Are we deranged? (global warming part 2)

by Leanne Ogasawara

GhoshAre we deranged?

In recent days, watching friends and family reeling over the Trump win, I keep thinking that climate disaster will be a disaster-of-denial just like this. Shell-shocked and busy blaming, who will be in a position to lead the way forward when the unthinkable happens?

Why do we remain in denial about climate change?

And by denial, I mean, why aren't we making the changes we need to make in our own lives to reduce our carbon imprint and step away from the systems and corporations that are destroying our planet? Is it because it seems too impossible to imagine that our beautiful and perfect earth will suddenly become less hospitable? Or hard to really understand that species of animals we love are disappearing? Impossible to wrap our minds around what warmer oceans mean?

For me, the most compelling description I have read of imagined things to come was the last chapter of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks. By the time things fall apart in the world, according to Mitchell, it is too late for most people to protect themselves, as governments collapse and the world is divided into a few oil states with the rest of the world descending into pure chaos. In the novel, we find ourselves in rural Ireland, in 2043

as the electricity’s running out, the Internet seems about to crash for good and people are reduced to foraging for rabbits and eating dried seaweed.

Within months of what becomes known as the "global endarkenment," gangs are roving the countryside stealing and killing and even the most common medications are no longer available. It all happened so quickly so that no one had the time to really prepare before resource scarcity caused total collapse. Toward the end of the novel, a young gangster is robbing an old woman of her solar panels; and when she protests, he says,

"They had a better life than I did, mind. So did you. Your power stations your cars, your creature comforts. You lived too long. The bill; due today."

The old woman protests, "But it wasn't us, personally, who trashed the world. It was the system. We couldn't change it."

Not missing a beat, the young gangster retorts: "Then its not us, personally, taking your panels. It's the system. We can't change it.

Like Trump, the end of the world kind of crept up on people.

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A Call to Arms

by Akim Reinhardt

A call to armsI have a friend of Indian descent who was born in Africa, but raised almost entirely in London.

Or, I should say, I had such a friend. About a year ago, maybe more, we got into an online argument about the Pope, and that was that. Much to my surprise, he de-friended me from social media. And since we haven't lived in the same town for well over a decade, it was over.

That we're both atheists just makes the whole episode even stranger.

No matter. The point is that I recently heard from a mutual acquaintance who said my ex-friend is now attempting to move back to Great Britain.

"Have you spoken to Nigel lately?" the mutual acquaintance asked me

"Not in about a year," I replied, not wanting to give anything away. This mutual acquaintance didn't speak with Nigel much after the latter had moved, but remembered him fondly and had occasionally asked about him.

"Not in about a year," he echoed. "Well, he's looking at a job in London. He wants to move out of the country because he cannot abide the Trump administration."

"Ah, I see. That's all well and good I suppose until England gets its own strong man."

The mutual acquaintance, an elderly gentleman from sub-Saharan Africa, smiled and chortled. Then his chuckle bubbled up into a laugh, as loud a sound as I've ever heard emanate from this very calm and quiet man.

He knew. My quip wasn't just a commentary on Brexit and lord knows whatever comes next after the towering doltishness of Theresa May. He knew that it can happen anywhere. No society is immune from falling under the spell, either through ballots or bullets, of a shitty nationalistic strongman; the kind Donald Trump aspires to be, although he is probably too inept to ever attain such lofty heights of villainy.

We each turned and wandered off to our respective destinations, the mutual acquaintance still laughing.

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Walls, Bans and Border Patrols: The Fearsome Fallout for Children

by Humera Afridi

Img_8575 (1)At the age of ten, my biggest fear was a dread of heights. Childhood weekends were sun-drenched (chlorine-filled) idylls during which I worked myself up to fling my body off the high board at the Sind Club into the gleaming swimming pool below. I lived in Karachi, and, yes, in a bubble.

