Akeel Bilgrami on the Politics India Needs

Akeel Bilgrami in Outlook:

The state in polities broadly described as ‘liberal democracies’ with political economies broadly described as ‘capitalist’ are characterised by a feature that Gramsci called ‘hegemony’. This is a technical term, not to be confused with the loose use of that term to connote ‘power and domination over another’. In Gramsci’s special sense, hegemony means that a class gets to be the ruling class by convincing all other classes that its interests are the interests of all other classes. It is because of this feature that such states avoid being authoritarian. Authoritarian states need to be authoritarian precisely because they lack Gramscian hegemony. It would follow from this that if a state that does possess hegemony in this sense is authoritarian, there is something compulsive about its authoritarianism. Now, what is interesting is that the present government in India keeps boastfully proclaiming that it possesses hegemony in this sense, that it has all the classes convinced that its policies are to their benefit. If so, one can only conclude that its widely rec­orded authoritarianism, therefore, is pathological.

There have been spectacular cases of this authoritarianism such as the recent arrest of five journalists and professors on charges that are virtually nonsensical. The liberal middle class has expressed some anger about these and, given how authoritarian the government has become, that took some courage. But Muslims and Dalits and, quite generally, the unprotected poor suffer from brutality and arbitrary arrest each day and this goes unreported even in the regional media. It is so pervasive that it is not news and it invokes nothing but indifference from the liberal middle class.

More here.

Charles Graeber: The Cure For Cancer Has Arrived

From 52 Insights:

So it’s 2018, and we’re at a pivotal point in the world of cancer. A breakthrough has been made, is this the revolution we’ve all been waiting for. Is the cut and burn era over?

You have to be so careful with this question because the idea of raising false hope is cruel. We’ve seen this time and time again, where there have been breakthroughs but it becomes one of the most shopworn headlines out there. The short answer is yes, this is the breakthrough.  This is a penicillin moment for this disease, which is to say we have fundamentally changed our understanding of the disease and of ourselves and how our immune system interacts or has forever failed to interact with cancer.

We understand that cancer takes advantage of the safety mechanism built into our immune system. Cancer uses a secret handshake to shut down the immune system and to say “I’m cool, I’m a normal body cell don’t attack me.” We count on these secret handshakes or checkpoints for the body not to be attacking ourselves all the time, to not be in a constant state of autoimmunity. The most dangerous thing in our bodies usually is our defences, and that has evolved over 500 million years, and they’re really good. And when they go wrong, it’s terrible.

The safety built into them are necessary. We now know cancer takes advantage of those safety checks and now we know we can block that. That understanding has been sought after for well over one hundred and fifty years. It’s something that puzzled humanity forever. And it was only understood recently.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Olive Oatman

It was the charcoal they couldn’t stand.
Sister Maddy tried and tried
to get it out—bleach and scrub
till my skin peeled—
but the marks stayed,
black as the stripes
on a hawk’s wing.

Maddy took my mirror away —
each day I saw those marks
took me back,
away from the silk bustled dresses,
the shoes like vises,
the bobs and nods and mouthy words.

Back to his camp by the river.
Smoke blue as morning,
children so quiet
I was afraid at first.
He brought me tied on the back of a horse.
They took my dress,
burned it and laughed,
put me in deerskin—so soft—
laid me on a bed of pine
with the skins circled ‘round,
a smell of earth and sweat and hide.

I choked on the smell,
couldn’t get used to the work.
Water from the river in bark buckets,
firewood in a clump on my back,
scraping the dead things he brought me —
blood, skin, and sinew
torn from the hide
like all I’d left behind.

Read more »

Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

Jonathan Shaw in Harvard Magazine:

IN MARCH 18, 2018, at around 10 P.M., Elaine Herzberg was wheeling her bicycle across a street in Tempe, Arizona, when she was struck and killed by a self-driving car. Although there was a human operator behind the wheel, an autonomous system—artificial intelligence—was in full control. This incident, like others involving interactions between people and AI technologies, raises a host of ethical and proto-legal questions. What moral obligations did the system’s programmers have to prevent their creation from taking a human life? And who was responsible for Herzberg’s death? The person in the driver’s seat? The company testing the car’s capabilities? The designers of the AI system, or even the manufacturers of its onboard sensory equipment?

