Sunday Reading

by zunguzungu

One of many surprising images Millicent dug up, here:

The one on Saturday woke me up:

“Earthquakes are a common occurrence in California but the past few days have seen a notable rise in the number of tremors recorded in the US State. More than 70 earthquakes have shaken the Pacific coastal State since late Thursday, the latest being a magnitude 3.3 tremor in the San Francisco Bay area on Saturday morning.”

As wages stagnate, people work more!

Roundup on California Prison hunger-strikers. Some more. The state’s response? Gangs must be behind this peaceful protest!

“This goes to show the power, influence and reach of prison gangs,” said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Some people are doing it because they want to do it, and some are being ordered to do it.”

On how the conditions at Security Housing Units (SHU) at Pelican Bay Prison and other Supermax prisons constitute torture and/or cruel, inhumane treatment of prisoners:

It relies on the use of severe isolation or solitary confinement, the effects of which I’ve written about before in the context of the Bradley Manning case (see here and here). At Pelican Bay, the prisoners in “administrative segregation” are locked in a gray concrete 8’X10′ foot cell 22-1/2 hours per day. The other time (if that privilege is granted) is spent alone in a tiny concrete yard. There is no human physical contact. No work, no communal activities. If the prisoner has enough money they can purchase a TV or radio. Meals are pushed through a slot in the metal door. An end to solitary confinement, and in particular to long-term solitary confinement, of an indeterminate nature, is one of five “core” demands of the hunger strikers (see Word document).

Another key demand concerns the onerous and sinister “debriefing” process…a long-term process, whereby the prisoner “volunteers” to “debrief,” i.e., to snitch upon other prisoners and identify them as “gang” members. The debriefing prisoners are segregated in their own unit for many months, often more than a year. If they fail to finish the “debriefing” process, they lose whatever credits towards good behavior and release they may have accumulated during the debriefing process.


What are we to do about the disgusting plan to keep America’s unemployment high? Since we’re not marching on Washington, the right and the left aren’t unifying on this issue on which we both agree and basically no one in the business world cares in the slightest, all we can do is create a few jobs ourselves and also keep putting out there what’s really happening, which Yahoo!’s The Lookout is doing admirably. They’ve created a Tumblr where people tell their stories—lots of people. They got thousands of letters when they asked people to tell them what’s really going on. You could just start here at the imposing wall of stories, or maybe you’d like tostart with this one and page back.

An interview with David Bernstein on administrative blight and his new book on “the fall of the faculty”:

I wanted to emphasize a major shift that’s been underway for several decades. Deans have an academic background. Years ago, they were part-time and always part of the faculty. This is extremely important because, like the faculty, they saw the university as an instrument of teaching and scholarship. Today, we have a cadre of professional administrators. I called them deanlets to give emphasis to the difference. They either have no faculty background or they decided early in their careers that their talents lay elsewhere. To them, what used to be the means is now the end. Instead of an institution serving teaching and scholarship, teaching and scholarship serve the institution.

A terrible review of what looks to be a fabulous book; it‘ll be released on Tuesday, and it‘s the only book I can remember ever actually pre-ordering. And a terrible review of a truly wonderful movie, one of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Garry Wills on the Norquistian candiadate, with a hefty hat-tip to actual conservatives like Edmund Burke:

Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Taxpayer Protection Pledges—a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax—and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider…

They are signing over their souls. This first oath they take, as candidates, makes the next one they take, as office holders—the oath to preserve and protect the Constitution—an empty gesture. That oath, sworn to God, may call for changes of position in a crisis or where better knowledge has become available. They cannot preserve and protect the country if their hands are tied and their minds closed. Their participation in congressional discussion, if that discussion affects taxes in any way, becomes a charade.


Considering the unadulterated simplicity of his vocation and the historic magnitude of his dominance, it’s easy to argue that Bolt has been the world’s greatest athlete of the past five years. And yet there’s an even easier argument to make than that one: Within the next 10 years, Bolt’s achievements as a sprinter will be completely annihilated.

This is not guaranteed, of course, but it’s certainly more plausible than speculative — for the past 30 years, the men’s record in the 100-meter dash has been assaulted so continually that many of its former record holders don’t even qualify as difficult answers to trivia questions. This was not always the case: Jim Hines broke the 10.0 barrier with a 9.95 at the (high-altitude) 1968 Olympics; that mark stood for 15 years before Calvin Smith ran a 9.93 (also at altitude) in Colorado Springs. But since 1983, the record has been shattered more than a dozen times. Ben Johnson’s steroid-fueled 9.83 in ’87 was the first massive blow, but eight others have chipped away at the record with increasing regularity (Bolt just happened to use a sledge hammer).

