Nouriel Roubini: Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralisation – it’s about greed

Nouriel Roubini in The Guardian:

With the value of bitcoin having fallen by about 70% since its peak late last year, the mother of all bubbles has now gone bust. More generally, cryptocurrencies have entered a not-so-cryptic apocalypse. The value of leading coins such as Ether, EOS, Litecoin and XRP have all fallen by over 80%, thousands of other digital currencies have plummeted by 90%-99%, and the rest have been exposed as outright frauds. No one should be surprised by this: four out of five initial coin offerings (ICOs) were scams to begin with.

Faced with the public spectacle of a market bloodbath, boosters have fled to the last refuge of the crypto scoundrel: a defence of “blockchain,” the distributed-ledger software underpinning all cryptocurrencies. Blockchain has been heralded as a potential panacea for everything from poverty and famine to cancer. In fact, it is the most overhyped – and least useful – technology in human history.

In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed.

More here.

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UN Says Climate Genocide Is Coming but It’s Actually Worse Than That

David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine:

Just two years ago, amid global fanfare, the Paris climate accords were signed — initiating what seemed, for a brief moment, like the beginning of a planet-saving movement. But almost immediately, the international goal it established of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius began to seem, to many of the world’s most vulnerable, dramatically inadequate; the Marshall Islands’ representative gave it a blunter name, calling two degrees of warming “genocide.”

The alarming new report you may have read about this week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which examines just how much better 1.5 degrees of warming would be than 2 — echoes the charge. “Amplifies” may be the better term. Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, the report declares, should the world warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, which it will do as soon as 2040, if current trends continue. Nearly all coral reefs would die out, wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure. Avoiding that scale of suffering, the report says, requires such a thorough transformation of the world’s economy, agriculture, and culture that “there is no documented historical precedent.” The New York Times declared that the report showed a “strong risk” of climate crisis in the coming decades; in Grist, Eric Holthaus wrote that“civilization is at stake.”

If you are alarmed by those sentences, you should be — they are horrifying. But it is, actually, worse than that — considerably worse.

More here.

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The Cruelty Is the Point: President Trump and his supporters find community by rejoicing in the suffering of those they hate and fear

Adam Server in The Atlantic:

The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track. This week alone, the news broke that the Trump administration was seeking to ethnically cleanse more than 193,000 American children of immigrants whose temporary protected status had been revoked by the administration, that the Department of Homeland Security had lied about creating a database of children that would make it possible to unite them with the families the Trump administration had arbitrarily destroyed, that the White House was considering a blanket ban on visas for Chinese students, and that it would deny visas to the same-sex partners of foreign officials. At a rally in Mississippi, a crowd of Trump supporters cheered as the president mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has said that Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump has nominated to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, attempted to rape her when she was a teenager. “Lock her up!” they shouted.

Ford testified to the Senate, utilizing her professional expertise to describe the encounter, that one of the parts of the incident she remembered most was Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge laughing at her as Kavanaugh fumbled at her clothing. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Ford said, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory, “the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” And then at Tuesday’s rally, the president made his supporters laugh at her.

More here.

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The Art of Helen DeWitt

Becca Rothfeld at The Nation:

DeWitt is famous for her ebulliently multilingual prose—which is unsurprising, given her itinerant childhood and rigorous schooling. She was born in Maryland in 1957, but her father was a member of the Foreign Service who would be posted to Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. Later, first as an undergraduate at Smith College and then as a DPhil candidate in classics at Oxford, DeWitt had the opportunity to hone her Latin and Greek.

Her perfervid eclecticism drives The Last Samurai, which contains excerpts from grammar textbooks, snippets of Japanese and Greek, and outbursts in the idioms of math and music. A work of breathless erudition, the novel whirls from art history to aerodynamics without braking or breaking stride. It follows Sibylla, a fanatically cerebral single mother struggling to educate her son Ludo, a genius who devoured the Odyssey in the ancient Greek at the age of 4.

more here.

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Is The Paper Economy Shriveling Up?

Chris Lehmann at The Baffler:

In other words, whether last week’s stampede proves to be the overture to worse market reckonings to come, or what our thought leadership class is now fond of calling a blip, it already stands out in the annals of investment chicanery for its sheer gratuitous awfulness. The stock market has never had anything more than a notionally symbolic relationship to the underlying conditions of the American economy, but here at the summit of neoliberal policy delusion, it’s been re-engineered into a full-blown monument to social cruelty for its own sake—something too crass and gruesome even to qualify as a conceptual art installation. The scandal won’t so much be in the magnitude of the next great recession, when and if it comes, but rather in the predatory status quo we’ve come to accept as the picture of economic health.

more here.

