Monday, July 27, 2015
It is time for 3QD's summer subscription drive. As you know, we are able to run the site only because our regular readers support us through subscriptions or one-time payments. Whichever you'd like to do, please take a couple of minutes and use the appropriate button near the top of the left-hand column to make a contribution.
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New posts below.
Monday, August 03, 2015
by Thomas R. Wells
Every week or so a literature professor publishes an eloquent essay about what literature is good for. Here's a nice example. The backdrop is the decades long decline of literature degree programmes in the Anglophone world. This is why you need us!, they argue, somewhat plaintively.
These essays tend to circle around the same handful of arguments. An especially prominent theme, most frequently associated with Martha Nussbaum's defence of the humanities, is that literature is good for us because it promotes empathy, and the practice of empathy is the heart of liberal ethics and the functioning of civilised society.
Unfortunately, defending literature in this way multiplies rather than reduces philistinism. By mistaking means and ends it excludes the very heart of the matter from consideration. The joy of literature is transmuted into duty. This is in line with how professional academics understand literature - as their daily work, albeit work that they love. But if this is how the people who claim to love literature talk about it, no wonder reading is in decline.
from an Adirondack Chair
close by the hydrangea in white, and a wheelbarrow,
old and purely struck in rust,
the hydrangea’s lace planets in close galaxies of
the barrow’s hard, black tire and load of pulled weeds
which, until the other day, into life were thrust
now busted, heaped in a dry, foot-deep dome
in the barrow’s bed—
soon this pile of past-life will go, returning home
to nowhere in particular, but home nevertheless
to be (in quantum parts, by chance) reassigned
a place in an eternal ring
to bloom again, to be a particle
in the Unknown’s newest thing
by Jim Culleny
by Charlie Huenemann
Philosophy students are typically taught the wrong lesson from the great Scottish skeptic David Hume. The standard story goes something like this. British empiricists like Locke and Berkeley wanted to connect everything we know to what we experience through the senses. The welcome consequence of this strategy is that all the stuff we see and interact with stays known - but the spooky invisible stuff, ranging from magical spirits to substantial forms and other metaphysical clutter, all goes by the wayside. But (the story continues) Hume pointed out that this strategy ends up far more corrosive than anyone expected: for, if we hold our beliefs to what we actually experience, we shall have no knowledge of causality. We see one event, and another; but never do we experience the metaphysical glue that connects the two, and forces the second event to follow the first.
The take-away lesson is that, according to Hume, we really have no knowledge of causality, and - if we are rational - we should be completely surprised every time we strike a match. This of course seems utterly loony, and it leads to spirited classroom arguments (which by itself, I’ll allow, is a good reason to teach Hume this way). How could it possibly be right that the fully rational person would not see causality at work in the world?
Well, it isn’t; and in truth, Hume never thought it was. As he defended himself to an incredulous correspondent,
... I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that any thing might arise without a Cause: I only maintain’d, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition [sense experience] nor Demonstration; but from another Source.
Hume wasn’t a skeptic about causality. He only maintained that the causal knowledge we have does not arise from our sense experience or from our reasoning.
What’s the difference? It turns out to be an interesting one. In the first (wrong) story, the lesson is that there is no such thing as causality. That’s certainly a bold claim, but it’s not in the least compelling. No one can take it seriously except as some kind of trivial philosophical nut to crack. In the second (correct) story, the lesson is that human knowledge is not as straightforward as philosophers would like. What we know does not boil down to rational inferences from observations and arguments. It’s more natural, more organic, than that.
