Crooked Timber

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Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 29 min 55 sec ago

Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

Tue, 2014-07-22 14:15

Noah Smith today

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

Categories: Group Blogs

Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

Tue, 2014-07-22 10:15

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets—I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act—lovely voice, ok songs—so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written—though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA —plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too?—the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.

Categories: Group Blogs

Incongruous songs

Mon, 2014-07-21 07:59

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power—a kind of kid’s version of They Live—and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?

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Sunday photoblogging: meerkats

Sun, 2014-07-20 01:36

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The unravelling of the global financial system

Sat, 2014-07-19 02:33

I have a piece in The National Interest, looking at various recent events including the latest round of the Argentinian debt crisis, in which a New York court ruled in favor of a group of ‘vulture’ investors, led by a New York billionaire, and the agreement of the US Department of Justice and Citibank, involving a financial settlement to avoid a lawsuit over bad mortgage deals and CDOs in the pre-crisis period.

My central observation is that while legal forms are being observed, these are obviously political processes, with outcomes reflecting relative political power rather than any kind of neutral application of the law. So, the international financial system is part of international power politics: it matters a lot that Citibank is a US bank, while BNP Paribas is French and so on. This is very different from the picture of a global, as opposed to international, financial system. Suhc a systemt, independent of, and standing in judgement on, national governments seemed to be emerging in the 1990s, but broke down in the financial crisis, when banks ran to their national governments for support.

As an illustration, I found this ad put out by the ‘vultures’. Try interchanging “US” and “Argentina” throughout and assuming an adverse judgement by an Argentinian court against the US government.

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Why “Ann Coulter” would love cricket

Fri, 2014-07-18 09:23

Somehow I saw this rather lame attempt to parody Ann Coulter yesterday. I don’t mind football, I’ve even come to enjoy watching it a bit as a result of my daughter’s enthusiasm, but I do enjoy the odd rant against it, and have always found it funny that Americans assume that because of my accent I have a favorite team and know the offside rule (I don’t have a favorite team, but I do know the offside rule, though my knowing it is rather like my ability to recall the entire cast of the Love Boat, the result of an unhealthy tendency to remember entirely unimportant things that I don’t care about).

So here are “Coulter”’s objections to football (many of which, btw, suggest “she” has never seen a game), with responses providing evidence that the article is, in fact, an attempt by Geoffrey Boycott to popularize cricket among American conservatives:


1. Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer. In a real sport, players fumble passes, throw bricks and drop fly balls—all in front of a crowd. When baseball players strike out, they’re standing alone at the plate. But there’s also individual glory in home runs, touchdowns and slam-dunks.

Cricket: wickets, sixes, fours, catches, run—outs; long hops, dropped catches, hit wicket, Alastair Cook’s current form. Anyway, the perfect balance between teamwork and individual achievement/failure.

2. No serious sport is co-ed, even at the kindergarten level.

Cricket isn’t co-ed (whatever that means).

3. No other “sport” ends in as many scoreless ties as soccer.

Cricket: No scoreless ties. On this count cricket is superior to all “American” sports, because even scored ties are almost impossible, and are the most thrilling games of all (33 first class ties since 1948, worldwide). If scoring is what you care about, cricket beats all other sports hands down: the 1st test between India and England last week yielded 1342 runs and 29 wickets!

4. The prospect of either personal humiliation or major injury is required to count as a sport…Baseball and basketball present a constant threat of personal disgrace [sic: I assume from context she means danger—ed]. In hockey, there are three or four fights a game—and it’s not a stroll on beach to be on ice with a puck flying around at 100 miles per hour.

Cricket: The ball is smaller than, and heavier than, a baseball, and it (normally) hits the ground before reaching the batsman: 85-90 miles an hour are not uncommon speeds. The fielders routinely catch the ball at similar speeds. Oh, and none of this wimpy “mitt” business. Bare hands. Sometimes just a few feet away from where the ball is hit. . Oh, and Ewen Chatfield.

5. You can’t use your hands in soccer. (Thus eliminating the danger of having to catch a fly ball.) What sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul, is that we have opposable thumbs.

Cricket: plenty of hands (bowling, catching (see above), holding bats, etc)

6. The number of New York Times articles claiming soccer is “catching on” is exceeded only by the ones pretending women’s basketball is fascinating. I note that we don’t have to be endlessly told how exciting football is.

Cricket: NOBODY is telling you how exciting cricket is, or that it is catching on. [NOTE: in fact we are being constantly told how exciting “football” is: it’s constantly marketed, and, incidentally, talent-development is achieved mainly through huge public subsidies in the form of funding for public high school athletic directors, football fields, uniforms, and coaches; at a cost to the actual education of kids in those high schools (not just the opportunity cost of the funds but, worse, principals who knowingly hire incompetent social studies and science teachers because they will be good coaches).]

