An End to the Blackmail


Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Jacobin:

After five months of hard bargaining, our partners, unfortunately, issued at the Eurogroup the day before yesterday an ultimatum to Greek democracy and to the Greek people. An ultimatum that is contrary to the founding principles and values of Europe, the values of our common European project.

They asked the Greek government to accept a proposal that accumulates a new unsustainable burden on the Greek people and undermines the recovery of the Greek economy and society, a proposal that not only perpetuates the state of uncertainty but accentuates social inequalities even more.

The proposal of institutions includes: measures leading to further deregulation of the labor market, pension cuts, further reductions in public sector wages and an increase in VAT on food, dining and tourism, while eliminating tax breaks for the Greek islands.

These proposals directly violate the European social and fundamental rights: they show that concerning work, equality and dignity, the aim of some of the partners and institutions is not a viable and beneficial agreement for all parties but the humiliation the entire Greek people.

These proposals mainly highlight the insistence of the IMF in the harsh and punitive austerity and make more timely than ever the need for the leading European powers to seize the opportunity and take initiatives which will finally bring to a definitive end the Greek sovereign debt crisis, a crisis affecting other European countries and threatening the very future of European integration.

Fellow Greeks, right now weighs on our shoulders the historic responsibility towards the struggles and sacrifices of the Greek people for the consolidation of democracy and national sovereignty. Our responsibility for the future of our country.

And this responsibility requires us to answer the ultimatum on the basis of the sovereign will of the Greek people.

A short while ago at the cabinet meeting I suggested the organization of a referendum, so that the Greek people are able to decide in a sovereign way. The suggestion was unanimously accepted.

Tomorrow the House of Representatives will be urgently convened to ratify the proposal of the cabinet for a referendum next Sunday, July 5 on the question of the acceptance or the rejection of the proposal of institutions.

I have already informed about my decision the president of France and the chancellor of Germany, the president of the ECB, and tomorrow my letter will formally ask the EU leaders and institutions to extend for a few days the current program in order for the Greek people to decide, free from any pressure and blackmail, as required by the constitution of our country and the democratic tradition of Europe.

More here.

Humanist among machines


Ian Beacock in Aeon (Photo by Marvin Lichtner/Getty):

He was an expert in world civilisations who made the cover of Time magazine in 1947, praised for writing ‘the most provocative work of historical theory… since Karl Marx’s Capital’. But in September 1921, long before he was the most famous historian in the world, a young Englishman named Arnold Toynbee boarded the Orient Express in Constantinople, bound for London. Fresh from a nine-month posting as a war correspondent for The Manchester Guardian, Toynbee scribbled down reflections about the shadow side of progress in his notebook, while the Balkans passed silently outside his window. Modern technology had changed the world for the better, he observed, but it could also wreak great havoc; there was always the risk that ‘the machine may run away with the pilot’. Human mastery of nature came at a price: in 1921, Europe’s battlefields were still cooling from the heat of industrial warfare and the blood of millions dead. They whispered the terms of this Faustian bargain to anyone who would listen. In the roaring 1920s, not many people were listening.

Europeans wanted better lives and they were certain that scientific progress would provide them. After the devastation of the Great War, rationalisation ruled from London to Moscow: empirical methods and new technologies were adopted to streamline everything from cityscapes to national populations, intellectual work to household chores. Many administrators and activists believed that there was no problem (material, institutional or social) that couldn’t be engineered away.

Sound familiar? Our times are confident, too. We’re optimistic that scientific thinking can explain the world, certain that the solutions to most of our problems are a quick technological fix away. We’ve begun to treat vexing social and political dilemmas as simple design flaws, mistakes to be rectified through a technocratic combination of data science and gadgetry. Progress is no longer a dirty word. The most influential prophets of this creed are in Silicon Valley in California, where, to the tune of billions of dollars, the tech industry tells a Whiggish tale about the digital ascent of humanity: from our benighted times, we’ll emerge into a brighter future, a happier and more open society in which everything has been measured and engineered into a state of perfect efficiency.

And we’re buying it.

More here.

