Would you carve a roast with a knife that had been used in a murder? Why not? And what does this tell us about ethics?

Paul Sagar in Aeon:

When I first heard the allegations of serial sexual misconduct against the American folk-rock singer Ryan Adams earlier this year – that he had emotionally and psychologically abused several women and underage girls, using his status in the music industry as leverage – I didn’t want to believe it. Yet this desire to not-believe strongly preceded any acquaintance I had with the actual facts. Indeed – and as I am now ashamed to admit – I initially read the facts with great skepticism, hoping that they were wrong. Only with effort have I forced myself to put aside my initial disbelief, and consider things impartially, making a more balanced assessment. Why?

One answer comes from feminist theory. As a man who has been raised in a male-dominated society, one that tends to privilege the status and testimony of men, and to cast aspersions on those of women – most especially when it comes to issues of sex – I am ideologically conditioned to react this way. Sadly, I suspect there is much truth in this. But it is not the only explanation in play. Another consideration is that I didn’t want Adams to be guilty because I like his music. And the worry that I had – initially, without even realising it – was that, if Adams is indeed guilty, then I won’t be able to enjoy his music any more. And I don’t want that to be the case. Hence, I initially read the accusations against Adams with skepticism, precisely because I (subconsciously) wanted to protect my future enjoyment of his records.

More here.

MIT physicists: Social networks could hold the key to finding new particles

Jennifer Ouellette in Ars Technica:

The trickiest part of hunting for new elementary particles is sifting through the massive amounts of data to find telltale patterns, or “signatures,” for those particles—or, ideally, weird patterns that don’t fit any known particle, an indication of new physics beyond the so-called Standard Model. MIT physicists have developed an analytical method to essentially automate these kinds of searches. The method is based on how similar pairs of collision events are to one another and how hundreds of thousands of such events are related to each other.

The result is an intricate geometric map, dubbed a “collision network,” that is akin to mapping complex social networks. The MIT team described its novel approach in a new paper in Physical Review Letters: “Maps of social networks are based on the degree of connectivity between people, and for example, how many neighbors you need before you get from one friend to another,” co-author Jesse Thaler said. “It’s the same idea here.”

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) produces billions of proton/antiproton collisions per minute. Physicists identify exactly which particles are produced in high-energy collisions by the electronic signatures the particles leave behind, known as nuclear decay patterns. Quarks, for instance, only exist for fractions of a second before they decay into other secondary particles. Since each quark has many different ways of decaying, there are several possible signatures, and each must be carefully examined to determine which particles were present at the time of the collision.

More here.

Science and rising nationalism in India

Srinath Perur in Nature:

The British quit India in 1947. A blood-soaked partition had torn the subcontinent into two states that became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of India, the latter comprising many faiths but secular. Or attempting to be: India was left with not so much a separation of state and religion as an intention to embrace all traditions evenly.

Yet, since the 1990s, Hindu nationalism has steadily gathered strength in India. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party gained a parliamentary majority for the first time, with Narendra Modi as prime minister. The party was re-elected in 2019, with a larger margin of the vote — 37.5%. A notable aspect of the party’s nationalist narratives is the meshing of science, pseudoscience and myth with political messages. Now, these entangled narratives are explored in Holy Science by Banu Subramaniam, a scholar of women, gender and sexuality studies.

This form of nationalism has found favour, she argues, by reinforcing an alluring idea of an India rooted in an ancient civilization where science, technology and philosophy thrived; an India that can be restored to grandeur by linking to its past. Subramaniam writes that this idea has led to a “scientized religion” and a “religionized science”, creating “a vision of India as an archaic modernity”.

More here.  And here is an interview with Banu Subramaniam.

