From the monthly archives:

June 2024

Sunday photoblogging: good morning!

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2024

Sometimes you have to go looking for photos, but this is what greeted me when I got up to make the coffee the other morning.

Good morning!

So my wife took this picture in our garden yesterday, here in Kigali, Rwanda:

May be an image of bird

Take a close look.  This little bird — about the size of an American cardinal, or a European robin — is facing us.  It’s also facing the sun, though you can’t see that.  It is holding two twigs with its little claws, and… it’s puffing out its breast feathers in a very weird way.  It looks like a breeze is ruffling them.  But there is no breeze.

So we did a quick look-up and found: this is Colius Striatus, the Speckled Mousebird.  Long tail, “scruffy” crest, check.  Thin, rather hairlike breast feathers, check. Very common across tropical Africa, okay.  And then this:  

“Speckled mousebirds… can often be spotted roosting in groups where they’ll buff up their feathers. They do this to allow more sunlight to hit their bodies which helps speed up the fermentation process.”

Wait, what?

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Sunday photoblogging: Narbonne Cathedral (2015)

by Chris Bertram on June 23, 2024

Narbonne Cathedral

Occasional paper: Fungal banking

by Doug Muir on June 20, 2024

So in the last couple of decades we’ve discovered that many plants rely on networks of soil fungi to bring them critical trace nutrients. This is a symbiotic relationship: the fungal network can access these nutrients much better than plants can, and in return the plants provide the fungus with other stuff — particularly energy, in the form of glucose sugar, made from photosynthesis.

It turns out this relationship is particularly important for large, long-lived trees. That’s because trees spend years as seedlings, struggling in the shade of their bigger relatives. If they’re going to survive, they’ll need help.

The fungal network gives them that help. The fungus not only provides micronutrients, it actually can pump glucose into young seedlings, compensating for the sunlight that they can’t yet reach. This is no small thing, because the fungus can’t produce glucose for itself! Normally it trades nutrients to trees and takes glucose from them in repayment. So it’s reaching into its own stored reserves to keep the baby seedling alive.

Gosh that’s beautiful isn’t Nature great! Well… yes and no.

Because the fungus isn’t doing this selflessly. The nutrients and glucose aren’t a gift. They’re a loan, and the fungus expects to be repaid.

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Sunday photoblogging: Iceland (2011)

by Chris Bertram on June 16, 2024

Looking back from the edge of Langjökull

Waiting for the nova

by Doug Muir on June 15, 2024

“You’re always building models. Stone circles. Cathedrals. Pipe-organs. Adding machines. I got no idea why I’m here now, you know that? But if the run goes off tonight, you’ll have finally managed the real thing.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That’s ‘you’ in the collective. Your species.”

— William Gibson, Neuromancer


Sometime in the next 100 days, a star will explode.

The star’s name is T Coronae Borealis, and normally you can’t see it without a telescope: it’s too far away. But when it explodes, you’ll be able to see it just fine. It won’t be the brightest star in the sky, or anything like that. But it will be a reasonably bright star — “second magnitude”, if you’re an astronomer or a nerd — in a place where there was no star before.

It won’t last, of course. The new star — “nova” is the term, which of course just means “new” in Latin — will shine for a few days, then gradually fade back into obscurity.

Maybe you’ve heard of a supernova? Okay, so this isn’t that. This is it’s less spectacular little cousin, the plain and simple nova. A nearby supernova would light up the sky, potentially glowing as bright as the full Moon. This will just be a middling bright star that will (to our eyes) appear from nowhere and then, over a few days or weeks, fade away.

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The edge of extinction

by John Q on June 14, 2024

Referring back to this 2002 post defining “neoliberalism”, I find the claim that the “The (UK) Conservative party is hovering on the edge of extinction”. That wasn’t one of my more accurate assessments, and I’m bearing it in mind when I look at suggestions that the party is now “facing a defeat so dramatic it may not survive.” (that’s the headline, the actual suggestion is that the future may be one of “long periods of Labour with occasional periods of Conservative governments”
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Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call legislative elections in France, following a strong showing for the extreme-right-wing Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen constitutes an extreme risk. No doubt he thinks that either the RN will fail to get as many seats as they hope under France’s two-stage election system or he calculates that since he will remain President he has the option of another dissolution as soon as the right-wing government experiences a dip in popularity. Whatever his calculation, his immediate strategy rests upon the notion that a Republican Barrier exists to keep out Le Pen: the idea being that all those parties opposed to Pétainism and collaboration with the occupiers in WW2 can be relied up to favour one another over the RN in the second round of elections where two remaining candidates compete.

