From the monthly archives:

November 2016

Letters of Recommendation

by Harry on November 29, 2016

It’s letter-writing time.

I enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I enjoy it more than I used to because I have more practice, because I have had plenty of positive feedback, and because I have learned to get to know more of my students better than I used to. But I also enjoy it because of the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the students, their skills, and their characters. Sometimes I am a bit surprised by the letter — last year a student asked me for a letter for Law school, and I knew it would be a good letter, but articulated, during the writing of it, aspects of her as a thinker and as a person that I really admire and hadn’t fully appreciated before having to write them down. It turned out to be better than merely very good, as I had anticipated.

Letter requests rarely come as a surprise these days, and for a good number of students I have little passages written in my head while I am teaching them in anticipation of the request. But this is a part of my job that I was not trained in at all. Just like teaching, you might think, but at least when I started teaching I had watched other people do it, whereas I had never even read letters of recommendation when I started. I have, by now, read thousands of letters of recommendation: even so, most of them have been for Philosophy graduate school applications, which is not what most of my letters are for, which tend to be for professional programs and (to a much lesser extent, because letters are used much less) for entry-level jobs. (When students put me down as a reference for a job I insist they give out my cell phone number, because I know I tend to respond rapidly to a voice mail (because I still, every time, expect it is going to be from the school telling me one of my children has done something awful! – and although I am basically phone-phobic, I have really enjoyed the many brief chats with Human resources people, which often seems more efficient than letter writing.

So, below, this is I write letters for students about to graduate. Please comment in whatever way seems useful – advice for me, or other letter-writers, especially if you are a consumer of such letters.

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The day after Brexit

by John Quiggin on November 28, 2016

Since the collapse of faith in neoliberalism following the Global Financial Crisis, the political right has been increasingly dominated by tribalism. But in most cases, including the US, this has so far amounted to little more than Trilling’s irritable mental gestures. To the extent that there is any policy program, it is little more than crony capitalism. Of all the tribalist groups that have achieved political power the only ones that have anything amounting to a political program are the Brexiteers.

The sustainability of tribalism as a political force will depend, in large measure, on the perceived success or failure of Brexit. So, what will the day after Brexit (presumably, sometime in March 2019) look like, and more importantly, feel like? I’ll rule out the so-called “soft Brexit” where Britain stays in the EU for all practical purposes, gaining some minor concessions on immigration restrictions. It seems unlikely and would be even more of an anti-climax than the case I want to think about.

It’s easy to imagine a disaster, and maybe that will happen. But suppose everything goes relatively smoothly. That is, Britain leaves the EU and the single market, but gets deals in place that keep trade flowing smoothly, retains visa-free travel for visitors and so on.

What will the day after feel like?

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New(ish) Crime Writers: Sophie Hannah

by Harry on November 28, 2016

After the last post in this series (what, a year ago?) a reader wrote to me enthusiastically about Sophie Hannah, assuming I’d have already read her. In fact I hadn’t: amazon had recommended her to me, so I had bothered to look her up and note her lineage but, to my embarrassment, the fact that she is a poet put me off a little bit. Still, a reader bothers to email me with a recommendation, I should try, right? I ended up doing something unusual: I read the Zailer/Waterhouse novels in order without a break, starting with Little Face. Hannah has a unique talent. Most of the books are psychological thrillers, and involve multiple deceptions among the characters, including between various of the detectives; in fact, in both Little Face and The Truth-Teller’s Lie (the first two) I occasionally worried that something supernatural was going to be involved (which would have been a cheat – as an aside I am curious what readers think about James Oswald’s crime novels, which I find completely addictive, but worry that I am being conned by). They are far from straightforward police procedurals, and the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse is deeply unhealthy (and for a long time it’s hard to tell whether Waterhouse has some sort serious mental illness or is just extremely unpleasant). Yet there’s a sort of coziness to them – none of the plots are predictable (to me anyway), but the characters around Waterhouse (including Zailer) are stable and mostly likeable, the invented local geography is consistent and becomes familiar over the course of the novels, and the domestic lives of the characters involved in the labyrinthine plots are detailed lovingly – Hannah loves and cares about middle class English mothers who get the short end of the stick, but she shows her love by putting them in unbelievable (though possible) and awful situations!

I’m not sure I’d recommend reading all 10 in a row, but I’d certainly recommend reading them all over the course of a couple of years. So, thank you, unnamed reader!