“Artificial intelligence” refers to systems that can be designed to take cues from their environment and, based on those inputs, proceed to solve problems, assess risks, make predictions, and take actions. In the era predating powerful computers and big data, such systems were programmed by humans and followed rules of human invention, but advances in technology have led to the development of new approaches. One of these is machine learning, now the most active area of AI, in which statistical methods allow a system to “learn” from data, and make decisions, without being explicitly programmed. Such systems pair an algorithm, or series of steps for solving a problem, with a knowledge base or stream—the information that the algorithm uses to construct a model of the world.

Ethical concerns about these advances focus at one extreme on the use of AI in deadly military drones, or on the risk that AI could take down global financial systems. Closer to home, AI has spurred anxiety about unemployment, as autonomous systems threaten to replace millions of truck drivers, and make Lyft and Uber obsolete. And beyond these larger social and economic considerations, data scientists have real concerns about bias, about ethical implementations of the technology, and about the nature of interactions between AI systems and humans if these systems are to be deployed properly and fairly in even the most mundane applications.

More here.

The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?

Paul Dolan in The Guardian:

According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), which has been studying the happiness levels of a sample of 200,000 people each year from 2011, about 1% of us are miserable. This would scale up to about half a million Britons. Earning less than £400 per week (or about £20,000 a year) is one of the factors that increases the chances of being in the most miserable 1%. Above £400 per week, the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in. Once your basic needs are satisfied, your desire for ever-increasing amounts of money generates ever-decreasing returns of happiness. Likewise, the most recent American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which allows analysts to estimate levels of happiness associated with a range of daily activities, showed that happiness goes up with increases in income at the lower end of the scale, but then it falls with higher incomes. Contrary to what most of us might predict, those earning over $100K are no happier than those with incomes of less than $25K. Those with the highest incomes report the least sense of purpose in their experiences. Perhaps “having it all” makes what we do feel less meaningful.

Data suggest that being rich can lead to time and attention being directed towards activities that fuel the attainment of more wealth, such as longer working hours and longer commutes, and away from activities that generate more happiness, such as time outside and time with family and friends. This discrepancy between the big effect on happiness that we imagine increased wealth should bring and the small effect we experience goes a long way towards explaining the narrative trap of reaching for wealth. But most people, including those on incomes above £50,000, truly believe misery would continue to fall with higher income above this point. And most people, irrespective of income, would continue to reach for more long after they have earned their 50 grand. This is the addiction problem.

If you are not struggling to make ends meet, I propose that you rein in the social narrative that encourages you to endlessly pursue more money. Invest your time and effort into doing all you can to ensure that those who are struggling are provided with the living conditions, wages and financial support that will help them to cover the costs of their living expenses. (Helping other people is great for our own happiness.)

More here.

The Philosopher Redefining Equality

Nathan Heller in The New Yorker:

American stories trace the sweep of history, but their details are definingly particular. In the summer of 1979, Elizabeth Anderson, then a rising junior at Swarthmore College, got a job as a bookkeeper at a bank in Harvard Square. Every morning, she and the other bookkeepers would process a large stack of bounced checks. Businesses usually had two accounts, one for payroll and the other for costs and supplies. When companies were short of funds, Anderson noticed, they would always bounce their payroll checks. It made a cynical kind of sense: a worker who was owed money wouldn’t go anywhere, or could be replaced, while an unpaid supplier would stop supplying. Still, Anderson found it disturbing that businesses would write employees phony checks, burdening them with bounce fees. It appeared to happen all the time.

Midway through summer, the bank changed its office plan. When Anderson had started, the bookkeepers worked in rows of desks. Coördination was easy—a check that fell under someone else’s purview could be handed down the line—and there was conversation throughout the day. Then cubicles were added. That transformation interrupted the workflow, the conversational flow, and most other things about the bookkeepers’ days. Their capacities as workers were affected, yet the change had come down from on high.

These problems nagged at Anderson that summer and beyond. She had arrived at college as a libertarian who wanted to study economics. In the spirit of liberal-arts exploration, though, she enrolled in an introductory philosophy course whose reading list included Karl Marx’s 1844 manuscripts concerning worker alienation. Anderson thought that Marx’s economic arguments about the declining rate of profit and the labor theory of value fell apart under scrutiny. But she was stirred by his observational writings about the experience of work. Her summer at the bank drove home the fact that systemic behavior inside the workplace was part of the socioeconomic fabric, too: it mattered whether you were the person who got a clear check or a bounced check, whether a hierarchy made it easier or harder for you to excel and advance.

