From the monthly archives:

April 2024

Sunday photoblogging: crossroads

by Chris Bertram on April 21, 2024

Pézenas cross

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Online talks

by Henry Farrell on April 20, 2024

I’ve been doing a bunch of talks and events online, mostly not CT related, but a couple that might be interesting to readers. One that certainly is is this conversation with Francis Spufford, which is a coda to Red Plenty.

Some of my bits of the conversation build on this Long Now talk from a few months ago.

I’ll also be talking in a couple of weeks at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center, riffing on Alison Gopnik’s notion of Large Language Models as “cultural technologies.” I was deeply unhappy with HKS’s speech policy some years back, but they appear to have gotten substantially better even as other places are getting worse.

Finally, Abe Newman and I will be doing a conversation with Paul Krugman at CUNY’s Graduate Center a month from now. This will be open to the public (free tickets) as well as being videoed for broadcast. If you want to come, would love to see you! (I’m thinking about having an open coffee somewhere nearby before if people would like to say hi).

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Expertise and naval power

by John Q on April 20, 2024

Robert Farley has replied to my recent post on the obsolescence of naval power. Unlike our previous exchange, a pile-on where I was (as he points out) in a minority of one, Robert’s tone is mostly civil this time, and I intend to reciprocate. Our disagreements have narrowed a fair way. On many points, it’s a matter of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

For example, Farley observes that despite Houthi attacks, 2 million tonnes of shipping per day is passing through the Suez canal. I’d turn that around and point out that 4 million tonnes of shipping per day has been diverted to more roundabout routes. However, since we agree that naval authorities overstate the macro importance of threats to shipping lanes, we can put that point to one side.

A more relevant case is that of China’s capacity (or lack thereof) to mount a seaborne invasion of Taiwan. I said that China has only a handful of modern landing craft and that their announced plan relies on civilian ferries. Farley points out that China has constructed 16 large, modern amphibious assault vessels in the past 18 years, with more on the way. That’s more than might normally be implied by the word “handful”, but not in a way that meaningfully challenges my argument.

According to Robert’s link, the ships in question can carry 800 troops, or about 10 000 if all of them were used. That’s enough to do a re-enactment of the Dieppe raid, but not to play a major role in an invasion of a country with a standing army at least ten times as large. And the implied rate of construction (one per year) suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon. This leisurely approach is consistent with the CCPs need to maintain a public position that it is willing and able to reunite with Taiwan by force, along with a private recognition that this isn’t possible and wouldn’t be wise if it were.

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In all the discussion of Leif Wenar’s critique of Effective Altruism , I haven’t seen much mention of the central premise: that development aid is generally counterproductive (unless, perhaps, it’s delivered by wealthy surfers in their spare time). Wenar is quite clear that his argument applies just as much to official development aid and to the long-standing efforts of NGOs as to projects supported by EA. He quotes burned-out aid workers “hoping their projects were doing more good than harm.”

Wenar provides some examples of unintended consequences. For example, bednets provided to fight are sometimes diverted for use as fishing nets. And catching more fish might be bad because it could lead to overfishing (there is no actual evidence of this happening, AFAICT). This seems trivial in comparison to the lives saved by anti-malarial programs

Update Wenar’s claim about bednets, as presented by Marc Andreessen, was thoroughly refuted by Dylan Matthews in Vox earlier this year. (footnote 1 applies) End update

It’s worth pointing out that, on Wenar’s telling, a project that gave poor people proper fishing nets (exactly the kind of thing that might appeal to the coastal villagers befriended by his surfer friend) might be even worse for overfishing than the occasional diversion of bednets.

Wenar applies his critique to international aid programs. But exactly the same kind of arguments could be, and are made, against similar programs at the national level or subnational level. It’s not hard to find burned-out social workers, teachers and for that matter, university professors, who will say, after some particularly dispiriting experience, that their efforts have been worse than useless. And the political right is always eager to point out the unintended consequences of helping people. But we have plenty of evidence, most notably from the last decade of austerity, to show that not helping people is much worse.

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Gina’s post on Indiana’s DEI-related law came at a fortuitous time for me, because last week I participated in a panel about State Legislatures, Academic Freedom and Public Universities. The panelists were given about 6 minutes to present some prepared remarks’ and discussion ensued. As far as I could tell there was just one state legislator present, and one administrator; otherwise the audience was students, faculty, and members of the public.

I did write out my remarks, but then I didn’t say exactly what I wrote, so below the fold is an attempt at a rough transcription of what I actually said:

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Crooked Timberish books and other writings

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2024

I’m sure Crooked Timber readers would been keen to learn of exciting new books out just now from Daniel Davies and Kieran Healy. Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy have published The Ordinal Society , arguing that “argue that technologies of information management, fueled by the abundance of personal data and the infrastructure of the internet, transform how we relate to ourselves and to each other through the market, the public sphere, and the state.” There’s a great review of the book by Diane Coyle at her blog. Dan has produced The Unaccountability Machine, drawing on the cybernetics of Stafford Beer to show how governments and corporations evade responsibility and how we might do better. Felix Martin has reviewed it for the Financial Times. And in other writings, Maria has a cracking piece with Robin Berjon on “rewilding the internet”, that draws on the work of James C. Scott, Elinor Ostrom and ecologists to think about how we might reclaim the internet from the tech oligopoly that has turned it into a small number of gated ad-mills.

