, the more useful, but also the more likely they are to recognise themselves. My main strategy, if you can call it that, is to write gentle emails to students who are persistently absent, in a tone that invites them back to class without bugging them or being harsh. This almost always elicits a response, and several students have observed, later, that the tone of the email was important because the student had missed enough classes that they were embarrassed to come back, and some of their absence was just caused by previous absences.
Here’s one that I feel confident the student in question will recognize, but will be fine with:

“Are you doing ok? I’m just writing because you missed class last week, and I wondered if you’re doing ok. Don’t worry, I’m not giving you a hard time: mainly I want to nudge you to be sure you’re in class on Tuesday because it will be fun, and you’ll make good contributions.”

Obviously, the final phrase is only there because it is sincere (I knew she would make good contributions if she came to class, and in this case knew that she probably knew that too). Occasionally such an email prompts much deeper interaction — obviously, some persistently absent students are just absent, but others have real problems that they are not handling well, and need help with. But even though such emails usually get a response, and always a friendly one, they are not all successful — in the class from which the above email is taken another student persisted in absenteeism, and wouldn’t get help.

Anyway — if you can recommend reading that’d be great, and if you can’t, but have stories that of things that have worked, or haven’t worked, that’d be great too.

That Apple FBI back door thing

by Maria on February 19, 2016

Here at CT we’re not big on posting about topics just because they’re happening. (Unless it’s the 6 Nations, obviously.) But this Apple FBI back door saga is making me feel I should post something, not because it’s topical, not because I know a lot more about it than anyone who reads a decent newspaper / tech journal etc. (because I don’t), but because it’s becoming clear that this event is morphing into something of a turning point in how governments interact with tech firms in the US and, at more of a distance, the UK.

(For a comprehensive and thought-provoking piece on governments and tech intermediaries, read Emily Taylor’s recent piece, The Privatization of Human Rights: Illusions of Consent, Automation and Neutrality, for Chatham House.)

I’m going to assume you know most of the facts and the larger repercussions, and just jot down a few observations of my own and that I’ve come across in various digital rights back channels. [click to continue…]

A Few US Election-Related Thoughts

by John Holbo on February 17, 2016

Not that I want CT to go all-US-elections, all the time. But one more post.

I think Dems are resting a bit too easy on ‘the Republicans really screwed it up for themselves this time.’ (A lot of Dems are not resting easy at all, but some are being a bit smug and complacent about Republican problems and disarray.) In the modern era, every Presidential contest should be a 51-49 nailbiter – even a hanging-chad-biter – by rights. I would say this one is shaping up more 65-35, to the Dem’s advantage. (I’m talking about odds of winning, overall, not predicting vote percentages.) But that still gives the Reps a 1/3 chance of shooting the moon: controlling Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. So ‘Republicans screwed the pooch’ and ‘Dems staring down barrel of defeat and devastation’ are both true, and should be held true together. Which is why the President should do what he can to confirm anyone – even a moderate conservative – to the Scalia seat in the next year, as insurance against dire, downside risk. In this thread someone suggested Obama should nominate Richard Posner and I realized, to my own mild surprise, that I would be quite happy with that result, all things weighed and balanced and considered. I’ll take a Posner in the hand over the threat of another Scalia on the bench. I’m a moderate squish. [click to continue…]

Cash and freedom

by Chris Bertram on February 16, 2016

Paul Mason has an article today [about the impending end of cash]( The subtitle asks “But what would a cashless society mean for freedom?” but sadly the article itself has little to say on the subject. It isn’t hard to see, though, that the end of cash would give governments almost unlimited power to deny resources to those they consider undesirable. We’ve already seen this with the way that the Obama administration successfully pressured the major credit card companies to block donations to WikiLeaks. And it is a key component of the UK’s rather horrible Immigration Bill 2015 which has as a central purpose to create a “hostile environment” for people who lack authorization to be on the territory of the state by, inter alia, “working with banks and building societies to restrict their access to bank accounts”. In practice this means that people whose right to remain is cancelled could almost immediately lose access to the resources they need to fight the administrative decision against them. History shows that technologies that are first piloted against one group of people can be extended to others. We face a future where people deemed by the executive to be problematic in some way could lose access to all means of payment. At least with cash you can subsist on the margins of society; without it, government control is potentially total. Perhaps this is coming sooner than we think?

Just a thought about the Post-Scalia Situation

by John Holbo on February 14, 2016

Obama needs to decide how best to respond to Republican threats of total scorched earth obstruction of all nominees, no matter who and what, because Obama is a radical madman.

What if he called their bluff about him being a radical madman? How might he do so? [click to continue…]