Resin, Fiber Glass, Madera, Screen Cotton, Cuerda Arenas, Cerrejón, Coal.
by Carl Pierer
This column last month, here, provided a first glimpse at the fascinating field of braids. Beneath their obvious beauty – to which their widespread aesthetic use bears testimony - lies a deep complexity. They allow for explorations of many beautiful areas of mathematics. They branch into topology, group theory, and geometry, to give some examples. The previous essay explored the theoretical side of braids, the most important results of which were:
- A mathematical concept of braids: Consisting of a certain number of strands n, say, together with a specification of how and where these strands cross each other. Furthermore, these strands (if they are not crossing) run parallel and we may adopt the convention that they are running from top to bottom. To avoid ambiguity, we require further that there are no two crossings at the same horizontal level. It is clear that for the braid to have any crossings at all, it must have at least two strands. If a braid does not have any crossings, it is called the trivial braid.
- The word problem: Thus defined, a braid can be represented with a description of how the strands cross each other. Let σI mean the ith strand is crossing over the i+1th strand and a negative power, σi-1 (read: sigma i inverse), mean the ith strand crosses under the i+1th strand. Then, a description of a braid using σI's is called a braid word. The problem is: given two braids, how can we decide whether they are the same? More particularly, given a braid, how do we determine whether it is trivial?
- A solution to the word problem: The method of handle reduction. If a braid contains handles, it can be reduced. If the braid is the same as the trivial braid, this algorithm will return the trivial braid. If the braid is not trivial, this algorithm will return an equivalent braid that does not contain any handles.
It ended there with a very cursory glance at the connection between braids and dances. This idea deserves to be dealt with in greater depth, for it is not only in the abstract spheres of pure mathematics that braids demonstrate a fascinating depth. Rather surprisingly, their mathematical properties find unexpected applications to the more practical problems of motion planning for robots.
by Brooks Riley
by Hari Balasubramanian
Decisions under demand uncertainty – the so called newsvendor problem.
In October 2007, my father and I took a day train from Bangalore to Chennai. About halfway into the 7-hour journey is a station called Jolarpet, where the train stops for ten minutes. As at other stations, there were dozens of vendors – each with a simple wheeled stall or a wooden basket or a steel container – engaged in a frenzy of small scale entrepreneurship. All sorts of items were being sold: snacks, tea, coffee, water, bananas, flowers, cheap Chinese goods – toys, combs, and, in what became a curiosity and a topic of detailed conversation among our fellow travelers, pens that doubled as flashlights.
But my father was most interested in those who sold vadas, a South Indian specialty, a round, deep-fried snack with a hole in middle – like a donut but not sweet at all – made from a batter of lentils (I've described just one variety). My father felt the vadas sold by vendors at the Jolarpet station were better than those made in the train's pantry. They were hot, had just the right texture, and the timing – late afternoon – was just right to have them with coffee. Three fairly busy trains – including the Bangalore-Chennai Brindavan Express on which we were traveling that day – arrive at Jolarpet station at roughly the same time. "How many vadas get sold?" my father wondered. "Maybe a thousand of them, maybe even more."
That comment got me thinking. If you are a vendor, the critical question is how many vadas should I make? The vadas have to be fried right before the train arrives so that they are hot and ready to sell during the ten minutes that the train stops. If I fry too many and not enough passengers buy them then what I am left with is wasted, since a vada that is not freshly made is unappetizing. On the other hand, if I fry too few, then I lose the opportunity to sell to passengers who need them. So what is the right number to make given this uncertainty in demand?
The technical name for this dilemma is the newsvendor problem. Replace vadas with newspapers and you have an identical situation. If a newsvendor on the street doesn't sell enough newspapers, what's left is wasted since today's newspaper won't sell tomorrow. If the vendor has too few newspapers and runs out of them, then potential customers are lost.
Sunday, August 02, 2015
Barbara J. King in NPR:
This week, Switzerland's Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand may race as a woman in international competition. This decision is significant because, just last year, Chand was denied by track and field's governing body (the International Association of Athletics Federations or IAAF) the right to compete against women because her natural levels of testosterone were considered too high for a female athlete. As The New York Times reported Monday, Chand is now cleared for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — if she qualifies. It's likely that this ruling also will serve as a legal precedent for women in sports beyond just track and field. The court did grant the IAAF two years to provide further evidence in support of their so-called "hyperandrogenism regulation." Chand's victory, therefore, rests on a suspension, rather than an outright overturning, of the biologically based rule.
