Beyond GDP

Joseph Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:

Spurred on by Scotland, a small group of countries has now formed the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. The hope is that governments putting wellbeing at the center of their agenda will redirect their budgets accordingly. For example, a New Zealand government focused on wellbeing would direct more of its attention and resources to childhood poverty.

Better metrics would also become an important diagnostic tool, helping countries both identify problems before matters spiral out of control and select the right tools to address them. Had the US, for example, focused more on health, rather than just on GDP, the decline in life expectancy among those without a college education, and especially among those in America’s deindustrialized regions, would have been apparent years ago.

Likewise, metrics of equality of opportunity have only recently exposed the hypocrisy of America’s claim to be a land of opportunity: Yes, anyone can get ahead, so long as they are born of rich, white parents. The data reveal that the US is riddled with so-called inequality traps: Those born at the bottom are likely to remain there. If we are to eliminate these inequality traps, we first have to know that they exist, and then ascertain what creates and sustains them.

More here.

Resurrecting the Soul in a Secular Age

Samuel Loncar at the LARB:

Edmundson’s project is a religious (or spiritual) attempt to discover alternatives to the everyday world of late-modern capitalism. No dogma is involved, save the premise of the book itself: namely, that ideals matter profoundly, and we can discover and use them through reading great literature. This is, one might say, the religion of ideals, a holding space between pure secularity and traditional religion. Its sole purpose is to say that somethingmatters more than our petty concerns with self-advancement, and through openness to that something we might encounter ways of life worth living.

Edmundson’s argument suffers when summarized, because its real power comes through the close analysis of a series of books and figures that embody the ideals he traces. Beginning with Homer and the warrior ideal, he moves through the ideal of compassion embodied in Jesus, Confucius, and the Buddha, toward the predecessor of our soulless age, William Shakespeare, while also dealing with poetry and eros. His penultimate chapter covers the archenemy of ideals, of religion and the transcendent, Sigmund Freud.

more here.

‘Armenia!’ at the Met

Robert Rubsam at Commonweal:

The Met’s permanent collection can tell you much about the Greeks and Romans, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, medieval Japan and the many dynasties of China, but it does not have as much to say about more marginal peoples. History, here, gathers at the center. If one wants to see peripheries, one must look for them. Wandering the galleries, one rarely get a sense of the vast mosaic of peoples who lived within and often long past those great empires of stone, paper, and capital. The presence of so many Armenian works, directly beside sculpture from Pergamon and Rome, offers an alternative view of history, one in which time eventually pulls down the mighty from their thrones and sometimes lifts up the lowly. The margins come into focus.

A massive 4’x12’ paper map, commissioned in 1691 for the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople, attempts to chart the Armenian world in tempera and ink. Rather than focusing on the limits of the Ottoman Empire, the Tabula Choreographica Armenica maps churches, overlaying geography with religion and history, including, in this ostensibly modern depiction, a mad St. Gregory smashing demonic idols in the fourth century.

more here.

Bach the Recycler

George B. Stauffer at the NYRB:

Around 1730 Johann Sebastian Bach began to recycle his earlier works in a major way. He was in his mid-forties at the time, and he had composed hundreds of masterful keyboard, instrumental, and vocal pieces, including at least three annual cycles of approximately sixty cantatas each for worship services in Leipzig, where he was serving as St. Thomas Cantor and town music director. Bach was at the peak of his creative powers. Yet for some reason, instead of sitting down and writing original music, he turned increasingly to old compositions, pulling them off the shelf and using their contents as the basis for new works.

The roots of this change can be traced, perhaps, to the summer of 1726, when Bach decided to incorporate instrumental music written earlier in Cöthen into his third Leipzig cantata cycle, refashioning concerto movements for violin or oboe into a series of inventive sinfonias (orchestral introductions), choruses, and arias featuring solo organ. Here the recycled material remained brilliant filler amid newly composed music.

more here.