We were surrounded by inequity, yet my ‘innocence’ or, rather, naivete remained intact. I was certainly aware of the sudden, politically motivated strikes and pained by the striking poverty—lame beggars who hopped over to car windows at traffic stops; gangs of wily, threadbare children left to roam the danger-filled streets. Nevertheless, within the highly-selective, members-only club, the harsh world outside with its mayhem of cars, motorcycles, trucks and water lorries threatening to run over the cripples weaving their way through the honking maze, seized to exist for me. The water shimmered, spangled with sunlight; I can still recall the sensation of my toes curling on the edge of the cement precipice, and a frisson of nervous excitement overcoming me in those excruciating moments before leaping towards the joyous shouts that rose to greet me as I plummeted. The beleaguered world of the city at large disappeared.

That life seems unthinkable, unconscionable, today, especially after having lived away for many years, first as an expatriate and then an (accidental) immigrant. But that was how things were: the disparity was deep-rooted and historical. Even as a child I learned to build invisible walls.

Fast-forward to the next generation and a change of setting: my son who is nine and a half, born and raised in America, possesses an awareness around issues of social justice and race, and nuanced identity politics—LQBTQIA is the more current, more inclusive term I learned from him two weeks ago—that simultaneously awes and alarms me. Even as I am grateful for his attunement and ability to perceive and articulate feelings arising from instances of injustice that he witnesses, hears about, or personally experiences, a part of me wonders: isn’t he too young to know all this? Isn’t it too soon to have to create the space in his mind to sort through a myriad possibilities of how to be? And what about facing the facts—far too many— of a cruel and unjust world?

But the age of innocence has vanished. And children aren’t exempt. Last week, over an ice-cream after school, he casually slipped in, “Mom, today I pulled my teacher aside because I was feeling really depressed.”

Words to make a mother’s heart sink.

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Stuck in Traffic: The Story of Civilization

by Bill Benzon

8195168460_b6fc53e992One day several years ago I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the queue I kept thinking why why why? Why?

After saying a bit more about traffic to and from Manhattan, I answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.

Tunnel Traffic

At that time I was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan (I’m now living in Hoboken). Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location. But driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.

But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip to Vermont. I could have taken public transportation to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel is nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. Driving in Manhattan would be a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.

So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.

And that wasn’t rush-hour.

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One Young Man’s Life Served Up Four Ways

Tom Perrotta in the New York Times:

0205-BKS-Perrotta-blog427When Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” was published in 2013, it felt like something new, a wildly inventive historical novel in which the main character dies repeatedly, only to get resurrected under different circumstances. The story keeps looping back on itself like a video game, giving the protagonist another chance to get things right, or at least explore alternate avenues of possibility. It’s an exhilarating experiment, liberating both writer and reader from the unforgiving linear logic of realistic narrative while posing intriguing questions about fate, identity and the power of individuals to control their own lives.

Paul Auster ventures into similar territory in “4 3 2 1,” an epic bildungsroman that presents the reader with four versions of the formative years of Archie Ferguson, a Jewish boy born in Newark in 1947 (the origin of his unlikely surname is explained in the novel’s opening paragraph). Unlike Atkinson, who jumps around in time with mischievous pleasure, Auster sticks to chronological order, proceeding methodically from Ferguson’s childhood to his early 20s, focusing on fairly conventional coming-of-age subjects: family, friends, school, sports, sex and politics. What makes “4 3 2 1” original and dauntingly complex is that Auster sets all four of his stories on parallel tracks and tells them more or less simultaneously, giving us four versions of Chapter 1 (1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4), followed by four versions of Chapter 2 (2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4) and so on.

More here.

Testing Quantum Foundations With Atomic Clocks

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

Physics_clockNobel laureate Steven Weinberg has recently drawn attention by disliking quantum mechanics. Besides an article for The New York Review of Books and a public lecture to bemoan how unsatisfactory the current situation is, he has, however, also written a technical paper:

Lindblad Decoherence in Atomic Clocks, Steven Weinberg, Phys. Rev. A 94, 042117 (2016), arXiv: 1610.02537 [quant-ph]

In this paper, Weinberg studies the use of atomic clocks for precision tests of quantum mechanics. Specifically, to search for an unexpected, omnipresent, decoherence .

Decoherence is the process that destroys quantum-ness. It happens constantly and everywhere. Each time a quantum state interacts with an environment – air, light, neutrinos, what have you – it becomes a little less quantum.

