France: Is There a Way Out?

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Mark Lilla in the NYRB:

While the political class fumbled, the French economy remained dangerously stalled. At 10 percent, the unemployment rate is the highest in twenty years and one of the highest in Europe. (The German unemployment rate is 6 percent, the lowest in twenty years.) Half of those out of work have been so for at least a year. The Hollande government recognizes that structural reforms (such as changes in working hours) are needed but is stymied by the opposition of unions, Socialist members of Parliament, and the wider public, which is economically conservative, attached to its suffocating web of small privileges, and ready to resist forcibly if provoked. (It must be added that EU debt policies have exacerbated the problem by preventing the government from further stimulating growth and investing in public works.)

In October Air France employees protesting a company plan to reduce its workforce broke into negotiations and attacked two company officials, who were saved by their union counterparts. Pictures of fleeing businessmen with their clothes in shreds were on every front page. In June taxi drivers with medallions shut down parts of Paris and the airport in protests against nonunionized drivers for Uber, beating several up and smashing a number of their cars. Under this pressure the Constitutional Court shortly thereafter ruled illegal one of Uber’s most popular services.

The forward-looking finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, fully measures the cost of France’s economic failure and has called for major reforms. All he has been able to obtain, though, is an absurdly modest package that could be passed only by using a complicated constitutional maneuver that obviated the need for a parliamentary vote. The law increases slightly the number of Sundays that stores can open and the evening hours workers can work, and simplifies the labyrinthine process for getting a driver’s license so that young people can get to jobs. Long-distance bus companies can finally compete with the national train system on major routes, and some closed, archaic legal professions that date to the ancien régime will be opened up.

After months of hysterical doomsaying, these were the only changes. The psychological barriers to further change—such as extending the standard thirty-five hour workweek or simplifying the country’s labor code that makes hiring and firing a nightmare—are high. A poll last year found that over two thirds of the French support allowing more stores to open on Sundays. Less than half, though, say they would be willing to work on those days.

Perversely, this paralysis swells the ranks of potential National Front voters, even though the party has no economic policy to speak of. So does perceived paralysis in dealing with immigration and refugee issues. In fact, France has accepted relatively few asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, and rejects their applications at nearly three times the rate of other European nations. But this is not the public perception. One reason is the long-festering situation in the so-called “jungle” of Calais. For a decade and a half now France has had to deal with large waves of illegal migrants, from Albanians to Kuwaiti Bedouins, who are trying to make their way to Britain and find employment. (Given the dire economic situation, they have no interest in remaining in France.) Several large encampments have grown up near the Calais Chunnel entrance and every night anywhere from a dozen to a thousand of the mainly young men try to sneak through on foot or hide in the trucks in line. Some die trying. It’s a police nightmare and a humanitarian disaster.

More here.

Social Democracy’s Last Rounds

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Wolfgang Streeck in Jacobin:

You’ve argued in recent years that the trajectory of “democratic capitalism” in Europe has increasingly been in the direction of a social and economic model that prioritizes the imperatives of the market and of business profitability over the requirements of democratic equality and social solidarity. Can you talk a little about how that process has unfolded, and how the eurozone crisis that broke out after 2008 fits into this picture?

Democracy under capitalism is democracy to the extent that it corrects the outcomes of markets in an egalitarian direction. Economic liberalization disconnects democracy from the economy — makes it run dry, as it were. The result is what is called post-democracy: democratic politics as a mass spectacle, as part of the entertainment industry.

One way democracy is decoupled from the economy is by a transfer of economic policy out of the hands of national parliaments and governments to “independent” institutions such as central banks, summit meetings like the European Council, and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The euro, as instituted by the Maastricht Treaty, has in this way de-democratized (although by no means depoliticized) monetary and economic policy-making in its member states. Substantively, it has imposed a hard-currency policy on the whole of Euroland, one under which some countries, like Germany, can prosper while many others cannot.

More here.

‘I want to do extreme damage’: Harmony Korine

Harmony-korine1Nosheen Iqbal at The Guardian:

Korine might now be a 43-year-old married father, but he sounds pretty much just as he did 20 or so years ago. “I never feel overwhelmed,” he says, when I ask if he ever worries about keeping up with contemporary culture or staying relevant. “I feel underwhelmed. Sometimes there will be this electronic DJ or a kid on a laptop that’s exciting to me. I don’t pay attention to, say, music with instruments that much. I don’t even understandwhat you would do with a guitar now.”