Additional Comment
I haven’t read her Hercule Poirots, but hear they are terrific, so probably will read them after Christmas. I did decide to read The Orphan Choir, to see how well she did the actual supernatural. Now, I don’t really like the supernatural, and I didn’t really like The Ghost Choir but I could see that if she decided to write 3 more, the 4th would be outstanding. Still, I hope she sticks with crime.

WARNING: For reasons that I can’t imagine Sophie Hannah seems unusually prone to having her titles changed: most books are published under one name in the UK and an entirely different one in the US. So, beware duplication!

18th Brumaire, everywhere

by John Quiggin on November 27, 2016

One of the things I like about blogging, as opposed to academic writing, is the freedom to try out partly developed ideas and speculative hypotheses. On the whole, I think it’s worked well for me. But it does entail the risk of getting things badly wrong, as I did in this post a few years back, predicting the end of tyranny in the historical sense “absolute rule by an individual who has seized power, rather than acquiring it by inheritance or election”. Not only did I underestimate the number of such rulers who were still around (a point made in comments by Doug Muir), but, by ruling out election, I drew a spurious distinction about the way in which such rulers come to power.

More importantly, I posted at what looks in retrospect like a turning point. Dictatorship, or at least, authoritarian personal rule, seems to be re-emerging all around the world, mostly through the suppression of opposition by rulers who originally came to power through democratic elections

I was reminded of all this by the election of Trump in the US, which happened to occur on the same day (9 November or 18 Brumaire in the revolutionary calendar) as the coup that brought Bonaparte to power in France. That was followed by the death of Fidel Castro, the last big name among the old-style Bonapartist rulers about whom I was writing.
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Hazards of Evolutionary Psychology, Royalty Edition

by John Holbo on November 26, 2016

I promised a follow-up post on Baboon Metaphysics, but I haven’t had time. I’ll stop-gap with stray passages that struck me as deserving juxtaposition. (They have nothing to do, really, with my questions about questions.)

A few years ago, a member of the British royal family visited us in the field and spent a morning following the baboons. On being told the details of the baboons’ inherited, rank-based society she became both excited and relieved, as if a longstanding dilemma had at last been resolved and an onerous weight lifted from her shoulders. “I always knew,” she declared, “that when people who aren’t like us claim that hereditary rank is not part of human nature, they must be wrong. Now you’ve given me evolutionary proof!” Shortly thereafter she returned to her entourage, spirits uplifted, leaving us to ponder the wider implications of our work.

Another passage:

The brains of queen ants are significantly smaller than those of virgin females during their nuptial flight. Queen ants are also much less socially active and much less reliant on vision.

Castro is dead

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro is dead at 90, so let me adapt some words I wrote when he retired back in 2008. Doubtless, there will be commentary, particularly from within the United States, that is unbalanced and hostile, and, of course it is true that Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, and denials of democratic rights. Still, I’m reminded of the historian A.J.P. Taylor writing somewhere or other that what the capitalists and their lackeys really really hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. The same thing goes Cuba, for a much smaller area, and it hurt them particularly to be excluded from somewhere that plutocrats and mobsters had once enjoyed as their private playground. (Other countries, far more repressive, got a pass from successive US administrations.) So let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care. Let’s hear it for the Cubans who help defeat the South Africans and their allies in Angola and thereby prepared the end of apartheid at a time when the United States favoured “constructive engagement” with white supremacy. Let’s hear it for the middle-aged Cuban construction workers who bravely held off the US forces for a while when the US invaded Grenada. Let’s hear it for more than half-a-century of defiance in the face of the US blockade. Hasta la victoria siempre!

Happy Thanksgiving – Moana edition

by John Holbo on November 25, 2016

Went to see Moana. Mild plotspoilers under the fold: [click to continue…]

Globalized Green Lanternism

by Henry on November 25, 2016

A piece of mine that was published a few months ago that might be of interest to some, especially recent political events in the US.

A …tacit assumption lurks behind calls for the U.S. president to consider how best America can stabilize the global system: that the United States not only wants to help stabilize the international economy but that it can do so. The dominant mode of rhetoric assumes that the key causal relationship runs from U.S. influence to possible solutions for the problems plaguing the global economy. However, there is another way to think about the evidence. What if the key causal relationship does not run from U.S. hegemonic influence to global economic problems, but the other way around? What if global economic problems are imposing ever greater limits on the influence of the United States, and indeed any other putative hegemon that might replace it?