This type of decoherence explains why, in every-day life, we don’t see quantum-typical behavior, like cats being both dead and alive and similar nonsense. Trouble is, decoherence takes place only if you consider the environment a source of noise whose exact behavior is unknown. If you look at the combined system of the quantum state plus environment, that still doesn’t decohere. So how come on large scales our world is distinctly un-quantum?

More here.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Will Make You Rethink Race

A.O. Scott in The New York Times:

BaldTo call “I Am Not Your Negro” a movie about James Baldwin would be to understate Mr. Peck’s achievement. It’s more of a posthumous collaboration, an uncanny and thrilling communion between the filmmaker — whose previous work includes both a documentary and a narrative feature about the Congolese anti-colonialist leader Patrice Lumumba — and his subject. The voice-over narration (read by Samuel L. Jackson) is entirely drawn from Baldwin’s work. Much of it comes from notes and letters written in the mid-1970s, when Baldwin was somewhat reluctantly sketching out a book, never to be completed, about the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Reflections on those men (all of whom Baldwin knew well) and their legacies are interspersed with passages from other books and essays, notably “The Devil Finds Work,” Baldwin’s 1976 meditation on race, Hollywood and the mythology of white innocence. His published and unpublished words — some of the most powerful and penetrating ever assembled on the tortured subject of American identity — accompany images from old talk shows and news reports, from classic movies and from our own decidedly non-post-racial present.

Baldwin could not have known about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, about the presidency of Barack Obama and the recrudescence of white nationalism in its wake, but in a sense he explained it all in advance. He understood the deep, contradictory patterns of our history, and articulated, with a passion and clarity that few others have matched, the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: the suppression of black humanity under slavery and Jim Crow and the insistence on it in African-American politics and art; the dialectic of guilt and rage, forgiveness and denial that distorts relations between black and white citizens in the North as well as the South; the lengths that white people will go to wash themselves clean of their complicity in oppression.

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

What is a Shared Society?

Sanjay Reddy over at his website:

Mg_6338b-by-matthias-grauwinkel (1)Yesterday at the United Nations I spoke at a panel on addressing global poverty organized by the Club de Madrid, a group of former democratically-elected world leaders, which has in recent years championed a concept which they refer to as that of a ‘Shared Society’. The title of the concept was recently adopted, to some bemusement and bewilderment, by Theresa May in the UK who has sought to differentiate her government’s social vision from that of her Conservative predecessor, who championed the risibly named ‘Big Society’ – an idea which seemed to import from across the Atlantic while melding confusingly the terminology of the Great Society with the voluntarist vision of a ‘Thousand Points of Light‘.

In an effort to make sense of the concept advanced even earlier by the Club, I suggested that it could be thought of as composed of three themes. The first is that of individual dignity, rights and effective empowerment. The second is that of conviviality, bringing together the recognition of social pluralism with an appeal for involvement in a whole. The third is that of responsibility of all for the common good and for things held in common. Understood in these terms, the idea, and ideal, of a shared society can be applied on any scale. It can quite compatibly be thought of as applicable to the world as a whole, the nation, or local communities, or indeed de-territorialized communities, such as those which might nowadays be created, to ambivalent effect, on social media.

The Sustainable Development Goals, whatever their deficiencies, might be thought of as a reflection of the recognition of a global shared society. The guiding ideas of universality of application of the goals, and responsibility for attaining them, as well as of leaving no one behind, can be linked to an associated normative perspective. From such a vantage point, Theresa May’s recent statement that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’ deserves modification: ‘If you are a citizen of somewhere, you’re a citizen of the world’.

More here.

Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory


Moira Weigel in The Chronicle of Higher Education [h/t: John Collins]:

Jenkins and Ichikawa took the most common charges they had heard against nonmonogamy, and they refuted them one by one.

Take, for instance, the claim that it’s unhealthy to have multiple sexual partners. Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that this was simply untrue. It is perfectly possible to maintain sexual health with multiple partners; indeed, a person who has openly discussed the pros and cons of opening a relationship with a partner is more likely to practice safe sex than is the frustrated partner who resorts to "drunken flings, clandestine affairs, or other ill-considered hookups."