What does he find interesting?

“Just, like, videos of asses.” He laughs, “girls with huge asses”.

Back in the 90s, Korine would appear on Letterman and prank the show, playing a droll caricature of himself. He was, and still is, a fixture of the style press; his brand of wired, avant garde experimentalism doesn’t really go out of fashion, it just becomes part of the cultural vernacular. American Apparel would not have looked the same way were it not for Kids, while Gummo’s crystal meth aesthetic has been referenced everywhere from the work of Ryan Trecartin to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Mike Kelley’s shorts to Nike ad campaigns.

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PORTRAITS OF WITTGENSTEIN

83809890-dae3-11e5_1212223kTim Crane at the Times Literary Supplement:

Among all twentieth-century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein stands out as the one whose life fascinates almost as much as his work does. Even the life of Martin Heidegger, with his controversial Nazi connections and his later attempt to live the authentic life of a peasant, looks dull and suburban by comparison. Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of Austria’s richest families. His father was a self-made industrialist who built his fortune in iron and steel; his mother came from a Prague Jewish family. Ludwig was the youngest of eight siblings – he had three sisters and four brothers. Tragedy hit the family again and again. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide. The fourth, Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War and later commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith and Erich Korngold. (Music figured significantly in the family’s life: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the composers who heard their works performed at the Wittgenstein house in Vienna.) Ludwig originally studied engineering, first in Berlin and then in Manchester, where he became interested in the design of aeroplane propellors. At this time he developed a deep interest in mathematics and its foundations. Having studied the ground-breaking works of philosophy of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, he visited Frege in Jena who advised him to study with Russell in Cambridge. Wittgenstein turned up, unannounced, at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October 1911, and discussed philosophy with Russell regularly over the next few months. Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell that his “Austrian engineer” was “rather good” but “very argumentative and tiresome”. But Russell was sufficiently impressed to accept Wittgenstein as a student at Cambridge in 1912. Wittgenstein had a huge impact on the intellectual scene there, but throughout his life he claimed to dislike Cambridge and preferred to spend time writing and thinking in remote, isolated places (Norway and Ireland were favourites).

more here.

Return of the mercenaries

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Sean McFate in Aeon:

It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort. The armed contractors prove to be both a blessing and a curse, providing vital security services to the campaign, yet at times killing innocent civilians, causing strategic setbacks, and damaging the superpower’s legitimacy. Without these contractors, the superpower could not wage the war. With them, it is more difficult to win.

The armed contractors in question are not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in northern Italy, and the year is not 2007 but 1377. The superpower is not the United States but the papacy under Pope Gregory XI, fighting the antipapal league led by the duchy of Milan. The tragic killing of civilians by armed contractors did not occur in Baghdad but in Cesena, 630 years earlier. The military companies employed were not DynCorp International, Triple Canopy or Blackwater, but the Company of the Star, the Company of the Hat and the White Company. Known as free companies, these for-profit warriors were organised as corporations, with a well-articulated hierarchy of subcommanders and administrative machinery that oversaw the fair distribution of loot according to employees’ contracts. CEO-like captains led these medieval military corporations.

The parallels between medieval and contemporary private military companies (PMCs) are strong. Today, the US and many others hire contractors to fulfil security-related contracts in the world’s most dangerous places. In the late Middle Ages, such men were called condottieri – literally, ‘contractors’ – who agreed to perform security services described in written contracts, or condotte. Both modern and medieval contractors were organised as companies, their services available to the highest or most powerful bidder for profit. Both filled their ranks with professional men of arms drawn from different countries and loyal primarily to the paycheck. Both have functioned as private armies, usually offering land-based combat skills rather than naval (or aerial) capabilities and deploying force in a military manner rather than as law enforcement or police.

Mercenaries are back.

More here.

Lessons from the Xi Jinping Book Club

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Ryan Mitchell in The LA Review of Books:

SOME WORLD LEADERS take off their shirts and ride horses in their spare time. Others shoot hoops or play golf. Chairman Xi Jinping reads. And he wants you to know all about it. As he explained in an interview with a Russian television station in 2014, his “favorite hobby is reading,” and books have, for him, “become a way of life.”

