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  • Matt Drabek
  • August 02, 2019 02:52:20 PM
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Wherein an Iowan writes about leftist politics, philosophy, and maybe baseball.

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The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov published his science fiction detective novel The Caves of Steel in 1954. One of the detectives was a robot. That’s the twist. Lots of sci-fi fans know Asimov for his robot stories, and Asimov invented the word ‘robotics‘. The Caves of Steel became Asimov’s best-selling book to that point in his career. Asimov … Continue reading "The Caves of Steel" The post The Caves of Steel appeared first on Base and...

Isaac Asimov published his science fiction detective novel The Caves of Steel in 1954. One of the detectives was a robot. That’s the twist. Lots of sci-fi fans know Asimov for his robot stories, and Asimov invented the word ‘robotics‘. The Caves of Steel became Asimov’s best-selling book to that point in his career. Asimov followed up with the Robot Series: The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1983), and Robots and Empire (1985).

But that’s just the history. It’s not what this post is about. The Caves of Steel is less a detective story, or a robot story, than a sociological story. Let’s talk about that.

Automation and Jobs

Horace Gold told Isaac Asimov he should write a robot novel. Sure, Asimov wrote robot short stories in the 1940s, but why not a full-length novel? And Gold wanted a novel about robots taking human jobs. Despite his own protestations to the contrary, Asimov knew how to write history and sociology. This is the guy who wrote the Foundation Trilogy, after all.

Asimov set The Caves of Steel a couple thousands year in the future in a world where Earth regresses to enclosed Cities (with-a-capital-C). Everyone lives under domes in mega-cities. Why? Extreme overpopulation and strained resources. Earth automates most of the food system, from farming to producing to delivering to serving. And there’s a strict job classification system where one succeeds, fails, and gains or loses resources through a standardized evaluation system.

Lose your job? Well, you’ll still live. They’ve got something in place kinda like a dystopian UBI system. It looks a lot like what Boots Riley cooks up in the film Sorry to Bother You. You’ll eat and have a place to stay, but that’s about it.

In an early scene, a police department staffer loses his job to a robot. R. Sammy, the robot, is a very basic model with a goofy grin and an obnoxious habit of following only very literal instruction. Earth declassifies the staffer and puts him on basic assistance. Asimov trots him out later in the novel to useful effect. And so, it’s not subtle.

Not a New Issue

It’s obvious enough automation isn’t a new issue. In fact, it’s been central to capital-labor conflict for decades. And 1950s and 1960s race and class conflicts put it square at the center. That Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel at this precise juncture shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it does anyway.

We might learn a bit about our current world if we study this era. Here’s one quick lesson. US social programs, particularly LBJ-era Great Society programs, failed in large part because they didn’t focus much on issues of automation and job loss. The federal government recognized a wide variety of rights of black Americans in the workplace. But black Americans missed many of these benefits because manufacturing sector employment quit growing at exactly the same time.

Nostalgia Politics

The Caves of Steel begins with a conversation between a detective and a robot. The robot took a staffer’s job, as I mentioned above. And lest anyone miss the significance, Asimov lays it on thick. There’s obviously a broader social issue at work here. Robots threaten humanity with obsolescence. At least, they appear to. Humanity responds with, you guessed it, nostalgia for the past. It’s not exactly ‘Make America Great Again’, though it’s not exactly not that, either.

However, robots don’t really threaten humanity, either today or in the sci-fi future. At least, not directly. Broader social forces threaten us, and robots are merely the face of it in particular times and places. Asimov labels the nostalgia nerds ‘medievalists’ in a bit of fun wordplay. These medievalists idolize…the 20th century! Since they’re a couple thousand years in the future, we’re medieval to them. They want to return to a pre-robot era, which, of course, isn’t really pre-robot at all.

As a result, the nostalgia doesn’t make much sense. We’ve automated away jobs for decades. Marx catalogued the impact of technological change on the value of labor-power even in his own era. But, second, humanity enclosed itself under giant domes in The Caves of Steel. These are the caves of steel of the book’s title. Consequently, everyone suffers from extreme agoraphobia. They can’t go outside! The medievalists couldn’t return to a pre-robot world from the mere fact they can’t live daily life outside of the Cities.