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On Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Journey to Armenia’

Jackson Arn at The Millions:

In 1930, exactly halfway between the end and the beginning of the end, Mandelstam traveled to Armenia, at the time a semi-autonomous arm of the Soviet Union. The Stalin regime was then in the process of sending writers to freshly annexed parts of the country; it was Mandelstam’s job to “discover” the triumphs of Socialism out west, proving that the territory’s belonged under Moscow’s thumb.

The report he would complete in 1933—available in a beautiful new edition from Notting Hill, translation by Sidney Monas—ranks among the weirdest and most enchanting works of 20th-century Russian literature. In an era of crudely complaisant books that trumpeted their patriotism on every page, Journey to Armenia dared to be uncategorizable: a travel journal that barely mentions traveling, written in a form that isn’t quite prose or poetry, by an author who hasn’t quite made up his mind about Socialism’s promises. By emphasizing these ambiguities instead of drowning them in propaganda, Mandelstam captured the USSR at a crossroads in its grim history, when Stalin’s crimes were already clear enough to many but the utopianism of the 1910s hadn’t worn off completely—to put it another way, at the last time when something like Journey to Armenia could be written and published, albeit in a censored form.

more here.

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The Bookish Life

Joseph Epstein in First Things:

The act of reading—office memos, newspaper articles on trade and monetary policy, and bureaucratic bumpf apart—should if possible never be separable from pleasure. Twenty or so years ago there was a vogue for speed-reading. (“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes,” Woody Allen quipped. “It involves Russia.”) But why, one wonders, would you wish to speed up an activity that gives pleasure? Speed-reading? I’d as soon take a course in speed-eating or speed-lovemaking. Yet the notion of speed generally hovers over the act of reading. “A real page-turner,” people say of certain novels or biographies. I prefer to read books that are page-stoppers, that cause me to stop and contemplate a striking idea, an elegant phrase, an admirably constructed sentence. A serious reader reads with a pencil in hand, to sideline, underline, make a note.

Nor, I suspect, is the bookish soul likely to read chiefly on a Kindle or a tablet. I won’t go into the matter of the aesthetics of book design, the smell of books, the fine feel of a well-made book in one’s hands, lest I be taken for a hedonist, a reactionary, and a snob. More important, apart from the convenience of Kindles and tablets—in allowing for enlarged print, in portability if one wants to take more than one or two books along when traveling—I have come to believe that there is a mysterious but quite real difference between words on pixel and words in print. For reasons that perhaps one day brain ­science will reveal to us, print has more weight, a more substantial feel, makes a greater demand on one’s attention, than the pixel. One tends not to note a writer’s style as clearly in pixels as one does in print. Presented with a thirty- or forty-paragraph piece of writing in pixels, one wants to skim after fifteen or twenty paragraphs in a way that one doesn’t ordinarily wish to do in print. Pixels for information and convenience, then, print for knowledge and pleasure is my sense of the difference between the two.

More here.

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Life Advice: Don’t Find Your Passion

Cindi May in Scientific American:

As a college professor, I have the privilege of advising young women and men as they make decisions about course selections, major areas of study, and life directions. Like other college students around the country, many of my advisees are searching for content they find interesting and meaningful, for work that is fulfilling and purposeful. Many are eager to “find their passion.” On the surface, these goals seem laudable. Instead of seeking power, status or personal wealth, some students are motivated to discover their interests and uncover the path that excites and drives them. They want a career that lights their fire. Presumably they are adhering to the adage, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Recent research by investigators at Yale and Stanford, however, suggests this approach might be a mistake. Rather than seek the one job or career path that ignites our passion, we should invest meaningfully in different interests and work to cultivate a passion in one or more fields. By this view, interests are nurtured over time, not discovered overnight.

A fixed mindset about interests is likely to be a hazard, however, when advances within one’s field require the integration of broad and diverse knowledge sets, or when resilience is needed in facing new hurdles. For these reasons, college students would be wise to enroll in a variety of courses and to seek an array of experiential learning opportunities, including those that stretch them out of their comfort zones. Rather than searching for their one true passion, they should understand that interests, expertise, and even passion can be cultivated through experience, persistence, and hard work.

More here.

