From the monthly archives:

January 2022

Nobel Prize or not

by Eszter Hargittai on January 31, 2022

Today is the last day to submit nominations for the 2022 Nobel Prizes. My father, an expert on the Prize, wrote some reflections on some prizes not received last year.. and more generally about the politics of the Prize and also how smaller countries (Hungary in this case) can think about supporting their scientists. This piece was only published in Hungarian at first, but I thought a broader audience would benefit from it so below is the translation.

From the Hungarian literary weekly, Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature),
Volume 66, Issue No 4 in 2022, January 28

by István Hargittai

2021 was a special year. Two Hungarians did not receive (deserved) Nobel Prizes. The only other year like this was 1994, when two Hungarians did receive (deserved) Nobel Prizes, George Olah, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and John Harsányi, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. The two non-winners in 2021, Katalin Karikó and Zoltán Hajós, are two different cases both with valuable lessons.

Throughout my six decades as a researcher, and even since the age of 11, I have been interested in the nature of scientific discovery, which has led me to follow the work of Nobel laureates and scientists of the caliber of Nobel laureates. There was a ten-year period in my life when I recorded conversations with such scientists, which, together with my wife and our son, were published in six hefty volumes by a prestigious London publisher. These interviews went far beyond my own field, chemistry, and the conversations meant a second college education for me. For twenty-five years I have been invited annually to be a nominator for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. I wrote a successful book on the Nobel Prize. I am saying all this to increase the reader’s confidence in what follows.

Many people were expecting Katalin Karikó to win the Nobel Prize for her achievements in the development of the vaccine against the COVID-19. As the date for the announcement of the Nobel Prizes approached in early October 2021, the various prize-giving bodies were practically in a race to honor her. For any prize, it enhances its prestige if its awardee later becomes a Nobel laureate, while awarding the same prize after the Nobel Prize is no longer so elegant. When it turned out that Karikó was not among the 2021 Nobel laureates, there was great disappointment. There were important reasons though why she was not awarded the Nobel Prize in 2021, and there is every reason to expect that she will receive it in 2022, or very soon after, in the category of physiology or medicine (medicice, in short) or of chemistry.

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The end of American democracy is unimaginable

by John Q on January 30, 2022

I should know, I tried to imagine it.

Every few days, there’s another article pointing out the likelihood that a Democratic win[1] in the 2024 US election will be overturned, and suggesting various ways it might be prevented, none of which seem very likely to work. The best hope would seem to be a crushing Democratic victory in the 2022 midterms, which doesn’t look likely right now[2]

What I haven’t seen is anyone discussing what the US would be like after a successful Trumpist (or other Republican) coup. The closest approaches I’ve seen are “looking backwards” pieces, written from an imagined distant future when democracy or something like it have been restored.

I decided to attempt the task myself and found it very hard going. The resulting piece is over the fold. I tried a few outlets for it, and no one was interested in publishing it. So, I’m putting it out here, with all its faults.

Suggested improvements are welcome, as is serious criticism. Snarks and trolls will be deleted and permanently banned [3].

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Barry Cryer is dead.

by Harry on January 27, 2022

If you are anywhere close to my age (and even for most of you who are not), and if you grew up in the UK, Barry Cryer almost certainly made you laugh, even if you never knew who he was. He wrote for everyone. Well, everyone that mattered. And even plenty of people who didn’t matter (sorry, but I have never understood the appeal of Bob Hope. Or Kenny Everett to be honest). ISIHAC was, I suppose, his masterpiece. When I am feeling down, even when I am feeling really really down, I know that if I listen to ISIHAC I will laugh (the day I don’t know that ISIHAC will make me laugh is the day I’ll wonder if life is worth continuing [1]). However funny Cryer was on ISIHAC, and he was always hilarious, the best thing was not him being funny, or anyone else being funny, but hearing him laughing at other people being funny. His sheer, authentic, enjoyment of other people was delightful. Over the next few days the stories of his role in promoting other people’s careers — and in particular the careers of various women in comedy (the great late Linda Smith springs to mind)– will dribble out. Enjoy them and take note.

I once bumped into him. It was December 2001, and we were attending The Nutcracker in the west end. I had agreed to meet my family, and just before getting to the meeting spot I found myself standing right next to him — he loitering with a fag and a phone. My immediate thought was just to thank him for making me laugh so often, and when I really needed it. But being English, I just nodded in recognition, and moved on.