The Man At the Gate


Virginia Woolf in Berfrois:

The man was Coleridge as De Quincey saw him, standing in a gateway. For it is vain to put the single word Coleridge at the head of a page — Coleridge the innumerable, the mutable, the atmospheric; Coleridge who is part of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley; of his age and of our own; Coleridge whose written words fill hundreds of pages and overflow innumerable margins; whose spoken words still reverberate, so that as we enter his radius he seems not a man, but a swarm, a cloud, a buzz of words, darting this way and that, clustering, quivering and hanging suspended. So little of this can be caught in any reader’s net that it is well before we become dazed in the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge to have a clear picture before us — the picture of a man standing at a gate:

. . . his person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence, his complexion was fair . . . his eyes were large and soft in their expression; and it was from the peculiar appearance of haze or dreaminess which mixed with their light, that I recognized my object.

That was in 1807. Coleridge was already incapable of movement. The Kendal black drop had robbed him of his will. “You bid me rouse myself — go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together.” The arms already hung flabby at his side; he was powerless to raise them. But the disease which paralysed his will left his mind unfettered. In proportion as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned. To confess, to analyse, to describe was the only alleviation of his appalling torture — the prisoner’s only means of escape.

Thus there shapes itself in the volumes of Coleridge’s letters an immense mass of quivering matter, as if the swarm had attached itself to a bough and hung there pendent. Sentences roll like drops down a pane, drop collecting drop, but when they reach the bottom, the pane is smeared.

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Little Vagabond

Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use'd well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We'd sing and we'd pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,

Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.

And God like a father rejoicing to see,
His children as pleasant and happy as he:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.

by William Blake (1757-1827)
from Songs of Innocence and Experience
Dover Thrift Editions

The Mystery of Marriage

Alice Gregory in The Atlantic:

Lead_largeMy husband and I got married last fall because we wanted to have a party. I doubt our friends, our family, or anybody else we know would have been surprised if we’d never done it at all: if we had continued living together, loving each other, one day having children, all without exchanging rings. The wedding was ideal—great cake, accessible by subway—but our life didn’t change after it was over. It never occurred to us that I would take his name; I didn’t want to (and didn’t) get pregnant. We live in the same small Brooklyn apartment we’d lived in before, and our finances are still only haphazardly half-combined. We weren’t expecting that our affection would either grow or diminish, and it hasn’t. Getting married wasn’t a romantic leap; neither was it merely, or even mostly, a pragmatic step. Whatever it was—delightfully unnecessary wrapping on an already very good present, perhaps—we made sure that there was more than plenty to drink. We represent the demographic (white, heterosexual, college-educated) that looked poised to lead an exodus from marriage and its fusty shackles as the family-values debate raged. But now, when data suggest that fewer Americans—across the income spectrum—are getting married than ever before, our cohort is playing the opposite role. We are the group most likely to wed, as marriage rates among lower-income men and women without college degrees rapidly decline. We’re also among those who count least on the symbolic and actual benefits of the institution: my husband and I aren’t battling for social validation of our love or for the conditions of middle-class stability.

…Arriving not just at the peak of wedding season but also amid this newly vocal worry over the marriage gap, The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales From Adam and Eve to Zoloft is an especially well-timed counterpoint to all the earnest, alarmist policy talk. Scaled for an oversize Restoration Hardware coffee table, the glossy anthology presumes to be preaching to a converted, yet far from reverent, audience: readers ready to examine, from an amused anthropological distance, the best, worst, and most equivocal aspects of marriage. The book’s editors, the long-wedded writers Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, aren’t wringing their hands over a cultural crisis or a precarious social rite, or trying to hammer out a marriage-promotion agenda. Rather, their trove of artifacts, collected over six years, is a revelation of the resilience, persistence, and capaciousness of, to quote Gabriel García Márquez, “the conjugal conspiracy.”

More here.

Can an Algorithm Hire Better Than a Human?

Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times:

AlgoHiring and recruiting might seem like some of the least likely jobs to be automated. The whole process seems to need human skills that computers lack, like making conversation and reading social cues. But people have biases and predilections. They make hiring decisions, often unconsciously, based on similarities that have nothing to do with the job requirements — like whether an applicant has a friend in common, went to the same school or likes the same sports. That is one reason researchers say traditional job searches are broken. The question is how to make them better. A new wave of start-ups — including Gild, Entelo, Textio, Doxa and GapJumpers — is trying various ways to automate hiring. They say that software can do the job more effectively and efficiently than people can. Many people are beginning to buy into the idea. Established headhunting firms like Korn Ferry are incorporating algorithms into their work, too.

If they succeed, they say, hiring could become faster and less expensive, and their data could lead recruiters to more highly skilled people who are better matches for their companies. Another potential result: a more diverse workplace. The software relies on data to surface candidates from a wide variety of places and match their skills to the job requirements, free of human biases. “Every company vets its own way, by schools or companies on résumés,” said Sheeroy Desai, co-founder and chief executive of Gild, which makes software for the entire hiring process. “It can be predictive, but the problem is it is biased. They’re dismissing tons and tons of qualified people.”

More here.

Decoding the Remarkable Algorithms of Ants

Emily Singer interviews Deborah Gordon in Quanta:

You called the harvester ant algorithm the “anternet.” Why?

I worked with Balaji Prabhakar, a colleague at Stanford, to figure out the algorithm that the harvester ants are using to regulate foraging. He pointed out that the algorithm is similar to the Transmission Control Protocol, which regulates data traffic on the Internet to make sure that data don’t go out unless there’s enough bandwidth. Both systems use simple, local feedback to regulate activity. I think we might be able to find other algorithms that ants use to solve engineering problems that we haven’t thought of yet. I am interested in the idea that evolution might produce different algorithms in different systems to solve the same problems.

But for evolution to produce algorithms that help the colony, evolution must work at the level of groups, not just individuals.

From the perspective of evolution, the colony is really the individual, because it is the colony that reproduces. Ants don’t make more ants, colonies make more colonies. So if we think about how ant behavior evolves, we have to look at colonies.

How do decisions made by individual ants alter the behavior of the colony as a whole?

In the desert, water is an important constraint. Ants lose water just being outside and meandering around. But they get their water from the seeds they eat, so they have to spend water to get water. No individual ant is making the decision to save water and stay home. But small differences in how ants respond to interactions can add up to big differences in how colonies forage, which in turn affects how many offspring colonies have. We found that natural selection favors the colonies that conserve water. I call it “the rewards of restraint.” I think this is the first study that’s been able to track the evolution of collective behavior in a natural population of animals. A simple, local behavior — how ants respond when one meets another — is being selected for because of the outcome for the whole colony.

More here.

A Partnership with China to Avoid World War


George Soros in the New York Review of Books (Pete Souza/White House):

International cooperation is in decline both in the political and financial spheres. The UN has failed to address any of the major conflicts since the end of the cold war; the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference left a sour aftertaste; the World Trade Organization hasn’t concluded a major trade round since 1994. The International Monetary Fund’s legitimacy is increasingly questioned because of its outdated governance, and the G20, which emerged during the financial crisis of 2008 as a potentially powerful instrument of international cooperation, seems to have lost its way. In all areas, national, sectarian, business, and other special interests take precedence over the common interest. This trend has now reached a point where instead of a global order we have to speak of global disorder.

In the political sphere local conflicts fester and multiply. Taken individually these conflicts could possibly be solved but they tend to be interconnected and the losers in one conflict tend to become the spoilers in others. For instance, the Syrian crisis deteriorated when Putin’s Russia and the Iranian government came to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue, each for its own reasons. Saudi Arabia provided the seed money forISIS and Iran instigated the Houthi rebellion in Yemen to retaliate against Saudi Arabia. Bibi Netanyahu tried to turn the US Congress against the nuclear treaty the US was negotiating with Iran. There are just too many conflicts for international public opinion to exert a positive influence.

In the financial sphere the Bretton Woods institutions—the IMF and the World Bank—have lost their monopoly position. Under Chinese leadership, a parallel set of institutions is emerging. Will they be in conflict or will they find a way to cooperate? Since the financial and the political spheres are also interconnected, the future course of history will greatly depend on how China tackles its economic transition from investment and export-led growth to greater dependence on domestic demand, and how the US reacts to it. A strategic partnership between the US and China could prevent the evolution of two power blocks that may be drawn into military conflict.