7. It’s foreign.

Cricket: its existence in the US predates both American Football and Baseball. The first official international cricket match was an all-North American affair, and took place in New York. Cricket was, in the 1840s and 1850s “by far the biggest sport in the USA”.
Oh, also, one of the two greatest books about cricket,Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise, is by a North American Marxist; and the other, Beyond a Boundary, is by a Marxist who lived in the US for 15 years (before, admittedly, being deported).

8. Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it’s European. Naturally, the metric system emerged from the French Revolution, during the brief intervals when they weren’t committing mass murder by guillotine.

Cricket: Actually, I didn’t understand this point, it just seemed like a random stringing together of words, but, whatever cricket is like, it is not like the metric system.

9. Soccer is not “catching on.” Headlines this week proclaimed “Record U.S. ratings for World Cup,” and we had to hear—again—about the “growing popularity of soccer in the United States.”

Cricket: Nobody is telling you that cricket is “catching on”. But it is.

Categories: Group Blogs

Death and taxes: morality versus bureaucratic casuistry

Fri, 2014-07-18 02:36

Killing people is wrong.

People ought to do their fair share.

Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.

Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.

These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.

Take the case of killing, as covered by “just war theory”. People (and peoples) have the right of self-defence. (At least, I assume here that they do.) But under just war theory the thought you shouldn’t kill an attacker unless you really need to is transmuted into rules about necessity and proportionality that simply provide a weak constraint on states pursuing their advantage. So long as a vaguely plausible interpretation of military necessity can be cooked up and enough uncertainty shed on the general requirement of proportionality, the rest becomes public relations. You can kill, just so long as you can gesture in the vague direction of the rules. And people (lawyers, philosophers) can be employed to write stuff muddying the waters. (Some of them will even do it for free!)

A rather similar thing happens for tax. The tax laws define an expected level of contribution, but wealthy people and corporations lobby government for all kinds of exemptions and changes and then employ lawyers and accountants to minimize their own contribution. And when people object to Apple, Google and Amazon using the roads and infrastructure by domiciling themselves in Luxembourg or Ireland to avoid paying for them, they point to their compliance with the letter of the law.

There’s a further parallel too. In both cases, a fiduciary relationship with someone else is deployed by way for moral justification for the policy. In the tax case, companies have a duty to their shareholders that supposedly means the are under an obligation to minimize their contribution. In the case of war, governments pursue the interests of their citizens (supposedly) subject to the very weak constraints that they themselves have helped weaken. And in each case, the lawyers, accountants, philosophers are on hand to lobby, interpret or write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal.

For both death and taxes, a moral principle that ought to guide a person’s (or a collective’s) actions has been transmuted into a matter of bureaucratic rule compliance and public relations management. Impertinent questions about whether a state is entitled to kill some people or about whether Google is paying its fair share can then be batted away with a gesture towards “the rules”. So it goes.

Categories: Group Blogs

Condemned by history (crosspost)

Thu, 2014-07-17 05:32

After some farcical manoeuvres, the Australian Senate has passed the Abbott governments legislation repealing the carbon price/tax/trading scheme (it’s a bit complicated). I hope and believe that this outcome will be reversed in due course, but those who brought it about will stand condemned by history.

It’s not merely that this is a bad policy, which will impose large and increasing costs (depending on how long it takes us to get back on track) on Australia and the world into the future. Even more damning is the fact that this action is entirely based on conscious lies, embraced or condoned by everyone who has actively supported it.

First, and most obvious, no one (least of all Tony Abbott) believes that the government’s “Direct Action” policy is a superior alternative to the carbon price, one that will deliver emissions reductions more rapidly and at lower costs. It is, as everyone knows, a cynical ploy put forward simply to allow the government to say that it has a policy.

In reality, Abbott and the rest want to do nothing, and the motives for this desire are entirely base. For a minority of the do-nothing group, it is simply a matter of financial self-interest associated with the fossil fuel industry. For the majority, however, it is the pursuit of a tribal and ideological vendetta. Their position is driven by Culture War animosity towards greens, scientists, do-gooders and so on, or by ideological commitment to a conservative/libertarian position that would be undermined by the recognition of a global problem that can only be fixed by changes to existing structures of property rights.

Most of these people would describe themselves as climate “sceptics”. There is no such thing. That is, there is no one, anywhere in the world, who has honestly examined the evidence, without wishful thinking based on ideological or cultural preconceptions, and concluded that mainstream science is wrong. Most “sceptics”, including the majority of supporters of the conservative parties, are simply credulous believers in what their opinion leaders are telling them. Those opinion leaders are engaged, not in an attempt to determine the truth, but in a cultural vendetta against their enemies, or in an ideologically-driven attempt to justify a predetermined do-nothing position1.

This is a sad day, but one that will come back to haunt those who have brought it about.

  1. That covers the vast majority in Australia. There are also some professional deniers who are just in it for the money and some driven by personal pathologies like (for example, the reflexive contrarianism of Richard Lindzen). 

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Uncensored

Wed, 2014-07-16 17:34

Atrocities, uncensored, here. No need to listen beyond the first 50 seconds.