What about the assumption that nonmonogamy is psychologically damaging? "Different people are different," Jenkins and Ichikawa wrote. Many nonmonogamous people report that they come to feel less jealousy over time; conversely, many monogamous people complain of experiencing sexual jealousy. In response to the charge that nonmonogamy is "unnatural," Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that virtually no species are sexually monogamous, even if they are socially monogamous or pair-bond for life. ("Not even swans.")

They called their letter "On Being the Only Ones." Soon after they published it, they learned that they weren’t. Strangers, and couples they had known casually for years, started approaching them at conferences, they say, and thanking them for writing the piece. Many said they had quietly lived the same way and felt relieved to be able to speak about it. Emboldened by a new sense that she had an activist mission — that her coming out might help others like her, and that she, as a tenured professor, had the privilege to do so — Jenkins began writing more about nonmonogamy. She wrote about it in The Globe and Mail and Slate. She went on CBC to give radio interviews. But even in contexts in which people were willing to give her an audience, they struggled with her argument that polyamory and promiscuity were not the same thing.

More here.

How a hackneyed romantic ideal is used to stigmatise polyamory


Carrie Jenkins in Aeon:

Women who enter voluntarily into non-monogamous relationships are a direct challenge to the idea that women are ‘naturally’ monogamous. They are socially penalised to maintain the status quo. A non-monogamous woman will be portrayed as debased and disgusting – a ‘slut’. When I have discussed my open relationships online, I have been called a ‘cum-dumpster’, a ‘degenerate herpes-infested whore’, and many other colourful names.

My internet trolls focus on sex, partly because presenting non-monogamous relationships as ‘just sex’ makes it easier to degrade them, and partly because women who violate the monogamy norm – whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control – are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential. In contrast, a non-monogamous man is, at least sometimes, liable to be regarded as a ‘stud’.

Apart from monogamy, the only other relationship structure that controls paternity in a similar way is patriarchal polygamy, which is stigmatised in contemporary North America, for reasons including bona fide feminism as well as racism and cultural imperialism. One effect of this is that monogamy is seen as the only fair and liberal alternative.

Actually, there are many alternatives.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Samba in the Sky

The poor have the best views,
Views sloping down to sea.

A green and yellow planet, Brazilian Flag
A blue band, rung with stars.

The poor have the best views.
You have to walk to get there.

Up three flights, narrow paths,
Houses rising steeply side to side.

No, no space for a car.
When the flag lifts, you see the coast:

Yellow curve of sand,
Framed by reaching branches.

Little humpbacked islands,
Soon they will drill for oil there,

Deep underwater. Once microscopic
Diatoms swarmed in salt, danced, died.

Fell to the bottom of fathoms, became black
Slick hid in shale. They drill down miles…

(Police arriving at the edge
Of   the mind.)

Are you thirsty? Something to drink?
Please sit down. Yes, the game is on.

We built that room by hand. I lie
In bed at night dreaming of a new room,

One jutting into sky. The eldest
Daughter’s in university. Economics,

But she switched to Environment.

Out the door, the flag lifts, reveals.
(Curve of   Rio.) Ordem e progresso.

The poor have the best views,
Samba in the sky.

by Tiffany Higgins
from Poetry, November 2013

This is How Literary Fiction Teaches Us to Be Human

Tom Blunt in Signature:

ScreenHunter_2574 Feb. 04 20.34Think about every bully you can remember, whether from fiction or real life. What do they all have in common?

For the most part, they don’t read — and if they do, they probably aren’t ingesting much literary fiction.

This isn’t just snobbery, it’s a case that scientists are slowly building as they explore a field called Theory of Mind, described by Science Magazine as “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” In an abstract published by the magazine in 2013, researchers found that reading literary fiction led to better results in subjects tested for Theory of Mind. That same year, another study found heightened brain activity in readers of fiction, specifically in the areas related to visualization and understanding language. As Mic explains: “A similar process happens when you envision yourself as a character in a book: You can take on the emotions they are feeling.”