8 Most Controversial Late-Night Moments of 2018

Matt Wilstein in Daily Beast:

“There’s a question I get asked a lot,” Jimmy Kimmel said at the beginning of a recent monologue. “Now that we have this president, people ask, ‘Is it easy now? It must be easy to write jokes, there’s so much material, the jokes must write themselves.’ And it’s not true. We still write the jokes ourselves. And in fact, in a way, it makes it harder to be funny when nonsense and stupidity is pouring on your head at all times.” Kimmel’s comments were merely a set-up to explain that his jokes didn’t write themselves “until today, when Kanye West visited the White House.” But aside from those rare instances, his sentiment echoes what several late-night hosts have expressed during the first two years of the Trump presidency. And especially in 2018, it seemed, the late-night men and still-too-few women frequently struggled to find the best ways to joke about this president and the madness that surrounds him. The daily onslaught of crazy from the White House, combined with a viewing public increasingly eager to call out any perceived transgression on social media, led to an unprecedented level of outrage, often of the “faux” variety. Here, in chronological order, are the most controversial late-night clips of 2018.

John Oliver’s Trolls Mike Pence with Marlon Bundo Book

The day before Charlotte Pence released her children’s book about a “day in the life” of her father, Vice President Mike Pence, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver published his own, far more successful, parody version. As Oliver explained on his show in March, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundotells the story of a gay bunny who wants to get married but is initially thwarted by an evil stink bug who bears a striking resemblance to the vice president.  For her part, Charlotte Pence was surprisingly cool with the rival book, the proceeds from which went to support LGBTQ charities. “I mean, I think, you know, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery in a way,” she said on Fox Business Network. “But also, in all seriousness, his book is contributing to charities that I think we can all get behind. We have two books giving to charities that are about bunnies so I’m all for it really.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

The infinite is like this:
there are only the things I like.

For example
I like to watch the seagulls on the Arno being transported
from one place to the other
and making their way back simply by inflating their wings and flapping their feet.
I like huge flying libraries and the custodians that hold them
by a thread.
I like tiny cafés
just below the level of the pavement (two or three steps down is enough).
You sit down and I never quite know what to get at first.
The croissants are too glazed
the froth on the cappuccino is not maritime enough.

By the way:

…….….. in your opinion are we below sea level?

You see
at some other time it would have seemed like such a capital concern.
But now that (I’m not exaggerating) the stars
slip past us like tepid doves
everything else is pretty insignificant.

………… Don’t you think?

By Roberto Amato
from Le città separate
Publisher: Elliot, Rome, 2015
Translation: Matilda Colarossi
First published on Poetry International, 2016

Too little has changed since Thomas Hardy wrote about sexual assault

Erica Wickerson in The Independent:

When the news broke that Sir Philip Green was the businessman behind the court injunction preventing publication of his alleged sex offences and accusations of racism, the message that rich, powerful men are subject to a different standard from the rest of society was repeated once again. We heard this too when Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, one of the highest judiciary positions in America. Trump’s main focus was on the character assassination of several women who had accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Trump branded the claims a “hoax” and a “disgrace” that had been “brought about by people that are evil”. Following Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about what she said she suffered at the hands of Kavanaugh, she was unable to return home amid repeated death threats.

These stories of victim blaming and silencing by powerful men are all too common. The #MeToo campaign in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein has put this discussion centre stage. Yet the cases of Kavanaugh and Green underline who still holds the power. A recent article in The New York Times listed notable novels that deal with rape, most of them from the past few years, and popular culture has explored this more and more. For example, ITV’s Broadchurch began as a murder mystery series, then in the final season followed the investigation of a serial rapist. In the past couple of years, The Archers’ storyline about an abusive marriage was responsible for a significant increase in victims of domestic violence seeking help. Robert Galbraith’s (pseudonym of JK Rowling) detective series, the Strike mysteries, have as their heroine an empowered survivor of rape. Contemporary culture is reflecting a significant change in attitudes.

But literature has questioned assumptions of power and double standards for a long time, and has been a way of giving voice to those silenced by prejudice and fear. Two works in particular indicate the striking and worrying similarities in gendered power relations from the 19th century to the present day. Thomas Hardy’s exploration of the devastation caused by sexual assault (because, let’s face it, that’s what it is) in his 1891 novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles is as relevant as ever. The double standards and victim blaming Tess faces should be a thing of the past. But Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard (serialised for the BBC last year) effectively modernises Tess’ story, placing the rape victim on trial once again.

More here.