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Le Père Goriot

Wed, 2014-07-16 11:42

My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!)

My ‘meh’ reaction is my own fault, probably. I am corrupted by the extremity of genre fiction in our time. My palate is jaded. Call it the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies problem. Since everything today has zombies in it – or vampires – it’s hard not to expect something on that order when you are reading what is obviously supposed to be an exciting piece of popular entertainment. It’s easy to see how Goriot should be converted into a proper modern work. Vautrin needs to be upgraded into a proper super-villain. So we have our poor medical student, Rastignac, living in a cheap boarding house with dear Goriot and … The Death Deceiver! Vautrin (trompe le mort!) can monologue with the best of villains, and he’s a central node of a vast criminal conspiracy. But his scheme is so petty. (Arrange for Rastignac to marry an heiress, then take a cut? Please! It is unworthy of his monologues.) Vautrin is not trying to construct a Cosmic Cube, find the Infinity Gauntlet, release a Shoggoth, become a vampire, destroy Paris, or anything. So obviously we need to update that. Here is the Faustian bargain he offers young Rastignac. With but two Infinity Gems – the Soul Gem and the Mind Gem – you can ascend the filthy-slippery social ladder of Paris with ease! Meanwhile, Vautrin will take just the Power gem and set himself up as a slave-owner in the American South.

Anyone want to undertake rewriting Balzac’s 90-volume series as Le comédie superhumaine?

I do have one semi-serious questions about the book – about social conventions in Paris. I’m not surprised that all the decadent male aristocrats have opera singer lovers. The wife knows her husband visits his mistress every Thursday, or whatever. Fine. But there seems to be a social norm that the likes of Goriot’s daughters may have young lovers as well, whose existence their husbands politely overlook. I take it the idea is supposed to be that these are only pretty admirers, not sex partners. When Delphine’s husband offers to free her to take Rastignac as a lover, if she will not interfere with his scheme, he is offering her the chance to have sex with him. That is presented as an unusual concession on his part. So it’s not like the males and females are equally free to engage in extramarital sex. Even so, the whole arrangement seems surprisingly egalitarian. Would there really have been socially prominent adult males in Paris in the 1820’s – especially socially prominent titled aristocratic males – who allowed their wives to take young lovers, even on the tacit understanding that there would be no sex? Wouldn’t that have been an intolerable threat to patrimony? I am obviously just an innocent Oregon boy at heart, who does not understand the subtle ways of Paris.

Categories: Group Blogs

Democracy is Bad for Business

Wed, 2014-07-16 09:55

A story that has gotten weirdly little play in the US (I can’t speak for the UK press or the press in other countries) is the pushback by the ‘Big Four’ accountancy firms against the democracy movement in Hong Kong. On July 1, over 100,000 people marched in protest against Chinese plans to curtail democracy in Hong Kong. But the Big Four had not only made it clear that they didn’t like the protests – they had threatened that business would pull out of Hong Kong if the protests continued.

The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests. In an unusual joint statement published in three Chinese-language newspapers on Friday, the Hong Kong entities of EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC said the Occupy Central movement, which is calling for electoral reform in the former British colony, posed a threat to the territory’s rule of law.The group of pro-democracy activists is calling for 10,000 people to block traffic in the central business district as part of a campaign to put pressure on the Hong Kong government, although if and when this will happen is still under discussion. In the advert, the big four firms warned that protests would disrupt the Hong Kong stock exchange, banks and the headquarters of financial and professional services firms causing “inestimable losses in the economy”. It added that clients of the four firms had reflected further concerns about the wider impact of the protests: “We are worried that multinational companies and investors would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre,” the joint statement said.

This is a quite remarkable initiative. It was published in Chinese rather than English – presumably both to speak more directly to potential protesters, and to make it less likely that it would seep into the English speaking press. According to one of the firms, it was pushed by local branches rather than the accountancy groups’ international management. Even if this is true, the statement is signed in the names of the firms and have not been publicly repudiated.

Of course, this isn’t the first shameful decision made by Western companies looking to build business in China – see Bloomberg’s squashing of a story on corruption among family members of senior Chinese leaders, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch’s instruction to Harper-Collins not to publish Chris Patten’s memoirs. But this goes substantially further than quiet acquiescence, to public and active opposition to the pro-democracy movement, and the issuing of threats intended to stifle it. It would be nice to see Ernst-Young, KPMG, Deloitte and Price-Waterhouse Cooper put on the spot by US politicians and journalists about their Hong Kong offices’ unrepudiated public statements opposing pro-democracy protestors.

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Dreams and Plagiarism

Tue, 2014-07-15 19:02

Been traveling. Bit of jetlag. Woke. I had been having the most exciting dream and was at the most thrilling part when … I woke up. I couldn’t remember anything, except I had exited at a total cliffhanger point in a very elaborate story. Like knowing your favorite tv show has been cancelled before the final season, but not knowing what your favorite show is. I tried to go back to sleep, without hope, or success. Damn.

