Under The Radar, Part 1

by Misha Lepetic

"In economics, the majority is always wrong."
~ JK Galbraith

Diego-Rivera-work-998x698One of the unfortunate gifts of the current, star-crossed administration is that there's something for everyone that will get their knickers in a twist. If immigration or climate change isn't your thing, just wait a few days, and some administration official will come out with a statement that lands somewhere in the space between spectacularly ignorant or merely deeply ill-considered. My latest opportunity to double-take arrived a few days ago, when Secretary of the Treasury (and Goldman Sachs alum) Steven Mnuchin opined that the threat of artificial intelligence to employment is "not even on my radar screen".

To be fair, the clip is brief enough that it is difficult to conclude whether or not Mnuchin knows what he is talking about. Too often when we talk about technology we fixate on one aspect of it, and intend (although not always) that this aspect stands in for the entirety of the technological phenomenon. These days, favored metonymies are ‘AI', along with ‘robots' and ‘algorithms'. Keeping this in mind while listening to the Mnuchin clip, it's unclear what he actually means when referring to AI. Although I suspect he's talking about the holy grail of AI, which is artificial general intelligence, or an AI that is indistinguishable from human intelligence.

If that is the case, then he did a disservice to the question, which was about the impact of AI on employment. Or, if you'll allow me to pluck out the metaphor, the impact of technology on employment, which is much more amorphous. Mnuchin's dodge was to say that, since we won't have human-equivalent AI for the foreseeable future, it's something that's not worth thinking about, at least until it happens. Come to think of it, I've heard this dodge before, mostly from the mouths of climate change skeptics and deniers. In both cases, the purpose is to obfuscate and delay until the truly catastrophic comes to pass, then innocently maintain that "no one could have seen this coming" or some such nonsense.

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by Tamuira Reid

The day Luna went mad her mother thought, finally. The signs had been there, hanging around at the dinner table, in the bathroom where she ironed her hair.

It had waited patiently in the corner of a room, under a chair, in the oven with the bread. Now they wouldn't need to wonder when it would all fall apart because it just had.

The day Luna went mad she was wearing pink lipstick. Her legs were waxed and smoothed down with cocoa butter because she was religious about that kind of thing. Never know who you're gonna see, she'd say, sliding a gold hoop through each ear.

It happened slowly and over a period of time. Shop closed. Her mind just closed-up on her. Went out of business.

Luna sang to the plants as she watered them. Would be normal except she thought she heard them sing back. Her mother turned up the radio and hung wet nylons from the fire escape.

It's hard to talk about it, when it's your daughter.

The emptiness in her eyes scared her mother. The empty blackness of her eyes. They held nothing but crazy and she knew that. And somewhere deep inside, her daughter knew what was happening too but she couldn't stop it.

The police said they had found her in the fetal position, on a sidewalk in Times Square. She was licking her arms like a cat. Her clothes sat next to her in a pile, perfectly folded. She wanted to go home if that was okay.

Sit. Eat.

My hair.

Your hair is perfect. Sit.

Her mother sat her down at the table and did what she did best. Fed her. A hot plate of arroz con pollo, a Malta, tostones with the heat still rising off them.

Something is happening to me, she said and stared out the window. A plastic bag floated by, white and ripped on one side.


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Relativity and relativism: stitching a world together

by Daniel Ranard

Stitching a treeIn the twentieth century, two important ideas arose with a nominal similarity: Einstein's theory of relativity on the one hand, and the idea of cultural or moral relativism on the other. It's probably fruitless to draw parallels between concepts that arose at distant ends of the intellectual spectrum—the hard sciences versus the humanistic disciplines—but sometimes you can't help yourself: "relativity" is right there in the name. In 1905, Einstein declared that certain facts about space and time are only true relative to a particular person or reference frame. In subsequent decades, philosophical "relativists" argued that questions of what is moral, what is true, or even what exists can only be answered relative to individuals or groups. Of course, Einstein's theory proved to be right, while the philosophical strand of relativism has evolved into a variety of contentious ideas.