Amos Oz: the novelist prophet who never lost hope for Israel

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian:

On Friday afternoon, a text arrived from Israel letting me know of the death of Amos Oz, hailed for decades as that country’s greatest novelist. “The last, best voice of an Israel that is all but gone,” it read. Oz himself would doubtless have found a way to wave aside such talk, dismissing it as melodramatic. But there’s truth in it. For he was indeed the embodiment of a particular Israel, one that dominated in the first years of the state’s life but which has steadily receded to the margins. To his internal critics, he was the face of the mainly-Ashkenazi, European Jewish elite that built the country, a bleeding-heart liberal constantly scolding the nation for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a founder of the Peace Now movement who never stopped demanding his fellow Israelis behave more wisely and more justly. More than once he was denounced as a traitor, an insult he once told me he regarded as nothing less than “a badge of honour”, putting him in the same company as Jeremiah, Abraham Lincoln and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Outside the country, however, he could make diaspora Jewish audiences swoon; they saw him as a pin-up for the Israel of their dreams. Ruggedly handsome, his face battle-scarred by service in Israel’s 1967 and 1973 wars, he could have been a model of the “new Jew” the first Zionists longed to forge in the Mediterranean sun. They wanted the new Israeli to be a soldier, farmer and poet. Oz was all three, a member of Kibbutz Hulda where he took his turn picking fruit and washing dishes, turning over the proceeds of his novels to the collective coffers. In a way, that man was Oz’s first invented character. He was not born an Oz, but a Klausner, growing up not on a kibbutz, but in Jerusalem. His father was a scholar and librarian; the future novelist was raised in what he called “a house full of footnotes”. He fled to the kibbutz aged 15, renaming himself Oz – Hebrew for strength.

More here.

Illuminating Islam’s Peaceful Origins

Mustafa Akyol in The New York Times:

Is Allah, the God of Muslims, a different deity from the one worshiped by Jews and Christians? Is he even perhaps a strange “moon god,” a relic from Arab paganism, as some anti-Islamic polemicists have argued? What about Allah’s apostle, Muhammad? Was he a militant prophet who imposed his new religion by the sword, leaving a bellicose legacy that still drives today’s Muslim terrorists? Two new books may help answer such questions, and also give a deeper understanding of Islam’s theology and history.

Jack Miles, a professor of religion at the University of California and the author of the Pulitzer-winning book “God: A Biography,” has written “God in the Qur’an.” It is a highly readable, unbiasedly comparative and elegantly insightful study of the Quran, in which he sets out to show that the three great monotheistic religions do indeed believe in the same deity — although they have “different emphases” when it comes to this God, which accounts for their divergent theologies. To begin with, one should not doubt that Allah is Yahweh, the God of the Bible, because that is what he himself says. The Quran’s “divine speaker,” Miles writes, “does identify himself as the God whom Jews and Christians worship and the author of their Scriptures.” That is also why Allah reiterates, often with much less detail, many of the same stories we read in the Bible about Yahweh and his interventions in human history. The little nuances between these stories, however, are distinctions with major implications.

Take, for example, the story of Abraham, which is so central to both the Bible and the Quran. Miles examines Abraham in both and highlights a key difference: In the Bible, Abraham is presented as the father of a great nation that will multiply and inherit a holy land. “To your descendants I give this country,” Yahweh vows, “from the River of Egypt to the Great River.” In the Quran, however, the stress is on Abraham as the great champion of monotheism against idolatry: His biggest mission is smashing the idols — a story foretold not in the Bible, but in an ancient rabbinical exegesis of it, a midrash. “Yahweh is a fertility god,” Miles provocatively suggests, whereas “Allah is a theolatry god” — theolatry meaning the worshiping of God alone.

More here.

Can Intelligence Buy You Happiness?

Scott Barry Kaufman in Scientific American:

In his classic 1923 essay, “Intelligence as the Tests Test It“, Edwin Boring wrote “Intelligence is what the tests test.” Almost a century of research later, we know that this definition is far too narrow. As long as a test is sufficiently cognitively complex and taps into enough diverse content, you can get a rough snapshot of a person’s general cognitive ability— and general cognitive ability predicts a wide range of important outcomes in life, including academic achievementoccupational performancehealth, and longevity.