Even so, there's no doubt this ruling represents a step forward for women like Chand who refuse to alter their bodies by chemical or surgical means in order to conform to arbitrary biological standards of what it means to be a woman. Also this week, a young man named Gavin Grimm from Gloucester, Va., was profiled in a piece by The New York Times editorial board. Grimm, whom I have met and talked with, is a transgender teenager who was assigned female status at birth but who now identifies as male. Originally, when he asked to use the male restroom at his high school, all went smoothly. Then, parents got wind of the fact and the small semi-rural county where I live exploded. I attended (and briefly spoke at) last fall's school board meeting about the issue, a gathering accurately described by the Times in this passage:
"Gavin Grimm sat quietly in the audience last November as dozens of parents at a school board meeting in Gloucester County, Va., demanded that he be barred from using the boys' restrooms at school. They discussed the transgender boy's genitals, expressed concern that he might expose himself and cautioned that being in a men's room would make the teenager vulnerable to rape. One person called him a 'freak.'"
Richard Marshall interviews Philip Kitcher in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: You’ve written books on science in a democratic society, living with Darwin, the ethical project and an invitation to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. This is a broad field of interests and captures the flavour of your philosophical position where you argue for the importance of both science and humanities. How did your philosophical career begin? Were you always asking questions, reading and thinking?
Philip Kitcher: I rather stumbled into philosophy. When I began my undergraduate career at Cambridge, I studied mathematics (pure and applied, with a dash of theoretical physics). Under the British system, I’d had to specialize at age 15, and I found it very hard to decide between mathematics and literature (English, French, and German). After two years of undergraduate study, it was clear that I was bored by the regime of problem-solving required by the Cambridge mathematical tripos. A very sensitive mathematics don recommended that I talk to the historian of astronomy, Michael Hoskin, and the conversation led me to enroll in the History and Philosophy of Science for my final undergraduate year. I’d originally intended to concentrate in history of science, but reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions prompted me to switch to philosophy of science. Despite the fact that I hadn’t done any serious philosophy as Princeton understood it, I was accepted as a graduate student in the philosophy side of Princeton’s HPS program (now defunct). I struggled at first, but eventually managed to correct some of my initial ignorance.
But I think that, all along, I was occupied by a range of questions, often different from those fashionable in the professional philosophy of the past half century, that have sometimes troubled philosophers in the past. It’s taken me several decades to work out my own philosophical agenda, and it is, as your question suggests, wide. Some people would probably describe it as quite weird. Maybe this interview will dissolve some of that sense of weirdness.
Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times:
The fundamental promise of American democracy is that every citizen gets a vote, but delivering the franchise from on high and in the face of violent local opposition has always been a complicated legal proposition. The 13th Amendment freed the slaves, and the 14th Amendment gave them citizenship. But the key to Reconstruction was the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which did something far more radical, not just guaranteeing (male) former slaves the right to vote but giving Congress the authority to enforce that right state by state, an authority that to this day many legislators see as a drastic intrusion into local affairs.
The new laws immediately enfranchised more than 700,000 black Southerners. Although blacks made up just 13 percent of the overall United States population, they made up 36 percent of the South’s population and a much higher percentage in some states, including a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina. Their enfranchisement was a shock to the political system that almost exclusively benefited Republicans, the party of Lincoln.
Like its former Confederate neighbors, North Carolina sent several black Republicans to Congress. In the state’s General Assembly, legislators with the support of black Republicans wrote a new state Constitution in 1868 that created state-supported public schools; apportioned state representation based on population rather than wealth — a setback for the 1 percent of that era, the plantation owners; and, eventually, instituted a property tax.
