Criticisms and growth

I’ve been a fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for several years. I’ve enjoyed the blog, and his books (The Beautiful StruggleBetween the world and me, and We were eight years in power). They’re all well worth reading.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about TNC is the way he approaches writing on line. I haven’t seen any hot-takes of his that I can remember, and I think he is genuinely engaged in intellectual give-and-take – in learning more, and in particular acknowledging the gaps in his own knowledge, and being willing to learn visibly, to be seen to be learning, which takes some humility to really do.

I saw the piece that Cornel West wrote in The Guardian, which subsequently blew up online. My two cents on that debate aren’t really worth two cents, for a range of reasons. So these are just my own notes, part of my own thinking it through; in the spirit of TNC, I suppose – thinking it through, but acknowledging there’s a lot I don’t know in this area. You should read other people on this, who are better informed and better placed to speak on the issue. There’s a lot out there – I found this tweet string an interesting place to start.

One of the things I’ve found, in reading part of TNC’s work, is that he acknowledges explicitly that there are areas he doesn’t tend to write on, because it’s not his turf. International relations. Broader politics. Which is refreshingly honest, but at times a part of me has wanted him to make that leap – to apply the gift he has of researching, synthesising, and writing beautifully, to bring it all together in writing about power, gender, race and economics.

I’ve read a few critiques of Coates’ writing since the furore occasioned by West’s piece, and the one that stuck out at me was a piece by Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think I agree that there is an ‘analytical lacuna’ in Coates’ writing (although I wouldn’t describe it as ‘conspicuous’).

Part of the beauty of Coates’ writing, is that he is committed to the idea of writing, of ‘art’ as a radically honest vision of the real world around us, as he says in We were eight years in power:

It [art] had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Mishra writes that ‘… Coates is indifferent to the links between race and international political economy …’ (he writes it in a larger sentence, but I don’t think I misrepresent it by quoting that fragment). I don’t know that I would agree that Coates is indifferent. I would imagine that he is deeply moved, and having read some of his writing, I would argue that you can see a shift over time in his thinking on gender, as his understanding becomes more nuanced (to pick only one power relationship of many). But I would say that if Coates wanted to write about it, I would love reading something by him about how gender, race, and economic disparities of power interlock and are inter-structured.

As Mishra acknowledges, Coates sees himself as someone learning, growing in understanding, and concludes:

Coates’s project of unflinching self-education and polemic has never seemed more urgent, and it has only just begun.

I would agree, that I think I would love to see Coates write about broader economic processes, and how they link to other power dynamics – to give us his version of a people’s history. Having said that, I don’t think he’s under any obligation to do so – if he wants to write solely about racial politics in America, I think he’s entitled to do so.

I also think it’s fair to say that there’s a set of connected issues, that relate to questions about justice, power and truth, that are at the heart of Coates’ writing project. I think it’s also true that if he doesn’t address them, he isn’t giving the full picture to some of his own questions. But, it’s his writing – he’s the one with the MacArther grant. He can write about whatever he wants to write about.


Rugby league: Tips and odds

The efficient market hypothesis suggests, depending on the form and definition, that the current price reflects publicly available information.

As it happens, I’ve been dabbling in a work ruby league tipping competition. Full disclosure: I know less than nothing about rugby league. Someone had to explain scoring to me.

However, I thought that while betting odds are not publicly traded, they were likely to reflect publicly available information. As it happens, using the betting odds as a guide has worked out reasonably well for me.

I was curious, though, as to what historical data suggested; and fortunately, there’s a website that’s aggregated betting odds and game outcomes since 2009!

I haven’t gone to the trouble of doing any statistical testing, but I thought it would be fun to play with some of the data. In particular, I calculated an odds ratio (the underdog vs. the favourite; a ratio of 0 means very long odds, a ratio of ~1 means they’re even odds).

So it turns out, that just eyeballing the data, the odds already incorporate the home team advantage. The win percentages track closely between all games and where the favourite team is playing at home; if there was a disparity, it’d suggest that the home team had an advantage.

Home team

This is particularly interesting given that there’s a decent amount of data going back to 2009; over a thousand games. On average, the odds favourite wins about 65% of the time; as the odds get longer (or shorter), the win ratio (as per the chart above) gets higher.

Someone suggested that the odds weren’t a good guide in weeks that Origin games were on, or playoff games. The samples are much smaller here; but they seem broadly right, although I haven’t done any tests on them.

