George Washington Rides

by Michael Liss

But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…. (Micah 4-4)  

Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ah, those figs and vines. George Washington liked this sentiment so much that he used it or a variant at least 50 times in his correspondence. It meant going home to Mount Vernon and staying home. It meant disengagement from whatever activities he had committed to on behalf of others. It meant emulating Cincinnatus, the Roman General who, as legend would have it, was living modestly in retirement on his four-acre farm outside of Rome until the Senate called him back to deal with a crisis and invested him with a dictator’s power. Cincinnatus went on to defeat the invading Aequians, and just 15 days after assuming the dictatorship, he resigned and returned to his plow.

Finally, it meant something immensely important to Washington himself, a man who did not lack self-esteem. Retiring to his figs and vines was a seminal display of republican virtue, an ineradicable example to all who would follow him in leadership that one must act with integrity, that power is granted by the people “in trust” and belongs only to the grantor, not the grantee. Power must be returned at the appropriate moment. Washington understood the conditions of that grant, its essentialness to the American experiment, and acted upon it. 

We mythologize our great men well beyond the reality of their lives and accomplishments, but that Washington did this not just once, in resigning his commission, but also a second time, in refusing to run for a third Presidential term, seems almost superhuman. George III thought so: when told by the American artist Benjamin West that his long-time adversary was going to resign, the King said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

The “Greatest Man In The World” is an impressive title. Still, there’s a strange disconnect in trying to animate this titanic figure, the Washington of monuments and marble statues and Mount Rushmore. He was nothing at all like the bouncing, voluble wrecking ball that was TR, or Jefferson’s suave, violin-playing political poet, or Lincoln’s melancholic, introspective grappler of existential questions of life or death, freedom or slavery. Washington’s eloquence was certainly not in words—instead it was in his capacity to endure and to lead.  Read more »

Separated By More Than A Century, Two Musicians Share A Complaint

by Mark R. DeLong

Headshot of Rick Beato on the left, and John Philip Sousa, in a separate photo, holding a baton while conducting.
Rick Beato (left), John Philip Sousa (right).

“This guy nails it IMO.” That was the message below a Youtube link. Normally, I’d be wary of a link accompanied by such a cryptic gloss, but it came from a friend and colleague so I clicked. Destination: Rick Beato’s YouTube video posted June 25 on his “Everything Music” channel. Beato launched into his talk, his white hair combed back, hands waving like a modest conductor as he stood in what might be a 1970s living room. I could easily imagine that his jazz studies students at Ithaca College came to love his New York accent and his urgent wit.

The Real Reason Why Music Is Getting Worse,” the video’s title, could signal a revelation of a conspiracy—the “Real Reason”—or offer another Old Man Yells At Cloud variety of crotchetiness. But by the time I finished watching, I had to agree with my guitar-playing, guitar-collecting friend: Yes, Rick Beato “nailed it.”

Beato thinks AI is corroding today’s music, lulling the human spirit and inventiveness by making it too easy to make music and too easy to consume it—of course, doing all this while stealing from musicians, too. In many ways, the story has already been told, as the replacement of skills by machine has long been a feature of the transformations of life and work over the past century and more. Beato’s complaint, however, may be more urgent than before. Maybe, as they say, this time is different.

Beato balances two aspects of today’s rapidly transforming music technology, drawing his argument into two “acts”: “Music is too easy to make” and “Music is too easy to consume”—both headings essentially framed as judgments, not as observations. Technology lies at the core of both. Read more »

Friday, July 12, 2024

We are making some changes at 3QD

Dear Reader,

For a couple of days, some things at 3QD may not work exactly as expected. We will be updating some of the pages at the site in the next few days. We appreciate your patience!

This is the most important change already in effect: We have decided to give more prominence to our own writers who used to be limited to Mondays. From now, when you come to our home page, you will only see what used to be the “Mondays posts” of original writing. And new original 3QD essays will appear a few at a time throughout the week. There is now a “Recommended Reading” link in the menu just under the banner that will take you to the curated links (what used to be the normal posts linking to articles at other websites from Tuesday through Sunday). Try it now!

We apologize for any inconvenience while we work out any kinks.

All the best,


Monday, July 8, 2024

Who Gets What

by Tim Sommers

Suppose a small group of people are stranded together on a desert island. They have no fresh water or food – until they come across a stash of coconuts. They can drink the milk and eat the coconut meat to survive. But how do they divide up the coconuts fairly between them?

The coconuts are not the product of anyone’s hard work or ingenuity. They are manna-from-heaven. In such circumstances, in a sense, no one deserves anything. So, the question is how to distribute something valuable, even essential, but which no one has any prior claim upon, in an ethical way. In other words, what is the appropriate principle of distributive fairness in such a case?

The most obvious suggestion is that the coconuts should be distributed equally. And that may well be the right answer. Many people consider equality the presumptive fair distribution, especially in manna-from-heaven situations like this. Distributions that depart from strict equality, many believe, must be justified, but equality requires no justification. For example, suppose we also find buried treasure on the island. Various arguments could be made that one person made a decisive contribution to the discovery that others didn’t, but isn’t the starting place an equal distribution?

But suppose after most of the coconuts are distributed equally there is one coconut left. For the sake of argument, imagine single coconuts are not divisible or fungible for some reason and so one coconut cannot be shared. What do we do with the extra coconut?

Strict equality seems to imply that you should just throw it away to avoid making the distribution unequal. This is called the leveling-down problem. You can almost always increase the amount of equality in an unequal distribution by taking stuff from the better-off and simply throwing it away. If equality is valuable in and of itself, then any situation can be made fairer (at least in one way) by leveling down how much the better-off have so that there is less inequality – even if this makes no one better-off in absolute terms.