But what about happiness? Prior studies have been mixed about this, with some studies showing no relationship between individual IQ and happiness, and other studies showing that those in the lowest IQ range report the lowest levels of happiness compared to those in the highest IQ group. In one study, however, the unhappiness of the lowest IQ range was reduced by 50% once income and mental health issues were taken into account. The authors concluded that “interventions that target modifiable variables such as income (e.g., through enhancing education and employment opportunities) and neurotic symptoms (e.g., through better detection of mental health problems) may improve levels of happiness in the lower IQ groups.” One major limitations of these prior studies, however, is that they all rely on a single measure of happiness, notably life satisfaction. Modern day researchers now have measures to assess a much wider array of indicators of well-being, including autonomy, personal growth, positive relationships, self-acceptance, mastery, and purpose and meaning in life.

Enter a new study conducted by Ana Dimitrijevic and colleagues, in which they attempted to assess the relationship between multiple indicators of intelligence and multiple indicators of well-being. They relied on the following definition of intelligence: “the ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, and to overcome obstacles by taking thought.” This definition covers several more specific notions of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence.

More here.

A tilt of the head facilitates social engagement

Jennifer McNulty in Phys.Org:

Every time we look at a face, we take in a flood of information effortlessly: age, gender, race, expression, the direction of our subject’s gaze, perhaps even their mood. Faces draw us in and help us navigate relationships and the world around us.

How the brain does this is a mystery. Understanding how works has great value—perhaps particularly for those whose brains process information in ways that make challenging, including people with autism. Helping people tap into this flow of social cues could be transformational. A new study of facial “fixation” led by Nicolas Davidenko, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, boosts our insights considerably. “Looking at the eyes allows you to gather much more information,” said Davidenko. “It’s a real advantage.” By contrast, the inability to make eye contact has causal effects. “It impairs your facial processing abilities and puts you at a real social disadvantage,” he said. People who are reluctant to make eye contact may also be misperceived as disinterested, distracted, or aloof, he noted. Scientists have known for decades that when we look at a face, we tend to focus on the left side of the face we’re viewing, from the viewer’s perspective. Called the “left-gaze ,” this phenomenon is thought to be rooted in the brain, the right hemisphere of which dominates the face-processing task.

More here.

Friday Poem


—Homage to Claudius Ptolemy

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.



—Homenaje a Claudio Ptolomeo

Soy hombre: duro poco
y es enorme la noche.
Pero miro hacia arriba:
las estrellas escriben.
Sin entender comprendo:
también soy escritura
y en este mismo instante
alguien me delatrea.

by Octavio Paz
from The Collected Poem 1957-1987
Carcanet Press, 1988
translation by Eliot Weinsberger

A simple guide to CRISPR, one of the biggest science stories of the decade

Brad Plumer, Eliza Barclay, Julia Belluz, and Umair Irfan in Vox:

If we want to understand CRISPR, we should go back to 1987, when Japanese scientists studying E. coli bacteria first came across some unusual repeating sequences in the organism’s DNA. “The biological significance of these sequences,” they wrote, “is unknown.” Over time, other researchers found similar clusters in the DNA of other bacteria (and archaea). They gave these sequences a name: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — or CRISPR.

Yet the function of these CRISPR sequences was mostly a mystery until 2007, when food scientists studying the Streptococcus bacteria used to make yogurt showed that these odd clusters actually served a vital function: They’re part of the bacteria’s immune system.

See, bacteria are under constant assault from viruses, so they produce enzymes to fight off viral infections. Whenever a bacterium’s enzymes manage to kill off an invading virus, other little enzymes will come along, scoop up the remains of the virus’s genetic code and cut it into tiny bits. The enzymes then store those fragments in CRISPR spaces in the bacterium’s own genome.

More here.

Those Left Behind When #LoveWon

Hugh Ryan in The Boston Review:

My partners and I were not the only queers, though, for whom gay marriage fell short of the Promised Land. More than many realize, a hefty share of the LGBT movement’s radical potential was lost or traded away so that they could say #LoveWon. For instance, in 2012, queer Minnesotans enjoyed a unique success when activists beat back an attempt to ban same-sex marriage in their state constitution, becoming the only state ever to defeat such an initiative at the ballot box. However, queer studies scholar Myrl Beam paints an instructive and troubling picture of the victory.