In the same interview, he casually recited a continuous string of 11 polysyllabic Russian authors whose works he had enjoyed during his sent-down youth in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, wherever he travels on his globetrotting state visits, he makes a point of announcing before his hosts these canons of local literary figures that have earned his hard-won critical approval. In France, he praised a long list of writer-cum-penseurs from Montaigne through Voltaire and on to Jean-Paul Sartre. In the United States, he lauded Whitman, Thoreau, Hemingway, and Jack London. In Germany, the more “theory”-heavy pantheon included Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Heidegger, and Marcuse alongside Schiller, Heine, and Goethe. The lists go on — at times it seems as though Xi is subtly signaling his desire for an honorary comparative literature degree, perhaps (judging by the continental philosophers) one from a progressive bastion like Berkeley or The New School. But his Tsinghua law PhD has gotten him this far; there’s little reason to be dissatisfied.

What, then, is the point of all the high-profile name-dropping? While a few commentators have connected the practice to diplomatic flattery, and others see Xi simply trying to portray himself as an intellectual, these explanations fail to account for either the prominence or sheer frequency of his literary commentary. Nor would these motivations explain the parallel trend whereby Xi and others in his administration are noticeably raising the status of China’s own cultural traditions. Confucius and his intellectual followers have been the main beneficiaries of this rediscovery of the past, but internal critics such as, among others, the Legalists Shang Yang and Han Fei have also come in for legitimating praise. Official citations in Party documents and propaganda efforts lend such thinkers authority to influence, if not shape, future policies and debates. To a seldom appreciated extent, Xi’s comments abroad also tend to carefully hew to the overall Party ideological line.

Indeed, both Xi’s comments on foreign literature and his cultural revivalism at home should be looked at in connection with the broader slate of initiatives his administration has undertaken in the sphere of culture.

More here.

How the Brain Is Computing the Mind

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A Conversation With Ed Boyden in Edge:

How can we truly understand how the brain is computing the mind? Over the last 100 years, neuroscience has made a lot of progress. We have learned that there are neurons in the brain, we have learned a lot about psychology, but connecting those two worlds, understanding how these computational circuits in the brain in coordinated fashion are generating decisions and thoughts and feelings and sensations, that link remains very elusive. And so, over the last decade, my group at MIT has been working on technology, ways of seeing the brain, ways of controlling brain circuits, ways of trying to map the molecules of the brain.

At this point, what I’m trying to figure out is what to do next. How do we start to use these maps, use these dynamical observations and perturbations to link the computations that these circuits make, and things like thoughts and feelings and maybe even consciousness?

There are a couple of things that we can do. One idea is simply to go get the data. A lot of people have the opposite point of view. You want to have an idea about how the brain computes, the concept of how the mind is generating thoughts and feelings and so forth. Marvin Minsky, for example, is very fond of thinking about how intelligence and artificial intelligence can be arrived at through sheer thinking about it.

On the other hand, and it’s always dangerous to make analogies and metaphors like this, but if you look at other problems in biology like, what is life? how do species evolve? and so forth, people forget that there are huge amounts, centuries sometimes but at least decades of data that was collected before those theories emerged.

Darwin roamed the Earth looking at species, looking at all sorts of stuff until he wrote the giant tome, On the Origins of Species. Before people started to try to hone in on what life is, there was the tool development phase: people invented the microscope.

People started looking at cells and watching them divide and so forth, and without those data, it would be very hard to know that there were cells at all, that there were these tiny building blocks, each of which was a self-compartmentalized, autonomous building block of life.

The approach I would like to take is to go get the data. Let’s see how the cells in the brain can communicate with each other. Let’s see how these networks take sensation and combine that information with feelings and memories and so forth to generate the outputs, decisions and thoughts and movements.

More here.

The Memory Colony

H. M. Naqvi in The Fabulist:

Essential13_MainI spent the first four years of my life in Algiers, during the dictatorship of Boumédiène. I was, of course, unaware of politics or history, the larger world—I was barely conscious of mine. I do, however, remember my father waking me in the mornings, taking me by the hand to the back yard, and, perched on a step, pointing out ants passing fragments of leaves to one another. I also loitered in the garden after school under the watchful gaze of the old Albanian who rented out to us the ground-floor portion of a modest double-storied house on Rue Blaise Pascal. He smoked cigarillos leaning out of the window above, nodding in approval when I turned cartwheels or chased striped stray cats, twig in hand. Sometimes I hopped over to our neighbors, a large, raucous family with a boy my age, who was known to all and sundry as Abdhanou. One of his older sisters, Hamida, wore frocks and carried me up and down the street in her arms. I picked up Arabic and French from them, and an appreciation of couscous. In the evenings, I would watch dubbed Japanese cartoons on the television, then arrange toy soldiers on the table in the kitchen while my mother fried onions for dinner. It was a simple routine, a good life. I remember clear skies, the turquoise Mediterranean.

