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December 29, 2004


Popper touches on similar ideas regarding the axioms (the scientific method, disprovability, liberty, etc) around which unorganized social and political evolution should orbit. One of his basic ideas was that you should never permit a social structure to be forced on a people with the argument that a little suffering now will lead to greater happiness later, since humans are not omniscient enough to correctly predict the eventual happiness, and because plans and goals change so frequently that you generally just move from one suffering to the next.

If you liked Postrel's book, you'll probably enjoy most of Popper.

"does not line up with technocratic assumptions about the powers and uses of government."

Well this stuff is fun to play with theoretically, but in practice only Postrel and libertarians would not grab ideas and prescriptions out selectively.

Example:Should the economic goal of gov't be positive GDP growth, full employment, or low inflation? Or Other? Whichever decision is made favors some group over another. I think the question itself is technocratic and stasist, and perhaps the gov't should not have macro-economic goals and policies. But I doubt I will find anyone in a position of power who would not choose at least one of the three, and declare that the existence of the state itself depends on proper management. Even a Milton Friedman.

Personally, I find this sort of categorization annoying and useless. Why the implicit assumption that any given person treats all situations of a certain type with a "dynamicist" or "technocratic" or "reactionary" or whatever approach?

And what is the basis for the implicit claim of superiority for Postrel's version of dynamicism? In scientific and economic terms the world has made a rather large amount of progress in the past century that she derides so glibly as stupidly technocratic. What is her evidence that things could have been so much better?

Of course, I will note that the market seems to have done an excellent job of valuing her book.

I kinda got sidetracked at the paragraph that begins "Virginia has a key idea which clarifies some of the difficulties we have in analyzing polticial cleavages along a left-right split" and couldn't really concentrate on what followed, wondering as I was if Mr Holsclaw has a personal relationship with Virginia Postrel, which relationship might justify his referring to her by her first name instead of her last, as is customary with published writers and thinkers of her rank (although the context in which she is referred to by her first name -- a book review for a public readership consisting mostly of people who do not know Virginia Postrel on a personal basis -- would seem to require a formal mode of address, despite any relationship, suggesting Mr Holsclaw may be unaware of the custom), or, I wondered, do the persistent references to "Virginia" instead of "Postrel" indicate that Mr Holsclaw has succumbed to a sexism he may not be aware of, one that allows us to soften women public figures by calling them by their informal first names rather than their formal surnames, because coziness and informality are nicer, more ladylike and we don't want our women to be hard, not even our women athletes, who soon become Venuses and Mias, Serenas and Chrissys and Lisas.

Good point, Mr You, I am often uncertain about how to address or reference people in blog comments. Should it be Mr von? Mr bifast? I have sometimes used Slart, slarti, Sebastian, Holsclaw, Mr Holsclaw, or simply "the ilk over there" I doubt sexism has much to do with it, although Ms Zoy might differ.

On another note, I live in the Dallas Area, and the one I will refer to as "the former editor of Reason magazine" also lives in the Dallas area. You may draw your own conclusions.

But this is a separate question of how one addresses people on the blog versus how one refers to people outside of the blog.

The slart versus slarti question is interesting. Because slarti is contained within Slartibartfast, I don't think it is disrespectful, but I find it distasteful to have Edward referred to as 'eddie', especially when it is not a direct address, but as a third person reference. However, other posters don't have names that lend themselves to diminuation (vonnie? hilzoyie? Sebbie?) I remember someone referring to Sebastian as seabass, but I think it was a one off thing.

There are two types of ppl in the world, Aers and Bers. Aers think of the world in terms of rules, Bers think of the world in terms of outcomes. Aers would think nothing of not telling someone they are going to have a piano falling on their head if there was a sign proclaiming 'Be quiet or leave'. Bers would of course call out, since they think of outcomes.
It's follows from this, that Aers are natural supporters of governments, after all governments make lots of rules.
So in summing up if you don't want ppl having pianos falling on their head, you must be philosophically against the government.

(If you hadn't noticed, I'm a bit annoyed at all the crappy dichotomies around the blogosphere)

There's a difference, of course, between blog comments, which are somewhat informal, and blog writeups, particularly book reviews, which should approach the formality of other published writing. How close? At least as far as sticking with formal names when referring to the author of the book under discussion.