What The Gilets Jaunes Really Want

Christopher Ketcham at Harper’s Magazine:

Among the Gilets I met in Paris was a twenty-­nine-­year-­old priest named Cyrgue Dessauce, of the Communauté Aïn Karem, a Catholic parish in the city, who wore leather sandals and a wooden cross around his neck and held at his stomach a framed portrait of the mother of Christ. “This is a movement that defends the poor,” he told me, “that demands the government serve the common good and not serve the economy.” I met a fifty-­three-­year-­old woman named Nathalie Konik, a seasonal worker who was unemployed when we spoke, who carried a ­djembe and, to the beat of the drum, called out a plea for “the 140,000 homeless people across France, who we don’t see in the capital since they sleep in our forests, by streams, in the woods. I am outraged at the sight of these families sleeping in the forest! One would have thought that it came out of Zola’s tales!” On the Champs-Élysées I met a bespectacled thirteen-­year-­old named Louis Pines, who wore on his yellow vest a badge that read the poli­tician thinks of the next election, the statesman thinks of the next generation. His friend Romann Ramfal, a seventeen-­year-­old whose mother had emigrated from Mauritius, told me, “We see our parents struggling every day. That’s why we are Gilets Jaunes.” A pale sixty-­one-­year-old blonde named ­Nelly Urbaniak proffered a leaflet that described the “scandal” of the planned privatization of the Paris airports. A dashingly handsome twenty-­year-­old business student named Romain Choquet-­Hubert told me that “this is the people against the elites. For us, liberalism is finished in France.”

more here.

The Masses Against the Classes

Anton Jäger at nonsite:

It has not always been the case, after all, that American academics saw populism in terms of “identity.” In the 1920s, American historians could still look back fondly on the Populist episode as one of the many episodes in the age-long American class struggle. To followers of Charles A. Beard, doyen of the Progressive School in American History, Populism represented the last revolt of the small freeholding class, who, while being crushed by the advent of the industrial society, protested their new market-dependency by uniting on class lines. Other writers in this tradition, such as Vernon Parrington or John Hicks, shared their sentiments. Parrington’s Main Currents of American Thought (1927) cast “populism” as the revolt of small property-holders upholding the Jeffersonian ideal, sharing a pedigree which went back to the Founders’ Age. John Hicks’ classic The Populist Revolt (1931) tracked a similar genealogy, trying to show how the aims of the original Populist movement were translated into the working-class agitation of the incipient New Deal. Another classic of Populist historiography, Comer Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1937), made a similar diagnosis of the economic character of the “agrarian crusade” which took Southern states by storm in the 1880s and 1890s.

more here.

Their Daughters Were Having Cats Instead of Children

Jenessa Abrams in Guernica:

The obituary reads: Author, Protégée of Bellow’s. Two defining characteristics of a life. Equally weighted, side by side. Bette Howland has been known, when she was known, by her proximity to male greatness. Just as Sylvia Plath is rarely mentioned without the appendage of Ted Hughes, Howland’s name, and her writing, reach us within the context of her position as protégée, friend to, and occasional lover of Saul Bellow.

Howland’s life off the page mirrors Plath’s in that she, too contemplated suicide, making one documented attempt that resulted in her confinement in a psych ward. Both wrote semi-autobiographical work that confronted mental illness, challenged traditional conceptions of domesticity, and probed the underbelly of class difference. Unlike Plath, Howland lived, though she stopped publishing and her work all but disappeared from circulation. That is, until it was unearthed recently in a bargain bin.

In Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the collected stories of Bette Howland, we encounter a writer questioning the meaning of existence, playfully knocking over a sacred jar and watching the contents slowly spill across the counter. The book opens with “A Visit,” a startlingly frank story about what happens when we die, which ultimately, in the span of four short pages, becomes a meditation on how it is we live.

More here.

Welcome to the renaissance of quantum mechanics

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

It took more than a hundred years, but physicists finally woke up, looked quantum mechanics into the face – and realized with bewilderment they barely know the theory they’ve been married to for so long. Gone are the days of “shut up and calculate”; the foundations of quantum mechanics are en vogue again.

It is not a spontaneous acknowledgement of philosophy that sparked physicists’ rediscovered desire; their sudden search for meaning is driven by technological advances.

With quantum cryptography a reality and quantum computing on the horizon, questions once believed ephemeral are now butter and bread of the research worker. When I was a student, my prof thought it questionable that violations of Bell’s inequality would ever be demonstrated convincingly. Today you can take that as given. We have also seen delayed-choice experiments, marveled over quantum teleportation, witnessed decoherence in action, tracked individual quantum jumps, and cheered when Zeilinger entangled photons over hundreds of kilometers of distance. Well, some of us, anyway.