Democrats throughout the South responded to the growing influence of black legislators with a brutal effort to suppress the black vote, enforced by the Ku Klux Klan and its many paramilitary imitators, who kept blacks from election polls at gunpoint and whipped or lynched many who resisted. The Southern Democrats ran on an open message of white supremacy and quickly retook statehouses, city halls and courthouses throughout the South. Within 15 years of the Civil War’s end, Reconstruction was just a memory. What followed was deconstruction: the era of Jim Crow, the poll tax, the literacy test, double primaries and a host of other mechanisms that blocked the black vote. For decades, most black citizens in the South had no practical right to vote.
Philip Ball in New Statesman:
For an introduction to this biogerontological mythology, I recommend last year’s documentary The Immortalists, which profiles two of the most vocal advocates of scientific immortality: the computer scientist Aubrey de Grey and the biotech entrepreneur Bill Andrews. Yet the film shows that these men aren’t lone mavericks with unconventional ideas about ageing and its abolition, but participants in a complex and self-supporting network of techno-myth. And as is the case with, for example, human cloning, nutrition and the surprising properties of water, there is no convenient partitioning here into respectable and cranky science. In consequence, the immortality market can’t simply be eliminated by the appliance of science; it needs to be understood as a cultural phenomenon. Ageing is partly genetic but there are no “ageing genes” – merely ordinary genes that may cause problems in later life. Age-related conditions such as heart failure, dementia and cancer typically stem from an interplay between genes and environment: we can inherit predispositions but environmental factors such as diet and pollution affect whether they manifest. (Research that was widely reported early this year as showing that most cancers are due to “bad luck”, irrespective of environmental influences, in fact had a more complex message.)
It is surprising, perhaps alarming, that we know so little about ageing.
An interview with Carlos Fraenkel, over at 5 Books:
Can philosophy save the Middle East?
I think it can contribute to diminishing tensions, but I don't think it can save the Middle East. My wife sometimes jokingly says I should take down ISIS and that would guarantee me the Nobel Prize. But some people really have these very inflated expectations of philosophy and think it's a panacea that can solve every problem. I don't think so.
One example of where I think it can actually make a positive contribution is a series of workshops I did over the last few years. The first one took place at a Palestinian university in East Jerusalem. I co-taught a class there with the Palestinian intellectual and philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, who was also the president of the university. The basic idea was to read texts by Plato and the medieval Muslim and Jewish philosophers who build on Plato, and develop a philosophical interpretation of Islam and Judaism.
We started with Plato and one of the questions we discussed was 'Is violence justified?' That's obviously a key question of both sides of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Nusseibeh himself is a prominent advocate of non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation, but non-violence is not a very popular idea among the average Palestinian citizen. Understandably: people get hit, they want to hit back. Nusseibeh argued that non-violence might be a more efficient means to achieve the ends that Palestinians want to achieve, namely ending the occupation and gaining sovereignty. His argument was that Israel is a kind of enlightened occupier, like the British in India. Non-violent resistance doesn't always work, but it does work in some contexts. It worked in India and he thinks it would also work in Palestine.
We had a very interesting discussion about that when we read Plato's Republic, because one of the key virtues that Plato advocates in the Republic is self-control, he thinks it's something every human being should develop. Without self-control, you cannot live according to the instructions of reason because your emotions will always push you to do things that go against reason. We discussed how self-control can help you not to hit back when you're facing an aggressor, knowing that not hitting back will actually serve your purpose better. You hold back your anger, you take the hit and you do something that will be more efficient to defeat your opponent. I think you can see there how this philosophical idea of living according to reason via self-control can make a positive contribution in this particularly fraught Middle-Eastern context. Does that mean philosophy can save the Middle East?
Adam Taylor in the Washington Post:
Just after midnight Saturday, one of the most perplexing border disputes in the world officially ended. India and Bangladesh began the exchange of over 160 enclaves – small areas of sovereignty completely surrounded on all sides by another country – and in so doing ended a dispute that has lasted almost 70 years.