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Sunday photoblogging: Canal Saint-Martin, Paris (3)

by Chris Bertram on April 14, 2024

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

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Limitarianism update

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 13, 2024

Since my book Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth came out, first in Dutch at the end of November, and then in the US and in the UK a few weeks later, I’ve given more than 60 media interviews and talks. Among them was a long interview in The Observer, a summary of the argument in The Nation and an OpEd in the LA Times, and interviews for the Brian Lehrer Show, Sean Illing’s podcast The Grey Area at VOX, The Majority Report with Sam Seder, Stuff – Tova’s political podcast in New Zealand, and many more. Recently I started giving interviews to German and Austrian journalists (and the first one got published here), as the German translation will be out in less than 2 weeks from now.

Bruno Giussani, curator of TED Countdown, wrote about my book “It’s curious how a book that should have unleashed a furious debate since it was published two months ago has gone almost unnoticed.” Personally, I am not at all unhappy with the interest by the media. The Atlantic recently published a book review that captures very well ‘the spirit’ of the book – that is, as I think it should be read (and that is: not as a policy to be implemented tomorrow, although there is a set of less radical policies that we should fight for today). Still, Giussani’s comment does contain some truth, because most interviews and bookreviews have been published in progressive outlets. The non-progressive mainstream media prefer to ignore the book, except in the Netherlands and Flanders where almost all quality newspapers published long interviews with me, including the business newspapers. There are a few exceptions, such as a dismissive bookreview in The Economist, which was not particularly impressive, as I will argue in my next blogpost. [click to continue…]

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The making of Icehenge

by Henry Farrell on April 12, 2024

Last year, I received an email asking if I would write an introductory essay for the Tor Essentials reissue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Icehenge. It took me approximately thirty seconds to convince myself that this was not some kind of hallucination, and another three or four to type YES! OF COURSE!!! and hit reply. It was the most delightful email I’d gotten in years. Stan is now a friend, but the request had its origins in a conversation years before I’d met him. At least a decade ago, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I were chatting about his books, and I said that Icehenge was both (a) his best novel in my opinion, and (b) criminally under-appreciated. Patrick, who recently stepped down as editor-in-chief at Tor, somehow remembered this, and asked me to pick up on the notion many years later. So how could I do anything but seize the chance?

The book is out in June, and I’ll have more to say then. When I was writing the introduction, I talked to Stan about how he had come to write Icehenge, and what it had meant to him as a writer. There was a lot about modernism! When the British Science Fiction Association’s journal, Vector put out a call for submissions on SF and modernism, I made inquiries, and they said they’d love to publish the conversation. A cleaned up version is available in the new issue (which has a ton of other great content). It’s published under Creative Commons, as is pretty well everything that Vector publishes, so I’m republishing it here. I simply can’t say how happy I am about all of this, and how much I’m looking forward to the book itself – out in just a couple of months.

There are some spoilers in the below – so if you prefer to wait for the book, wait for the book! [click to continue…]

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East German history

by Chris Bertram on April 9, 2024

I’ve posted a few times over the years about a trip I made with my partner to Leipzig in East Germany back in 1984, and I confess that the now-defunct country retains a kind of fascination for me. My rather banal judgement then and now is that the country, though marked by annoying shortages and inefficiencies, had a standard of living sufficient to give people an acceptable life in material terms, but that its lack of freedom, political repression, retention of its population by coercion were all unacceptable. I recently revisited an exchange I had with Tyler Cowen, 17 years ago, and I still think I was basically right and find it ironic that it was me, the leftist, championing freedom against the “libertarian” fixated on living standards.

I’ve just read Katja Hoyer’s wonderful Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990, which I would recommend to just about anyone. She traces the DDR from its origins to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The people who initially led the country were, of course, communists. But Hoyer reminds us that they were communists of a particular kind: the exiles who were left after Stalin had murdered most of them (he killed more of the German communist leadership than Hitler did). As such, they were cautious and conformist to a fault, and unlikely to strike out independently. They were also leading a ruined society, occupied by Soviet troops, with few natural resources and where, in contrast to the West, the victorious occupying power indulged in reparatory plunder rather than development aid. It was also a society initially seen as provisional, pending unification, and Hoyer argues convicingly that Stalin’s offer of a neutral unified Germany in 1952 as a means of preventing a NATO-aligned West Germany was sincere (though unlikely to succeed).
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Sunday photoblogging: Canal Saint-Martin, Paris (2)

by Chris Bertram on April 7, 2024

Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

On Shallow Ponds and Effective Altruism

by Eric Schliesser on April 5, 2024

In the wake of the sentencing of SBF last week there were two mighty takedowns of effective altruism: one (here) “The Deaths of Effective Altruism Sam Bankman-Fried is finally facing punishment. Let’s also put his ruinous philosophy on trialby Leif Wenar (Stanford) at Wired; the other and better written, “Neo-Utilitarians Are Utter Philistines” by Justin Smith-Ruiu (Paris) at his (here) Substack (Hinternet). In response Richard Pettigrew (Bristol) wrote a rather sensible criticism, “Leif Wenar’s criticisms of effective altruism” at his blog (Richard’s Substack). On of our very own,  Chris Bertram, shared it it on social media with a note that Wenar’s piece was shared widely without “a sober assessment of the merits of his arguments.”