File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally. Wanting to know how it ended.

Maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign.

If only Joss Whedon had written and directed my dream, I’d have his fans on my side.

But he didn’t, and other people’s dreams are boring, I know. In other news: Zizek isn’t looking like an especially responsible scholar. I find the explanation that ‘a friend’ sent him a long passage cribbed from a white supremacist book review and told him ‘he could use it freely’, in addition to being insufficient, rather incredible. With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

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Zombie DDT ban myth reanimated

Mon, 2014-07-14 17:05

A large part blogging, for me, has consisted of attempts at zombie-slaying: finding ideas that have been refuted by the facts, but that remain undead. Zombies are hard to kill, but one I thought had been permanently dealt with – the myth that Rachel Carson brought about a worldwide ban on DDT, leading to millions of deaths from malaria. Although quite a few people helped to show that this wasn’t true, the lion’s share of the credit, at least in the blogosphere, goes to Tim Lambert (who stopped blogging a while back, though his site still runs a montly open thread). Tim and I laid out the facts in a 2008 piece in the English magazine Prospect which made the following points

  • DDT has never been banned in anti-malarial use
  • The failure of DDT to eradicate malaria was due to resistance, promoted by overuse in agriculture and elsewhere, exactly as Carson warned. Bans on agricultural use of DDT helped slow the growth of resistance
  • The attacks on Carson were undertaken by tobacco industry lobbyists, seeking (among other things) to pressure the World Health Organization not to undertaking anti-smoking campaigns in poor countries

Our primary targets were Steven Milloy and Roger Bate’s Africa Fighting Malaria organization.

Whether due to our efforts or not, the DDT ban myth seems mostly to have died. Milloy, whose links to tobacco have thoroughly discredited him, seems to be out of the pundit business altogether. He still has an adjunct perch at the Competitive Enterprise Institute but his web page there shows only two opinion pieces since 2008. AFM is also quiescent – its website doesn’t show any research activity since 2011 and its staff all appear to have paying jobs in free-market thinktanks, suggesting a zombie organization.

But the zombie plague always recurs and just now I’ve seen (via Ed Darrell) another instance, oddly enough in an environmental-consumer magazine, Greener Ideal. The author, one Mischa Popoff is described as ” former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector” and repeats the standard DDT myth before a segue into a defence of GMOs. But, as Ed Darrell points out, Popoff is being a bit cute here. DuckDuckGo reveals that he is in fact a Policy Advisor for The Heartland Institute and a Research Associate for The Frontier Centre for Public Policy (the latter being apparently a Canadian version of Heartland, as is the IPA in Australia. The site is down now, so I can’t check).

As long as Heartland lives, zombie ideas will never truly die.

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Fun summer reading

Mon, 2014-07-14 12:20

Books I’ve read in the last while that I’d recommend:

Linda Nagata, passim. (Powells, Amazon).

In particular, Vast. It’s the final novel in her Nanotech Succession series, which I read in reverse order when Vast first came out, and which is not a bad way imo to read them. Deception Well, the middle book in the series has some lovely ideas, but doesn’t quite hang together, while The Bohr Maker is good but quite different. Vast is a masterpiece of a certain kind of widescale science fiction – a chilly universe, conflict among vast inimical forces, with humans forced to adapt in ways that are sometimes grotesque to survive. A kind of Darwinist Universalism – ‘evolution’ is the connecting thread. Alistair Reynolds cites Vast somewhere or another as a basic influence on his Revelation Space books, which is a good metric – if you like those ones, you’ll probably like this one. The books aren’t available in print, but rights have reverted to the author, so she has made them available in Kindle and other formats. She also has some new novels – two fantasy novels which I didn’t enjoy as much, and a near future military SF book, The Red: First Light, which I did enjoy quite a bit.

Elliott Kay, Poor Man’s Fight (Powells, Amazon).

Again self published, and again excellent. The most fun I’ve had for three dollars since I don’t know when. It’s very clearly located in a line of descent leading from Heinlein’s juveniles and Starship Troopers through John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. It’s also its own thing. While the politics are neither one-dimensional nor belligerently in your face, they are considered and explicit (e.g. societies based on student-debt slavery). If you like thick juicy steak as well as, or instead of, molecular gastronomy, this is as good as it gets. It came out in 2013, and deserved all kinds of awards that it didn’t get.

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences (Powells Amazon).

At first glance, this may look like a complete departure from the previous two – Davidson is a Columbia literary theorist, and her book has detailed (and fascinating) sentence by sentence readings of extracts from Proust, Sebald, Perec and James. Yet it also has very astute things to say about Neil Gaiman’s work and the narrative problems George RR Martin faces in A Game of Thrones, and does so without any sense of self-consciousness or slumming. Davidson (like Francis Spufford and Randall Jarrell whom she cites, and Jo Walton, whom she doesn’t) is a voracious reader of broad interests and sensibility. Her blog’s great too.

Greg van Eekhout, California Bones(Powells , Amazon).