First I will focus on Einstein's relativity, before touching on relativism in philosophy. To me, the story begins with two opposing accounts of what physics is. According to one account, physics provides an objective description of the world itself, like an encyclopedia entry on "The Universe." The encyclopedia tells you what stuff the world is made of and how that stuff behaves. This approach might be called the realist approach: physics presents objective facts about the real world.

Others prefer an "operationalist" account that focuses on the individual. By this account, physics is simply a collection of rules telling the individual what to expect in various circumstances. It's like a personal guidebook for experience: it predicts what you will observe when you follow various experimental procedures, like following a recipe in a laboratory. Unlike the realist's encyclopedia entry, the operationalist's guidebook does not attempt to describe the real world objectively. Instead, it prescribes how your experience should lead you to predict future experiences, using your own observations. Operationalists avoid referring to fundamental aspects of nature, like mass or length. To the operationalist, the length of an object is not some fundamental property – it's just a number you observe when you measure the object with a ruler, and any notion of length must be accompanied by well-specified procedure for how to measure it.

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Deep Disagreements and Argumentative Optimism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ContemptWe all have had moments when we feel that those with whom we disagree not only reject the point we are focused on at the moment, but also reject our values, general beliefs, modes of reasoning, and even our hopes. In such circumstances, productive critical conversation seems impossible. For the most part, in order to be successful, argument must proceed against the background of common ground. Interlocutors must agree on some basic facts about the world, or they must share some source of reasons to with they can appeal, or they must value roughly the same sort of outcome. And so, if two parties disagree about who finished runners-up to Leister City in their historic BPL win last year, they may agree to consult the league website, and that will resolve the issue. Or if two travelers disagree about which route home is better, one may say, "Yes, your way is shorter, but it runs though the traffic bottleneck at the mall, and that adds at least ten minutes to the journey." And that may resolve the dispute, depending perhaps on whether time is what matters most.

But some disagreements invoke deeper disputes, disputes about what sources are authoritative, what counts as evidence, and what matters. Such disputes quickly become argumentatively strange. And so if someone does not recognize the authority of the soccer league's website about last year's standings, it is unclear how a dispute over last year's runners-up to Leister City could be resolved. What might one say to a disputant of this kind? Does he trust news sites, television reporting, or Wikipedia entries concerning the BPL? Does he regard the news sites and the league website as reliable sources of information concerning this year's standings or when the games are played? What if our interlocutor in the route-home case doesn't see why the quickest route is preferable to the shortest? Maybe our traveling companion regards our hurry-scurry as a part of a larger social problem, or maybe wants to enjoy the Zen of a traffic jam. Sometimes a disagreement about one thing lies at the tip of a very large iceberg of composed of many other, deeper, disagreements.

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Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution

I will summarise the key elements of the modern science of evolution, and the reasons why the evidence in its favour is generally regarded among scientists as conclusive, before turning to my main theme, which is the extent to which Muslim scholars anticipated key aspects of the modern theory.

Paul Braterman at Muslim Heritage:

ScreenHunter_2648 Mar. 27 09.57We know what comes next, and they don’t. Bear that in mind whenever you see scholars commenting on the significance, in the context of today’s science, of thinkers who died centuries ago. To do them justice, we need to see the world through their eyes, not ours. But we too are people of our own time, and if we are looking for the origins of the concepts that concern us today, we would do well to start off by clarifying those concepts.

And so, in this article, I will summarise the key elements of the modern science of evolution, and the reasons why the evidence in its favour is generally regarded among scientists as conclusive, before turning to my main theme, which is the extent to which Muslim scholars anticipated key aspects of the modern theory. But remember that the aim is to understand their thinking in the context of their own time, rather than in the light of later knowledge.

I conclude that they made important contributions, and that one scholar (al Jahiz) even made the crucial step of realising that one species can evolve into another, and that what are now distinct species share a common ancestor. However, this is still a long way from recognising that such change is universal, or that even highly dissimilar species share a common ancestor, or that these facts are significant.