More recently, Trends in Cognitive Sciences reported more findings that link reading and empathy, employing a test called “Mind of the Eyes” in which subjects viewed photographs of strangers’ eyes, describing what they believed that person was thinking or feeling (readers of fiction scored significantly higher). It turns out that the narrative aspect of fiction is key to this response. From the study: “participants who had read the fictional story Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah … were found to have a reduced bias in the perception of Arab and Caucasian faces compared to control subjects who read a non-narrative passage.” More plot-driven genre fiction doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

More here.

There Is No Exception in Islam

Razib Khan in Gene Expression:

ScreenHunter_2573 Feb. 04 20.30Several years ago there was a famous exchange between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher & Sam Harris on the nature of Islam. In response I published a post titled “ISIS’ Willing Executioners”​. The overall point was that Affleck’s comments were not informed by the nature of Islam or Muslims, but broader political currents. As for his interlocutors, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, I think they were making a better faith effort to engage with the facts, though they too came up short. The primary reason that I give them more credit than Affleck is that I think to some extent their anti-Islamic talking points were counter-narrative toward their preferred ideology, which was on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum. Though a general contempt or disdain for religion is not necessarily a problem among American Left-liberals, for various reasons Muslims have become a “protected class” subject to prejudice from the ideological opponents of Maher and Harris’ normal fellow travelers.

As an intellectual Bill Maher is not a serious thinker, so there isn’t much point in engaging more deeply with his ideas. His anti-Islamic stance seems to derive from relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments, which are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite).

Sam Harris​ is a more earnest individual, who clearly isn’t just parlaying a schtick into profitable provocation.

More here.

How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower

Rosa Brooks in the New York Times:

05Rosabrooks-blog427Seventy years ago, the state of Israel was still just a gleam in Zionists’ eyes, and the future state’s military was hardly more than a ragtag group of irregulars, forced to manufacture bullets in a secret facility built underneath a kibbutz. Today, Israel’s military is widely viewed as one of the most effective in the world. Once compelled to arm itself with surplus equipment purchased from more powerful states (and sometimes obtained by stealth), Israel is now one of the world’s six largest arms exporters, earning billions each year through the sale of military equipment to buyers from China and India to Colombia and Russia.

“The Weapon Wizards: How Israel Became a High-Tech Military Superpower” tells the story of this transformation. Written by the Israeli journalists Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot, “The Weapon Wizards” offers a lively account of Israel’s evolving military prowess, from the early days of Jewish paramilitaries operating within the British Mandate to Israel’s recent emergence as exporter of 60 percent of the world’s drones. From satellites and missile defense systems to adaptive armor and cyber weapons, Israel has consistently found ways to circumvent or leapfrog financial and technological barriers.

But Katz and Bohbot aspire to do more than just offer a journalistic history of the Israeli military’s technological advances: They aim to explain just how the tiny Jewish state managed to become such a military innovator. “How did Israel do it?” Katz and Bohbot ask. “What was the secret to Israel’s success?” Their answer: brains, pluck and the bracing prospect of imminent annihilation.

More here.

The age of caesar

Age of Caesar_978-0-393-29282-4Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:

“The age of Caesar,” writes classicist Mary Beard, “was a world of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome.” These chaotic times — roughly the middle decades of the 1st century B.C. — were deeply riven by “fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run” and “how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met.” In the end, the Roman Republic was destroyed, as the people — worn out by civil war — turned to the ruthless Augustus to bring them peace, even at the cost of despotism.

That story, at times striking in its contemporary relevance, is vividly retold in these newly translated short biographies of Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Brutus and Mark Antony, all five of them extracted from Plutarch’s famous “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.” Written in the early years of the 2nd century, this biographical classic quickly became a school text as early as the 4th century and from the Renaissance to the early modern era served as both a popular introduction to antiquity and the preferred leisure reading of everyone from parsons to politicians.

The list of Plutarch’s most ardent admirers includes, for example, Montaigne, Shakespeare (who drew on Thomas North’s translation while writing “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra”), Rousseau (who called the “Lives” his favorite book) and this country’s Founding Fathers, notably Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

more here.