But this is something I don’t know much about. Tell me – what have I missed?

Article roundup: Politics, octopuses and preppers

It’s been a while, but these are some random pieces I wanted to note down. In no particular order …

Greg Jericho writes in The Guardian that ‘Reform isn’t bipartisan. One party advocates for it and then fights hard to keep it‘. I would have liked to read this in a political science journal article, with better argued facts, but none-the-less it rings true to some of what I’ve seen in relation to particular debates. People talk about the need for bipartisanship all the time, but if politics really is about the alignment of different interest groups, then perhaps it’s unsurprising that even if one group is able to set up a particular structure (healthcare, or a particular form of tax), other groups may want to either contest it at the time, or revisit the issue decades later.

I think squids (especially the giant ones) and octopuses are fascinating creatures. But it’s worth seeing the other side of the argument, presented by Daniel Engber in Slate, Against the Octopus‘.

This article on the teenagers campaigning after a shooting is one of the many excellent pieces being written on their work, and you should read what they’re saying directly. But the piece stuck with me particularly because of this line: ‘… all grand reform movements are failures until they aren’t’.

Not an article, but just something I wanted to note down: Campbell’s law is, roughly stated, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”.

The Plot Against America‘ in in-depth piece in The Atlantic about Paul Manafort by Franklin Foer. It shows a man confused, scared, and while he may have had more experience and resources than many could dream of, was still caught up by currents beyond his control – in part, of course, because of his own decisions that had lead him there.

Mark O’Connell’s account in The Guardian of Peter Thiel’s prepping by buying a property in New Zealand is disconcerting, as it highlights a separate world, where billionaires buy property in far off lands, making plans that most of us can never hope to.

Power and communication are inextricably intertwined; this account of corruption charges in relation to a newspaper and a Prime Minister in Israel are a stark reminder.

I wasn’t paying much attention to politics in the early 90s. But it’s strange to think that a heart attack killing a Treasury secretary in turn launched a personal speech (known as the ‘Placido Domingo’ speech) that marked the break between Keating and Hawke, and in turn a change of Prime Ministership. But at the same time, it serves as a real reminder of the humanity of the individuals involved.

Flyting and rap battles

Because this blog is still a notebook, of sorts, I just wanted to note down something I found fascinating.

You may have enjoyed the verbal rap battles in Mile; but apparently, that goes back a long way. Flyting is something people have done for centuries. Although it’s a little hard to find examples, and there’s definitely something lost in translation, it’s still a fascinating idea.

Have you heard any verbal battles recently? Which ones would you like to see?

Technology articles: Facebook and the internet of things

Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein have an excellent cover piece at Wired, taking readers ‘Inside the two years that shook Facebook – and the world‘. It’s important because it tells the story of the personal responses of key Facebook executives, and Facebook as an organisation, to realising the political impact of its platform.

The story concludes on a mildly optimistic note, with Zuckerberg concluding that he has a responsibility to address the problems people are causing on his platform. What the article doesn’t address, however, is whether there should at the very least be more transparency. Imagine a world in which Facebook actually published its algorithms? Or there was regulation of those algorithms? For years we’ve had media cycles that traditionally involve some form of government regulation. I think it’s an interesting question as to whether this one will to the same extent, or not at all.

Facebook was reluctant, however, to issue any mea culpas or action plans with regard to the problem of filter bubbles or Facebook’s noted propensity to serve as a tool for amplifying outrage. Members of the leadership team regarded these as issues that couldn’t be solved, and maybe even shouldn’t be solved. Was Facebook really more at fault for amplifying outrage during the election than, say, Fox News or MSNBC? Sure, you could put stories into people’s feeds that contradicted their political viewpoints, but people would turn away from them, just as surely as they’d flip the dial back if their TV quietly switched them from Sean Hannity to Joy Reid. The problem, as Anker puts it, “is not Facebook. It’s humans.”


Every publisher knows that, at best, they are sharecroppers on Facebook’s massive industrial farm. The social network is roughly 200 times more valuable than the Times. And journalists know that the man who owns the farm has the leverage. If Facebook wanted to, it could quietly turn any number of dials that would harm a publisher—by manipulating its traffic, its ad network, or its readers.

Over at Gizmodo, Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu have an excellent account of a house that takes advantage of the internet of things, in ‘The house that spied on me‘. By not using any advanced exploits, they highlight the user frustrations, and the intense lack of privacy, that’s inherent in the multitude of systems out there.