More here.

Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards

Ambika Kamath writes:

ScreenHunter_2647 Mar. 27 09.50Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place.

More here.

Long-Sought Research Deregulation Is Upon Us

Richard A. Shweder and Richard E. Nisbett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_2646 Mar. 27 09.42It has been a 40-year labor: Regulatory systems are not easy to undo. Nevertheless, in January the federal government opened the door for universities to deregulate vast portions of research in the social sciences, law, and the humanities. This long-sought and welcome reform of the regulations requiring administrative oversight of federally funded human-subject research on college campuses limits the scope of institutional review board, or IRB, management by exempting low-risk research with human subjects from the board’s review.

The new regulations state: "We acknowledge that guidance may be useful for interpreting some of the terms in this exemption, and that some cases will be debatable. However, we also believe that a substantial number of research activities will plainly fit this exemption, and should be allowed to proceed without IRB review."

The exempted research activities include surveys, interviews, and other forms of free communication between researchers and human adults, aptitude testing, the observation and recording of verbal and nonverbal behavior in schools and public places (for example, courtrooms), benign behavioral interventions (including ordinary psychology experiments), secondary-data analysis, and other low-risk projects and research procedures.

More here.


Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_2645 Mar. 27 09.28Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned.

You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place; a baby who is crying now will stop crying sooner or later. Exhaustion, or a change of mood, or a passing sound, or a bright light, something, always happens next. But for the parents the wait can feel the same as forever, and for many pundits, too, now is the only time worth knowing, for now is when the baby is crying and now is when they’re selling your books.

And so the death-of-liberalism tomes and eulogies are having their day, with the publishers who bet on apocalypse rubbing their hands with pleasure and the ones who gambled on more of the same weeping like, well, babies. Pankaj Mishra, in “Age of Anger” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), focusses on the failures of what is sometimes called “neoliberalism”—i.e., free-market fundamentalism—and, more broadly, on the failure of liberal élites around the world to address the perpetual problem of identity, the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity. Joel Mokyr’s “A Culture of Growth” (Princeton) is an attempt to answer the big question: Why did science and technology (and, with them, colonial power) spread west to east in the modern age, instead of another way around? His book, though drier than the more passionate polemics, nimbly suggests that the postmodern present is powered by the same engines as the early-modern past. In “Homo Deus” (HarperCollins), Yuval Noah Harari offers an elegy for the end of the liberal millennium, which he sees as giving way to post-humanism: the coming of artificial intelligence that may leave us contented and helpless, like the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s “Time Machine.” Certainly, the anti-liberals, or, in Harari’s case, post-humanists, have much the better of the rhetorical energy and polemical brio. They slash and score. The case against the anti-liberals can be put only slowly and with empirical caution. The tortoise is not merely a slow runner but an ugly one. Still, he did win the race.

More here.

Doing the write thing: Angie Thomas

Afua Hirsch in The Guardian:

UntitledIf a spaceship landed in northern Texas and beamed every adolescent within a 50-mile radius into its desolate interior, the scene would look a lot like what now lies in front of me. It’s difficult to believe there are any teenagers in north Texas not currently forming orderly queues at the Las Colinas conference centre – a formidably angular set of slabs in the Texan wasteland. Yet among the lines of young readers at the North Texas Teen Book Festival, their arms cradling impractical numbers of books, and the row of authors signing on an industrial scale, one woman stands out. Angie Thomas, one of the youngest writers in the place, is one black face in a sea of white. She’s upbeat, her hair tied with a perky bow, and when a fan says she looks “so pretty” in a top that combines a hood with sheer lace panels, she laughs and says “thank you” in a Mississippi accent whose vowels are so many notes, it’s a beguiling song. She fingers the garment. “My friend called it Thug Life with a feminine twist.” However you interpret that description, it will mean something different after reading Thomas’s book, the recently released The Hate U Give. She’s a 29-year-old woman from Jackson who has written a novel that is a strident and utterly compelling march into the most sensitive and contentious subjects in America today: race, privilege and the killings of unarmed black people at the hands of the police. And she has done so for the young adult fiction scene – the popular “YA” genre still best known for Harry Potter and the Twilight trilogy. Among these overwhelmingly white adolescents in suburban Texas, the book has completely sold out and will, a few days later, debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a publishing miracle.

