Cotton’s Library release day!

The official release date for Cotton’s Library is here! You can buy my new book!

To review quickly, this is the story of an incredible 400-year-old collection that has gone through more lives than a cat, and needed them all. Today’s national treasure was repeatedly ignored, pilfered, suppressed, and threatened by fire throughout its long history. Cotton’s Library is the first book-length examination of the whole, mad epic.

The first! Ever!

Retailers should be listing Cotton’s Library soon, if they aren’t already, but you can buy hardcover, paperback or ebook editions here right this minute. Paper books are 20% off the list price, no special codes or gimmicks.

Please have a look at least! You can read a substantial free excerpt here.

n.b. Not entirely by coincidence, this is also the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day; though Sir Robert Cotton spent most of his career working for the Stuarts, it would be fair to suggest that both he and his library were products of the Elizabethan world.

Keystone XL

Let’s be clear on something. The KeystoneXL pipeline project is a pipeline to bigger climate risks.

This is a basic fact, regardless of any official report stating otherwise. As a friend of mine with an MBA has confirmed, the main thing he learned in earning it is that for any analysis of this scale, 2 + 2 = “whatever you want it to.”

The suggestion that “building this pipeline will not contribute substantially to carbon pollution” does not stand up to simpler, less “flexible” tests. The client for this project is an industry that enables the combustion of very, very dirty carbon fuels. That’s how they make money, that’s their agenda, that’s the purpose of this pipeline. If the assertion that “the pipeline won’t make a difference to climate change because the tar sands will be burned either way” were true, why would TransCanada (and its subsidiary, the Canadian Parliament) be so obsessed with their desire for the pipeline?

If it “won’t make a difference,” why waste good resources on a years-long lobbying effort?

Ultimately, any proposal for how pursuit of KXL advances a profit motive, but does not exacerbate carbon pollution, ignores the core problem of climate change politics. If profits from exploitation of fossil fuels were really something separable from increasing carbon pollution, there would not be a controversy. There is one, however, because these phenomena are joined at the hip.

Suggestions to the contrary = making shit up.

Kuhns’s Law

Just a marker, for whatever it’s worth; I don’t think one gets a choice in this kind of thing and I doubt it’s going to be an issue anyway, but if there ever is a “Kuhns’s Law,” here’s my current best suggestion.

More often than not, people will define a “path to progress” as “more people/institutions sharing my beliefs/biases/preferences.”

Any added value here is very dependent on precision. Obviously, correlation between someone advocating program x, and program x advancing his or her personal wants, is very high. This is a bit different. What I’m picking up on is a tendency for people to believe that others need to be more like them, and to see in this a general improvement to society, or even the solution to any of a range of specific problems.

For example, what should we do about an economy that is excluding most people from the benefits of growth? Well, surprise surprise, Mark Zuckerberg believes fervently that more people need to “learn to code.”

What should we do about the risks of a greenhouse gas build-up wrecking Earth’s climate? Out of all the many many courses that could in theory resolve this global collective action problem? Surprise surprise, a vegetarian homes right in on livestock and concludes that the best thing you can do is stop eating meat.

I see this phenomenon frequently, since having recognized a pattern. I wonder if it is in some sense driven by the instinct to spawn; as with biological reproduction, it offers the prospect of adding rough copies of one’s self to the world, just in a behavioral rather than genetic sense. In fairness, I must admit that one can also look at this from the other direction, and consider whether there’s any alternative besides “do as I say, not as I do.” It’s a good question, but I think it’s also a good question whether or not it makes any sense to look at this from that direction; I have the impression that most people “discover” that x will solve all kinds of problems after they’ve been practicing x anyway, rather than the other way around.

Finally, I should note that I don’t want to slam people too hard, here. The instance that prompted this post, in fact, was this tweet from a friend whom I respect greatly. I am sure that if I start looking, I will be able to find instances of myself doing this same thing.

But, I think that’s the main value of a “law” like this, if any. Once you recognize something like this as a tendency, you begin taking notice of it… which allows you to call out other people, yes, but also hopefully allows you to start correcting for it in your own arguments.

It’s worth a try.

Let technology do that for you…

Continuing my long-term archiving project, I just stumbled upon this doodle from… I don’t know. Whenever the iPhone4S and those “I found four locksmiths near you” commercials started running.

It's meant to be funny (kind of).

Ha ha… ha… ha?