I’ve been reading random pieces recently that I found interesting. In no particular order:

China Loves Trump‘, by Benjamin Carlson in The Atlantic is an excellent piece, that explores how Trump, despite his language on China during his campaign, in many ways is surprisingly easy for China to handle:

This is where these two very different images of Trump—as someone the Chinese feel they can manipulate and as someone who genuinely appeals to them—converge. Whether eliciting respect or scorn, Trump makes a certain intuitive sense in China. In fact, he might make more sense to the Chinese than he does to much of Washington: His unabashed nationalism; rough-hewn arriviste manners; and unapologetic mingling of family, business, and politics make him akin to some newly minted provincial tycoon. In this respect he is less shocking or threatening than commonplace: He’s simply what Chinese call a tuhao, another bumptious billionaire.

While Trump’s continued promotion of his business empire and elevation of his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, to political power have raised alarm in the United States, such blurring of lines is the norm in China. Even Xi, whom many Chinese seem to regard as corruption-free, has relatives who allegedly amassed huge fortunes while he rose through the ranks. Likewise, family members of Wen Jiabao, known as the “people’s premier” during his decade in power starting in the early 2000s, reportedly piled up several billion dollars during his tenure.

I found a paragraph in ‘Why ‘Black Panther’ Is a Defining Moment for Black America‘ by Carvell Wallace in The New York Times interesting, in its reflection on how people live in a system that is systematically biased against them:

This is all part of a tradition of unrestrained celebration and joy that we have come to rely on for our spiritual survival. We know that there is no end to the reminders that our lives, our hearts, our personhoods are expendable. Yes, many nonblack people will say differently; they will declare their love for us, they will post Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela quotes one or two days a year. But the actions of our country and its collective society, and our experiences within it, speak unquestionably to the opposite. Love for black people isn’t just saying Oscar Grant should not be dead. Love for black people is Oscar Grant not being dead in the first place.
This is why we love ourselves in the loud and public way we do — because we have to counter his death with the very same force with which such deaths attack our souls.

Marx at 200‘ is an interesting piece by Jeremy Mayer in American Interest – it covers a very broad topic well, although I think it’s a little strong on the link between Marx’s personality, and the violence of dictatorships established in the name of Marxist ideology.

Strict Obstructionist‘ is an interesting biography of Mitch McConnell by Joshua Green in The Atlantic. It highlights, I think, the importance of procedural issues, and the way that minor changes that don’t receive public attention can have a huge impact.

In 1994, a time of comparatively civil interparty relations, when Democrats still controlled the White House and Congress, McConnell, trying to stop a reform bill that provided public financing for congressional races and had already passed both houses, discovered from the secretary of the Senate that the rules permitted a filibuster on the motion referring the bill to the House-Senate conference committee that would iron out the differences. But she advised him against trying, since no one ever had before. McConnell ignored her and succeeded, blocking the reform. Six weeks later, the Republicans captured the House and Senate.

Calling the Trump Era by Its Name‘ by James Fallows (again, The Atlantic) is an interesting reflection on what to call this unprecedented political era. In the same area, Katy Waldman essay’s at Slate on why ‘There’s nothing more to learn about Trump‘ is a good reminder that although it astonishes, it is, at some level, not surprising.

I’d never heard of ‘Thalassophobia‘, but apparently it’s a real thing.

This piece by Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed on the Nunes memo is interesting not so much for the discussion of the memo, as for the discussion of media cycles in a less well-known part of the media ecosystem.

Legends of the Ancient Web is a fascinating discussion of media cycles, and how that links to politics. It’s very reminiscent of The Master Switch.

Kent Russell gives a disconcertingly first-person account of disaster tourism in the ‘The Disaster Tourist‘. It falls into the trap though, I think, of trying to find a resolution when perhaps there is none – the attempt to make people connecting on an abandoned beach while drinking beer significant is disappointing. More importantly, he doesn’t really examine why people engage in disaster tourism at all. There are real opportunities out there for those who are willing to seek their own adventures; but disaster tourism strikes me as demanding the thrill of adventure, while refusing the risk, leaving only the anodyne disappointment of tourism.

Banner Saga II

I’ve been enjoying the second Banner Saga. It has some of the same strengths as the first, but unfortunately it seems to be much more on rails. Part of what made the first attractive was in the sense of consequences, where-as the second leaves the sense that whatever option you choose, you’ll always end up with the same story line.