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Tuesday Poem

The Old Novelist’s Lament

I miss the many that I was,
my lovers, my adventurers,
the women I went with to the Pole.
What was mine and what was theirs?
We were all rich. Now that I share
the cowardice of poverty,
I miss that courage of companionship.
I wish they might come back to me
and free me from this cell of self,
this stale sink of age and ills,
and take me on the ways they knew,
under the sky, across the hills.

Ursula K. Le Guin
from So Far So Good: Poems 2014–2018 
Copper Canyon Press, 2018

 

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October 15, 2018

More on Q and philosophical skepticism

by Dave Maier

Guy Elgat

The other day here at 3QD, philosopher Guy Elgat provided an interesting discussion of the conspiracy theory Q-Anon and some relevant philosophical issues about knowledge and rationality. In particular, he focused on a seemingly perverse response by Q-ers to our challenge to provide proof of their outlandish claims: that we “don’t have any proof there isn’t [a Q].” I had a number of reactions to this column, as well as to some of the comments from readers, but I didn’t want to dump a huge comment on the thread (plus I had to think about it), so I thought I would put my response here instead.

I get the impression that since the QAnon business is sheer madness, and thus not philosophically interesting, what interests Elgat about it is instead the apparent parallel, epistemically speaking, with the historically much more substantial question of whether God exists. (For instance, he notes that religious believers pull this same epistemic-leveling move, in discussion with atheists, as do Q-ers with us.) I find this a bit misleading, or at least confusing, and I think that in the Q case we should be a bit more choosy about what exactly the content of their controversial belief is, even if we sacrifice that potentially interesting parallel. (In fact I think religious faith is a much more complex phenomenon than simply “belief in God,” to which proofs of this or that are pretty completely irrelevant; but let’s leave God out of it entirely for now.)

Elgat’s argumentative strategy, in any case, is to assimilate the Q-er to the Cartesian skeptic, both of whom issue seemingly impossible challenges to prove them wrong: in the one case, that Q exists; in the other, that we are brains in vats and are thus massively deceived about “the external world” outside our senses. In each case, in Elgat’s telling, the challenger’s conclusion, should our proof fail, is that we thus are “in an epistemological stand-off” and must acknowledge that “since I cannot show you I am right and you cannot prove me wrong, I am perfectly within my rights, so to speak, to continue to believe in whatever I choose to believe.”

Elgat has two responses to this. Read more »

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The Mortar and The Pestle

by Michael Liss

My dad was a pharmacist. He had an old-fashioned store (including an actual soda fountain and stools) and some of the old-fashioned tools of the trade: scales and eye-droppers, spatulas and ointment bases, graded flasks and beakers, amphorae, and his mortar and pestle.

Pharmacy was a bit more of an art in those days and doctors often wrote prescriptions that had a little eye of newt in them. This could make Dad cranky, as they took time and counterspace, but I suspect that, secretly, he liked doing them. He would bring out the mortar and pestle (sometimes with a Remington’s Practice of Pharmacy), and, for all intents and purposes, he could have been an herbalist for a Pharaoh, so old was the tradition of combining exotic ingredients and using time and pressure until the desired potency and texture was achieved.

I have been thinking about that mortar and pestle the last few weeks. They remind me of how just the simplest set of tools, coupled with accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship, can produce something useful and even essential. And, they make me wonder whether, in this insane age, where ignorance and even falsehoods are celebrated and experience scorned, there is anything at all they still have to teach.

Last month, I attended the 16th annual conference of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society. The topic was “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Trump: Jobs, Wages, Trade, Growth, Health and Satisfaction.” The organizers made a real effort to include views from across the spectrum, although it’s fair to say a majority were not Trump supporters. Nevertheless, the overall tone was cautious and analytical, rather than hypercritical. These are serious people (including three Nobel Prize winners), all literate and classically trained, and all share a deep understanding of the laws of economics, and a vast knowledge of data and historical trends.

There is no way I can do justice to a day of such intense sobriety, so I’m going to take a shortcut. Trump is not like anyone in their collective experience. Read more »

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Monday Poem

Justicia

fickle thing with scales

she’s blind sometimes, but often
lifts her blindfold just enough
to appraise a man’s cache of melanin,
holes in shoes, shuffle in gate,
accent, religious state and what he owns
of cars and houses: she aligns her scales
with power’s weight under which she
also slouches

in this ruse, Justicia,
with a wink beneath her blinders,
tips her scales with sleight of hand
as covertly as she’s able
to hide the fixes of her minders
financed under tables

Jim
10/11/18

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When the Author Stands Naked

by Robert Fay

Somerset Maugham in 1957 (photo credit: S. Daveon).