Asimov, of course, knows these things. He made the medievalist position silly for the same reasons we think Trumpist nostalgia is silly. Asimov shows how these eminently silly missteps come from real, albeit wildly misdirected, concerns.

Accelerationism and Redemption

The story of The Caves of Steel centers on a murder mystery. An Earthman kills a descendant of the human population that colonized other worlds centuries prior. Way back before Earth retreated into Cities. Those people are called Spacers. The human and robot detective work to solve the crime.

The Spacers have a city (with-a-little-c) of their own, just outside the City of New York. And it’s called Spacetown, appropriately enough. From Spacetown, the Spacers push an accelerationist project. They see Earth’s rising catastrophe, and they want to push Earth away from nostalgia and toward renewed space colonization. They try to do it by pushing Earth deeper into medievalism.

And so, this is sort of standard accelerationism. By pushing Earth deeper into its foolishness, the Spacers heighten the problems and tensions involved in Earth’s overpopulation and precarious food supply chain. The only way out, so they think, is to colonize space. Thus, Earth’s regressive elements will redeem themselves and secure Earth’s future.

There are legendary problems with accelerationism, and I think it’s probably Asimov’s biggest misstep. We know these things rarely turn out well, and we know regressive groups rarely redeem themselves in this way. Instead, they fall deeper into mistrust or other problems.

The Caves of Steel: A Film?

US politics fail to explore a lot of the material here. Automation, jobs, reactionary politics, misplaced nostalgic sentiment? It’s all here.

Why wouldn’t someone turn The Caves of Steel into a movie? I’d watch it.

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The post The Caves of Steel appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


Third Democratic Debate: 3 Thoughts

So, the third Democratic debate was last night. But, really, let’s start with a confession. I think these debates are pointless. Lots of grandstanding and one-liners. As a result, I usually don’t watch. I follow some of the coverage and watch highlights. Most of what I have to say is based on that. 1. How … Continue reading "Third Democratic Debate: 3 Thoughts" The post Third Democratic Debate: 3 Thoughts appeared first on Base and...

So, the third Democratic debate was last night. But, really, let’s start with a confession. I think these debates are pointless. Lots of grandstanding and one-liners. As a result, I usually don’t watch. I follow some of the coverage and watch highlights.

Most of what I have to say is based on that.

1. How many more of these things are they going to have?

Okay, okay. It’s fine to have a lot of debates, and it’s good to press the candidates on the issues. Not that these debates really involve a lot of pressing on the issues. They’re more about soundbites and attack lines.

Grumble, grumble.

But, really, I do prefer the 2020 Democratic debate to the 2016 model of one big name (i.e., Hillary Clinton) clearing the field early and one insurgent candidate (i.e., Bernie Sanders) representing everyone else. There’s really only so much you can get from that frame. On the other hand, 2020 delivers diminishing returns. Especially with the size of the field. How many times do we watch Biden appeal to morality in a bid to dodge substantive issue? How many times do we see candidates one-upping each other with personal insults and grandstanding about Trump, Russia, process reform, et al.? And how many times do 10 candidates speak for about 15 minutes each?

At least this time Marianne Williamson wasn’t on stage. Small victories, everyone. Small victories.

2. The minor candidates won this round.

I didn’t hear much consensus regarding the winner. Insofar as I did hear it, the minor candidates supposedly won. I heard a fair bit of praise for (in alphabetical order): Buttigieg, Castro, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke. Will any of these candidates win the nomination? Very unlikely. It could happen, but don’t put money on it.

3. On issues of substance, nothing changed.

I think the race took its basic form, in terms of candidate quality, quite awhile ago. Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren are a step above all the candidates not named Bernie Sanders. And Bernie Sanders is a step above Castro and Warren. I haven’t seen anything in the highlights or coverage challenging any of that.

And so, it’s extremely unlikely that will change, unless Castro, Sanders, and/or Warren drop out. Will that happen? Probably not for awhile. It’s highly unlikely Sanders or Warren will drop out before the Iowa Caucuses. Castro might, though I think he’ll hang on as long as he continues making debates.