I’ve been hoping he’d write a book like this ever since I read ‘The Osteomancer’s Son,’ the short story that it riffs upon. A warped California, with wizards who gain power by consuming the bones not only of magical creatures but of their rivals, and complex family relations. The book itself is enormous fun – a kind of heist novel – and two sequels promised which sound likely to add layers of political intrigue to the slyly Freudian drama of the original.

So that’s what’s been keeping me entertained. What about all you?

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Drip, drip, drip; and the next thing you know, democracy has been washed away

Mon, 2014-07-14 08:18

UK CT readers, please read this Open Rights Group myth-buster on the surveillance legislation the three main parties have stitched up behind closed doors, and plan to vote through as an emergency tomorrow. Is your MP planning to vote for it? If they are, ask them if they will support a (to be tabled this afternoon) amendment that will bring the sunset clause down to 6 months – surely enough time to fix the ‘emergency’.

(More analysis from Paul Bernal here.)

(Email your MP here.)

What is DRIP?
The Data Retention Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) will require internet and phone companies to keep their customers’ communications data for up to a year. It is being rushed through parliament this week: MPs will vote on Tuesday and the Lords will vote on Thursday.

DRIP will replace the Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009. The legal basis of these regulations has been uncertain since the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) after the CJEU found the EU Data Retention Directive 2006/24/EC to be invalid.
Legal wranglings aside, the ruling was very clear. Keeping everyone’s data in case they commit a crime seriously interferes with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life.

Additionally clauses 3-5 extend UK surveillance law – RIPA - to US and foreign companies. These measures are controversial, not related and there is no evidence that there is any reason for any rush.

Below are five arguments that the Government is using to justify its passing – and the real reason why it shouldn’t.

“This is an emergency”
The CJEU ruling was delivered on 8 April, 2014. The government has had three months to address the court’s findings. We believe that it is the threat of legal action by Open Rights Group and other organisations that has prompted this ‘emergency’ legislation – not the threat of terrorism or criminal activity. The government should not mislead us about the urgency of this legislation. Given its significance and the threat to our civil liberties, It should not be rushed through without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Background: After the CJEU ruling, Open Rights Group and other organisations contacted the Home Office to ask them if they would be asking internet service providers to stop retaining data. In May, the Home Office responded by saying that ISPs should continue to retain data. Last month, over 1,500 ORG supporters wrote to their ISPs asking them to stop keeping their data. They responded by saying that they were acting under the instructions of the Home Office.

“This is not an extension of powers, it’s restoring the status quo”
The Prime Minister said, “we are not introducing new powers or capabilities” but in fact DRIP does not just deal with Regulations that were made illegal by the CJEU ruling. Clauses 3 to 5 of the Bill make amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). DRIP extends the government’s surveillance powers in two ways:

It extends the territorial scope of RIPA - this means that the government can issue interception warrants for communciations data to companies outside of the UK.
It extends the definition of “telecommunications service” within RIPA. The effect of this is unclear, but it appears possible the new definition could include services such as Gmail.

“It’s the only way we can catch criminals”
We agree that the targeted retention of communications data can help the police to tackle serious crimes, such as terrorism and child abuse. However, the CJEU ruling outlined a low threshold for deciding to retain data. For example, if a serious crime if committed, data could be retained for a particular geographical region to support a criminal investigation. This means that the police could still retain data for specific investigations, rather than the blanket surveillance of all citizens.

The CJEU ruling was clear that blanket data retention interfered with our right to privacy and our right to a private family life. Other European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Romania and Sweden, have rejected it. These countries continue to tackle serious crime without undermining their citizens’ civil liberties through blanket data retention.

“There is a sunset clause”
The Bill will expire on 31 December 2016. The government claims that this will ‘strengthen oversight and transparency’ but that is two and a half years away. Given that the Bill is to be rushed through parliament in a week, we believe that this date is too late to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. If legislation is to be rushed through without debate, an earlier expiry date of 31 December 2014 would allow for scrutiny in six months.

“The Bill includes concessions that take into account the CJEU ruling”
DRIP ignores the main part of the CJEU ruling – that blanket data retention severely interferes with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data. The government has claimed that other aspects of the Bill will strengthen oversight and transparency. For example, they claim it will restrict the number of public bodies that can request communications data. Yet this concession does not appear in DRIP or the secondary legislation that will implement it.

Categories: Group Blogs

To apply or not to apply?

Mon, 2014-07-14 05:29

A friend shared the following with me, and with his permission, I’m re-sharing it here at Crooked Timber. It concerns the rationality (and indeed the ethics) of applying for academic jobs. Some of the detail is UK-specific, but I’m sure it will also resonate with people who live elsewhere.

Here’s my problem. I’m not very happy in my job. Five employers, within 50 miles of where I live, are currently recruiting in my field.