I spent my freshman year at a drab suburban college pining for the cosmopolitan life of Boston. I whined and schemed and eventually engineered a transfer to Suffolk University in the city, where I was certain I’d meet fabulous Bohemian people who chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and read Rimbaud and William Blake by candlelight. Suffolk owned three Queen Anne revival buildings in the Back Bay and operated them as pseudo-rooming houses. I was 19 and had seemingly become an Emersonian self-actualized person overnight. I had propelled myself into the middle of a vibrant city, just two blocks from the upper-end of Newbury Street with Tower Records, the Avenue Victor Hugo book shop, the Trident Bookstore Café, Urban Outfitters (still indescribably outlaw in 1991) and Newbury Comics, the city’s punk rock record store.

I had arrived, or so it seemed, until I took stock of this new person and found he was remarkably unchanged, despite the sparkling offerings of the city.

Old problems persisted. The ground rules of interpersonal relations remained mysterious to me. I overshared with acquaintances and got clingy. Good people quickly fled, leaving me withdrawn and depressed, and vulnerable to centripetal forces within.

I desperately wanted to be loved by everyone—the consequences of a cold, unloving home I suppose—and I discovered people, particularly young women, had no patience for needy college sophomores.

Yet that autumn was not without its pleasure. I still recall one glorious week—crimson and vermillion leaves swirling across Commonwealth Avenue—when I curled up in bed with a Signet Classic paperback of Of Human Bondage (1915) by Somerset Maugham. I read the book with teenage abandon. I identified completely with the club-footed Philip Carey and his masochistic attraction to the cruel and vacuous paramour Mildred Rogers, who cared nothing for him, and got her kicks toying with his lap-dog like attention. Read more »

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Weekend Epicureanism

by Anitra Pavlico

I have been a practicing Stoic for a few years now, with lulls here and there. Stoicism provides a compelling framework for living in a purposeful and ethical way. The question in my mind is, is it perhaps a little too compelling? In other words, not much fun?

One obvious response is that a philosophy of life is not supposed to be fun. It is supposed to give us tools for how to approach living, how to structure our thoughts and goals. Any enjoyment of life may proceed if it does not entail harm to others or ourselves, but it is not an explicit concern of a philosophy whether we enjoy life or not. In fact, it seems pleasure is more likely to conflict with one’s particular philosophy or creed than conform to it or peacefully coexist with it. Or maybe that is just what my experience with Stoicism leads me to think. I have started to realize that perhaps Stoicism is not for me–at least, not all of the time. Maybe on the weekends, I can take a mental vacation from Stoicism and switch camps to Epicureanism.

* * *

Epicureanism and Stoicism at first glance appear to be as different from one another as two philosophies can be. For the ancient Stoics, virtue was the supreme goal of life; Epicureanism, meanwhile, holds that the aim of life is pleasure.

Stoicism’s main focus on virtue, or aretê, is a noble goal, one that envisions us maximizing our wisdom, our fortitude, our generosity toward fellow humans, and the temperance of our desires. It can give an idle mind a direction and impetus. To pursue virtue, there are certain mental tricks we keep in mind, such as that there are some things that are under our control and other things that are not. We should concentrate on the former, which includes our thoughts, words, and deeds. To everything else, we should be indifferent–including pleasure. Read more »

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A Lesson in Brand Management

by R. Passov

Tony: “Yeezy dropped.”                 

Big Tony: “Naw…For Real.”

“Yeah for real. But I’m not going there. Mass produced. For real, thirty-thousand in just New York alone.”

“For real?”

“I’m telling you. That’s how they did it.”

Tony gives me the rundown.

“Sometimes, Nike drops four or five pairs in one day, five in a week. A shoe like Jordans, every two to three weeks. Sometimes they drop a pair from ten years ago.” Tony tells me he’s set to get notified 15 minutes in advance of a drop. His credit card is stored. If he wants the shoe, it’s his.

I ask how many shoes he has and what he thinks they’re worth. “Just the ones that don’t fit in my closet I’d say is $20 to $30 thousand right there. With the shoes in boxes, $100 grand.”