Until we start hitting events like that, there’s not much doing in the presidential race concerning issues of substance. Of course, there will be folderol. I’ll mostly write about non-electoral topics in coming weeks, but I’m sure I’ll have a thing or two to say about the folderol.

The post Third Democratic Debate: 3 Thoughts appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


3 Surprises from the 2020 Campaign

When the 2020 campaign started, I thought it was relatively open-ended. The key word here is relatively. In fact, we usually have a pretty good idea about who’s going to win a party’s nomination. When the ballot includes an incumbent, the incumbent wins. When the ballot includes a sitting or recent vice president, the vice … Continue reading "3 Surprises from the 2020 Campaign" The post 3 Surprises from the 2020 Campaign appeared first on Base and...

2020 campaign

When the 2020 campaign started, I thought it was relatively open-ended. The key word here is relatively. In fact, we usually have a pretty good idea about who’s going to win a party’s nomination. When the ballot includes an incumbent, the incumbent wins. When the ballot includes a sitting or recent vice president, the vice president wins. Simple enough.

Sometimes surprises happen, but usually not too surprising. Clinton led in 2008 until Obama won the nomination. But Obama was hardly a nobody. And while Trump’s nomination surprised lots of people, myself included, we probably shouldn’t have been too surprised. The polls predicted it early. In fact, even early primary polling predicts pretty well.

But I’ve seen some legitimately surprising things this time. This post is about the surprises of the 2020 campaign.

1. Julián Castro is a good candidate.

I wrote about Castro earlier, where I called him “the forgotten progressive”. Look, it’s much less catchy than “capitalism’s heart surgeon,” my name for Elizabeth Warren. My point was that people overlook Castro. But Castro doesn’t come from nowhere. He has a long record of public service for someone who’s under 45 years old. And that service paints a clear and distinct picture: a generic, mainstream Democrat who quickly rose through the party ranks as a young man, won a mayor’s race in a large city, won a prime speaking slot at the 2012 convention, served in a relatively ho-hum manner as HUD Secretary, and towed the party line at every major junction. With only rare exceptions.

Castro moved toward bigger things, acting in the cautious manner of the politician who accomplishes a lot for himself but not much for the public. When I saw his name on a list of presidential candidates, I figured he’d run a milquetoast campaign aimed at showing he could shore up the ticket and win over some voters as the vice presidential candidate. Not much worth paying attention to.

But it’s not going like that. He proposed the best immigration plan in the field, and he endorsed a progressive policy slate well to the left of his past work. He influences other candidates on the specific issue of immigration, notably Elizabeth Warren. Since then, he released a comprehensive plan on Native issues, earning him the endorsement of several Indigenous leaders ahead of the Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa.

Well ahead of expectations.

2. Bernie Sanders has the most diverse voter base.

I wrote about this earlier, where I argued Sanders needs a diverse base to win and he’s doing well. Now he’s doing even better. A diverse base alone won’t give Sanders the nomination, but he needs one. So far, he’s getting it done.

Pundits pounded Sanders in 2016 left and right for a base too white, too male, etc. Much of this criticism was disingenuous, but it wasn’t wrong. Who voted for Sanders? A coalition of young (usually white, usually male) independents, college students of all genders and races, and wealthy white progressives. He won 43% of the popular vote, but the coalition skewed white and male. Enough to ultimately render him no threat to Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.

I always thought he could expand his base, and now he has. For the most part, Elizabeth Warren now wins the wealthy white progressive segment and some of the college students, but Sanders retains the rest. He also now wins working-class voters of all races. As a result, his current base is remarkably balanced by gender and race and heavily tilted toward lower income voters. He could start from this base to build power in interesting ways that work around the typically feckless Democratic Party. ‘Could’ is the operative word. He hasn’t done that yet, but he’s working on it.

Maybe this is ephemeral and Sanders is running on name recognition. But I seriously doubt it. His polling numbers and base are very consistent, arguably more so than any other candidate. At no point has his polling average gone below 14-15% or above 23-24%. And the numbers indicate his base is more enthusiastic than anyone else’s. About 10% of primary voters really want Sanders to be the nominee. And plenty of others prefer it.