This act will have a major effect on the lives of more than 50,000 people who resided in these enclaves in Cooch Behar. Where they had been surrounded by a country they didn't have citizenship in for decades, now they will finally gain access to things like schools, electricity and health care.
For curious cartographers and others obsessed with geopolitical oddities, however, it's an end of an era. The exchange between India and Bangladesh means that the world will not only lose one of its most unique borders, but it will also lose the only third-order enclave in the world – an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by an enclave surrounded by another state.
More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]
Emily Anthes in Nature:
Before making the first incision, confirm the patient's identity. Mark the surgical site. Ask about allergies. Discuss any anticipated blood loss. Introduce yourself by name. These are some of the 19 tasks on the World Health Organization (WHO) Surgical Safety Checklist, a simple list of actions to be completed before an operation in order to cut errors and save lives.
In 2007 and 2008, surgical staff at eight hospitals around the world tested the checklist in a pilot study. The results were remarkable. Complications such as infections after surgery fell by more than one-third, and death rates dropped by almost half. The WHO recommended that all hospitals adopt its checklist or something similar, and many did. The UK National Health Service (NHS) immediately required all of its treatment centres to put the checklist into daily practice; by 2012, nearly 2,000 institutions worldwide had tried it. The idea of checklists as a simple and cheap way to save lives has taken hold throughout the clinical community. It has some dynamic champions, including Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, who led the pilot study and has spread the word through talks, magazine articles and a best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto (Metropolitan, 2009).
But this success story is beginning to look more complicated: some hospitals have been unable to replicate the impressive results of initial trials. An analysis of more than 200,000 procedures at 101 hospitals in Ontario, Canada, for example, found no significant reductions in complications or deaths after surgical-safety checklists were introduced.
Walter Kirn in Good:
The man beside me at the blackjack table, a tipsy, middle-aged salesman, was on a winning streak. Again and again, over half an hour of play, he’d drawn the cards he’d needed to beat the dealer, amassing stacks of $100 chips that came, by my count, to more than $6,000. Fortune was smiling on him, but not on me—I was down $200. It was hard not to feel like I was doing something wrong, even though I was playing by the book, employing what blackjack manuals call “perfect strategy.” As the salesman’s streak continued, my sense of self-pity deepened to the point that I began to place irrational bets, playing wild hunches that didn’t pan out and left me even further in the hole. Experience told me that it was time to stop, and so I did, fighting a voice that told me to play on, that my rotten luck was bound to change. An hour later, I passed by the table and saw the salesman sitting with his head down, his winnings gone. He’d listened to another voice, apparently: One that told him his marvelous luck would carry on.
Since taking up gambling in my early 30s, I’ve learned that the casino is a harsh classroom. In a thousand ways, it has taught me two main lessons: that the odds are the odds, and they will always ultimately prevail; and that the mind (and particularly the ego) is full of trickery. These tricks take myriad forms, but they share a common theme: The odds apply chiefly to others. You are special.
Shot on November 21, 2014 at her studio. Currently in post-production on a short film profile. (COMING SOON)
As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
filled his mouth. It seemed as if he might smother.
Why should he be stricken
with grief, not for his mother and father,
but a woman slinking from the fur of a sea-otter
In Portland, Maine, or, yes, Portland, Oregon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
and why should he now savour
the tang of her, her little pickled gherkin,
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father?
He looked about. He remembered her palaver
on how both earth and sky would darken-
'You could barely tell one from the other'-
while the Monarch butterflies passed over
in their milkweed-hunger: 'A wing-beat, some reckon,
may trigger off the mother and father
of all storms, striking your Irish Cliffs of Moher
with the force of a hurricane.'
Then: 'Milkweed and Monarch 'invented' each other.'
He looked about. Cow's-parsley in a samovar.
He'd mistaken his mother's name, 'Regan, ' for Anger';
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
he could barely tell one from the other.