Once we drove up to the mountains—the Atlas Range rises up beyond the city—on a cold winter morning. There was a monkey in a cage at the summit. As I fed the monkey popcorn or peanuts, he yanked my red mitten right off. I was devastated. After due consideration, my father hatched an ingenious plan: he told me to throw my other mitten on the ground. The monkey mirrored the gesture, dropping his. Then my father slipped his hand underneath the bars of the cage and retrieved the mitten.

Another time, I stole matches from the nice Nigerian family down the street and lit the local rubbish dump on fire. I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Paper burned fast. Plastic burned in slow motion. Then, I think, I heard sirens. I think I ran—a fugitive at age four. I think, if I remember correctly, I lit the garbage dump again.

More here.

The Weirdness and Joy of Black Mountain College

Schwabsky_blkmtn_imgBarry Schwabsky at The Nation:

Can art be taught? That question isn’t as old or as hoary as one might imagine. For many centuries, artists were taught, either through a studio apprenticeship or, later, in a formal academy. It only became possible to think of art as something different in the 19th century, when the old system fell apart and it seemed conceivable that anyone could be an artist. But very few people were. Perhaps being an artist was the result of some peculiar inner drive or necessity, some genius that burned in certain kinds of people—something they were born with rather than something that they learned. The question has by now fueled two centuries’ worth of bar banter, family quarrels, and panel discussions. What keeps the conversation going is that many of the people who say that art can’t be taught still make their living by teaching it. Teaching does have its own rewards, and so does trying to learn, whether the learning “takes” or not.

A related question is easier to answer: Can the art of teaching art be exhibited? No, but people keep trying. The ambitious show “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, is the latest such effort. (It will be on view at the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, from February 21 to May 15, and then at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus from September 17 to January 1, 2017. A handsome catalog is available from Yale University Press.) In fact, Black Mountain exhibitions have become a genre unto themselves. “Leap Before You Look,” curated by Helen Molesworth, formerly of the ICA/Boston and now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is the fourth that I know of.

more here.

A new generation of airships is born

160229_r27724-690Jeanne Marie Laskas at The New Yorker:

Igor Pasternak started thinking about airships when he was twelve. Back then, in the nineteen-seventies, he loved rockets. One night, he was curled up in the soft green chair that doubled as his bed, in the two-room apartment where he lived with his parents, his little sister, and his grandmother, in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine. He was reading a magazine aimed at young inventors, and he came across an article about blimps. He saw old photographs of imposing wartime zeppelins and read about another kind of airship, which had never made it off the drawing board: an airship that carried not passengers but cargo. It would be able to haul hundreds of tons of mining equipment to remote regions in Siberia in one go, the article said—no roads, runways, or infrastructure needed. Just lift, soar, and drop.

Igor wondered what the holdup was. He read the article again and again. He spent the summer in the library, studying the history and the aerodynamic principles of blimps. One day, on the way there, he looked into the sky, and the emptiness seized him.

Where are all the airships? he asked himself. The world needs airships.

more here.

Statues of Wrath and Serenity

Head-guardian-kingAndrew Butterfield at the New York Review of Books:

Every age is one of anxiety. But few have responded with art more deeply serene than that of the Kamakura Period in Japan (1185-1333). Following a murderous clash of clans in civil war, and the widespread destruction of temples and statuary, Buddhist artists, at first based chiefly in Nara and Kyoto, devised both new techniques to allow the rapid replacement of what had been so wantonly destroyed, and a new style to inspire and to calm the shattered spirits of the survivors. The result was one of the great flowerings in Japanese art.

A show of Kamakura sculpture, “Kamakura: Realism and Spirituality in the Sculpture of Japan,” has just opened at the Asia Society in New York, the first American exhibition on the subject in more than thirty years. The show is very small—just one room with only about two dozen statues and another dozen or so items—and yet it is rapturously beautiful and deserves more visitors than its scale might suggest.

By expressive character, the sculptures on view can be broadly divided in two contrasting modes. One consists of statues, such as those of the Wisdom Kings Fudō Myōō and Daiitoku Myōō, that display vivid gestures and grimacing faces.

more here.

Milestones in black history that Virginia McLaurin lived through

Syreeta McFadden in The Guardian:

“A black president. Yay. A black wife.”