Here’s the grauniad obit.

[1] After writing that I realise it might sound like I’m being flippant about mental illness. I’m not.


by Maria on January 24, 2022

My first ever short story has been published, hurray! It comes out of an odd ritual called ‘being churched’, that used to happen in Ireland well into the 1970s (schoolmates in Tipperary in the 1980s told stories of it happening to their mothers after the birth of older siblings). What may have begun as a blessing and thanks after a baby is born was often practiced as a required cleansing ritual before a woman would be let back into the church building. There were always stories of women who’d chosen a name for their baby but found when it was brought home from church the child had been baptised something else – as typically the churching took place some weeks after baptism, so mothers often missed the christening. The idea of a post-birth woman as unclean is pretty repellent, especially in an essentially theocratic state that kept women pregnant through many of their fertile years. It stuck in the craw of many at the time.

The other thing the story is about are the marooned generations of Irish in London – people who came over from the 1950s onward, pushed out by economic and social stagnation, and who rarely got home again. The pre-Ryanair generations’ ties with home were more or less cut, and they often felt they hadn’t done well enough financially to return. The Irish Embassy in London has a lot to do with the Irish Centre in Kilburn, which is a social hub for many left behind by the Celtic tiger. I always feel there is a quiet care and respect from them for so many of our people who have aged past any chance of return and wouldn’t feel at home in Ireland now anyway. Walking around my south London neighbourhood with my dog Milo, I’ve made friends with several erstwhile Kerry and Connemara men who often talk of going home for a visit, but never actually do. Failing health is one reason, and the death of siblings who they might have stayed with – the parents of course long since gone.

They speak in idioms that sound anachronistic to most Irish people today, but are how people talked when they were young. I’ve tried to capture that in the story, though it probably makes it sound a bit Oirish to the modern ear. The guys I chat to are also pretty racist. A couple of weeks ago, one of them was giving out about “immigrants”, and I said “But sure we’re immigrants.” He went uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, and then roared laughing, agreeing that indeed we are.

Here is the opening. The rest of “Churched” is at Lunate.

“I don’t know how it is in Ireland now, but here if you want to see old people and babies, go to Mass. Mass is full of people you don’t see most places except the dole queue or A&E which is full of drunks with a bang on their head that might be a brain bleed and babies with runny noses that might be meningitis. We see the babies first. A sick child goes downhill fast but a drunk with a sore head will always be looking for company.”

CBS on the superrich and limitarianism

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 23, 2022

We were having birthday cake with my youngest son who turned 14 today, when CBS aired an item on the Sunday Morning Show for which I was interviewed. The item was on the question whether one can be too rich. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve written a couple of papers (this one being open access) and more journalistic pieces (e.g. this) that we should answer this affirmatively. So now CBS decided the idea deserved an item, and I think they did a great job in putting several different relevant concerns together in a mere 8 minutes. It can be watched online here. (I believe they could have found more vocal opponents of limitarianism, but I guess these voices get plenty of airtime elsewhere?)

Abigail Disney has a line of critique from which I’ve so far tried to steer away – namely that becoming superwealthy changes a person and their character for the worse. That resonates with some of the findings in the intriguing book by Lauren Greenfield, Generation Wealth. Although I wrote very briefly (in Dutch, alas) on the scientific studies that we have that suggests that extreme wealth concentration might lead to unhappier people than being moderately well-off, I am hesitant to write more about this, for two reasons. One is that arguing that they are less happy and that therefore they should not be so rich is quit paternalistic (and most approaches in political philosophy and social ethics reject paternalistic arguments). Still, it also affects their children, so the paternalism objection might be less strong than at first sight. Arguing that they become less virtuous (read: bad people) is something that I cannot say since I haven’t tried to find the relevant studies (if they exist); moreover, it also seems a non-starter if we want to engage in a political debate that should include those that are superrich, or that defend the superrich. The other reason why I haven’t gone down this road so far is that I think the other arguments for limitarianism are strong enough in themselves to carry the claim – why then introduce a more contentious one, except if the evidence were to be overwhelming?