The big-picture upshot to all this measured subtraction is simple: Over the past 40 years, man has improved his ability to run 100 meters by .37 of a second. That’s a rough average of .01 a year, but that kind of math is deceptively understated — though the year-to-year improvement isn’t exponential, it also isn’t gradual. The rate of change keeps accelerating…

An interview with Stephen Toulmin contains this nugget on easy writing:

I go through all my material repeatedly to see how it will sound to a reader and how the rhythms of the prose will come out and contribute to the reader’s understanding. The effect of this is that a lot of people say to me, “Oh Stephen, youre so lucky to be able to write so clearly.” To which I state Toulmin’s Law of Composition: The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading. The only trouble is that since I put immense effort into the editorial stage so as to make sure not only that I have said what I wanted to say but that it comes off as having a kind of natural rhythm, I rather resent being told that this came easily.

Via, a sort of twitter Mona Lisa:

“A stern letter among comrades, rather than a dismissal of one school by another,” Joan Robinson’s “Letter from a Keynesian to a Marxist” has been making the rounds:

I have Marx in my bones and you have him in your mouth. To take an example – the idea that constant capital is an embodiment of labour power expended in the past. To you this is something that has to be proved with a lot of Hegelian stuff and nonsense. Whereas I say (though I do not use such pompous terminology): ‘Naturally – what else did you think it could be?’ …[S]uppose we each want to recall some tricky point in Capital, for instance the schema at the end of Volume II. What do you do? You take down the volume and look it up. What do I do? I take the back of an envelope and work it out.

Nitsuh Abebe is become my counter-curmudgeon of choice, with another “the kids are alright” article in NYMag:

So far, I’m not quite old enough to entertain any worries about the youth of the nation or the deficiencies of their character. Plenty of today’s young adults actually strike me as irritatingly great: Growing up with the Internet means they knew by age 10 what I learned last week, and a lot of them seem awfully bold and brave about asserting themselves all over everyone.

My opinion might be in the minority. Lately, the conventional wisdom is that young people think far too much of themselves—they’re coddled little zeppelins of ego in desperate need of shooting down. The cover of July’s Atlantic is emblazoned with the headline how THE CULT OF SELF-ESTEEM IS RUINING OUR KIDS; inside, quotes from psychologist Jean M. Twenge explain how we’re producing generations of feckless narcissists. Earlier this year, the online equivalent of applause greeted a study of pop lyrics from 1980 to 2007 in which a whole team of psychologists, Twenge included, claimed there’s been a rise in narcissism, self-regard, and antisocial hostility at the top of the Billboard charts: Songs have moved from we and us to me and I, and come over all ornery in the process. Surprised? New York Times columnist David Brooks, for one, already saw that as self-evident: “It’s nice,” he wrote, “to have somebody rigorously confirm an impression many of us have formed.”

What Rupert Murdoch could learn from Shakespeare. Billy Bragg’s song on Murdoch’s “The Sun.” And it might surprise you to learn that The Wall Street Journal is finding it difficult to criticize Rupert Murdoch, who owns it. Or perhaps not?

Facial Recognition software is coming. To be read alongside this Morozov review essay for your daily dose of techno-skepticism. Also this. Richard Seymour contemplates Flattr and an internet ecology that would support content producers. Jesse Walker doesn’t think we are filtering ourselves to death.

Adorno in Ramallah. Human dignity in Jerusalem. And Mondoweiss shows how to pay tribute to a troll. And Israel’s new law criminalizing speech in favor of settlement boycotts swings into action.

Harvard and class:

[W]hen I went to Harvard, the place was full of these nominally smart, interesting people, all of whom at the age of eighteen seemed perfectly happy to live in dormitories and be on a meal plan and live a fully institutional life. And that was completely maddening! This was the opposite of everything I’d hoped for from the environment I’d be in.

By design, the university wants to be an enclosed institution, so you’re required to live on campus, which means that you’re not living in the city. You don’t have a landlord or neighbors or those kinds of things. You’re pretty much required to sign up for the meal plan, which means you don’t interact with people in restaurants or grocery stores or any of that kind of stuff. The drinking age is twenty-one, and it’s strictly enforced in the city but mostly unenforced on campus, which means if you want to drink or go to a party, you can only do that on campus, but if you want to go see a band at a club, you can’t do that.

I spent my first year trying to figure out how to participate in the life of the city in some way, but by the end of my first year I think I gave up because the pull of the university community was so strong and the boundaries were so hard to overcome…the explanation the university would give is that going to Harvard isn’t just a set of courses, it’s an experience and a community, and they’re interested in people being part of that community, which means living there and participating in what they call the “house system,” the different dorms students live in. But the end result is that it makes the university into an ivory tower—I mean, incredibly so. It would be one thing if you were out in the woods, but this is Boston. In four years of living in that city I pretty much didn’t come to know anybody who wasn’t affiliated with Harvard.

I can’t pretend I met many people who weren’t at my university when I was in college, though, and OSU isn’t anything like as cloistered as this. Also, how law schools bolster the elite.

