From the monthly archives:

March 2024

Sunday photoblogging: Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

by Chris Bertram on March 31, 2024

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

Daniel Kahneman has died

by John Q on March 29, 2024

Daniel Kahneman, who was, along with Elinor Ostrom, one of the very few non-economists to win the Economics Nobel award, has died aged 90. There are lots of obituaries out there, so I won’t try to summarise his work. Rather, I’ll talk about how it influenced my own academic career.

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Uber, but for Human Communication

by Kevin Munger on March 26, 2024

You open the app and immediately the algorithm shows you what you want.

All the drivers in the world—and the algorithm someone finds the one who will get you where you want to go, as cheaply as possible!

Uber makes it harder to sustain the myth of “the algorithm.” As I wrote in Mother Jones last month, there are three inputs to the quality of a recommendation algorithm. We tend to focus on consumer data and machine learning expertise, but the third is usually the most important: the size/quality of the “content library” from which recommendations are drawn.

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Capitalism Is Dead – Long Live Capital

by Miriam Ronzoni on March 25, 2024

In his latest book, Technofeudalism, the maverick academic-turned unlikely Minister of Finance-turned enfant terrible of European politics Yanis Varoufakis argues that capitalism has ended. It has not, however, been destroyed by the workers of the world – it has been killed by capital itself. The idea, in a nutshell, is the following. As a response to the combined effect of the privatisation of the internet on the one hand, and the nearly no-strings-attached way with which states have injected eye-wateringly large sums of money into banks and large businesses after the 2008 financial crisis on the other, rent has supplanted profit as the main driver of the global economy. As Varoufakis put it, “Insane sums of money that were supposed to re-float our economies in the wake of the financial crisis and the pandemic have ended up supercharging big tech’s hold over every aspect of the economy.” Against the backdrop of a privatised digital world, post-2008 and then post-2020 public investments into the economy have not stimulated growth, because they have not triggered increased investments. Instead, they have enabled “cloudalists” to become digital rentiers, capable of exercising passive control over workers; over users who de facto work for them for free (by sharing and generating precious data); and crucially, over old-school capitalists. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: the Musée Albert Kahn

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2024

Musée Albert Kahn

A wonderful few days in Paris where, among other things, we visited the Musée Albert Kahn in Boulogne-Billancourt, which was closed for a long time for “travaux”, but is now refurbished. I’ve wanted to visit the MAK for years to see the collection of autochromes that are the fruit of the expeditions that Kahn financed before WW1 in the belief that if the peoples of the world understood one another better, they would not go to war. Well. Kahn was also a big promoter of the League of Nations. The autochromes are wonderful but all viewable online, but I was not prepared for the Japanese-inspired gardens that Kahn created. Really worth the visit on their own. (All easy to get to, on the metro btw).

Here’s a link to the autochromes.

On Academic Freedom and Institutional Neutrality

by Eric Schliesser on March 22, 2024

A few months ago Jacob Levy (McGill)  published a lengthy Op-Ed, “Campus culture wars are a teachable moment in how freedom of speech and academic freedom differ,” in the Globe and Mail. It offered a salutary account on the nature of academic freedom in the aftermath of the “Dec. 5 U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing grilling the leaders of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, and the subsequent resignation of two of them, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Elizabeth Magill.”

Before I get to our differences, I agree with much of Levy’s analysis not the least his account of the difference(s) between academic freedom and freedom of speech. In particular, according to Levy a “university’s core commitment is to the discovery, transmission and preservation of knowledge – paradigmatically, what is done in research, in teaching, and in publication and library collection. The principle that defends that commitment is not freedom of speech as such, but rather academic freedom.”

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Global Justice and the Biodiversity Crisis

by Chris Armstrong on March 18, 2024

My new book is out this week (in the UK at least – but those elsewhere can read it right now online). I very much hope it will stimulate debate and discussion. Something that’s really struck me over recent years is that whereas a really rich literature exists on the global justice dimensions of the climate crisis (the term “climate justice” has pretty wide currency, right?), the same thing is just not true of the biodiversity crisis. But the biodiversity crisis seems to me to be at least in the same ballpark in terms of seriousness, and responses to it (“mitigation policies,” if you like) will, if policymakers (continue to) do a bad job, exacerbate all kinds of existing injustices. Thinking carefully about how we can respond fairly to the crisis seems to me to be one of the best uses we could find for our time. Or so I hope to persuade the potential readers!

As it happens I’ve been working on a paper on that strange inequality in attention between the two crises, with a couple of co-authors. I hope to update you all on that someday – but if anyone wants to speculate right now about why we’ve so badly dropped the ball on the biodiversity crisis, please do so here. For everyone else, a succinct description of the book is on the link above, and hopefully you’ll hear more in podcasts or book reviews in the months to come.

Sunday photoblogging: starling

by Chris Bertram on March 17, 2024

Another Sunday rolls around, and I haven’t written anything substantial here in ages. But here’s a starling:

Starling taking flight

Occasional paper: When Armor Met Lips

by Doug Muir on March 16, 2024

So about five hundred million years ago, give or take, there was this little creature called Plectronoceras.  It was about 2 cm long — just under an inch — and it had a conical shell with a bunch of tentacles sticking out.  It was a cephalopod, an early member of the group that includes octopuses and squid.  And it was an /armored/ cephalopod, with most of its soft body protected by that hard little shell.