More here.

Vaccines Cause Autism: The Lie That Never Dies

Stephen Camarata in Psychology Today:

This past week, Dr. Mark Green, M.D., who was recently elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Tennessee declared: “Let me say this about autism, I have committed to people in my community, up in Montgomery County [Tennessee], to stand on the CDC’s desk and get the real data on vaccines. Because there is some concern that the rise in autism is the result of the preservatives that are in our vaccines. As a physician, I can make that argument and I can look at it academically and make the argument against the CDC, if they really want to engage me on it,”[1]

As a clinician dedicated to serving people with autism and their families, I am both appalled and disheartened that a physician — and future member of Congress — has once again promulgated the “vaccines cause autism” narrative that has led to so much misinformation and fear regarding vaccinating toddlers and preschoolers against deadly diseases. Moreover, these shameful comments demonstrate why this lie has proven extremely difficult to overcome.

A crucial and indisputable fact about the “vaccines cause autism” narrative is that it is founded on fraudulent research. This is not simply an opinion.

More here.

Why Sam Harris—Not Ezra Klein—Is the One Making Space for People of Colour

Jamil Jivani in Quillette:

The demand that we transcend tribalism in public debate sits on the schism line of today’s culture wars over speech, scholarship and art. On one side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the left”), there exists a deep conviction that the social justice sins of the past (and present) make an escape from tribalism impossible—and so the only solution is to carve out well-guarded silos of speech and cultural representation for disadvantaged groups. On the other side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the right”) are those who view those silos as a tool of censorship, as well as an affront to the idea that we all can speak for ourselves as individuals, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, gender and faith.

This conflict took center stage during a recent high-profile Munk Debate in Toronto, which had been billed as a debate about the dangers of political correctness. Two of the biggest reactions from the 3,000-strong audience came in response to Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson (representing “the left”) referring to psychologist Jordan Peterson as a “mean, mad white man,” and then Peterson subsequent pointing to Dyson’s comment as an “example of what’s wrong with the politically correct left.” A primary source of conflict between the two best-selling authors was the extent of white privilege, and the question of how it should be accounted for in public debate, if at all.

On that Munk Debate stage in Toronto, Peterson wanted to have a debate among individuals sharing ideas as individuals, not as representatives of their race. Dyson disagreed again and again. The other participants—journalist Michelle Goldberg and performer Stephen Fry—watched on as this increasingly toxic exchange dominated the night.

More here.

Skim reading is the new normal, and the effect on society is profound

Maryanne Wolf in The Guardian:

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Broken Teacups at the foot of Mount Sinai

I search the desert, Moses wandered for years, in me

On a bright summer afternoon,

……… the military barged into our
……… living room
……… On the porch
……… I waited
……… with a handful of sugar,

……… for my army of ants

……… The military men ordered my mother to bring tea
……… as they watched Mahabharata on our TV

……… ecstatic about the triumph over evil

……… I wonder how that tea tasted in eyes of the Benevolent God.

(I can still start the poem with: I was atop Mount Sinai.

My sheep were hungry and the snow storm was approaching us. . .)

……… A curfew night
……… A power cut-off

……… I am five years old

……… Malika Pukhraj sings from the cassette player:

……… ye kaun sakhi hain jin ke lahu ki ashrafiyan,
……… chhan-chhan, chhan-chhan,
……… dharti ke peham piyaase kashkol mein dhalti jaati hain,

……… kashkol ko bharti hain

……… (Who are these generous youth whose blood –
……… like the clinking gold coins, pour
……… into the earth’s unquenchable begging-bowl

……… filling it to the brim)

……… Years later, the cassette player broke into pieces.

……… I don’t remember, how.