Best Veteran’s Day observation

Failed states

The coverYesterday brought me last week’s issue of The Economist, which promises coverage of “the Republican victory and what it means for America’s broken government.” The casualness of this reference to American government as “broken” is particularly interesting, to me, because I distinctly recall a different editorial stance from the same publication less than five years ago. Then, they noted a growing sense that “the political system is broken. America has become ungovernable,” before declaring that “we argue to the contrary.”

Poking into their newest cover story, the transformation is remarkable. Then, they allowed that various systemic problems “should be corrected. But even if they are not, they do not add up to a system that is as broken as people now claim.” Overall, they insisted, “the basic system works as intended.” The real problem was that “Mr Obama” would not compromise.

Fast-forward to 2014, and subheadline to their story is “Republicans have won a huge victory. Now they must learn to compromise [emphasis added].” This prospect, moreover, they categorize as an optimist’s hope, and a faint one absent systemic reforms. Now, The Economist warns that “even if the optimists are right [emphasis added], America faces a host of ailments that seem beyond the reach of today’s politics.” If this is to change, Americans “need to change the way they elect their leaders.”

So, I guess I won that argument. Progress. Splendid.

…oh, wait, the society I live in is breaking down. Actually this is terrifying.

Read More →

2014 midterm election implications

I have read very little news or punditry the past week. Most immediate post-election “analysis” is dregs-of-adrenaline meaningless noise, even by journalism’s ordinary standards, and in this case the specific election results make me physically ill.

Most of the few peeks I have taken have been over at Vox. The conclusions of their staff are thoughtful, appropriately cautious… and horrible. Matthew Yglesias has noted that “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.” If you want more than that, well, that’s a problem, as Ezra Klein has elaborated:

The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find.

Indeed. Perhaps because that electorate is doing something wrong… one could, of course, easily point to the system in a number of ways, but the strongest hope of changing that system rests in the hands of the electorate… On the whole, it’s easier than ever to see why people are disgusted by politics and declining to participate; unfortunately the spotty, knee-jerk participation that this leaves behind exacerbates the randomness and dysfunction that turn people away.

As someone wrote at The Economist a few years ago, “we have a system-wide problem with system-wide problems.”

Perhaps it might help if the idea that elections have real consequences, for real people, became once more central to political conversation, instead of just a source of anecdotal weapons. Very possibly not, but as self-indulgence is one of life’s few dependable consolations at present…

What state I live in a couple of years from now could well depend on what happens—or does not happen—next in our nation’s capital.

Read More →

Holmes, Bookshop notes Nov. 2014

Some updates on my Sherlock Holmes collection, with a visit to a new Lakewood business on the way…

After keeping my eye out for a copy for some time, I finally picked up A Study in Sherlock recently. This is now item #44 in my collection.

This is as good as I could have hoped; I believe it’s the best Holmes anthology I have read so far. (Maybe Exploits of challenges it, but only if two authors counts as an anthology.) Great variety, with a lot of tangential extrapolations of Holmes of a more thoughtful nature than, e.g., “let’s do a Holmes story but with Martians/ghosts/zombies.” No doubt these things can be good, but the inherent novelty of this kind of mashup wears off rapidly and I think you’ve got to work very hard to add some other merit. The inventive approaches in A Study in Sherlock, by contrast, offered both freshness of concept and, in most cases, quality of writing.

Lots of good stories here, and even a short, delightful comic by Colin Cotterill. Neil Gaiman will be the headline contributor for most people, and I enjoyed “The Case of Death and Honey” though I’m not quite sold on the premise. Perhaps I’m just nettled by any stories that revolve around “explaining” some major element of the canon that the author finds unpersuasive. I don’t think I’m fundamentally opposed to such efforts, but my reaction here was similar to my objections to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, if not quite as intense. Anyway.

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Growth

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that there is a phenomenon called “growth,” which

  1. is the result of whatever his agents want to promote, and
  2. results in something an audience wants, usually “jobs,” which might be the second-greatest trick…

The Cotton library fire, Oct. 23, 1731

The wee hours of this Thursday, October 23* will mark the 283rd anniversary of the disastrous Cotton library fire of 1731.

This is probably a questionable occasion to celebrate… but, (mostly) by coincidence, it’s also about time for me to begin promoting my book Cotton’s Library, which devotes most of two chapters to the fire and its aftermath.

So, I am pleased to share this cartoon I drew about the fire. You’ve got to have a laugh, eh?

Do feel free to share it or re-post it anywhere. At some point here I will probably post some additional notes about it at my art and design blog… for now, though, please enjoy “A Night in the Cotton Library.” Read More →