But while physicists know how to use the mathematics of quantum mechanics to make stunningly accurate predictions, just what this math is about has remained unclear. This is why physicists currently have several “interpretations” of quantum mechanics.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Astra Taylor on the Promise and Challenge of Democracy

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

“Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone” — or so suggests the title of Astra Taylor’s new book. We all know how democracy falls short, in practice, of its lofty ideals; but we can also appreciate how democratic values are crucial in the fight for a more just society. In this conversation, we dig into the nature of democracy, from its origins to the present day. We talk about who gets to participate, how economic inequality affects political inequality, and how democratic ideals manifest themselves in any number of real-world situations.

More here.

On Billionaire Philanthropy

Scott Alexander in Slate Star Codex:

From Vox: The Case Against Billionaire Philanthropy. It joins The GuardianTruthoutDissent MagazineCityLab, and a host of other people and organizations arguing that rich people giving to charity is now a big problem.

I’m against this. I understand concern about the growing power of the very rich. But I worry the movement against billionaire charity is on track to damage charity a whole lot more than it damages billionaires. Eleven points:

1. Is criticizing billionaire philanthropy a good way to protest billionaires having too much power in society?

Which got more criticism? Mark Zuckerberg giving $100 million to help low-income students? Or Mark Zuckerberg buying a $59 million dollar mansion in Lake Tahoe? Obviously it’s the low-income students. I’ve heard people criticizing Zuckerberg’s donation constantly for years, and I didn’t even know he had a $59 million Lake Tahoe mansion until I googled “things mark zuckerberg has spent ridiculous amounts of money on” in the process of writing this paragraph.

Which got more negative press? Jeff Bezos donating $2 billion for preschools for underprivileged children? Or Jeff Bezos spending $2 billion on whatever is going to come up when I Google “things jeff bezos has spent ridiculous amounts of money on?”.

Billionaires respond to incentives like everyone else. If donating to charity earns them negative publicity, and buying a private yacht earns them glowing articles about how cool their yacht is, they’re more likely to buy the yacht.

Journalists and intellectuals who criticize billionaires’ philanthropy but not their yachts, or who spend much more energy criticizing philanthropy than yachts, probably aren’t doing much to promote a world without billionaires. But they’re doing a lot to promote a world where billionaires just buy yachts instead of giving to charity.

More here.

How a Voyage to French Polynesia Set Herman Melville on the Course to Write ‘Moby-Dick’

William T. Vollmann in Smithsonian:

This is the tale of a man who fled from desperate confinement, whirled into Polynesian dreamlands on a plank, sailed back to “civilization,” and then, his genius predictably unremunerated, had to tour the universe in a little room. His biographer calls him “an unfortunate fellow who had come to maturity penniless and poorly educated.” Unfortunate was likewise how he ended. Who could have predicted the greatness that lay before Herman Melville?

In 1841, the earnest young man sneaked out on his unpaid landlady and signed on with the New Bedford whaler Acushnet, bound for the South Seas. He was 21, eager and shockingly open-minded, yearning not just to see but to live. In Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) and the other seafaring novels inspired by his exploits over the next three years, written in the half-decade before he commenced Moby-Dick, his word-voyage aboard the Pequod, Melville wrote with bighearted curiosity about fearsome “savages” and cultural otherness. To honor this prophet of empathy, this spring I set out for French Polynesia, to see some of the watery part of the world, and to view what I could of the place and its inhabitants, which formed in our novelist his moral conscience and gave unending sail to his language and his metaphors. Back in America, he had to learn to savor these gifts, for after tasting briefly of success he would not have much else to sustain him.

More here.

Japan approves first human-animal embryo experiments

David Cyranosky in Nature:

A Japanese stem-cell scientist is the first to receive government support to create animal embryos that contain human cells and transplant them into surrogate animals since a ban on the practice was overturned earlier this year. Hiromitsu Nakauchi, who leads teams at the University of Tokyo and Stanford University in California, plans to grow human cells in mouse and rat embryos and then transplant those embryos into surrogate animals. Nakauchi’s ultimate goal is to produce animals with organs made of human cells that can, eventually, be transplanted into people. Until March, Japan explicitly forbade the growth of animal embryos containing human cells beyond 14 days or the transplant of such embryos into a surrogate uterus. That month, Japan’s education and science ministry issued new guidelines allowing the creation of human–animal embryos that can be transplanted into surrogate animals and brought to term.