I don’t think I’ve announced on this blog the other news I have on limitarianism, which is that I’m writing a trade book on the topic, which is under contract with Allen Lane/Penguin (for the UK), Astra (for North America), and translations secured in Dutch, German, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish (the magic that working with an agent does!). The manuscript is due after the (Northern Hemisphere) Summer, so I’ll be having more posts on this matter over the next months.


by John Q on January 20, 2022

A fun and often useful way of getting perspective on events from what seems like the relatively recent past is to take the time interval between those events and the present, then count back an equal time into the past [1].

For example, The Beatles first big hit, Love me Do, came out 60 years ago, in 1962. Going back 60 years to 1902, the hits of that year included Scott Joplin’s ragtime number The Entertainer. The recent buzz around Get Back can be compared to the revival of interest in Joplin generated by the Newman-Redford movie The Sting[2]

A more memorable event for most who were alive at the time was the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, that is, 59 years ago. Going back 59 years gets us to 1904, only three years after the previous US Presidential assassination, that of William McKinley. At least according to Wikipedia, the immediate reaction to the McKinley assassination was comparable to that after Kennedy’s. However, McKinley was overshadowed by his successor, Teddy Roosevelt in a way that didn’t happen with LBJ and JFK. So, AFAICT, McKinley’s assassination was pretty much forgotten by the time of Kennedy’s election[2]

As far as left politics goes, a comparable observation that the events of May 1968 are closer to the October Revolution than to the present.

Looking at intervals like this gives an idea of whether change has been fast or slow. For example, the beginning of the Jet Age of passenger jet transport is commonly dated to the introduction of the Boeing 707 in 1958, but there’s also a case for the 747 introduced in 1969. Counting back from these two dates gives a range from 1894 to 1916, neatly bracketing the Wright Brothers in 1903. The massive advances from the Wright Brothers to the early 7x7s contrast sharply with the near-stasis since then (punctuated by the failure of the Concorde). Today’s 7x7s and their Airbus competitors differ most notably in the fact that the passengers are packed in tighter, and more effectively pacified with digital entertainment. The newer planes are more fuel efficient, safer and not quite as noisy, but those are incremental advances in an industry that used to symbolise modernity and technical progress.

That’s enough from me. Anyone else have a favorite?

fn1. The first time I saw this was in a look back at at an ANU Revue, during the Vietnam years, on the theme Hits of the Blitz. The author pointed out that the Vietnam War was now further in the past than WWII had been at the time the show was put on.
fn2. Doing the same thing for The Sting (1973) takes us back to the silent era and The Thief of Baghdad
fn2. Some fans of numerology noted that the winners of the 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1960 elections had been assassinated. Adding the 1840 1920 and 1940 winners, who died in office (though Roosevelt survived his third term, and won again in 1944), this produced the “Curse of the Zero Years”

Sunday photoblogging: fox on the tracks

by Chris Bertram on January 16, 2022


Boris Johnson open thread

by John Q on January 13, 2022

Boris Johnson seems to be in a heap of trouble, but from the other side of the planet it’s hard to work out much more than that. So, I thought I’d throw it open, with a few questions

Will Johnson survive as PM ?
If not who will replace him ?
Change for the better or worse?
Implications for policy responses to the pandemic, if any?

Why energy storage is a solvable problem

by John Q on January 12, 2022

Most discussion of energy storage that I’ve seen has focused on batteries, with occasional mentions of pumped hydro. But in the last week, I’ve seen announcements of big investments in quite different technologies. Goldman Sachs just put $250 million ($US, I think) into a firm that claims to worked out the bugs that have prevented the use of compressed air storage until now

And several companies are working on gravity storage (raising and lowering massive blocks) to store and release energy

Underlying these points is a crucial fact in physics/engineering: Any reversible physical process is an energy storage technology.

That’s why concerns about the variability of wind and solar power will come to nothing in the end

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The Northeast Workshop to Learn About Multicultural Philosophy (NEWLAMP) is designed to equip philosophy professors with the competency to integrate modules on traditionally underrepresented areas of philosophy into their undergraduate philosophy courses. For its first edition, which will take place at Northeastern University in Boston, July 11-15, 2022, NEWLAMP will focus on African and Africana social and political philosophy.

Three experts will lead the workshop:

  • Chike Jeffers, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University
  • Denise James, Associate Professor of Philosophy and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at University of Dayton
  • Lucius Outlaw, Jr., W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University

Twenty participants will be selected to attend the workshop. We encourage applications from adjuncts, community college or regional university professors, and other underfunded faculty across North America. Financial aid will be available to help cover travel and lodging costs for those without available professional funds to cover attendance. There is no registration fee.