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr, a 16-year-old black girl who lives in inner-city America in a neighbourhood that is poor and black, but goes to school in a suburb that is affluent and white. At home, Starr’s loving and protective parents usher their children into a room they call the “den” not just to watch basketball games, but to shield them from the machine gun fire that frequently erupts on the street outside. One night Starr and her childhood friend Khalil are driving home from a party when they are pulled over by police. Khalil, who is unarmed, is made to get out of the vehicle, and an officer – who later claims he mistook the boy’s hairbrush for a gun –shoots and kills him, traumatising Starr.

More here.

The Wisdom of the Aging Brain

Anil Ananthaswamy in Nautilus:

Aging_8bf0f5b933338cb9b11ff56496e6f56fAt the 2010 Cannes Film Festival premiere of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, director Woody Allen was asked about aging. He replied with his characteristic, straight-faced pessimism. “I find it a lousy deal. There is no advantage in getting older. I’m 74 now. You don’t get smarter, you don’t get wiser … Your back hurts more, you get more indigestion … It’s a bad business, getting old. I’d advise you not to do it if you can avoid it.” Creaking bones and bad digestion notwithstanding, is that really the only face of aging? Turns out, it’s not. At least for the fortunate few, old age may not be Woody Allenesque; instead old age is when they become compassionate and wise. Yes, wise.

While aging diminishes activity in certain brain regions, there’s tantalizing evidence this may be compensated by changes in brain regions associated with supportive and social behavior. This shift in brain activity may foster wisdom in some people, a way of being that moves one away from self-centeredness toward emotional equanimity and wider social consciousness. We may even be able to work toward wisdom in old age. For millennia, philosophers and theologians have been preoccupied with the notion of wisdom (the Greek word philosophia means “love of wisdom”). Centuries before the Greeks got into the act, the religious traditions of India and China, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, were thinking about wisdom, emphasizing the regulation of emotion—or emotional balance—as key to it. Aristotle delineated wisdom into two types. One was the general, god-like, all-knowing wisdom, and the second (more pertinent to us mere mortals) was something called phronesis, or practical wisdom, which is the ability to be discerning about one’s actions, knowing when and why to act in a pragmatic manner. Ideally, such wise actions—whether involving emotion regulation or reasoning—would balance self-interest against the interests of others and those of society in general.

More here.

Sunday Poem

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact,
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

by Robert Graves
from To Read a Poem
Edited by Donald Hall
Harcourt Brace, 1992


Rafia Zakaria in Literary Hub:

Pankaj-Mishra-Age-of-AngerHistorian and intellectual Pankaj Mishra’s latest book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, published earlier this month, presents what Mishra calls “an emotional history” at a time of “worldwide emergency” when rage fills the global political sphere. Mishra locates the core of our chaotic condition in the Nietzchean concept of “ressentiment,” a creative force that animates the rebellion of the poorest and most disenfranchised against the ruling class. It is this very force, Mishra argues, that is animating those most marginalized, its power whetted by the contradiction between the equality promised in prose and exalted in rhetoric but never delivered in reality.

Mishra recently traveled to the United States, during the pause between President Trump’s first travel ban on the citizens of seven Muslim countries, and all refugees, and the striking down of his new one. A few days after we spoke, the President’s new budget pledged to do away with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. The budget for the U.S. State Department is to be slashed while the U.S. Defense budget will be augmented by billions of dollars. It certainly seems that the world is at the brink of even more war, more destruction, more displacement, and more turning away. In our conversation, Mishra and I spoke about the prescience of Age of Anger and his framing of our bleak and divided global moment.