Morrison_Nobel_PrizeBack in 2008, on that balmy November night, I stepped outside of the Blue and Gold bar in New York’s East Village and made one phone call after the network news called the election, naming Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States. I called my grandmother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We were both ecstatic, yet overwhelmed, in that happy-sad kind of way. “In your lifetime Granny,” I said to her in a kind of awe. “In your lifetime. In your lifetime,” I repeated over and over to her. My grandmother was a child during the Great Depression; her parents paid poll taxes to vote in local and national elections in Jim Crow-segregated Tennessee. “In my lifetime,” she responded, “In my lifetime.” To watch 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin’s pure elation in meeting the nation’s first African American president and first lady is more than just confection. For black women born early in the 20th century, when the nation suppressed the civil, social and economic liberties of African Americans, when American society actively resisted the humanity of African Americans, to be alive and witness this particular historical moment – McLaurin’s dance of joy is celebration hard earned and won. My grandmother, like McLaurin, never expected to live to see the day.

During the 10 decades of McLaurin’s life, black women have been both critical actors and witnesses in the great story of African Americans in the United States. They helped to create a world for this moment. While the list below is far from comprehensive, it is but a modest sampling of black women who were leaders and vanguard, women we should remember in shaping American life and culture this black history month.

More here. (Note: At least one post will be dedicated to honor Black History Month throughout February)

Superintelligence vs. superstupidity

From KurzweilAI:

Owl-eyesIn “The A.I. Anxiety” Sunday (12/27), the Washington Post concisely summarized the risks implicit in superintelligence … and more worrisome, in “superstupidity”: “There is no one person who understands exactly how these [intelligent computer] systems work or are operating at any given moment. Throw in elements of autonomy, and things can go wrong quickly and disastrously.” In other words: stupid people + superintelligent machines —> superstupidity.

Power grid: FAIL. Example: A yearlong investigation by the AP reveals that Iranian, Chinese, Russian, and other hackers have accessed the “aging, outdated” and vulnerable U.S. power grid (with some facilities still using Fortran, Windows 95, and floppy disks), downloaded critical drawings, and even took over the controls of a large utility’s wind farm. Got solar + backup batteries?

Are you “doubleplusungood”? Speaking of total control of power, Ant Financial in China has launched “Sesame Credit scores” on Weibo and WeChat, says Quartz — following a government directive last summer calling for the establishment of a “social credit system.” The service apparently evaluates one’s purchasing and spending habits to derive a credit score, which is “evidence that the Chinese government is enacting a scheme that will monitor citizens’ finances,” says the ACLU and others, warning that “one’s political views or ‘morality’ might raise or lower one’s score.”

More here.

Radicalism

Over at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research:

The Podcast for Social Research returns with an episode centered on theories of the radical. Departing from Emily Bazelon’s recent New York Times piece, “Who’s Really ‘Radical’?,” Suzy, Tony, and Ajay discuss the etymological origins, historical weight, and contemporary political force of the category of radicalism, asking, in the course of the conversation, who and what we call radical and what it means when we do. Case studies range from the Red Decade to political Islam.

You can download here by right-clicking and “save as” or look us up on iTunes.

A. O. Scott’s ‘Better Living Through Criticism’

Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Times:

21subMENDELSOHN-blog427Was God the first critic?

We tend, of course, to think of him as the first great artist — or, perhaps, artiste. Certainly the Bible’s description of the circumstances in which Creation was created — the sudden flash of inspiration, the heroic decision to make something where there had been nothing, the struggle to wrest order out of chaos, the collapse into exhausted rest after a daemonic outpouring of energy — has colored our romantic notions about creativity and creators ever since. Just as it has, by implication, informed our ideas about critics: as parasites on the body of creativity, as destroyers rather than builders, “the snake in the garden,” as one eminent practitioner of the art of criticism has put it, “of what should be our simplest pleasures.”

And yet, as A. O. Scott — the critic in question — points out in the first chapter of his lively, often impassioned, occasionally breezy defense of a profession that many see as headed to extinction, the Almighty had barely finished creating when he started in on the activity that is central to criticism, which is judgment. (Scott likes to quote the Greeks, from the poet Hesiod to Plato to Aristotle, but omits to mention their most salient contribution to his subject, which is the word “critic” itself, derived from the verb “to judge.”) The author reminds us that following each stage of creation, God “saw that it was good.” The question that Scott, a chief movie critic for The New York Times, slyly raises is, “How did he know?”

More here.