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A student asks: Who are some philosophers doing work in social and political philosophy whose writing style you admire?

I have some preferences — names that came to the top of my head immediately, for different reasons, were: Alex Guerrero, Brian Barry (sometimes), Debra Satz, Seana Schiffrin, Tommie Shelby, and, actually, all the political philosophers here. Personally I only occasionally admire the writing of people whose work I don’t think is very good, and would always flag that I am recommending only for the style not the content. (My student knows that my judgment of whether work is good isn’t much affected by whether I agree with it). But, I’m curious how other people here would answer the question. And why.

Sunday photoblogging: shop front, Narbonne

by Chris Bertram on January 9, 2022

Shop at Narbonne

In defense of presentism

by John Q on January 9, 2022

I was planning a post with this title, but after some preliminary discussion, a commenter on Twitter pointed me to this piece by David Armitage, which not only has the title I planned to use[1], but a much more complete and nuanced presentation of the argument, as you might expect from the chair of the Harvard history department.

I won’t recapitulate his points, except to make an observation about disciplinary differences. The dominant view in history described by Armitage as “professional creed: the commitment to separate the concerns of the present from the scientific treatment of the past” is identical, with a slight change in terminology, to the central claim of “value-free economics”, that it is possible to separate the positive science of economics, from the normative question of what economic choices should be made. [2]

What’s striking here is that the idea of “value free” economics has been the subject of severe criticism for decades, starting in the 1950s with Gunnar Myrdal [3]. Hardly anyone now puts forward claims of this kind in the strong version presented most notably by Milton Friedman. This view is routinely denounced as a residue of “logical positivism”, an pejorative with much the same valence as “Whig history”, except for a reversal of sign.

Armitage’s defense of presentism runs along very similar lines to the critiques of value free economics. Most notably, he observes

can we plausibly deny that we choose our subjects according to our own present concerns and then bring our immediate analytical frameworks to bear upon them?

Referring to history specifically, he says

only history—again, only our individual experiences and that collective record of the human past in all its forms, from the cultural to the cosmic—can supply the information and the imagination to shape our choices, in the present, among multiple potential paths into the future. If historians too freely use presentism as a slur or as a taboo, then we may be guilty of depriving our readers, and indeed ourselves, of one valuable resource for promoting human flourishing: history.

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Debutante Balls

by Harry on January 8, 2022

This was the funniest moment of the semester, in my undergraduate political philosophy class. We had recently read one of Ingrid’s excellent papers on limitarianism, but were now discussion inequalities in higher education.

Student 1: My sister goes to an Ivy League school and you wouldn’t believe what her friends do, going off to ski in Colorado for the weekend, debutante balls, the lot.

Me: I had no idea there are still debutante balls.

Student 2: They have them in Louisville.

Me: I don’t believe they have them in Louisville.

Student 2: Why’s that? You think Louisville is poor?

Me: No…. I just, I dunno, think of them as an East Coast phenomenon.

Student 2 (witheringly): Harry, you know there are rich people everywhere.

Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea

by John Q on January 5, 2022

Just before Christmas, I published a piece in The Interpreter (Lowy Institute) arguing that most of the claims made by the contending parties in the South China Sea are myths designed to promote the interests of nationalists and militarists in a variety of countries, including Australia. Final paras

The mutual sabre-rattling associated with South China Sea mythology is beneficial to a variety of actors in the United States, China and elsewhere. The military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned 60 years ago, is powerful in every country, and always seeks to promote preparation for large-scale war as well as the routine use of military power for political and commercial ends. Nationalist politicians promote territorial claims of all kinds, and exaggerate their importance. And both Chinese and Taiwanese governments have good reasons to keep the idea of an invasion of Taiwan alive.

Unfortunately, these myths are not harmless. The possibility that the United States and China will somehow blunder into war is ever-present. And if such a war broke out, Australia would have a choice of bad options: either a disastrous war with its biggest trading partner or a breach with its most important ally. Rather than joining the alarmist chorus, the government should be seeking to reduce tensions.

The week before Christmas is traditionally a time to publish for those who want to avoid attention, so my timing wasn’t ideal. But in the New Year there has been a bit more interest. I was interviewed by CNBC Asia and Radio Free Asia, and there have been a few republications/