Saturday, August 01, 2015
In a photograph titled “Ward 81″, a woman sits on a bed. She is young, a teenager. She sits cross-legged and wears her clothes and hair like a teenager would. The wall behind this teenage girl is covered in pictures. The pictures, magazine cutouts, are taped to the wall and some of the edges have been carefully rounded with scissors. There are pictures of animals and a picture of a tree. Below a picture of the Mona Lisa the name BRENDA is written in marker. In this room that could belong to any teenager, the walls are strangely close. The bed is pushed up to the radiator and the metal headboard is too white and plain. The young woman’s eyes are blank—one eye tilts toward her nose. Her left arm is outstretched bearing the evidence of self-inflicted wounds and on the wall above the radiator, also written in marker, are the words, “I wish to die.”
This photograph was taken by Mary Ellen Mark, who died on May 25. Mark was adamant that her work be called documentary photography. “I’m a documentary photographer,” she told Bomb magazine in 1989. “That’s what I’ve always wanted to be; that’s where my heart and soul is.” The word “document,” when applied to photographs, conveys the sense of proof, evidence, testimony. A document is an affirmation of the subject being documented — a proof of that subject’s existence, if nothing else.
Jacobs, one of the great non-fiction writers of this and the last century, is usually found shelved under “travel writing”, which is the truth but certainly not the whole truth, any more than it adequately describes the books of Bruce Chatwin or Patrick Leigh Fermor. Wherever they happened to go, the travel all these writers undertook was essentially a journey through themselves, and the reports they made drew their power from the geography of their memories. It was their imaginations that roamed as much as their boats or mules.
Memory, too, is the central strand of Jacobs’ last book,Everything is Happening, about his long obsession with Diego Velázquez’s elaborate mirror-game of truth and illusion, “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honour). All too often, incomplete works are posthumously published as acts of friendship, piety or curiosity rather than for their intrinsic value. This is emphatically not the case with Everything is Happening. Ending as it does just with Jacobs on the verge of entering the royal palace in Madrid where Velázquez’s painting originally hung, the broken narrative is tantalising (though supplied with an excellent coda and introduction by his friend Ed Vulliamy) since one has the impression that, for all the oceans of print that have been expended on the notoriously enigmatic picture, Jacobs is about to give us a decisive revelation.
Over at Philosophy Bites:
Michel Foucault was a prolific and original thinker. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast Susan James discusses some of the ways in which he explored questions about knowledge in his writing.
Shamus Khan in Aeon:
Last month, the US Supreme Court affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The decision was a major achievement for a liberation movement that began nearly half a century ago. Throughout the struggle for marriage equality, supporters drew parallels with the oppression of African Americans, be that anti-miscegenation laws or legalised segregation. Yet one stark difference between these civil rights movements has escaped notice.
African-American activists aggressively called out arguments about genetic and biological differences as legacies of racist, Nazi science. By contrast, the marriage-equality movement has embraced biological determinism. Gay and lesbian activists have led the way popularising the idea that identity is biologically determined.
The proffered perspective is that sexuality is not a choice, but a way we are born. Getting Americans to believe this was a struggle. In 1977, according to the first Gallup poll on the question, only 13 per cent of Americans believed people were born gay. Even in 1990, only 20 per cent thought of sexuality as biologically innate. Yet since 2011 support has spiked, and today just under half of Americans think that the sexuality of gays and lesbians is determined at birth. Support for gay marriage and support for the idea of being ‘born that way’ closely track one another.
While this biological determinism of sexuality has been associated with a great triumph for the gay-rights movement, it’s been a great loss for our public discourse. The battle for gay marriage has been won, and other, even more challenging battles lie before the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement. To succeed in them, activists and scholars must abandon the fundamental fiction they have propagated. The false belief in biological determinism does considerable damage. It marginalises some of the most precarious members of the gay community, such as the transgendered; it limits our capacity to discuss what makes a good and just community; and it leads many of us to misunderstand ourselves and society.