Rafia Zakaria: The very first page of your book describes its stages of production: beginning at Modi, writing through Brexit and published with the election of Donald Trump. When you were at the beginning of this intellectual journey, did you foresee how it would proceed, both in terms of the books and the politics it aspires to explain?

Pankaj Mishra: I wish I could claim that kind of prescience. I knew that things were going very wrong in Europe and that inequality was an issue in the U.S. I did not know Brexit would happen or that Donald Trump would be elected. I just thought that there would be very large number of people who would vote for him, but I hoped that not enough would go as far as actually electing a maniac and a troll to the White House. I wrote my book obviously taking into account the state of dissatisfaction, but I could not predict the political outcome.

More here.

Neanderthal Dental Plaque Shows What a Paleo Diet Really Looks Like

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Neanderthal dental plaque is a precious commodity, so it’s a little embarrassing when you’re trying to dislodge a piece and it goes flying across the room. “We just stood still, and everyone’s like: Where is it? Where is it?” recalls Laura Weyrich from the University of Adelaide. “Usually, we try to wrap the skull in foil and work underneath it, but that time, the foil didn’t happen to cover a small area.”

Weyrich and her team of unorthodox dentists eventually found the wayward plaque, and recovered similar samples from the skulls of five Neanderthals. Each was once a colony of microbes, growing on a tooth. But over tens of thousands of years, they had hardened into small, brittle pieces of rock. Still, each nugget contained DNA—from the microbes, and also from whatever the Neanderthals had eaten.

By harvesting and sequencing that DNA, Weyrich has shown that there was no such thing as a typical Neanderthal diet. One individual from Spy cave in Belgium mostly ate meat like woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, as well as some edible mushrooms. But two individuals who lived in El Sidrón cave in Spain seemed to be entirely vegetarian. The team couldn’t find any traces of meat in their diet, which consisted of mushrooms, pine nuts, tree bark, and moss. The Belgian Neanderthals hunted; the Spanish ones foraged.

More here.

INTERVIEW: Basharat Peer on Turkey, India and the new populism

William Armstrong in Hurriyet Daily News:

N_111198_1The Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the India of Narendra Modi are seen as pioneers of a new style of populism. Both President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Modi tap into a simmering reservoir of resentment, historical injury and frustration, directing anger against domestic and foreign “enemies of the people.” With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the specter of resurgent nationalism haunting Europe, identity populism seems to capture the spirit of the age.

“A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen” by Basharat Peer, a New York Times journalist who grew up in Indian Kashmir, is a slim but illuminating book exploring the parallels between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Modi’s India.

Peer spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about reporting for the book (reviewed in HDN here), modernization and secularism in Turkey and India, and comparisons between the Kashmir and Kurdish issues.

How and when did you get the idea of writing a book about the direction of these two countries?

I was working in India, writing for various magazines and thinking hard about Modi. I was thinking of doing a whole book about majoritarian politics in India. The rise of Modi was a seminal event in the modern political history of India. There was this man with an extremely controversial past who nobody thought could be prime minister. But he made his moves very well and the old elite was dysfunctional, crumbling and corrupt. Modi was a new challenger who came from one of the richest states, Gujurat, and gave this sense that he was a very competent administrator who knew how to make India shine. But there was blood on his hands: The allegations of his involvement in the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in Gujurat. It was the biggest televised pogrom in contemporary India and it happened under Modi’s watch. It was very troubling to see Modi gain acceptability, rising to power saying things like: "To run this country you need a 56-inch chest." He had a sense of masculinity and vigor and used his Hindu nationalist credentials to win votes. As all populists do, you use a target or an out group – an ethnic or religious minority that you don't like. In the Indian case it was the Indian Muslims.

One day I was talking to my old teacher at Columbia University, Nicholas Lemann, who was starting a new series of short books. We started talking about Modi and we realized that we were not just talking about one man, but a trend in this crisis of liberal democracy. Figures like Modi don't come from aristocratic origins. They come from the neglected periphery, from humble origins, but use their personal charisma and the historic moment they find themselves in, and often use majoritarian politics and a certain talk about love for the markets and corporate governance.

More here.