So what’s the problem? Well, let me tell you about those five employers… But first, a bit of background. The days when the main qualification for an academic job was being considered the right sort of person, and fellowships were awarded by means of a chat after dinner, are long gone. (At least, I assume they are. Maybe I’m just not going to the right dinners.) These days, if you’re going for a post in Medieval European History, you had better make sure your c.v. positively reeks of the history of Europe in the Middle Ages – and even then, if you aren’t already lecturing in Medieval European History you’re liable to be at a serious disadvantage relative to other candidates.

The higher education sector is much bigger, much more professionalised and much more closely managed than it was even twenty years ago. What this means, though – particularly with the added competitive pressure created by the shakiness of the current job market – is that job-hunting in HE is a weirdly straightforward process, with minimal search problems. If you’re a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, you know you’ll have a chance of an interview if the job title advertised includes the words “Lecturer”, “Forensic” and “Psychology”. And if not, probably not.

The other distinctive feature of the British academic jobs market is its geographical spread, which is at once clumpy and thin. For HE jobs to be concentrated in large towns and cities isn’t particularly unusual; what is unusual is that (outside London) most places can offer an effective choice of at most two HE institutions, one of them generally a lot more desirable than the other. If a job in your field is advertised, you’ll know it’s there (or be able to find out very quickly) – but you’ll also know it’s unlikely to be in your home town, making job-hopping after about the age of 25 quite a big deal.

For myself, I came into academia fairly late in life, with roots already put down. I’d welcome a change of job, for a variety of reasons – my current post is part-time, apart from anything else. But I’m not looking to move house any time soon – and I’m not crazy about taking on a massive commute, either. (I currently get to work on the bus, on the days when I’m not working from home. As unsatisfactory jobs go, this one definitely has its advantages.)

Those five jobs being advertised are all full-time, which is good, but they all come with issues. One of them would be perfect, if only it weren’t a short fixed-term contract to cover a teaching buyout – not worth leaving a permanent job for, however unsatisfactory that job might be. One’s at an institution I don’t rate; two more are at places I do rate, but which have other issues – major financial problems in one case, staff retention problems in the other. (When what appears to be the same job is advertised in January, April and July…) The fifth passes all of those tests, but it’s at the very limit of that 50-mile radius and would probably take an hour and a half to get to (and from), which just looks excessive. All this seems sensible enough, until I step back a bit and realise that I’m looking at five jobs – count ‘em – and seriously considering not applying for any of them. On that basis it seems as if there aren’t that many jobs I ever will apply for – and I don’t get many dinner invitations, either.

So here’s the question – or rather, two questions. Even if I’ve got no interest in actually taking these jobs (and I’ve got no interest at all in at least two of them), should I apply anyway, for the sake of interview practice – and, for that matter, making sure that my c.v. is good enough to get an interview? In practical terms I’ve got four choices:

  1. Apply for none of them. As a rule, only apply for jobs I definitely want to take; if necessary, hang on until the right job (or promotion) turns up.

  2. Apply for all of them. As a rule, apply for everything that’s going, knowing that I might not take the job if offered, for the sake of c.v.-polishing and interview practice.

  3. Apply for some of them (two or maybe three of the five). As a rule, apply for all jobs except for ones I’m absolutely sure I would refuse if offered, keeping an open mind about whether to accept if an offer is made.

  4. Same as 3., but telling myself that I would accept if an offer was made, and to hell with the travelling time (hence giving an impression of commitment, going in with a positive attitude, etc).

Secondly, suppose I stick with option 1. (which is currently looking very tempting, I’ve got to say). Might I actually have arrived at – or backed myself into – a reasonably sensible job search strategy: work on making myself ‘recruitable’ in the job I’m in (getting grant money, networking etc), and wait for the right opportunity to come along? Or am I just being beguiled into career stasis, the bus to work my Calypso?

I’d be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences, whether good or bad, whether of changing jobs or of hanging on for the right opportunity. It’d also be interesting to hear from the other side of the desk – can interviewers identify, and weed out, candidates who are only there for interview practice? (Come to that, is this something people actually do – apply for jobs with no intention, or only a vague intention, of actually taking them?) And does anyone have a fellowship awarded by means of a chat after dinner, or know someone who does?

Categories: Group Blogs

Bullshitting about Gaza

Sun, 2014-07-13 03:54

I wonder if Israel’s cheerleaders realize the damage they do their own cause when they write things like “Israel, unlike Hamas, isn’t trying to kill civilians. It’s taking pains to spare them” and “But in the Gaza war, it’s clear that Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths. The same can’t be said of Hamas.” Both sentences are taken from William Saletan’s extraordinary “The Gaza Rules”. At the time of writing this blogpost, the current death score is 159-0. If I may mix vernaculars, Saletan is plainly an asshole, but here he is just taking the piss. Anybody who is not parti pris can see that the Netanyahu government has partially contrived and partially been trapped by a domestic political climate that requires them to kill numbers of Palestinians in order to satisfy the Israeli electorate. Of course there’s the usual blather about “operatives” and “terrorist infrastructure”, but it is hard to take seriously the idea that anyone believes this as a description of Israeli aims. In fact nobody does, but lots of people in political power in the West think they have to go along with the story and pay lip service to Israel’s “right to defend itself”, even though concretely this takes the form of airstrikes against densely populated urban areas with predictable civilian deaths. Meanwhile, those who speak for the Israeli government go around claiming that no state could tolerate missiles being fired into its territory and that any state would have to retaliate. This is false, indeed absurd: much of British policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s was deplorable, but though the IRA fired plenty of mortar rounds across the border, nobody seriously contemplated taking out “terror operatives” by aerial bombardment of civilian housing in the Irish Republic.

