July 21, 2011

Selling Out

It is painful to realize that one has crossed the invisible threshold beyond which "selling out" is something that politicians do, rather than bands that one liked before they were, you know, mainstream.

Flippanter in the Unfogged comments section.

March 14, 2011

The Law In Its Majesty

Paul Krugman

the rich are different from you and me: when they break the law, it's the prosecutors who find themselves on trial.

March 13, 2011


From Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.

The bodies of saints are fastidious things. At a place called Four-mile-Water, in Wexford, there is an old graveyard full of saints. Once it was on the other side of the river, but they buried a rogue there, and the whole graveyard moved across in the night, leaving the rogue-corpse in solitude. It would have been easier to move merely the rogue-corpse, but they were saints, and had to do things in style.

February 09, 2011

"A Grim Cavorting Whirl"

From Francis Spufford's Red Plenty.

But Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. That was Marx's description, anyway. And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

February 08, 2011

"Common Sense in Paradox's Clothing"

Albert Hirschman, "How the Keynesian Revoution was Exported from the United States, and Other Comments," in Peter Hall (ed.) The Political Power of Economic Ideas.

But while rehabilitating common sense, Keynes hardly presented his own theory in commonsensical terms. Rather, his message was delivered in a book whose text was uncommonly difficult. Moreover, he frequently presented his propositions as counterintuitive rather than as confirming common sense: for example, instead of telling his readers that converging individual decisions to cut consumption can set off an economic decline (common sense), he dwelt on the equivalent but counterintuitive proposition that a spurt of individual decisions to save more will fail to increase aggregate savings. In this manner, he managed to present common sense in paradox's clothing and in fact made his theory doubly attractive: it satisfied at the same time the intellectuals' craving for populism and their taste for difficulty and paradox.

January 14, 2011


Paul Krugman

the lavishness of a conference and its intellectual quality are almost perfectly negatively correlated.

A Sociology of Jack Vance IV - The Old Tradition of the Perdusz Region

The discussion, in Cugel's Saga between Cugel and the sinister magician Faucelme is classic Vancean baroque. Forewarned by inscriptions, Cugel takes the precaution of tying Faucelme up with a rope before entering his manse.

"And the ropes?" Faucelme looked down at the web of strands which bound him into the chair.

"I would not care to offend you with the explanation," said Cugel.

"Would the explanation offend me more than the ropes?"

Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. "Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real."

Faucelme sighed. "Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real."

"In all candour, I have forgotten the question," said Cugel.

"I will re-phrase it in words of simple structure. Why have you tied me to my chair, rather than entering by the door?"

"At your urging then, I will reveal an unpleasant truth. Your reputation is that of a sly and unpredictable villain with a penchant for morbid tricks."

Later, after Faucelme has freed himself, and an uneasy equilibrium has been established, the conversation turns on the power of social norms.

Faucelme stood back and held up his hands in the manner of one who dissembles nothing. "Is this the conduct of a 'sly and unpredictable villain?'"

"Decidedly so, if the villain, for the purposes of his joke, thinks to simulate the altruist."

"Then how will you know villain from altruist?"

Cugel shrugged. "It is not an important distinction."

Faucelme seemed to pay no heed; his mercurial intellect was already exploring a new topic. "I was trained in the old tradition! We found our strength in the basic verities, to which you, as a patrician, must surely subscribe. Am I right in this?"

"Absolutely, and in all respects" declared Cugel. "Recognizing, of course, that these fundamental verities vary from region to region, and even from person to person."

The sociological point about the malleability of purportedly universal norms is so obvious as scarcely merit further elaboration. What are interesting (and entirely typical of Vance) are the guiding assumptions of Faucelme and Cugel's discourse. Neither is at all interested in the other's actual motivations - Cugel admits his indifference as to whether Faucelme is an actual altruist or merely a villain simulating one. Instead, each seeks to rhetorically entrap the other while preserving an optimum of flexibility for himself. This logic of discourse is familiar - it is the strategic approach of the Breakness wizards, as presented in The Languages of Pao. What was depicted there as a pathology here becomes the guiding philosophy of Cugel and nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with. "Fundamental verities" - like everything else - become a way of seeking to constrain others while remaining free oneself.