Here, the diagnosis might be as follows—that the great age of economic cooperation of the post–World War II period is the product of a historically unique conjuncture of high growth rates, and of available forms of cooperation that offered readily achievable rewards. We have no warrant to believe that these will continue forever; indeed they might already be abating. Global economic growth may be sputtering as it reaches hard limits…

Furthermore, there is some reason from the work of Thomas Piketty and
others to think that the extraordinary growth rates of recent decades are a historical aberration from earlier times, and may not continue indefinitely into the future. Finally, the low hanging fruit of straightforward tariff reductions have mostly already been plucked. Future economic agreements will have to settle instead for more dubious gleanings from the higher and more inaccessible branches. In such a world, it is unlikely that the incoming U.S. president can do very much to solve global problems. Instead, his or her main task might be to adjust as best as possible to international economic difficulties. Aspiring hegemons will find it far easier to increase economic cooperation and secure global stability in a world where there is reasonable economic growth and cooperation than in a world of stagnant growth and few distributional benefits. We may be moving from the former world to the latter.

This is less an exercise in prediction than in stealing a method from Gene Wolfe (he mentions it in one of his collections; I can’t remember which) for writing science fiction stories and applying it to policy articles. Wolfe’s recommendation is to take the world, change just one important variable, and then see what happens. What I do in the piece is to take the existing elite consensus about trade, benign US hegemony etc, and change just one factor, assuming that economic stagnation acts upon US political ability and will rather than vice versa. The result may or may not be closer to the truth, but it does, I think, plausibly demonstrate the fragility of this consensus to changes in the underlying parameters.

Introducing the Sandpit

by John Quiggin on November 23, 2016

Among the many problems of comments threads, here and on other blogs, is the tendency for them to devolve into long debates between two, or a few, commenters. That often kills off any possibility of new comments coming in. On the other hand, people may want to continue these discussions, but get stopped when the thread is closed.

At my personal blog, one response I’ve tried, with some success, is the Sandpit, a post open to ” for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on”. Anyone who feels that they have something to write that fits these categories is welcome to post here. I’ll also invite participants in long side discussions on my posts to move them here.

There isn’t a general CT policy on this, it’s just an idea of mine, so we will see how it goes.

Remember that the rest of the comments policy applies. Particularly, in the context of debates with one other person, please be civil and avoid personal attacks.

Long post. Input welcome on any aspect of what I am discussing but I end the post with a very specific question, to which I would really like an answer: do our esteemed primate cousins ask questions? Yet more specifically: have language-trained non-human primates demonstrated the ability to ask questions? (Communicatively elicit desired information from their fellows or humans?)

But let me first back up and give you my situation and needs. [click to continue…]

Kissing the ring

by Henry on November 20, 2016

There are many theories of Trump out there – here’s another – Trump as Renaissance princeling. The New York Times:

As a parade of job seekers, TV talking heads and statesmen like Henry Kissinger paraded through the lobby of Trump Tower this past week, Mr. Trump ran his presidential transition from his triplex on the 58th floor much the way he ran his campaign and his business before that — schmoozing, rewarding loyalty, fomenting infighting among advisers and moving confidently forward through a series of fits and starts. … Yet Mr. Trump loves the tension and drama of a selection process, and has sought to stoke it. A senior adviser described the meeting, in part, as Mr. Romney simply coming to pay his respects to the president-elect and “kiss his ring.” … Mr. Trump also likes to surprise, and enjoys the worldwide speculation he sets off with his Twitter posts.

This reminds me weirdly of Padgett and Ansell’s description of how Cosimo de Medici used ‘robust action’ and constructive ambiguity about his ultimate goals to manipulate those around him.

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality – the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. … The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism – maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers’ successful “ecological control” over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

The crucial difference being of course, that Cosimo de Medici rarely spoke in public and Donald Trump, via Twitter feed, via softball interviews, and via any medium that isn’t going to present him with unfriendly and harsh questions does nothing else but talk.

However, multivocality can plausibly take a variety of different forms. The Renaissance form is to adopt a strategy of ‘whatever you say, say nothing,’ leaving it for others to interpret your ambiguous actions as they will, forcing them to commit while you remain unbounded. Another is to talk constantly, but not to allow what you say to be constrained by consistency, or logic, or anything other than the short term desire to badfoot your opponents in short term tactical games and the long term one to make everyone pay attention to you, and condition their actions on you, without you having to condition their actions on them. The two have somewhat similar long term consequences. In each, the successful practitioner dominates the public space and public argument as everyone tries to interpret what the hell you have done, paying attention to you and no-one else but you, so that you can continue to play center stage in the theater of politics while everyone else is reduced to Waldorf and Statler, carping from the critics’ box.