There’s an excellent piece on the background to the latest events in the Jewish Daily Forward , by J.J. Goldberg. Goldberg demonstrates that the Israeli government knew that the three murdered teenagers were dead from the start, and so that the search for them (which resulted in further deaths) was just politics and public relations. Goldberg argues that the claim that Hamas was responsible for the kidnap and murders was weak. The pretext for the current attack on Gaza — rocket attacks — is likewise bogus. Hamas hadn’t fired any rockets since November 2012 and had been actively trying to stop other jihadi groups from doing so, but the Israeli demand for vengeance forced them underground and meant they could no longer do this. In other words, Israeli demands for action against Hamas were the proximate cause of the very rocket attacks that now serve as a pretext for action.

I can’t help thinking that Israelis have a better friend in Goldberg who exposes the bullshit than in Saletan who manufactures it.

Categories: Group Blogs

Anti-Freedom Conservatives and Anti-Liberty Conservatives

Thu, 2014-07-10 12:14

Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’).

This is superior to what Smith is proposing insofar as it is just a notational variant, but appealing to liberals, insofar as it nods at their correct perceptions that both sides, on the other side, are awful. Sauron or Saruman. Kodos or Kang. (I mean: what decent person opposes either liberty or freedom?)

Seriously. The semi-interesting thing that is going on here is this: the sort of typology one is going to need, for analytic purposes, is never going to align with the typology one is going to get, for self-identification purposes. Analytically, we want to know the distinguishing characteristics of each group or sub-group or sub-sub-group. Since most Americans aren’t conservatives, and most conservatives aren’t any particular flavor of conservative, we should expect an accurate thumbnail label of each faction to make it sound like not the sort of club most decent Americans would want to join. There is no such thing as the freedom sub-faction or the liberty sub-faction or the mom splinter cell or the apple pie rebel insurgency. If there were, each of these would already have transcended faction status and set itself up, comfortably, as the ruling party or coalition. But, for advertising purposes, every party is, aspirationally, the freedom party and the liberty party; the scrappy, mom-loving rebels, circulating apple pie recipes in samizdat form. This isn’t lying, exactly. Although it is advertisement. Every group wants to make the case that the good things will come from what they propose.

Getting back to Smith:

“I propose replacing the messy old terminology with a simple new vocabulary, one that has evolved organically, which has deep and consistent intellectual roots, no pejorative implications, and which political leaders use effortlessly and without reflecting.”

This is a perfect storm of incompatible and inadvisable goals, due to Smith’s desire to combine analysis and marketing considerations. For marketing purposes, conservatives need a way to sound like they are opposed to other conservatives, for deep, principled reasons, while preserving a sense that all conservatives are, in principle, always right. You need that pivot for electoral reasons, even though it’s analytic doom. You also need a way for conservatives to come across as deep and consistent and intellectual while actually being rather … uneffortful and unreflective in the thought department – because, hey, politics ain’t political theory. Analytically, if your characterization of each group, or sub-group, doesn’t sound a bit pejorative, you aren’t doing the analysis right. Because any correct analysis is going to make any political faction sound philosophically half-baked and unlikely to appeal to most voters. Whatever the distinguishing characteristic of a given faction may be, it’s certainly not going to be ‘love of freedom’ or ‘love of liberty’.

And of course the same goes for Democrats. Fair is fair. You should no more expect to be able to carve up the partisan terrain, analytically, and have that match the lines drawn in the sand by partisans, than you should expect that a serious analysis can be constructed by stringing together press flak talking points. Partisan self-descriptions are one species of partisan talking point, after all.

Categories: Group Blogs

In search of search theory

Wed, 2014-07-09 22:04

This is going to be a long and wonkish post, so I’ll just give the dot-point summary here, and let those interested read on below the fold, for the explanations and qualifications.

  • The dominant model of unemployment, in academic macroeconomics at least, is based on the idea that unemployment can best be modelled in terms of workers searching for jobs, and remaining unemployed until they find a good match with an employer

  • The efficiency of job search and matching has been massively increased by the Internet, so, if unemployment is mainly explained by search, it should have fallen steadily over the past 20 years.

  • Obviously, this hasn’t happened, but economists seem to have ignored this fact or at least not worried too much about it

  • The fact that search models are more popular than ever is yet more evidence that academic macroeconomics is in a bad way

In search of search theory

Following the most recent Internet dust-up over the state of macroeconomic theory, I’ve been thinking a bit more about search models of unemployment. I first ran across these models when I was a student in the 1970s, a period of very high unemployment.