Many of the rococo elaborations of Vance's prime work are prefigured in his early novels. The somewhat crudely depicted society of people seeking distinction so as to avoid early death in To Live Forever is a toy model of his baroque civilizations of strivers in novels such as Night Lamp, with its ludicrously entitled collectivities. However, The Languages of Pao is more than that - it openly reveals and discusses the machineries of conversation that Vance is at pains to conceal in his later, better novels. When Cugel and Faucelme vie to trap each other into conversational dead ends, they each carry out a version of Palafox's program. It is the interplay between these undercurrents of discourse, and the ornate sentences through which they are made flow that make Vance's dialogues so entertaining.

December 12, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance III - Robust Action among the Breakness Wizards

The Languages of Pao is occasionally discussed as an example (along with 1984) of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in fiction. The imagination of the people of Pao is limited by their language, which enforces a culture of passivity and fatalism under all except the most extraordinary of circumstances. When their Panarch (under the tutelage of the Breakness 'wizards,' none of whose powers are supernatural) introduces new, artificially crafted languages to selected groups within this population, he is able to create new dynamic warrior, mercantile and technocratic elites, to his ultimate undoing. None of this need detain us; the philosophical discussion is no more and no less than one might expect of a highly intelligent pulp writer in the 1950s. Far more interesting is the guiding wisdom of the Breakness wizards themselves.

The wizard Palafox's characteristic tactic is of "subtle diversion, the channeling of opposing energy into complicated paths." He never speaks as to his final goals, in part because he has no fixed objectives, in part because clearly outlining them might commit him to a definitive course of action, to his ultimate disadvantage. Instead, he maneuvers others to take actions for which they are liable to suffer the consequences should matters not dispose of themselves as hoped. When the frustrated hero of the book presses him on his motivations, his answers are telling.

"What are your interests, then?" cried Beran. "What do you hope to achieve?"

"On Breakness," said Palafox softly, those are questions which one never asks."

Beran was silent for a moment. Then he turned away, exclaiming bitterly, "Why did you bring me here? Why did you sponsor me at the Institute?"

Palafox, the basic conflict now defined, relaxed and sat at his ease. "Where is the mystery? The able strategist provides himself with as many tools and procedures as possible. Your function was to serve as a lever against Bustamonte, if the need should arise."

"And now I am no further use to you?"

Palafox shrugged. "I am no seer - I cannot read the future."

There is a startling resemblance between Palafox's particular approach to strategy, and Cosimo de Medici's "robust action," as described in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell's classic article. In Padgett and Ansell's description.

We use the term "robust action" to refer to Cosimo's style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo's sphinxlike character ... is multivocality - the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. ... The "only" point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism - maintaining discretionary options across unforseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of thers' successful "ecological control" over you. Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.

Compare this with how another Breakness wizard, Palafox's son Finisterle, justifies his decision not to reveal that Beran is creating a hidden second identity so as to return to Pao.

"You must know I am here as a ward of Lord Palafox."

"Oh indeed. But I have no mandate to guard his interests. Even," he added delicately, "if I desired to do so."

Beran looked his surprise. Finisterle went on in a soft voice. "You are Paonese; you do not understand us of Breakness. We are total individuals - each has his own private goal. The Paonese word "cooperation" has no counterpart on Breakness. How would I advance myself by monitoring your case to Sire Palafox? Such an act is irreversible. I commit myself without perceptible advantage. If I say nothing, I have alternate channels always open.

It is worth noting that the particular egoism of the Breakness wizards cannot be maintained indefinitely. At a certain point they become 'emeritus' - they are no longer able to perceive the difference between their own schemes, and the world that they hope to impose those schemes upon, and are plunged into insanity.

Even so, there are societies that resemble the world of the Medicis and of the Breakness wizards. The Sicilian mafia (which is arguably a relict of once-common feudal social relations) provides several very nice illustrations (I draw here from the relevant chapter of my book on trust ). Just as among the Breakness wizards, one does not ask direct questions about goals and motivations. In the words of the prominent mafioso Tomasso Buscetta (my translation):

The family head informs, when he does it [at all], only those members of the family whom he considers worthy of receiving his confidences, and only to the extent that it seems appropriate. To give you an example, it is necessary to point out that one never asks questions of one's interlocutor in relationships between men of honor because this is seen as the sign of a regrettable curiosity and can be interpreted in unfortunate ways.

As pentito Salvatore Contorno puts it (also my translation):

This is neither an obligation to speak, nor to answer anything except questions from one's own bosses; on the other hand, it is necessary not to be curious, or to ask about things where one doesn't have an interest.