3. The major mainstream candidates (Biden and Harris) are running awful campaigns.

And then there’s Joe Biden. As the intuitive heir to the Obama legacy, you might think ‘ol Joe would be doing really well. I guess. But you might be aware he ran for president in 1988 and 2008, and he considered it several other times. Each time, he flailed about rather haplessly. Why would the 2020 campaign be different? I guess I’m not shocked he’s running yet another hapless campaign and trying to back his way into the nomination.

Harris is the bigger surprise. On paper, she’s probably the most plausible candidate in the field. She’s ‘progressive’ enough to attract voters from Sanders or Warren. And she’s ‘mainstream’ enough that the Democratic Party bigshots love her. She’d be the first black women elected president, and this would be an undeniably significant achievement. When she announced her candidacy, polls gave her a major boost. And when she had a well received performance in the first debate, they gave her another.

And then…that’s about it. She’s shown no skill at retaining these voters or building on her momentum. She flip-flops on issues, trying to simultaneously please the various Democratic Party factions. As a result, while she’s still on a lot of lists, she rates as the first choice of very few voters. She’s losing voters to Warren (primarily) and Biden (secondarily). She could still win, but she’s not trending in the right direction.

2020 Campaign

So, where are we headed with these things? Biden and Harris might recover, and Biden’s still pretty well positioned. Sanders might lose the diverse base or he might expand it. Castro might revert to his old self or he might continue pushing in the right direction.

All three of these ‘2020 campaign surprises’ remain open-ended.

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The post 3 Surprises from the 2020 Campaign appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


4S: New Orleans

I’m taking a bit of a vacation to New Orleans this week! As a result, if there aren’t many posts or I’m not too responsive, don’t be alarmed! I’m here for the 4S conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Here are a few things I’m doing in New Orleans. 4S I first … Continue reading "4S: New Orleans" The post 4S: New Orleans appeared first on Base and...

4S Cabildo

I’m taking a bit of a vacation to New Orleans this week! As a result, if there aren’t many posts or I’m not too responsive, don’t be alarmed! I’m here for the 4S conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Here are a few things I’m doing in New Orleans.

4S

I first attended and presented at 4S in Cleveland in 2011. Back in the day, I was working on the social implications of psychiatry. Particularly psychiatric work on paraphilias (i.e., sexual deviations) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I put some of that material in my dissertation, and I reworked it into a part of my book Classify and Label. What did I say about the paraphilias? I argued they’re an example of a broader process whereby science and social practices interact with one another and drive certain forms of marginalization. This process (negatively) impacts both science and the people scientists study.

Anyway, that aside. That’s my history with 4S and the field of science and technology studies. But there’s another reason to love 4S: it’s massive (more than 1,800 people), and it’s full of interesting people and work. In a span of about 3 hours, I heard material on the following topics: the conflation of race and ethnicity in the field of genetics, an ethnographic study of Latinx tech groups, Internet censorship in Russia, the transformation of scientific research in Turkish universities, and a history of Argentinian science under multiple forms of government from 1955-1973.

That’s just a few hours. And it’s only one part of the first day of a 4-day conference.

New Orleans

One of my favorite things about 4S is its commitment to accessibility. Including attention to the history of the city where it’s held. There’s always funding for lower income and/or student attendees. A few basics: there’s a very thorough ethics policy explaining, e.g., harassment, a note to respect pronouns, all gender-neutral restrooms on the main floor, guides for preparing talks for hearing and visual impairments, an official ombudsperson, a special program for younger students, and a very clear commitment to internationalism and transnationalism.

But including the host cities is one of the best features of 4S. In addition to the expected sessions on Hurricane Katrina and climate change, there were sessions on Indigenous science and race. And the president of 4S included a history of New Orleans Indigenous communities in her plenary on the first night.

Sometimes I like to read a bit about the history of a city where I’m traveling. There’s plenty of good in New Orleans’s history, like Dixieland jazz. And there’s plenty of bad, like its centrality to American slavery. Especially American slavery in the period after the US banned the international slave trade in 1807. Before (and during) the trip, I read a book called The Half Has Never Been Told, a history of US slavery focusing on slavery’s centrality to the development of American capitalism.