The basics of search models are simple and seemed, at least in the 1970s, reasonably realistic. Workers can look for jobs in various ways, all more or less time-consuming: looking at help wanted ads (which used to come out twice weekly in Oz), cold-calling potential employers, and asking friends and relatives to look out for openings. Since workers aren’t fully informed about the labour market, it doesn’t (at least in a good market) make sense to accept the first offer that comes along. Rather, it’s worth looking until you have a good idea what wage the market is willing to pay, then taking a job at that wage. What was new about the search theories was the idea that this process could explain not only the inevitable frictional unemployment, but also cyclical unemployment associated with recessions. Various different ideas come into play here. First, the models imply that if there is a sudden but temporary shock leading to large-scale job losses, it will take some time to return to full employment (or ‘normal’ rates of unemployment). Second, economic shocks may create more uncertainty about market wages, leading workers to search longer.

The Internet changes all of this. It’s possible to find all the publicly advertised jobs in any given field, anywhere in the world, in a matter of seconds. With a little more effort, it’s possible to get lots of information about firms that may be hiring, even if they haven’t advertised vacancies. And, much more than in the past, its possible to get lots of information about potential employers, to assess whether the jobs they have on offer are in fact likely to be good ones.

With such a massive improvement in the efficiency of search we’d expect to see two things:

(i) shorter time spent searching, and therefore lower unemployment; and (ii) better matches between workers and jobs, which should increase productivity and wages, and reduce subsequent quits and fires.

Both predictions were made in the early years of the Internet and, at least until 2008, the general view was that they were proving correct, though more slowly than had been expected.1

But experience since 2008 has been completely the opposite of what a search model would predict. Unemployment rates have risen and employment rates have fallen. Worse still, the duration of unemployment has increased greatly. And there’s no evidence that this has been offset by an improvement in matching. Rather, lots of people have been forced to accept jobs that make little use of their education and experience, suffering wage losses as a result.

What has been the response of academic macroeconomists? As far as I can tell, almost nil. I was prompted to write this post by the debate over Kartik Arthreya’s Big Ideas in Macroeconomics. Responding to my observation that the word ‘unemployment doesn’t even appear in the index, Steven Williamson pointed out that Athreya spends several pages on the general properties of search models 2, presenting them as the primary basis of unemployment theory. And Athreya seems to be on the money here. The Economics Nobel (yes, yes, Bank of Sweden etc, I know) is a lagging indicator, but the 2010 award to search theorists Diamond, Mortensen and Pissarides certainly does not indicate a view that such models are fundamentally flawed.

Athreya acknowledges the problem, sort of, by saying that “search is not really about searching” and observing that, if it were, the Internet should have reduced search costs. But if search isn’t about searching, what is it about? Athreya doesn’t say, and his brief discussion of housing markets doesn’t get us far – these are much more location-specific than job markets, and the Internet hasn’t changed the process all that much.

If search models aren’t the right way to think about unemployment, what is the right way? The simple answer is that unemployment is primarily a problem of macroeconomics not of labor markets. If aggregate demand is far below the productive capacity of the economy, workers will be unemployment and capital will be idle.

But there is still a puzzle here, one that search models were designed to solve. Why doesn’t competition between unemployed and employed workers work quickly to reduce wages to the point where demand equals supply and where there is no involuntary unemployment 3? The problem seems not be, as search models assume, that employers and potential workers don’t know about each other. Rather, it’s that employers can’t easily use the threat of new hires at lower wages to drive down the wages of existing workers (of course, this happens, but it’s clearly costly and risky in terms of worker morale). There’s quite a lot of literature looking at this, and I’ll try to post on it another time.

Autor, D. H. (2001): \Wiring the Labor Market,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15, 25-40.

Krueger, A. B. (2000b): The Internet is lowering the cost of advertising and searching for jobs,” The New York Times, July 20.

  1. Simple models of search can’t rule out cases where only one of these effects is seen. For example, the improvements in the quality of matches might be so great as to encourage people to spend even more time looking. But that doesn’t seem very plausible. It would imply a big increase in productivity and wages that hasn’t been observed. Here are a couple of references 

  2. With his characteristic grace, Williamson also pointed out that another blogger had also observed the absence of standard macroeconomic topics in Athreya’s index and accused me of plagiarising this point for my own review. As any reviewer knows, the index is always the first place you look in a book, so its unsurprising that the oddity of Athreya’s jumped out at two of us. 

  3. The same question applies to capital, though it seems to be asked far less often. Recessions and depressions are characterized by idle factories and farmland, empty offices and shuttered shops. Competition between the owners of these assets should drive the associated rents down to a level where supply equals demand. In fact, however, the adjustment process seems mostly to rely on scrapping or depreciating enough of the existing stock to remove the excess. 

Categories: Group Blogs