Here too, these are "questions one never asks" - information about individuals' goals can be used to trap them. The result is that the world of the mafioso is one, where as Diego Gambetta puts it, "mafiosi scrutinize every sentence uttered by other mafiosi, searching for potential ambiguities, oblique messages, or subtle traps."

Contorno, when he describes a funeral enconium by the Corleonesi boss Riina to Contorno's brother, whom Riina had ordered murdered, describes the consequences of all this simulation and dissimulation for those caught up in it.

It was difficult to tell whether ... his elevated and noble words were coming from sincere grief ... or from the base satisfaction of a victor who has just eliminated a dangerous enemy ... It was useless to try to dissect, understand, make sense of it. It's always like that in the Cosa Nostra: no fact ever has only one meaning.

"Mafia" (the cosa nostra se stesso rather than the occasional pastime of conference going tech-geeks), is considerably nastier than chess, than go, and even than Medici Florence. It is thus unsurprising that its players are particularly disinclined to forgo strategic advantage through any unseemly and unwise garrulity regarding their actual motivations.

Finally, it is worth noting that Padgett and Ansell's article was published in 1993. Vance's book first appeared in 1958. This appears, then, to be an example of Vance anticipating later developments in sociological thinking, rather than vice versa.

Further reading:

John F. Padgett and Christopher K. Ansell, "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 98, No. 6. (May, 1993), pp. 1259-1319. Available here.

December 09, 2010

G.E.M. De St. Croixe on pride in workmanship

It would be absurd to suggest that the lower classes as a whole dutifully accepted the social snobbery and contempt for the 'banausic' that prevailed among the well-to-do. Many Greeks (and western Romans) who might be called 'mere artisans' by superior people even today were evidently very proud of their skills and felt that they acquired dignity by the exercise of them: they referred to them with pride in their dedications and their epitaphs, and they often chose to be pictured on their tombstones in the practice of their craft or trade, humble as it might be in the eyes of their 'betters.' To say that 'the ancient Greeks' despised craftsmen is one of those deeply misleading statements which show blindness to the existence of all but the propertied Few. It might have shocked even the humble Smikythe, who, in an inscription of four words accompanying an early-fifth-century dedication at Athens, took care to record her occupation: she was a plyntria, a washerwoman. It would certainly have shocked the families of Mannes the Phrygian, who was made to boast on his tombstone in late-fifth-century Attica, 'By Zeus, I never saw a better woodcutter than myself,' and of Atotas the Paphlagonian, whose fine Attic monument of the second half of the fourth century, describing him as 'Atotas, miner' (metalleus) bears two elegant couplets advertising the Selbstbewusstein of the proud technician, with not only a convential claim to distinguished heroic ancestry but also the boast that no-one could compete with him in techne.

G.E.M. De St. Croixe, The Class Struggle in the Ancient World.

November 17, 2010

J.S. Mill on the heuristic benefits of trade

From Principals of Political Economy.

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact. Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians. And commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of the communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress. To human beings, who, as hitherto educated, can scarcely cultivate even a good quality without running it into a fault, it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves: and there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others, not merely particular arts or practices, but essential points of character in which its own type is inferior. Finally, commerce first taught nations to see with good will the wealth and prosperity of one another. Before, the patriot, unless sufficiently advanced in culture to feel the world his country, wished all countries weak, poor, and ill-governed, but his own: he now sees in their wealth and progress a direct source of wealth and progress to his own country. It is commerce which is rapidly rendering war obsolete, by strengthening and multiplying the personal interests which are in natural opposition to it. And it may be said without exaggeration that the great extent and rapid increase of international trade, in being the principal guarantee of the peace of the world, is the great permanent security for the uninterrupted progress of the ideas, the institutions, and the character of the human race.

When I have seen this quoted, the noxious bit about 'civilizers of barbarians' has usually been suppressed by ellipses. Even so, this passage at least provides the beginnings of a theory of the pacific side-effects of trade.

November 03, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance II - The Columns at Tustvold

Again, discussed in the first part of Cugel's Saga. The villagers of Tustvold, sprung from the dubious stock of fugitives from the Rhab Faag, have a curious social structure in which the women do all the work, and the men spend their days at the tops of columns whence they "absorb a healthful flux from the sunlight."

"The higher the column the more pure and rich is the flux, as well as the prestige of place. The women, especially, are consumed with ambition for the altitude of their husbands."

In Vance's description, the innate virtues of the flux are less interesting to the villagers than the more earthly pleasures of superior social position.