“What’s interesting to me about this passage is how many of the keywords in his description of these possible next literary rebels have been used for a very long time now to disparage women’s writing”; Champagne Candy on this David Foster Wallace quote:

“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”


In generic terms, monetary policy balances the relationship between savers and borrowers.  For political purposes, it shifts the power between creditors and debtors.  Or those with money and power versus those who are in a serfdom of bad debts gone wrong.  Given the concentration of wealth at the top and the indebtedness of everyone else, it’s arguable one of the most important political projects out there.

From a series of legal codes favoring creditors, a two-tier justice system that ignore abuses in foreclosures and property law, a system of surveillance dedicated to maximum observation on spending, behavior and ultimate collection of those with debt and beyond, there’s been a wide refocusing of the mechanisms of our society towards the crucial obsession of oligarchs: wealth and income defense.  Control over money itself is the last component of oligarchical income defense, and it needs to be as contested as much as we contest all the other mechanisms.

Joe Romm:

The national debt isn’t the greatest short-term problem we face.  That is spurring jobs and economic growth. And the debt certainly isn’t close to the greatest long-term problem we face.  That would obviously be unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases, which threaten human civilization with multiple simultaneous catastrophes — from endless superstorms to permanent DustBowls.  And yes, we could solve the first by addressing the second — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

I can understand why the Tea-Party-driven GOP has made the national debt its focus.  Conservatives are using the debt debate as a stalking horse for their disdain of government to gut as many federal programs as possible, from clean energy to Medicare to EPA oversight.  Since those  programs are popular, the best strategy is for the GOP to attack them under the guise of their concern over some other issue.

As an aside, I’m not certain “conservatives” is the right word for them anymore, since they don’t actually want to conserve anything.  A better term would be “anarchists.”  If they cared about the debt more than their rigid self-destructive anti-tax ideology, they’d obviously be open to the unbelievable $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal that Obama put on the table and keeps offering every friggin’ day.

From the indefatigable Andrew Seal’s Fuck Yeah, Historiography, some excerpts from Andrew Hoberek’s The Twilight of the Middle Class:

Threatened with proletarianization through the loss of its property to big capital, the middle class translates this loss into narratives of individual dispossession that enforce its cultural dominance rather than seeking a potentially more useful affiliation with those already outside the magic circle of capital. The insufficiency of this strategy become apparent as the problems of the employed middle class have migrated from compromised individual agency to more practical forms of dispossession like overwork and tenuous job security. Within this framework, big capital exploits the ongoing resonance of traditional American middle-class values even while it proves increasingly able to dispense with an actual middle class. The contemporary United States is haunted by a specter: the specter of the middle class.To exorcise this ghost we must return to the culture of the 1950s, and unravel how the specific class interests of the middle class were translated into cultural forms predicated on their supposed ahistoricity and classlessness.


I have tried to argue in this book that the discovery of this state [of ‘declining middle-class fortunes’ and potential or actual downward mobility] is a belated one: that the middle class lost its historical agency when at mid-century, its members became white-collar workers. With this in mind we can now return and read postmodernism dialectically, as the worldview not only of middle-class privilege but of the hollowness of this privilege: of the bitter discovery of one’s lack of agency and inability to navigate the world. It would be easy enough to say that this anxiety is unreal and meaningless compared to the experience of other, even less privileged subjects of capitalism, but there is nothing to be gained from the middle-class not recognizing its downward mobility or the structural reasons behind it. The idea that the middle class remains middle class is, in fact, the chief means by which capital has controlled this class for the last fifty years. I do not propose that white-collar professionals start thinking of themselves as sweatshop workers (this would be just another fantasy) but I do propose that they stop thinking of themselves as middle class, if by this we mean occupants of a position outside the binary logic of capital. America was founded upon the utopian dream of capital as a force that would render everyone an individual agent. Now the American middle class if finally realizing that it has returned, its sojourn over, to the real world of capitalist unfreedom. This does not mean that the dream of a world in which people are human beings, rather than parts of the system’s machinery, was flawed. It just means that we have to give up our middle-class notions of how such a world can be brought about, and begin to imagine new stories of creativity, agency, and fulfillment that do not depend upon a vanished (and never really equal) world of property ownership.

Guitar Oscillations, via Chris Blattman:

Rohit is my favorite long-form tweeter. Six tweets from a couple minutes ago:

Periodically the bs about ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurship’ etc in Silicon Valley gets utterly claustrophobic- especially the idea that there is a select group of people who possess some magical skills and abilities that the unthinking masses don’t. In San Francisco today, the communities that most strongly display the puritan ethic are Hispanic and Chinese groups. The teacher who figures out ways to keep kids interested in Mark Twain & calculus is an innovator. Undocumented migrants selling fruit on street corners come rain or shine shows enterprise. The student in a state school working 2 jobs to purse a dream of being a writer has determination.
Coda: Upper middle class kids bankrolled by parents to take ‘risk’ in dubious start ups when their rent is paid for don’t really cut it