In his essay “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, Beam describes what he calls the “love pivot”: in 2012 gay marriage activists across the country shifted from arguments emphasizing equality to arguments emphasizing love. According to focus group research funded by the major national players in the marriage movement (primarily the organizations Freedom to Marry and Third Way), a “focus on discrimination and equality simply did not resonate with straight voters.” Or, in the words of political strategist Richard Carlbom, “when you talk about equality people STOP listening.” Instead, activists were told to play up their life-long dreams of getting married and their desire to fit into the straight marriage mold—regardless of how authentic those desires were.

More here.

How to Write About the Right: An Exchange

James McAuley and Greil Marcus, and a reply by Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books:

“Something new is happening on the European right, and it involves more than xenophobic outbursts,” Lilla writes. But in many cases, xenophobia is far from peripheral. The hatred of migrants and foreigners is the essence of the pitch that the contemporary European right has made to voters. How else do we explain the tendency of right-wing parties across the continent to focus on a so-called “invasion” of migrants, even as their numbers continue to fall? Arrivals are down to their lowest levels since 2015, when Europe experienced a historic influx of migrants and refugees that triggered a political crisis with no apparent end in sight. The leaders of far-right and, now, mainstream conservative parties across the continent are focusing squarely on immigration and the alleged threat to national identity it poses. In many cases, the rhetorical line between “right” and “far right” is increasingly difficult to delineate.

This is exactly the climate that has enabled the rise of Marion Maréchal—formerly Marion Maréchal-Le Pen—the twenty-nine-year-old scion of France’s, and probably Europe’s, best-known far-right dynasty. A darling of Steve Bannon, Maréchal addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington this past February. Lilla quotes Maréchal’s remarks in that speech extensively, as ostensible evidence of a new intellectual movement among a younger generation of European conservatives. But he selectively omits other lines from that same speech, which clearly situate Maréchal in a right wing terrified by the prospect of a white majority apparently under siege. “After forty years of massive immigration, Islamic lobbies and political correctness,” she said at CPAC, “France is in the process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam, and the terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg.” Given that Lilla quoted so much else of what she said, readers of The New York Review deserve to read the extreme words from a woman Lilla presents as both “calm and collected” and “intellectually inclined.” Her speech was also fundamentally dishonest: according to most available estimates, Muslims count for no more than 10 percent of the total French population.

More here.

The Innovation Engine

John Griffin in Harvard Magazine:

WHEN Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow stressed the vital role of immigrants in both higher education and the economy during his October installation address, economist William R. Kerr’s research team cheered. The D’Arbeloff-Class of 1955 professor of business administration, Kerr studies the future of work, with a particular focus on high-skilled immigrants and their impacts on the U.S. economy. At a time when immigration provokes fierce debate in American public life, he argues in The Gift of Global Talent (Stanford) for reforms to streamline the U.S. immigration system and attract more overseas talent.

Using databases of Nobel Prize-winners, inventors, and college graduates, Kerr has found that immigrants contribute an outsized portion of U.S. innovation. Since 1901, for example, 33 percent of the country’s Nobel laureates have been immigrants. In 2014, 40 percent of America’s doctoral degrees were awarded to noncitizens. Data from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamic database suggest that more than a quarter of U.S. entrepreneurs were born overseas, this number having risen steadily since at least 1995. Such patterns are more difficult to discern among inventors (patents do not list the holders’ immigration status), but Kerr uses algorithms to approximate inventors’ ethnicities from their first and last names, yielding insights into workforce patterns within firms even when immigration patterns cannot be observed directly. Using this method, Kerr estimates that likely immigrants accounted for roughly 29 percent of U.S. patents in 2017, up from just 9 percent in 1975. Immigrant output has increased faster than immigration itself, and this growth is clear across sectors.

Kerr writes that “powerful ideas are the main force behind long-term economic growth” and presents evidence that high-skilled immigration is crucial to this process. Such powerful ideas are especially likely to emerge in what he calls “talent clusters,” places like Cambridge or Silicon Valley, where specialized industries congregate—and where immigrants often come to work.

More here.