"Dame Petish, for instance, is annoyed that Dame Gillincx's husband now sits on the same level as Petish himself. Dame Viberl fancies herself the leader of society, and insists that two segments separate Viberl from his social inferiors.

Access to the flux of the higher altitudes is a very nearly perfect example of what Fred Hirsch dubs a 'positional good.' The benefits of the good to its consumers depend on its limited availability. If all the columns were raised by magic far into the upper atmosphere, but their heights were equalized, Dame Petish would be very unhappy. Hirsch argues suggests increased supply of positional goods is self-defeating, since the more readily they are available to the vulgarity, the less valuable they are.

Vance's book discusses a less-widely noted corollary of the concept. To the extent that the benefits of these goods are purely positional, they are likely to involve considerable waste. In Veblen's terms, they are a kind of conspicuous consumption. People's dynamic pursuit of relative status will likely compel them towards ever more costly extravagances as they try to catch up to their social superiors, or alternatively to accentuate their distinction at the expense of social inferiors. Cugel proposes to mitigate some of this waste (and, more to the point, fill his purse) by abstracting the lowest segments from all the pillars at once, and then selling them back again as purported new segments.

"I have watched the men climbing their columns. They come out blinking and half asleep. They trouble to look at nothing but the state of the weather and the rungs of their ladders.'

Nisbet pulled dubiously at his beard. "Tomorrow, when Fidix climbs his column, he will find himself unaccountably lower by a segment."

"That is why we must remove the 'One' from every column. So now to work! There are many segments to remove."

Unfortunately for Cugel and Nisbet, the scheme is discovered, and the women of Tustvold,being unacquainted with the niceties of social theory, fail to appreciate its efficiencies. As is often the case in these books, Cugel is forced to flee precipitately, with a crowd of outraged villagers in pursuit.

Further sociological readings.

Fred Hirsch (1977), Social Limits to Growth . London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

October 27, 2010


Andrew Gelman - "if you have to describe someone as "famous," he's not."

October 25, 2010

The crass jokes, they write themselves

Benedict Anderson takes time out of his discussion of the Cuban Revolution in Under Three Flags to tell us that:

With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General's palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine's gases from escaping normally.

I am sure that Anderson's discussion on the same page of how the Captain-General was "partly relieved" and of the "diehard colons" of the Revolution, have absolutely nothing to do with this footnote.

October 11, 2010

The Line of Prophets

The doctrine that the line of Prophets is closed firmly circumscribes the Sacred and thus saves it from devaluation. Plato himself was not sufficiently aware of the Quantity Theory of Ideas. The proscription of innovation protects a scriptural faith from inflation.

Ernest Gellner, Muslim Society, p.24.

October 08, 2010

A Sociology of Jack Vance I: Master Twango's Establishment at Flutic

Described in the early chapters of Cugel's Saga, Master Twango's manse is a study-in-miniature of society as a web of contractual relations and power asymmetries - Ronald Dore's market capitalism without a hint of the spirit of goodwill. When Cugel takes up the role of 'overseer' for Master Twango, he is informed by his predecessor that "[a]t Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle." This description is misleading; the subsequent suggestion that "[c]onditions at Flutic are always optimum[sic] and at worst meticulous" is more apt in its sly hint that the books are jiggered.

"At Flutic," said Weamish, "nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp."

In much of Vance's work, rococo social practices and rhetorical flourishes of false sentiment gild over the most debased kinds of self-interest. At Flutic, the veneer is nearly completely worn through. There is not even the pretense of an appeal to goodwill. Instead, Flutic emphasizes the mutual benefits of contractual relations.

Yet as Cugel soon discovers, any ambiguities in the contracts governing his new responsibilities are swiftly resolved in favor of Master Twango, and enforced through swift and thorough beatings by the repulsive Gark and Gookin, or other available. The accounting system through which employees' wages are tallied against expenses incurred may err by the odd misplaced decimal point, again to the advantage of Master Twango. Contractual relations serve Twango as a rhetorical shield. When Master Soldinck discovers that he has been mulcted of several valuable crates of scales, Twango points out that he had inspected the crates and handed over a receipted invoice, and hence cannot be held responsible. Despite the suspicious circumstances, Twango cannot conceive that one of his employees might have abstracted the scales for his personal benefit. Were he to find enlightenment, it might plausibly render him legally responsible for reimbursing his counterparty. Hence, he obdurately insists on the benign motives of his employee and his own observation of the appropriate contractual forms.