Let’s pause here and rewind:  this was five hundred million years ago.  That’s the late Cambrian, if you’re a geology nerd.  It’s before the dinosaurs.  It’s before sharks or cockroaches or ferns.  This is *old*.  Complex life had barely gotten started.  Life in general was pretty much confined to the oceans.  But there were no fish yet — just invertebrates.   Half a billion years, yeah?  Long, long time.

And a lot of the stuff swimming around was weirdly alien.  Again, if you’re a geology nerd, you know about stuff like Opabinia, Anomalocaris, or Hallucigenia.  If you don’t, then let’s just say that you wouldn’t have recognized much from those ancient seas.  Not just “no fish”.  There were no clams or lobsters, no starfish or barnacles or crabs or anemones, no coral or kelp.  The world was new.  Those things hadn’t evolved yet.

But almost from the beginning, there was this thing: shell, plus tentacles.

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Sunday photoblogging: blue tit

by Chris Bertram on March 10, 2024

Blue tit

Okay so, we all know how the Earth ends, right? In six billion years or so, the Sun swells up into a red giant, and the Earth gets melted. Pretty straightforward.

But it turns out that /life/ on Earth will end long before that. There are reasons to think that the biosphere will collapse about a billion years from now — long enough!  But still long before the planet itself gets melted.

Why? Basically two reasons.

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The Bezzle

by Maria on March 6, 2024

I recently read Cory Doctorow’s new novel, The Bezzle. (FYI his publisher sent me a copy.) It’s the follow-up (and in the story’s own timeline, a prequel) to Cory’s excellent tech-themed thriller, Red Team Blues. The hero of Red Team Blues is Marty Hench, a forensic accountant who loves barbecuing, whiskey, and exposing elaborate financial scams, especially cryptocurrency ones. He’s in his early sixties and gets called in by a vastly wealthy friend to retrieve the crypto-key an international crime family is after. It’s a thrilling ride that got me back into reading the first time covid fried my brain. Red Team Blues is also fascinating on crypto and cyber-security, and its attention to cultural and sociological detail is lovingly rendered, line by snappy line. The Bezzle takes Marty back to the dot com boom. Same guy, very different novel. Utterly worth your time.

First, the title. ‘Bezzle’ was coined by JK Galbraith to describe the blissful and often long moment when an embezzlement has occurred but before it’s been discovered. The embezzler has his money. The victim still thinks he has his. It’s the gravity-defying interval when Wile E. Coyote is running on air and hasn’t begun to fall.
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by John Q on March 6, 2024

In a few days time, I’ll be lining up in the 65-69 category for the Mooloolaba Olympic triathlon (1500m swim, 40km cycle, 10km run)[1]. People in this age category are commonly described as “aging”, “older”, “seniors”, “elders” and, worst of all, “elderly” (though this mostly kicks in at 70). The one thing we are never called is “old”. But this is the only term that makes any sense. Everyone is aging, one year at a time, and a toddler is older than a baby. Senior and elder are similarly relative terms. And “elderly” routinely implies “frail” (a lot of old people are frail, but many more are not.

What accounts for the near-universal squeamishness that surrounds the term “old”? Apart from the obvious fact that you are a bit closer to death, it’s not that bad being old. Even if not everyone can complete a triathlon, most people maintain (self-assessed) good health to age 85 and beyond, In most developed countries, old people can live a reasonably comfortable life without having to work. And on average, that’s reflected in measures of happiness.

Yet, at least in the Anglosphere, old people don’t seem to be happy in political terms. It’s voters over 65 who provide the core support for conservative parties and are most likely to welcome the drift to the far right represented by Trump and his imitators.

The pattern is particularly striking in the UK where the YouGov poll shows the right and far-right leading easily among voters over 65 (37% Tory + 28 % Reform), while gaining essentially no votes from those aged 20-24, where the Tories tie for 5th place with the SNP, behind Labor, Green, Reform and LibDems [2].Presumably that reflects Brexit, a particularly irresponsible piece of nostalgia politics inflicted mostly by the old on the young.

But it’s the same in the US, Canada, Australia and (though mainly among women) New Zealand. While there has always been a tendency for old people to support the political right, it’s more marked now than it has ever been. And as is particularly evident with MAGA, there’s nothing conservative about this kind of politics. Its primary mode is authoritarian Christian nationalism.

In part, I think this reflects the increasing dominance of culture war issues, where views that were dominant 50 or 60 years ago are now considered unacceptable. Old people whose views haven’t changed in many years are likely to support the right on these issues.

I’d be interested in any thoughts on this.

fn1. Not expecting to do well, thanks to the hottest and stickiest summer I can remember, but I plan to finish.
fn2. A poll last year had the Tories on 1 per cent among young voters.

Sunday photoblogging: Salisbury cathedral

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2024

Salisbury Cathedral