…But getting human cells to grow in another species is not easy. Nakauchi and colleagues announced at the 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Austin, Texas, that they had put human iPS cells into sheep embryos that had been engineered not to produce a pancreas. But the hybrid embryos, grown for 28 days, contained very few human cells, and nothing resembling organs. This is probably because of the genetic distance between humans and sheep, says Nakauchi.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Every green room of the forest planted:
Trillium and quince, alder and salmonberry, …
—Robert Sund

Go On

You could go on, I know—
green room to green room,
names scrolling off your tongue
like bark from madrona trunks.
Snowberry and salal, Douglas fir and elderberry.
Have I told you cedars are my favorites?
I see more rust-colored cedar boughs;
“flagging,” a mutual friend explains.
For me a new meaning.
Things are changing, but this flagging—
natural, this time of year.
Nothing to worry about.
Have I told you I’m feeling my age,
am more prone to cliché?
Natural, this time of life.
Weakness and pain in my right arm
is new to me. Go on. I’ll sit here
and rest, with the old meaning—
in this warming up, drying out rust-colored room.
I’m sorry for harm I’ve caused.
Why do you think I started walking,
breathing in the ragged poison bouquet
of particulates and exhaust?
Here, spiderwebs are mostly intact
and blackberries flourish.
At the tip of my old hiking boot, holey,
a beetle evades my attention, strolls
under a leaf from a trailing blackberry vine,
hides. For me a new beetle;
no name scrolls from my tongue.
I lift the leaf, only to say,
Hi. I haven’t seen you before. You’re safe.
I’m uninterested in causing further harm.

Should I buy new hiking boots? It depends.
Have I told you our time together
has been holy, a benediction?
Go on. There is nothing to fear. Don’t worry.
Know I loved you. Go on.

by Andrew Shattuck McBride
from Empty Mirror

The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack: Review

by Ruchira Paul

Early in H.M. Naqvi’s new novel The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack (SWAC from here on out) we come across this exchange between Abdullah and a devout young Pathan as the former, in poor health and out of breath, is seen taking a drink of water from a thermos on a sweltering day during the holy month of Ramzan when most able bodied and observant Muslims choose to fast between sunrise and sunset.

Tum Musalman ho?” asks the younger man offended by Abdullah’s transgression. “Are you a Muslim?”

Enraged by the man’s pious arrogance, Abdullah hollers, “This is Currachee! This is my city! I could be a Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Hindoo, Amil, Parsee. I could be Shia, Sunni, Bohra, Barelvi, Sufi….If you want to ask such questions then go back to Kabul. …If you are sensible, then your God is sensible, but if you’re a dolt, your God’s a dolt.”

A dangerous confrontation follows from which the beleaguered Abdullah is rescued by a dark eyed stranger. Abdullah’s defiant bluster notwithstanding, the reader knows that in today’s Pakistan, even a Muslim in a Muslim nation and a lifelong resident of a large and cosmopolitan city like Karachi, a man cannot really expect to have his seeming lack of piety go unchallenged. Many of the adherents of other faiths on the list that Abdullah rattles off no longer live there and the few that do, are marginalized and often live in fear. Not just in Pakistan but in many parts of the world triumphalist majoritarian bullying now pervades the public mood. Read more »

The Right To Guns Against The State

by Thomas R. Wells

The right to own guns is typically justified by the fundamental right to self-defense against bad guys, either our fellow citizens or the state itself if it were to turn tyrannical. Both of these have a superficial appeal but fail in obvious ways. Guns are an effective means of defending oneself against bad guys only so long as they don’t have guns too (because being equally armed doesn’t add up a defense against those who can pick and choose their moment of aggression). Civilians with guns are also ineffective against the armies and ruthless terroristic violence of a truly tyrannical regime.

Here I want to discuss a more subtle and less ridiculous justification for the right to own guns. I think it drives much of the enthusiasm for gun rights but is rarely spelled out. This is the fact that widespread gun ownership forces liberal democratic governments to take the views of those citizens more seriously and work harder to gain their consent. In this way gun ownership operates as a drag on the ambition and scope of what has become a somewhat paternalistic form of government with an irritating tendency to micromanage its citizens’ lives. The hoped for result would be a more libertarian regime that leaves people better alone. Read more »

Monday Poem

My friend, poet Nils Peterson, sent me a new poem of his the other day. It moved me to spontaneously add a second verse which I presented to him and he liked. So this is a collaborative venture. The first stanza is Nils’, the last stanza, following the break, is mine. Two writers, one poem. The title belongs to Nils.