Now, I am an avid reader of Pettigrew’s blog because more than anyone today, he makes on-going debates in formal epistemology and decision-theory available to wide audiences in a relatively fair and relatively accessible fashion. And like the very best blogs, he also shows the salience of different debates within some specialist area to other areas of philosophy (and the sciences/life). I also find Pettigrew rather judicious generally.

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Kid Stuff: Cartoons

by Doug Muir on April 4, 2024

Thesis: in the English-speaking world, the last 50 years has seen a dramatic increase in the quantity *and quality* of text and visual mass media intended for children.

Let’s define some terms.  I’m talking about books, cartoons, TV, and movies. Music is not included; comics and graphic novels are a special case. When I say “intended for children”, I am talking about mass media that is targeting children aged 4-12 as the primary audience. So, yes Disney movies are included here, no the original Star Wars movies are not. Kids absolutely watched Star Wars — I watched it as a kid — but they weren’t the primary audience.

Stuff aimed at the youngest children is excluded here, as is Young Adult stuff. (I agree that the boundaries of the latter category are very slippery.)

Detail to the thesis: this transformation was not smooth. To simplify, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, text and visual mass media products for children were generally mediocre to bad. There were individual works that were good or excellent, but the average was dismally low. And the quality was not much better at the end of this period than at the beginning.

But starting in the back half of the 1980s, kids movies, TV, books and cartoons suddenly started getting /better/. And they got steadily better and better for the next 15 or 20 years, until by the middle 2000s they had reached a new plateau of excellence, from which they are perhaps only now just starting to descend. The period 1970-1985 was a dark age of kid stuff; the period 2000-2020 was a golden age. There was a massive cultural transformation here.  And it happened fairly quickly, and it’s been discussed much less than you might expect.

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Over the last year, three of the four most powerful navies[1] in the world have suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of opponents with no navy at all.

First, there’s Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Until the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was regularly touted as a decisive factor in any conflict, capable not only of blockading Ukraine but of supporting seaborne assaults on ports like Odesa. The desire to secure unchallenged control of Sevastopol in Crimea was widely seen as one of the crucial motives for the Russian takeover in 2014.

Two years after the invasion, most of what’s left of the Black Sea Fleet has fled Sevastopol to take refuge in the Russian port of Novorossiysk, which is, for now, safely out of the reach of Ukrainian drones and anti-ship missiles. (As I was working on this post, Ukraine hit Sevastopol again, damaging three ships and the ship repair plant there) The Black Sea Fleet has played no significant role in the war, except as a supplier of targets and propaganda opportunities for the Ukrainian side. Its attempted blockade of Ukrainian wheat exports has been a failure.

But for the large community of naval fans, the failure of the Black Sea Fleet hasn’t been a crucial problem. The ominous assessments of its capabilities made before the invasion have been retconned with a narrative of Russian incompetence, Soviet-era holdovers and so on.

The effective closure of the Suez Canal by the Houthi movement is a much bigger problem. Well before the war in Gaza, the US and its allies had a large naval force in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean devoted to keeping this allegedly vital sea lane open. That force now includes two USN carrier strike groups, destroyers and frigate from the Royal Navy and other allies, and a long list of other warships.

At least so far, the Houthis don’t have the capacity to strike US warships. But, even with relatively unsophisticated weapons, they’ve already come close enough to require a US destroyer to use its last line of defence.

The main focus of Houthi attacks has been commercial shipping, particularly any that can be linked in some way to the US, UK and Israel. And it’s these attacks that the joint naval effort is supposed to stop.

The effort has been singularly unsuccessful in this regard. Houthi attacks have reduced shipping through the canal by around 70 per cent, even before the recent sinking of a UK-owned bulk carrier and the claimed escalation into the Indian Ocean. As shippers reconfigure their operations volumes are likely to fall even further.
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Indiana’s DEI Law

by Gina Schouten on April 1, 2024

Here in the U.S., my home state of Indiana has a new state-mandated DEI initiative: The law specifies that:

“Each board of trustees [of a public college] shall establish a policy that provides that a faculty member may not be granted tenure or a promotion by the institution if, based on past performance or other determination by the board of trustees, the faculty member is:

(1) unlikely to foster a culture of free inquiry, free expression, and intellectual diversity within the institution;

(2) unlikely to expose students to scholarly works from a variety of political or ideological frameworks that may exist within and are applicable to the faculty member’s academic discipline; or

(3) likely, while performing teaching duties within the scope of the faculty member’s employment, to subject students to political or ideological views and opinions that are unrelated to the faculty member’s academic discipline or assigned course of instruction.”[i]

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