More here.

‘I Don’t Believe in God, but I Believe in Lithium’


Jaime Lowe in the NYT Magazine (photo by Olaf Otto Becker):

The manila folder is full of faded faxes. The top sheet contains a brief description of my first medically confirmed manic episode, more than 20 years ago, when I was admitted as a teenager to U.C.L.A.’s Neuropsychiatric Institute: “Increased psychomotor rate, decreased need for sleep (about two to three hours a night), racing thoughts and paranoid ideation regarding her parents following her and watching her, as well as taping the phone calls that she was making.”

I believed I had special powers, the report noted; I knew ‘‘when the end of the world was coming due to toxic substances’’ and felt that I was the only one who could stop it. There was also an account of my elaborate academic sponsorship plan so I could afford to attend Yale — some corporation would pay for a year of education in exchange for labor or repayment down the line. (Another grand delusion. I was a B-plus student, at best.)

After I was admitted to the institute's adolescent ward, I thought the nurses and doctors and therapists were trying to poison me. So was the TV in the rec room. I warned my one friend in the ward that its rays were trying to kill him. The generator outside my window was pumping in gas. The place, I was sure, was a death camp.

I refused meds because they were obviously agents of annihilation. It took four orderlies to medicate me: They pinned me to the floor while a nurse plunged a syringe into my left hip. Over time, I became too tired to refuse medication. Or perhaps the cocktail of antipsychotics started working. The Dixie cup full of pills included lithium, which slowly took hold of my mania. After a few weeks, I stopped whispering to the other patients that we were all about to be killed. Eventually, I stopped believing it myself.

More here.

Looking at the Birth of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice,’ 150 Years Old

20150626ALICE-slide-RJ8U-jumboRandy Kennedy at The New York Times:

THE chief virtue of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, was Lewis Carroll’s celebration of flux, an escape “into a world where things are not fixed horribly in an eternal appropriateness, where apples grow on pear-trees, and any odd man you meet may have three legs.”

But for the generations that have surrounded the Alice tales with a fiercely protective love, the attraction of such mutability might not extend to the book itself and its sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Consider the following nightmarish alternate universe: An author with the starchy pen name of Edgar Cuthwellis publishes a book with the flat-footed title “Alice’s Doings in Elf-Land,” or maybe the slightly less awkward but still pedestrian “Alice Among the Goblins.” His later book includes a mock-tragic ballad not about a walrus and a carpenter but about a walrus and a butterfly. Or maybe a baronet. Does a baronet sound better?

The Morgan Library & Museum’s captivating “Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland,” which opens on Friday as the newest entry in the crowded worldwide celebration of the 1865 publication of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” tells these kinds of unsettlingly Carrollian stories about the making of the stories Carroll began spinning for the three Liddell sisters — Lorina, Edith and Alice — on that famous Friday afternoon rowing trip up the Thames in 1862.

more here.

on ‘Sphinx’ by Anne Garréta

Sphinx-by-anne-garretaChris Clarke at The Quarterly Conversation:

Sphinx is a typical love story only in the way that it’s the tale of two people who have fallen in love, and things don’t go smoothly. Beyond that, there is something drastically different going on here. I’m afraid I’ll have to let the cat out of the bag: as reader, you have no idea of the gender of either half of this romantic equation. This information is artfully withheld by the author (and again in English by the translator, Emma Ramadan). While explaining the constraint at play is necessary to us for the purposes of this review, I’ll refrain from a full-out spoiler by not unveiling the final solution to the enigma. In Sphinx, which is told in the first-person, there are two principal characters. I, the genderless “me” of the narrator, and the object of this person’s desire, A***. It can take a little while to notice; as in some literary works, this sort of descriptive information is released gradually, over time, but eventually it becomes clear that we are missing a detail that we are not used to going without. Eventually the Oulipian constraint becomes not only evident but demandingly so. Is the narrator a man or a woman? What about A***? Is this a gay couple? Straight? Unconsciously mimicking the division of which the reader is beginning to become hyper-aware, the act of reading is also split in two. Or, if you read like me, in three. First, the love story goes on. Beautifully, musically, and tragically. Second, the hunt for hints or clues that will solve this riddle becomes equally important. And third, curiosity and wonderment at the craftsmanship involved in concealing such a simple detail.

more here.