How do you know? “If I want to see what their worth I go to Flight Club NYC. Online or their store in the City. Folks come all the way from London to buy the $20k Yeezy’s.” Read more »

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The Country Mouse and the City Mouse: A Brief History of American Identity, 1790-Present

by Akim Reinhardt

In 1790, shortly after the 13 states ratified the U.S. Constitution, the new federal government conducted its first population census. Its tabulations revealed an astonishingly rural nation. No less than 95% of all Americans lived in rural areas, either on a fairly isolated homestead (typically a farm) or in a very small town. How small? Fewer than 2,500 people. Meanwhile, just 1/20 of Americans lived in a town with more than 2,500 people. All told there were only 26 such towns, only half of which had so many as 5,000 people

In a nation of nearly 4,000,000 people, the ten largest cities had a combined population of only 152,000. And half of those top ten cities did not even have 10,000 people.

Yet, even then, tensions between rural and urban interests were already evident. Urbanites, particularly elite merchants, had drawn on their power, wealth, and influence to promoting constitutional ratification. At the forefront of opposition had been small farmers.

A general theme among opponents to ratification were concerns that the new constitution aimed to create a much stronger central government. Some worried it would erode the sovereignty of the individual states. Some thought it created something too much like the despotic British government they’d just rebelled against. And some fretted about the possible loss of personal liberties; the much vaunted Bill of Rights was not part of the original document.

Debate was fierce. Historians believe it’s possible that a majority of Americans actually opposed the new Constitution. Yet it passed it eventually. During an era when voting rights were tied to personal wealth, small farmers held little political sway in most states despite their numbers. Their concerns did lead to the first 10 Amendments being added, but in the end the Federalists, particularly active in larger cities such as New York and Boston, won the day. Yet the vengeance of anti-urbanites was close at hand. Read more »

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Time Travel with Galileo

by Leanne Ogasawara

Not all that long ago, I was at a dinner party with a group of astrophysicists, when the topic of time travel came up. Sitting up excitedly in my chair, I thought that things were taking a decidedly interesting turn. Actually, the evening had already taken an interesting turn; for our host–here on a visit to Caltech from the Marseille Astrophysics Laboratory– had decided to pass on the local hotels and instead booked a room up in the hills of Altadena, above Pasadena. And this wasn’t just any “room,” as we were all gathered outside a fully refurbished 1954 Prairie Schooner travel trailer.

The “retro retreat” was sleek and silvery like a rocket. I realized that not only was this an easy way to operate an Airbnb; but the schooner also happened to be the perfect size and shape for use as a time travel rocket.

My elation quickly turned to disappointment; for as the conversation progressed, it became clear that every single person sitting around that table–except for me– wanted to travel forward in time.

What?

Who in the world wants to travel forward in time? Is there any evidence whatsoever that things are going to become more interesting in the future? Read more »

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On the Road: Europe’s Invisible Corner

by Bill Murray

Hyvä asiakkaamme,
Ethän käytä huoneiston takkaa.
Se on tällä hetkellä epäkunnossa
Ja savuttaa sisään.

Dear customer,
Please don’t use the fireplace. It is for the moment out of order and the smoke comes into the apartment.

Now wait a minute. We might need that fireplace in Lapland in December. Just now it’s three degrees (-16C) outside. The nice lady couldn’t be more sympathetic, but they just manage the place. Fixing the fireplace requires funding that can’t be organized until we are gone.

She promises we’ll stay warm thanks to a magnificent heater, a sauna and the eteinen, one of those icebox-sized northern anterooms that separate the outside from the living area. I have fun with the translation, though. I imagine that fool Ethän has busted the damned fireplace again.

• • •

Welcome to Saariselkä, Finland, where it’s dark in the morning, briefly dusk, then dark again for the rest of the day. The sun never aspires to the horizon. Fifty miles up the road Finland, Norway and Russia meet at the top of Europe.

But look around. It’s entirely possible to live inside the Arctic Circle. It takes a little more bundling up and all, and you need a plan before you go outside. No idle standing around out there.

There are even advantages. Trailing your groceries after you on a sled, a pulkka, is easier than carrying them. There’s a word for the way you walk: köpöttää. It means taking tiny steps the way you do to keep your balance on an icy sidewalk.

Plus, other humans live here, too, and they seem to get along just fine. Infrastructure’s good, transport in big, heavy, late model SUVs, a community of 2600 people, all of them attractive, all of whom look just like each other.

I imagined “selling time shares in Lapland” was a punch line, but it’s an actual thing. A jammed-full Airbus delivered us from Helsinki, one of three flights every day to Rovaniemi. Read more »

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