This notion has already come under severe strain, however, as the President of the Gaullist Les Républicains party, Eric Ciotti, has to the outrage of most of his fellow leaders, proposed an alliance with the extreme right [update, Ciotti has now been expelled from the party] and Macron himself has sought to exclude La France Insoumise, the far left party of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, from the Republican family. (Perhaps he hopes that LFI voters will back his party anyway in the second round. If so, he’s been irrationally optimistic.)

In any case, I think the whole idea of a Republican Barrier, as currently formulated, is based on the idea that the divisions of 1940 (which themselves to some extent echo divisions of the 1890s, the Second Empire, the Restoration and before that the Revolution), are salient to modern voters irrespective of the policies actually pursued by “Republican” parties, which, to be honest, may not differ all that much from those of the far right. Granted, divisions based on which side grandpa and even great-grandpa were on can be surprisingly enduring: consider Ireland where the divisions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, centre-right pro-capitalist parties both, have persisted for decades based on the opposing sides of a civil war now a century old.
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On Student protests and academic freedom

by Eric Schliesser on June 11, 2024

In an earlier post (here), prompted by some writings by Jacob T. Levy, I defended the idea that student protests can fall under academic freedom. My argument for this starts from the fact that while many universities can have mission specific interpretations of the latitude and constraints on how they interpret academic freedom (non-trivially constrained also by local legal context), all universities share a mission in being committed to knowledge discovery, knowledge transmission, and preservation of knowledge.

That being so, student protests can play a two-fold role in furthering this mission in light of scarce resources (not the least time): first, they are a means of articulating what is worthy of academic attention and what ought to be the focus on discovery. Most student protests fit easily under this role. This fits quite naturally with Max Weber’s account of how to think about the philosophy of social science and the vocation of a scientist. Second, student protests can themselves be seen as experiments in living and as such they can have epistemic benefits to the academic community, and wider society. I won’t repeat the argument for these points here, but will modestly develop them below.

If this much is correct, then universities have a defeasible obligation to be respectful of students protests and, perhaps, even to facilitate student protests in light of their academic mission. It’s defeasible because the epistemic benefits of student protests may come in conflict with other projects on campus with non-trivial and potentially much higher epistemic benefits—say research labs or regular instruction. It’s also defeasible because some protests may be prima facie at odds with the particular mission of the university as such—in this way academic freedom is very unlike freedom of speech! So, ideally, a code that governs student conduct on campus recognizes the need to accommodate the possibility of student protests (without trying to regulate it in fine detail).

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Sunday photoblogging: wisteria at Iford

by Chris Bertram on June 9, 2024

Iford Gardens, Somerset

It’s more than 5 years since Erik died which, for those who knew him, is quite hard to believe, as he is still a strong voice in many of our heads. Because I know many of our readers knew and admired him or his work (or both!) I thought I’d let you know that a couple of days ago Verso published a volume of essays focusing on his work, edited by Michael Burawoy and Gay Seidman. It contains essays by friends and students who’ve been influenced by him and his work over the years, and the essays engage with, as the subtitle suggests, work done over the whole span of his career. The contributors are: Michael Burawoy, Gay Seidman, Greta Krippner, Kwang-Yeong Shin, Joao Peschanski, Marta Soler-Gallart, Jacob Carlson and Gianpaola Baiocchi, Ruy Braga, Rina Agarwala, Rodolfo Elbert, Peter Ramand, Stephanie Luce and me (I trailed an earlier version of my occasionally rude (by my standards) essay here).

The kindle edition is remarkably well-priced!

Brad DeLong (in a recent post summarising a joint podcast with Noah Smith) walks back his previous suggestion that it was time for neoliberals, among whom he had numbered himself, to pass the baton to “the Left”.

The political basis for this is that 20 or so Senate Republicans have been willing to pass legislation from time to time, rather than shutting down the government altogether. I don’t find this compelling, but I also don’t want to debate the issue.

Rather, I’m interested in the following remark, which crystallized a bunch of thoughts I’ve been having for some time

”How has the left been doing with its baton? Not well at all, for anyone who defines “THE LEFT” to consist of former Bernie staffers who regard Elizabeth Warren as a neoliberal sellout.”

This is a classic, indeed brazen, motte-and-bailey[1], in which the hard-to-defend bailey “the Left of the Democratic party (of which Elizabeth Warren is a prominent member) is doing badly” is replaced by the motte “THE LEFT (as represented, in this case, by disgruntled former Bernie staffers) is doing badly”.

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Sunday photoblogging: lunchtime

by Chris Bertram on June 2, 2024

At Alderman Moore's Allotments