The First of July
Report to a Friend

Year half gone. Sometimes
I’ve been Noah hammering
away at my ark, sometimes
his wife who likes the rain.
Last night, I felt the wind
freshen and the few joined
planks of my hull strain
against their braces. I woke
thinking I haven’t called
the animals. This morning
I stand by the hull of my
salvation fiercely caulking,
calling out “Aardvark”

who come in my dream
twigs in mouths, innocent as doves
with proof the seed I’d planted
before the rains would come,
before a hammer would meet my hand,
before I ever imagined a reason for arks,
had become the tree I would fell
and cut and mill to build the story
of my salvation

by Nils Peterson & Jim Culleny
7 / 27, 28 / 2019

What’s so bad about smugness?

by Emrys Westacott

Elaine: “I hate smugness. Don’t you hate smugness?

Cabdriver, “Smugness is not a good quality.”

So goes a popular snippet from Seinfeld. In a 2014 article in The Guardian titled “Smug: The most toxic insult of them all?” Mark Hooper opined that “there can be few more damning labels in modern Britain than ‘smug.'” And CBS journalist Will Rahn declared, in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory, that “modern journalism’s great moral and intellectual failing [is] its unbearable smugness.”

But what is smugness? What, exactly, do people find objectionable about it? And is it really such a terrible moral failing, worthy of being described as “unbearable”?

What is smugness?

For an immediate graphic example of smugness, just look at a picture of Britain’s new prime minister Boris Johnson smirking in front of 10 Downing Street. For a less stomach-churning way of getting an initial handle on the concept, consider a few concrete instances. Here are four:

  • Someone on a very high income says, “Yes, I am well compensated, but I like to think I’ve earned it, and that I’m worth it. As a general rule, I think it’s fair to assume that pay reflects merit.”
  • A parent whose children have been admitted to prestigious universities, talking to one whose child is at a less selective college, says, “It’s nice to know that one’s kids will be taught by real experts in the field, and that their classmates will be at their intellectual level.”
  • A punter who has won $500 at the race track backing a rank outside can’t help smirking at the crestfallen faces of his friends who all backed the favorite.
  • A couple regularly preen themselves on their healthy and ecologically responsible eating habits.

Smugness is not arrogance. Arrogant people typically display a sense of their own importance and superiority with little subtlety: they strut; they are dogmatic; they are dismissive of others. Smugness shares with arrogance a high degree of self-satisfaction and a sense of some kind of superiority over others, but it typically manifests itself quietly and indirectly, without brashness. Muhammad Ali, who called himself “The Greatest,” was undeniably sure about his own superiority as a boxer, and he was called many things–arrogant, loud-mouthed, lippy–but I don’t recall anyone describing him as smug. Read more »

Is Knowledge Incompatible with Science?

by Joseph Shieber

There’s an interesting reaction that I sometimes get from my colleagues in the natural sciences when I describe what I do. When I talk about epistemology – the study of knowledge – I often hear a version of the following response.

“Well, in the sciences we don’t really deal with knowledge at all. At best, we have a high degree of confidence in a claim, but we’d never say that we know it.”

In the faculty dining room, there’s seldom time seriously to discuss philosophy with faculty from other disciplines. Also, if I tried it, I might find myself sitting alone in the very near future. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to respond to my (imaginary) colleague.

To do so, I want to start by considering an argument of Saul Kripke’s. Kripke achieved fame early as a philosophical prodigy. He enjoyed widespread acclaim within the philosophical community first for his work in modal logic and later for his work in metaphysics, philosophy of language, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Kripke’s reputation also stemmed from his virtuoso lectures. He was able to lecture without notes on complex topics, the complete paragraphs tumbling out of his mouth, seemingly effortlessly. He was equally known as someone reluctant to put his ideas to paper, so for years many of the arguments attributed to him circulated in samizdat versions taken from notes from his lectures.

In the years in which many of Saul Kripke’s arguments circulated by word of mouth or in third-party notes of lectures, one of the most famous is what we can call the “Paradox of Knowledge’ argument. Read more »