"notyou" is fine. On the rare occasion that I might need to refer to Sebastian Holsclaw in the third person, I expect I'll use his entire blogname, "Sebastian Holsclaw." It's a lot to type, but if that's what he wants to be called, so be it.

I do not think that Sebastian Holsclaw is "sexist." I do think that we refer to women informally in formal contexts more often than we do men, perhaps reflecting underlying assumptions ("language artifacts"?)... about gender. Sebastian Holsclaw's use of "Virginia" stood out because it's a beautiful name and because it reminds me of parental condescension.

I'm not very good a drawing conclusions. Exactly how large is this "Dallas area" you mention? Would one properly refer to it as "a cozy (even tidy) Dallas area?"

How to refer to people: in blog comments, I think 'by the handle they've chosen, or an abbreviation' is right. (I call Slartibartfast a shorter version of his handle, generally, because it's so long. Likewise, at times, lj or Jes.) People I don't virtually know, and am not actually addressing: by their name (or handle, in the case of bloggers who use one.) Last name if I don't know them; first if I'm on a first name basis.

But I'm not Ms. Zoy. hilzoy is a handle I chose when I was making my first baby steps into commenting on blogs, and I chose it because all and only people who know me very well would know it was me. The story behind it: I once wrote a letter to Ted Kennedy (who was, at the time, my Senator), and got a letter back addressed to 'Mr. Hilzoy Bole', which is wrong on just about every imaginable count. I and my siblings thought this was very funny, and we made up a whole biography of Mr. Bole, and then my sibs began, unfortunately, to actually call me hilzoy. Luckily they stopped, more or less, but it was a standing joke for long enough, and hilzoy is a strange enough name, that I figured that, as I said, anyone who knew me well would know it was me. So, if you must, Ms./Mr. Bole.

"a cozy (even tidy) Dallas area?"

Expansive but negotiable.

Actual practice in the blogosphere, even in posts, is rather informal. Matthew Yglesias is referred to as Matthew, Matt, MY, or, by his friend and neighbour Will Wilkinson, Yglesias. Mr Paul Cella refers to me as Mr McManus, and I respond in kind. Professors DeLong and Reynolds are usually called Brad and Glenn. Common practice is where both names are given, both names can be used. I would consider "MS Postrel" to be a little hostile, and Virgina would only be avoided where it would be insufficiently descriptive.

Bloggers can correct me if I am wrong.

I myself have answered to Bob, McManus, Robert, Bob M, Bobby, Booby, and Boob but I have no pride when receiving attention.

Interesting. I would think that Booby or Boob is a bit much, and I hope that if I caught it, I would call a foul. As for me, I don't have any problem with LJ, but on another board, there was a poster who consistently referred to me as LibJap, which even though was simply a short version, I thought was coloring outside the lines.

I actually went for Virginia because that is how she is typically refered to in the posts I have read on her. We have no personal relationship. Personally I would rather be refered to as Sebastian if the name is too long to type as a whole, but I understand that Postrel might have been more appropriate. I'm not sure why I choose first names instead of last names. When talking about Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, Brad DeLong, or Daniel Drezner, (all people I respect) I tend to use first names if the context is such that it could be recognized. When speaking of William F. Buckley, George Bush or Jeanne Kirkpatrick, I tend to use last names (perhaps because that is the more common media usage for those media personalities).

I tend to use surnames if it's a public figure with whom I have no personal connection - and I try to do it consistently, feeling that it's only fair. I don't call George W. Bush (who has to get referred to by full name more often than I'd like, if there's any confusion possible between him and his dad) "Dubya" or "Shrub": I don't call Saddam Hussein "Saddam" or "Saddass", which I have seen done.

On a blog, I tend to think the most important thing is to refer to someone in a way that they are clearly identifiable - and I do switch to "Seb" sometimes, meaning no disrespect, it's just that sometimes even "Sebastian" is too much to type!

I actually break down Jesurgislac into Je Surgis Lac, but it got shortened to "Jes" within weeks, and I don't have a problem with that. It's a label, not a name.

In real life I have two given names, and I habitually use the second, not the first. I don't mind "Ms Lac", and I don't mind "Surgis", from anyone, but people who call me "Je" out of the blue get a blank look and a "No, I don't use that".