……… As we sat huddled like unlit campfire wood
……… My father proposed,

……… Let’s each say a story or recite a poem

……… Do you want to say something dear?
……… My mother asked,
……… her eyes— a lamp lit by metaphors

Read more »

Why Rashida Tlaib’s “we’re gonna impeach that motherf***er” approach is good for Congress

Nicky Woolf in New Statesman:

The 116th Congress, the members of which were officially sworn in on Thursday, contains a lot of firsts. The first two Native American women to serve as representatives. The first two Muslim women to serve as representatives. The first openly gay congresswoman from Kansas. The first Latina representatives from Texas. While these are important benchmarks in their own right, there is also a notable difference in the tone of Congress. This historically young, historically diverse, and historically – though still not proportionally – female Congressional intake has already begun airing out the stuffy tone of America’s august legislative body. One of those leading that charge is Rashida Tlaib, the new representative from Michigan’s 13th district and one of the two first Muslim women to serve in the House of Representatives – and she is wasting no time in making her voice heard. “We’re gonna go in there,” she said, speaking to the progressive organising group MoveOn just hours after she was sworn in, “and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

This caused the predictable backlash of pearl-clutching from Republican circles, whose faux-outrage at the swear-word would, perhaps, have had more moral weight if they had not spent the previous three years justifying their support for a president who boasted of “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” and attacking Democrats for their “political correctness”. Tlaib has shown admirable form and consistency in this area. “Courteous behavior can’t be reserved for someone who labels hard-working Mexican immigrants who have come to pursue the American Dream as ‘rapists’,” she wrote in an op-ed in 2016 for the Detroit Free Press, after having been ejected from a Trump event for demanding he read the constitution.

More here.

How the Dispute Over Runaway Slaves Helped Fuel the Civil War

Sean Wilentz in The New York Times:

The Civil War began over one basic issue: Was slavery, the ownership of human beings, a legitimate national institution, fixed in national law by the United States Constitution? One half of the country said it was, the other said it was not. The ensuing conflict was the chief instigator of Southern secession, as the secessionists themselves proclaimed. It was thus the chief source of the war that led to slavery’s abolition in the United States. The struggle over property in slaves focused largely on the fate of the Western territories, but it also inflamed conflicts over the status of fugitive slaves. Pro-slavery Southerners insisted that the federal government was obliged to capture slaves who had escaped to free states and return them to their masters, and thus vindicate the masters’ absolute property rights in humans. Antislavery Northerners, denying that obligation and those supposed rights, saw the fugitives as heroic refugees from bondage, and resisted federal interference fiercely and sometimes violently. Even more than the fights over the territories, Andrew Delbanco asserts in “The War Before the War,” the “dispute over fugitive slaves … launched the final acceleration of sectional estrangement.”

Delbanco, an eminent and prolific scholar of American literature, is well suited to recounting this history, and not just because fugitive slaves have been a subject of American fiction from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Toni Morrison and beyond. A traditional critic in the historicist mode, Delbanco has always thoughtfully rendered the contexts in which his writers wrote. He has offered fresh interpretations not only of how national politics shaped the writing of, say, “Moby-Dick,” but also of what Melville’s tragic awareness and moral ambiguities tell us about the temper of a nation hurtling toward civil war. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, as well as Melville, Stowe and numerous lesser artists and thinkers of the time, all had pertinent if sometimes cursory and not always pleasing things to say about fugitive slaves. Delbanco’s incisive analyses of their observations — and, just as important, of their failure to observe — form one of his book’s running themes.

More here.

The Gifts of Humility

Costica Bradatan in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

WHAT IF KNOWLEDGE — the real, redeeming variety — is not power, but the opposite of it? If, for instance, to become properly human we need to run away from power as much as we can? Indeed, what if our highest accomplishment in this world came from radical self-effacement, the lowest existential station we could possibly reach?

If there is one trait that all forms of life share, it must be self-assertion. From the simplest to the most complex, all living entities seek to persist in their state and reproduce. And doing so requires pushing relentlessly against other entities, often to the point of annihilating them. That makes life a scene of cruelty of cosmic proportions. But “cruel” may be the wrong word, for it applies human judgment to something that, by definition, is anything but human. The process of life unfolds beyond any human concerns — spontaneously, blindly, tyrannically. Humans are caught up in it just like any other species. Far from having a say in the process, we are used and abused by it — brought into being, instrumentalized, and discarded. We think we fall in love, but that’s just one of the tricks life uses to reproduce itself; we devise some better tool and think ourselves smart, blissfully ignorant that we are just playing life’s game of self-assertion. We live in a comic farce and call it happiness.

When it reaches Homo sapiens self-assertion takes a specific form: power.

More here.

George Dyson: The digital revolution isn’t over but has turned into something else

George Dyson at Edge:

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

More here.