If this is right, the key qualities of presidential politics over the next four years will be instability, frequent policy change, palace intrigues, and Trump looking to reign triumphant above it all, not particularly caring (a la Padgett and Ansell’s Cosimo) about attaining specific goals, but instead looking to preserve his position at the center of an ever shifting spider web of political relations, no matter what consequences this has for the integrity of the web. This might not be authoritarianism in the sense of a well-honed bureaucratic regime dedicated to horrible ends, but authoritarianism in terms of the general break down of Weberian order and hierarchies in favor of a largely personalized politics in which one’s relationship with an erratic and unpredictable president counts for far more than one’s formal position and authority (of course, all politics do depend on personal relations more than one might like, but bureaucracy and rules still usually count).

Sunday photoblogging: car, leaves

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2016

Car

Trade after Trump

by John Quiggin on November 19, 2016

The one policy issue that was an unambiguous loser for Clinton was trade[^1]. Her grudging move to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, choice of Tim Kaine as running mate and some unhelpful remarks from Bill Clinton meant that Trump had all the running. How should we think about trade policy after Trump? My starting point will be the assumption that, in a world where Trump can be President of the US, there’s no point in being overly constrained by calculations of political realism.

A few points and some suggestions

* So-called “trade” deals like the TPP were actually devices to enhance corporate power (and, in the case of the TPP, to isolate China), and deserved to be defeated regardless of views on trade

* No matter what policy is adopted, manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, any more than farm policy can restore an agrarian society. The manufacturing share of total employment has peaked nearly everywhere in the world, notably including Mexico. As is often the case, Chinese data is too opaque to get a clear picture, but there’s plenty of evidence of contraction about

* The idea of manufacturing jobs as “good” jobs is historically specific particularly to the US, and reflects the fact that the dominance of manufacturing coincided with the New Deal and the unionisation of the labour force. It’s unions, not manufacturing that we need to bring back.

* The big problem facing workers, in the US and elsewhere, isn’t competition from immigrants, or from imported goods. It’s the fact that capital is freely mobile and unfettered by any social obligation. So, a profitable plant can be closed down if its owners get a better off elsewhere. Alternatively, the threat of a move can be used to bargain down wages.

So, instead of thinking about tariffs and trade agreements, the big question is: what can be done to change trade and capital flows in ways that yield more good jobs?

Some suggestions over the page

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The Claypool Lennon Delirium

by John Holbo on November 19, 2016

Speaking of Nick Mason on drums, that’s how Les Claypool describes Sean Lennon’s sticks on the new Claypool Lennon Delirium album, Monolith of Phobos [amazon]. Well, half his sticks.

I’ve been waiting for, like, 25 years for Les Claypool to do something I really like. He was put on this earth to amuse Les Claypool. I understand it was never a case of him setting out to please me, and failing. He’s a fabulous bass player, but somehow all that Primus nonsense never did it for me. (Those cowboy suits – and I do mean cowboy suits – are the apotheosis of mid 90’s MTV. But I only want to listen for, like, 30 seconds.)

And now he’s done it, by Jove! This collaboration with Sean Lennon is genius. The lemony lightness of Lennon’s vocals are just what was needed to cut through the straight Claypool mud. The Claypool Lennon Delirium is to Primus as The Dukes of Stratosphear was to XTC. Clear? And if you’ve ever said to yourself: I want to hear something like Ween’s “Transdermal Celebration”, but make it 7/4 time … well, now you’ve got “Boomerang Baby”. I think the best tracks are “The Cricket and the Genie” and “Mr Wright”, which is a slap-bass “Arnold Layne”. “Bubbles Burst” is about Lennon’s own experience hanging out with Michael Jackson as a kid. Weird.

R.I.P. SEK – You Will Be Missed

by John Holbo on November 19, 2016

UPDATE: Our friend, Scott Eric Kaufman, has passed. He was a good one, he was. He will be missed.

Scott Eric Kaufman needs no introduction. Well, not if you know him and admire him, like I do, and have been a friend to him for a long time, like me. He’s dying. [UPDATE: it looks like I confused some of Scott’s own notes for expert medical prognosis. He’s in very very bad shape. But his family is hoping for the best.] It’s bad. His family needs help with medical bills. If that’s the sort of thing you feel you might donate to help out with, I encourage you to do so. I did. But they have a ways to go to meet their goal.

If you don’t know who Scott K is, well he used to blog here – may he again! And at the Valve, back in the day; and at LGM. And he wrote for Salon, most recently.