And, since we seem to have kind of drifted off the point - good review, Sebastian. Made me feel I'd like to read the book.

There are those who agree with factory and those who don't.

There are two types of people in this world: people who think the world can be split into two types of people, and everyone else.

More seriously, I have always tended to think that the biggest problems with categorisations of people into groups like "conservatives" and "progressives" or "stasists" and "dynamists" is not that they are strictly false, but that they represent types of behaviours, not types of people. Any given human being is a mish-mash of conflicting interests, not a purely refined crystalline example of one way of thinking. Some have more from column A than column B, but most of us have a little bit from everywhere, depending on the context.

In this vein, I think Postrel's (playing it safe here) summary (and if I have caught the wrong end of the stick from the review, feel free to correct me as to her actual views) that the 20th century was a "century of technocracy," i.e. of central control run wild over the advantages of "dynamism," is largely incorrect. We spent the last century being more "dynamic" than we ever have been in our history, in overthrowing not only dictators but also ways of thinking. Not, of course, that previous centuries were missing their dose of healthy turmoil and regicide, but the point is that we have changed the world more since 1900 than we had managed in any 100 year gap previously. We've gone from wired telephones for the rich to cell phones for the masses.

Of course there has been "technocracy" in the last century, but, just as all these types of behaviour can be found more-or-less consistently in individual humans, so too is it hard to classify any given culture as being inherently stasist or dynamist, overly central or individual. Always, as Sebastian alludes to at the end, there is a balance to be struck between the overthrow of the old way and the maintenance of enough structure to enable the new one to take root. A society that has a central structure too dense will strangle itself to death, but go too far the other way and you disassemble society.

A centralised body designed for the reproduction of pianolas certainly may not have envisioned the transistor radio or the webcast, but that misses the point. That's not what such a body was there to do, nor what centralised bodies are good at. By making us choose between a false dichotomy and pick either one or the other, Postrel puts us in a situation here of thinking that life is at once more simple and more complicated than it really is. We don't get to pick between one or the other, we simply have to balance both in amusing and sometimes illogical ways based on nothing more scientific than what seems broadly best at the time. On the other hand, we don't have to futz around trying to deal with the bits of the world that don't fit the theory du jour, we can just use whatever theory is appropriate for the season.


Good comment. The world is complicated. People are complicated. These kinds of categorization are, in my opinion, designed to do two things:

1. Eliminate the need for a lot of thinking: Jack is an Aer, to use Factory's excellent terminology, so he will always do thus and so. Jill is a Ber, so she will do otherwise. No need to consider the case, or to ascribe any intelligence to Jack or Jill.

2. Glorify one's own tendencies and beliefs. Postrel is a "dynamist." Wonderful. All good things are a result of dynamic behavior, not stuffy rules or incomprehensible technical analyses.

McDuff is correct that these kind of books identify tendencies, not crystalline avatars of perfection. But identifying tendencies can be very useful. In talking about technological progress, for instance, dynamist-stasist seems more useful than left-right.

In talking about technological progress, for instance, dynamist-stasist seems more useful than left-right.

Well, left-right certainly isn't very useful. But I assume you mean that the issue here is whether technological progress is best achieved through some sort of central guidance ("technocrats") or by animal-spirited entrepreneurs ("dynamists").

Why not both? Indeed, why is it not the case that some forms of technological progress are best achieved one way, some the other. To assume that the entrepreneurial approach is inherently superior is to assume that technology, or more broadly scientific knowledge, is only useful if it has commercial value, and then only when that commercial value is near enough and clear enough to attract private profit-seeking resources. But that is patently untrue, just as it is untrue that there exists a group of sages who ought to be given total authority to direct all our scientific efforts.

I guess I'm just not clear on what point Postrel is making, or you are endorsing. A great deal of our technological progress has been the result of government sponsored research - inherently technocratic. (This includes, of course, the very medium we are using to communicate). What's wrong with that?

whatever dude

cool book though

I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. I found this a truly fascinating discussion which raised some thought provoking questions, especially as we are clearly becoming more technology-dependent, not less.

The above comment from "thebizofknowledge" is a subtle form of spam, in that the link in the ID goes to a blog full of advertising, and thus possibly increases Googlerank, etc. (I'm not sure it does, but since the spammer surely thinks it does, I'd delete it.)

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