An ungenerous reader might suggest that the description of Flutic has some internal inconsistencies. It is odd and remarkable that Master Twango would offer a lavish buffet of expensive food every night in the hope that his employees would partake of it and hence increase their indebtedness to him. His employees being fully aware of the ploy, invariably confine their appetites to stewed kale, hunks of raw onion, and small dishes of boiled burdock leaves. This renders Twango's tactic both inept and expensive. Yet such a manifest display of irrational behavior must surely be intended by the author for some subtle rhetorical purpose.[^1]

To compare: The Giant Throop in Lyonesse III: Madouc

Further sociological readings.

Ronald Dore, "Goodwill and the Spirit of Market Capitalism," British Journal of Sociology (1983). Available here.

[^1]: So too, it is inconceivable that Vance errs in his description of the unfortunate imbroglio at the lavatory trough behind the Inn of Blue Lamps, where Master Chernitz is invited to retract his suggestion that Cugel is a "moral leper," even though no such suggestion is recorded in the written text. Still, I must admit that the distinct literary conventions of the omniscient and of the unreliable narrator are only rarely combined to advantage. To what purpose they are combined in this particular instance, I cannot readily discover.

August 24, 2010

Comparative studies show ...

Think more money can't buy you worse healthcare? Forget the endless studies showing that the U.S. spends twice as much per capita as any other country, with results outside the top thirty-six. Take a look at Michael Jackson.

Josh Bazell, Fear the Reaper.

August 05, 2010


L. Sprague De Camp, quoted in Avram Davidson, Adventures in Unhistory p. 9

The Arab storytellers could likewise point to a scientific book by one of their own people, which had ... great authority among them. Its author, Mahmud al-Qazwini, is now chiefly remembered for his remark that the greatness of Allah can be deduced from the fact that he [sic] lets the rain fall only on fruitful land and not on the desert where nothing would grow anyway.

Without having the desire or knowledge required to track the quote down, it would not surprise me at all were it a sly joke in the original (and a good one too). Al-Qazwini sounds very interesting.


Ernest Gellner (again):

[B]eliefs must be difficult to be satisfying. Thus it is a travesty to say that martyrs die for Truth. Real truths seldom require such dramatic testimony, nor is one either asked or tempted to give it. Martyrs have in general defended in the face of death beliefs which they would have found somewhat harder to defend in the face of logic.

August 04, 2010

Al Ghazzali on traditionalism

Quoted in Plough, Sword and Book, he notes that:

the genuine traditionalist does not know that he is one; he who proclaims himself to be one, no longer is one.


Ernest Gellner's Saints of the Atlas as quoted in the Hall biography, on baraka (charisma or holiness). As Hall describes Gellner's position, "The local belief is that the possession of true baraka is the result of divine favour. Gellner felt certain that, in this case, vox populi was vox dei."

But it would never do to have this overtly conceptualized: if baraka were merely the consequence of the decisions of the lay tribesmen, it could not claim authority over them. What is in reality a choice - albeit not one made by an individual and not on any one occasion, but by many and over a long time - appears not as a choice but as the recognition of an objective and indeed transcendental fact. The 'objectivity' of the allegedly recognized characteristic has the social consequence of absolving him who 'recognizes' it from the responsibility for it, which would attach to such an act if it were seen to be a choice.

This is related to, but in the end dissimilar from e.g. mob violence, where no one person may be singly to blame, but each knows that he shares some small part of the crowd's actions and its consequences. Two better analogies. (1) The Ouija board. The otherness of the planchette's movement is precisely a culmination of the semi-conscious choices of those whose hands are laid upon it, re-presented to them as something alien and entirely outside their control. One person alone cannot use the planchette; a plurality is required for absolution. (2) The market, as theorized by Hayek, von Mises and their heirs, and in a less conscious way by e.g. the standard microeconomic theory of perfect market competition. "The market" or "catallaxy" is abstracted in such a way as to obscure its origins in actual - and usually political choices made by economic actors (the conditions for true perfect competition, or genuine catallaxy are so stringent that even rough approximations are vanishingly rare in the real economy). After this transubstantiation, they are returned to public argument, immaculate, washed in the blood of the Lamb.

July 25, 2010


"True wisdom leaks from the joins between disciplines," Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House (p.113)


"A well-delivered moral lesson is a discussion of philosophy, not brainwashing," Farah Mendlesohn - The Intergalactic Playground