Perry Anderson in The New Left Review:
It will soon be a quarter of a century since Russia left communism behind. Its present ruler has been in power for fifteen years, and by the end of his current term in office will have all but equalled the tenure of Brezhnev. From early on, Western opinion of his regime divided sharply. That under Putin—after a period of widespread misery and dislocation, culminating in near state bankruptcy—the country had returned to economic growth and political stability, was evident by the end of his first term; so too the popularity he enjoyed because of these. But beyond such bare data, there was no consensus. For one camp, increasingly vocal as time went on, the pivots of Putin’s system of power were corruption and repression: a neo-authoritarian state fundamentally inimical to the West, with a wrapping of legal proprieties around a ramshackle pyramid of kleptocracy and thuggery.
This view prevailed principally among reporters, though it was not confined to them: a representative sample could be found in Economist editor Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War (2009), Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s Mafia State (2012), Standpoint contributor Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire (2013), but expressed no less pungently by a jurist like Stephen Holmes. For Lucas, Putin, having seized power with a ‘cynical putsch’, and maintained it with the ‘methods of terrorists and gangsters’, had ‘cast a dark shadow over the eastern half of the continent’. For Harding, under Putin’s tutelage, ‘Russia has become bullying, violent, cruel and—above all—inhuman’. For Judah, Russia was ‘an anguished, broken society’ that is one of ‘history’s great failures’, in the grip of an apocalyptic system in which, since ‘Putin cannot leave power without fear of arrest’, the West ‘should ask itself whether it will offer him exile to avert blood’. For Holmes, ‘behind the mask of an authoritarian restoration’ there was no more than the ‘lawless feeding frenzy’ of ‘an internally warring, socially detached and rapacious oligarchy’, whose ‘various groups fight to grab their portion of massive cash flows’.
The opposite camp had greater weight in the academy, where works by the two leading authorities on the politics of post-communist Russia delivered—without failing to note its darker sides—substantially favourable verdicts on Putin’s record in office. David Treisman’s study of the country in the first two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, The Return (2011), expanded on his earlier claim that Russia had become a normal middle-income country, with all the typical shortcomings of these—crony capitalism, corruption, income inequality, media bias, electoral manipulation—but one that was incomparably freer than the petro-states of the Gulf with which it was often compared; less violent than such a respectable member of the OECD as Mexico; less statist in its control of energy than Brazil. Most Russians felt their freedom had increased since 1997, and their happiness too. ‘Does it really serve the West’s long-run interests’, he asked, ‘to assume some unproven imperial agenda, to exaggerate the authoritarian features of the current regime, to demonize those in the Kremlin and romanticize its liberal opponents?’
Cynthia Barnett in the New York Times:
On the 25th of October in 1859, the steam clipper Royal Charter rounded the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales on what was supposed to be the celebratory last evening of its two-month journey from Melbourne to Liverpool. Some 500 men, women and children were nearly home, many feeling blessed with fortunes worked from Australia’s Ballarat goldfields. Gold bullion and specie were crammed into pockets, hidden in money belts and locked up in the strongroom.
The day’s weather had been murky, the barometer falling. As the Royal Charter neared Anglesey’s rocky cliffs, an ominous haze overtook the skies of early evening. No one knows whether the ship’s experienced captain, Thomas Taylor, saw these and other telltale signs, according to Peter Moore’s riveting account of the battle between ship and storm that raged over the next 12 hours. “Confronted with a decision — 59 days out from Melbourne on a 60-day voyage, passengers toasting him at the dining table,” Moore writes in “The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future,” “Taylor chose to sail on.”
The decision is one of the most second-guessed in the history of meteorology. It is also one of the most fateful, and not only for the terrifying finale that saw the Royal Charter bashed onto the rocks, all but 41 of its passengers crushed or drowned, many weighted down by the gold in their pockets.
Then as now, it often takes disaster to bring about wise policy changes that emerge from science, the best ideas so often ahead of their time.