Finding things to read

I love reading about how people manage their information consumption — especially when they have managed to jump out of the social-media ghetto:

I now subscribe to about 800 individual feeds, and this number is growing daily. The trick here is to find high-quality, low-volume link sources. The motherlode of good links for me was to be found on social bookmarking sites. About 700 of my subscriptions are to the RSS feeds of individual users on Pinboard and Delicious. This gives me very fine control and a great mix of interests. Plus, getting links from individual curators handily sidesteps the social news group-think problem. The remainder of my subscriptions are split between blogs, some sub-Reddits, a few Twitter users and subsections of arXiv.

Beijing’s black guards

In China, if you have a problem with the authorities, you have the theoretical right to travel to Beijing to put your grievance before officialdom).

Petitioning is a thankless task, and close to hopeless. The

BBC explains that:

In modern China, petitioners make up a marginalised collection of citizens. They are often arrested and sent back to their home provinces. Many spend years trying to get the government to hear their case, but very few ever get any results. They petition on a wide range of cases – I’ve met a builder whose wages were never paid, a man engaged in a long-running land dispute, and a father who sobbed as he explained his campaign for an investigation into his only son’s death.

More often than not, the people doing the arresting and returning will be the administration of whichever province you come from. Having petitioners in Beijing reflects badly on the province, especially you do somehow manage to win action on whatever local injustice has affected you.

Thus comes the system of ‘black guards’ — semi-legal thugs who intimidate petitioners into returning home. Caixin online interviews one, who describes how they work:

After identifying each petitioner, the guards first approach them and ask that they get into a car, saying that officials from their home have made the trip to Beijing to resolve their problems. Most petitioners, however, are unwilling to enter the car. If the locale is crowded, like the entrance to the SBLC, it is not convenient for the guards to simply grab people and carry them away. Instead they wait for the petitioners to leave on their own and follow them to their lodgings, where guards again ask them to get into cars. Usually two guards are assigned to one petitioner, but the number could grow depending on the level of difficulty. If the person refuses to cooperate, the guards simply grab them by the arms and legs and force them into the car. “Usually we don’t hit anybody,” Wang said.

Don’t hire geeks for their cool hobbies

Not only is there massive institutional sexism in computer programming, things get


as you move into the areas I feel most enthusiastic about. The light side — open-source projects, innovative startups, socially-engaged organisations — tends to be more male-dominated than the megacorps we love to hate.

One reason for this is that it’s a world run by guys in their 20s and 30s, with neither management experience nor formalized procedures to back them up. People trying to wing it are likely to fall back on their own prejudices. Geek Feminism gives one example, jobseeker interviews which involve talking about hobbies:

hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job


The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer


You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work


Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day.

Academic blogging

There’s a bleak hilarity to watching academic bloggers defend their activities to colleagues, especially in the medium of semi-academic printed prose.

Two years ago, John Sides introduced blogging to the readers of

Political Science and Politics

. He was restrained and reassuring — to the extent that’s possible when you have a subheading “Do I really want to be a Nazi scumbag moron?”:

blogging is not without its challenges, particularly

in terms of the time and energy needed to maintain a site. But

blogging can also have its benefits by not only helping polit-

ical science reach a broader audience, but also aiding individ-

ual scholars’ research, teaching, and service goals.

Now comes a response from Robin Farley of Lawyers, guns and money. He summarizes:

Sides treats blogging (and what I tend to think of as associated “public intellectual” activities) as adjunct to a successful political science career. I, on the other hand, think that we should take seriously the possibility that these activities should become the main course of a successful career in political science (and other fields)

The comments to Farley’s post are, as you’d expect, more interesting and persuasive than anything you’d find in a journal:

that’s what blogging is good for: core arguments. Peer-reviewed journals are better for extensive and careful analysis of those arguments. It’s fine to have different standards, since they serve fundamentally different purposes. That doesn’t mean that blogging doesn’t have academic value, however, and in political science there appears to be a growing recognition of that. In the recent TRIPS survey of international relations scholars I believe around 65% said that blogging should count for tenure/promotions as academic service.


My own point of view is that the field became so self-infatuated with scientism in the 1980s and 1990s that political scientists lost both the ability (on average) and the will (much more importantly) to contribute to public debates in accessible language. One of the things I’ve admired very much about LGM and The Monkey Cage and other political science blogging, is the way they use political science in a way that is accessible, yet neither patronizes nor panders.

Like Farley, I’m a bit of a pro-blogging absolutist here. Not that it’s narrowly about blogging; much the same argument could apply to anything from Usenet to (God forbid) twitter. Any discipline without objective verification must engage with the widest possible audience, simply to avoid falling into self-referential nonsense. If you can’t convey ideas outside your clique, and convince people of their value, they don’t count for anything.

I’m not rushing to the barricades in defense of polsci-bloggers, though. They don’t need it: the current outcast state of academic blogging will evaporate within a decade. Already students, jobseekers, and many others are being ordered to blog. Blogging isn’t yet given much weight in academic promotion, but it doubtless will be in the near future. The closed world of academic publishing is crumbling. As journal articles become systematically available online, ungated, there should be more substantial interchange between public and narrowly academic writing. All in all, the future’s bright.

Owen Hatherley on the Moscow metro

I’m enjoying The Calvert Journal, a fairly young English-language blog covering Russian contemporary art and other culture. They’re based in London and seem to have some funds behind them; at least, they’ve been able to get Owen Hatherley writing about the Moscow metro:

Largely, the model developed in the mid-1930s continues, and not just in Moscow – extensions in Kiev or St Petersburg, or altogether new systems in Kazan or Almaty, carry on this peculiar tradition. Metro stations are still being treated as palaces of the people, over two decades after the “people’s” states collapsed. This could be a question of maintaining quality control, but then quality is not conspicuous in the Russian built environment. So why does this endure?