Museums and Folderol

I’m starting my third day in New Orleans, and I’ll be here for a couple more. While there’s plenty more 4S, I’m spending my Thursday enjoying the city. I always visit the aquarium when I’m in a coastal city, and I’ll probably see the pharmacy museum and/or voodoo museum.

Hope you’re enjoying your Thursday!

The post 4S: New Orleans appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


Four Blogging Lessons I’ve Learned

After more than a year at it, I think I’ve learned a few blogging lessons along the way. Maybe these will be useful to you, and maybe not. Thinking about starting your own blog? Or just interested in some of the process details? Perhaps both? Whichever it is, here are four blogging lessons. 1. Promotion … Continue reading "Four Blogging Lessons I’ve Learned" The post Four Blogging Lessons I’ve Learned appeared first on Base and...

After more than a year at it, I think I’ve learned a few blogging lessons along the way. Maybe these will be useful to you, and maybe not. Thinking about starting your own blog? Or just interested in some of the process details? Perhaps both?

Whichever it is, here are four blogging lessons.

1. Promotion is important, and it’s hard work.

One thing to think about with a blog is how people get there. And so, that’s the focus of the first of the blogging lessons. Maybe people just Google some words and click your site? Sure, that’s part of it, and I’ll have more to say about that below. But active promotion plays a huge role, too.

I promote this blog in lots of places. I have social media pages on Facebook and Twitter. And I actively promote through my personal pages on Pinterest, Mix, and Reddit. In addition to all this stuff, several social bookmarking sites list Base and Superstructure or its individual posts.

All this is a bit more work than I expected. It doesn’t require active promotion all the time, but it does require a fair bit. I’ve mostly handled this by integrating use of social networking and social bookmarking sites into my daily routine.

So that’s one lesson: it takes some time. And not just writing time, but also promotion time.

2. Traffic spikes during major events.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know this. Stuff happens, and then people want to read about it. Not exactly a shocker, right?

Since this is a blog addressing politics, my traffic spikes during political events. During the first round of debates, posts on Julián Castro and Andrew Yang spiked. And during the second round of debates, it was mostly Yang and Bernie Sanders. Given that Castro and Yang were largely unknown when I wrote about them, those posts were particularly effective.

This pattern repeats itself. Last summer, I took an in-depth look at the Cathy Glasson campaign for Iowa Governor and its broader political implications both in Iowa and nationally in the US. It proved pretty popular, and I think it would’ve been much more popular had I written it in June rather than August. The primary was on June 5.

But it’s not just politics. An early post on baseball spiked around the start of the baseball season. And my post on leaving academia had a huge spike when another blog reposted it. In fact, that latter spike is this blog’s largest to date.

Wait, so what’s the second of the blogging lessons? If there’s a lesson here it’s one of timeliness and collaboration. Ask other people to share or re-post your stuff. And share theirs.

3. Traffic declines during the summer.

Okay, so I don’t want to make too big a deal of this. But there’s good evidence blog traffic declines during the summer.

Why? Who knows? Maybe people go outside more and spend less time in front of the screen. Maybe they’re taking more vacations. Or maybe more people decompress and avoid the kind of content political bloggers generate.

Whatever. Here comes the third of the blogging lessons. The summer’s a pretty good time to work on some of the non-writing tasks involved in blogging. What have I done this summer? Several things. I’ve worked on my editorial calendar, and I’ve done some of the promotion tasks I listed above. In particular, I built the Pinterest page. And, finally, I also did quite a few SEO tasks. I won’t bore you with the details, but mostly I solidified the blog’s internal links.

4. Lists and infographics generate clicks.

And we have the last of the blogging lessons. The fact of the matter is lists and infographics work. That is to say they generate clicks. Assuming clicks is what you want, these things get them.

Is this a good or a bad thing? I guess that’s the deeper question here. I really don’t know. If lists present useful information in a clear way, maybe they help people. But if it’s just clickbait, ads, and spam, maybe not. If infographics accessibly tell you what you need to know, they’re great. And if they don’t, they’re not.

That’s about the best I can do by way of an evaluation. Let’s not forget the irony that this post itself is a list. Was it a helpful one?

The post Four Blogging Lessons I’ve Learned appeared first on Base and Superstructure.


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