‘The Spectators’ illustrates the push and pull of city life

La-et-jc-the-spectators-illustrates-the-push-a-001David L. Ulin at the LA Times:

I'm a walker in the city. For me, the sidewalk is the cornerstone of urban life. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, I go days without getting in a car, walking to the bank, the dry cleaner, the grocery store, strolling the streets in the late summer evenings, watching the sky turn purple, black.

We think of cities as anonymous, as sprawling — and they are. But they are also private, intimate, landscapes suspended between loneliness and community. This is what urban walking offers, a way to navigate the boundary between ourselves as individuals and part of the collective: city as identity.

Such an interplay sits at the center of Victor Hussenot’s beautiful, ethereal “The Spectators” (Nobrow: 96 pp., $22.95), a graphic novel — or is it? — about city walking, city haunting, all the ways the metropolis can get beneath our skins. The city here is Paris; Hussenot is a French artist who has published three books in his native country, although this is the first to appear in the United States.

There is no story per se, just a series of riffs, imaginative leaps. “Each of us,” he observes in a prologue, “sees the city in our own way .… From the rift between sleep and waking bursts of lights .… The mind’s eye is set free .… The invisible is revealed.”

more here.

Saturday Poem

At the foot of a northern pylon of the Harbour Bridge 
I have kept my vigil since the mighty span was built.
I come early in the day from worn-out corners of the area
and sit when the sun is out until the waning afternoon,
thence to another role, another manifestation of duty.
On my way I pass a cavern echoing with traffic noise.
When the sun is setting it blazes up like a testing tunnel
of the cosmic fire at the beginning and ending of universes.
It reminds me we are not that far in time from a kalpa’s ending.
More than four thousand million years in the lives
of the starry and the planetary entities
who influence us and are never truly seen.
At the pylon’s base I meet with seeming fools and sages,
more of the former, alas, but it was ever the same
at the other Thebes. The great towering stone columns could fittingly house
the troglodytic priests and harbour an inward turning flame
in bifurcated flowering for the known and unknown god
and my own dilapidated dispensation.
The only way the scene differs now
is in the lack of overt piety,
the thinning out of conscious pilgrims passing by me
here upon the seasonally withered grass.

by Bruce Beaver
from Charmed Lives
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia QLD, 1988

Obama Gets Real: The president finally speaks honestly about racism

Aisha Harris in Slate:

ObamaOn Friday, as much of the country rejoiced at the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, and Charleston, South Carolina, continued to mourn its dead, President Obama delivered what may go down as his most impassioned, biting, and unambiguous statement on race since being elected into office. This statement was, unfortunately, delivered by way of a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina state senator and reverend who was murdered last week, along with eight others, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist. But what started out as a moving celebration of the life of Pinckney (“Preacher by 13. Pastor by 18. Public servant by 23—what a life [he] lived.”)soon morphed into a rousing, mesmerizing political sermon, one in which Obama tackled pretty much all of the controversial angles that have intersected in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre: the confederate flag. Gun control. Systemic racism.

Obama was in the zone. Bit by bit, he unfurled the long strands of history—“bombs, arson, shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means to control”—that have, in their own ways, led to the shooting: “[Roof] sensed the meaning of his violent act,” he said, emphatically. He spoke, in the eloquent and fervent nature of a preacher, about the emotional and symbolic resistance of the past week, even as families and friends of the deceased grieve. Roof couldn’t fathom “how the United States of America would respond not merely with repulsion at this act, but with generosity and more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in the public eye.” He called out the Confederate flag for what it truly is, “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” He alluded to the Newtown, Connecticut, and the Colorado movie theater shootings, and reminded us of the “30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every day.” But most astounding was the way he talked about the less obvious, more pervasive aspects of racism in this country. “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize,” he said. “So that we are guarding against not racial slurs but also going against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote.”

More here.