Maybe, for this reason, we shouldn’t care about equality in and of itself, after all. Why do we? Read more »

Making Progress on Beavers, AI, and Math

by Jonathan Kujawa

Nearly two years ago we talked at 3QD about the Busy Beaver problem [1]. Since then, the beavers have been busy.

As discussed in that essay, the Busy Beaver problem measures how complicated a computation might be.  It does so by measuring how long a Turing might run before stopping.

A Turing machine is a theoretical model for a computer. It has a set of states that tell the machine what to do next. The states are the “software” of the Turing machine.

In a real computer, the more complicated your software, the more you can do. The same goes for a Turing machine. The more states, the more the machine can do. If you allow me to use a Turing machine with 744 states, I can build a machine that can determine the validity of the Riemann hypothesis. Since resolving the Riemann hypothesis is arguably the most famous problem in mathematics and worth a cool $1,000,000, there must be some reason nobody has tried this approach. Indeed, there is a small problem. A Turing machine with 744 states can run a long time.

That brings us to the Busy Beaver. The Busy Beaver of 744 is the number of steps a Turing machine with 744 states might run before it finally stops. For example, it is known that — at worst — a Turing machine with two states might take six steps before halting. For short, we’ll write this as BB(2)=6. Somewhat worse, BB(4)=107, but that’s still not too bad.  Never mind BB(744), how big could BB(5) be?  Pretty darn big, it turns out!

After 40 years, there was a breakthrough in computing Busy Beavers. On July 2nd the Busy Beaver Challenge (BBC) announced that they had computed BB(5). We now know how long a five-state Turing machine might run before halting:


In 1990, Heiner Marxen and Jürgen Buntrock found a five-state Turing machine that took that many steps. The problem, though, is that there might be a five-state Turing machine that takes even longer. There are millions and millions and millions of five-state Turing machines. It is a massive task to test them all. Worse, many of those Turing machines will never halt. To compute BB(5), you must correctly identify the ones that halt and correctly compute the number of steps they take before they halt. Read more »

Voice in the Machine – Artificial Intelligence Unravels the Secrets of Language

by Ed Simon

“But then again, what has the whale to say?” wondered Ishmael in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, “therefore the whale has no voice,” but this isn’t accurate. Sperm whales – of which Melville’s titular white whale is one – have an intricate series of clicks and bellows that if not language per se, certainly seem like communication, albeit in a manner foreign to human experience. Furthermore, not only do sperm whales, humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins and other members of the cetacean family make noise, they are capable of imitative sounds, of repeating complex strings of noises – songs and clicks of varying pitch and duration – back to each other. That’s an ability that, to varying degrees, is not just the purview of whales, but of seals and birds, bats and humans (but notably not some of our closest primate cousins, who though capable of understanding us are unable to vocally repeat what we’ve said). Now, a landmark study written by research teams at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California at Berkely have been able to deploy complex machine learning technologies for the first time in untangling the genetic basis for language acquisition across tremendously varied types of animals.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Center at CMU doesn’t much feel like Ishmael’s ship The Pequod, but it turns out to be the perfect place to, if not discuss what the whale has to say, at least how the whale is saying it (and how bats, seals, and people are saying what they have to as well). Appearing more like a tech campus in Palo Alto than Pittsburgh, with an impressive central spiraling staircase whose shape is equal parts Frank Lloyd Wright and DNA’s double helix, the Gates Center is where I met team leader and professor of computational biology Dr. Andreas Pfenning who is the lead author on the study published in Science, the flagship journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pfenning explained to me how beyond traditional anatomical and behavioral approaches, the CMU and Berkey study “opens up studying animal communication from a genetic perspective.” Read more »

Monday Poem


Burn Pile.

On Saturday I supervised a change of state:
a pile of brush two-years high
had reached the point it couldn’t wait.

In our field beside the tracks
where berries would be planted soon
my job’s to make sure nothing
changes state without intention that might
need a dousing intervention with all-out
sirens and pump-truck monsoons.

So, I stand with shovel at attention
near a snake of garden hose in grass
and watch for flares of flaming gases
that might leap to nearby desiccated leaves
or other inappropriate locations having
slipped the noose of well-soaked earth I’d
laid in cautious preparation.

Far-off low-pressure voids not calling
desperately to be satisfied, the breeze
is dangerously slight.

Under blue, where gray clouds collide,
the sun can’t scorch with all its might;
still, I wear a straw corona, brimmed
to outwit melanoma

A nearby chipmunk, overseeing,
first hops forward then goes fleeing,
she does this half a dozen times,
like me, to wit:  another
vacillating state of being

Jim Culleny

Why academics are annoyed with Jonathan Haidt, again

by Jeroen van Baar

Audiobook cover for

Jonathan Haidt knows how to be a contrarian. In 2015, the NYU Stern social psychology professor founded Heterodox Academy, an organization that aims to bring viewpoint diversity to college campuses. He wrote an Atlantic article and book entitled The coddling of the American mind, in which he claimed that trigger warnings and safe spaces at colleges are making liberal students weaker rather than preparing them for the real world. With this work he gave words, authority, and attention to commonsense intuitions about oversensitive leftist youth that appeared to be widespread in the population. This was not his original expertise (he rose to fame studying moral psychology) but he skillfully took up the mantle.

When I was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, often considered the wokest Ivy, Haidt was kind enough to drop by and tell us what we were doing wrong. He gave a talk (to a full house, of course) about how universities had to choose between Truth and Social Justice as their ultimate goal. In Haidt’s view, universities cannot do both, as the two goals fundamentally contradict each other. And he was very happy to push the point that universities like Brown were, in fact, claiming to do both. (When I joined Haidt’s lunch group after the event, I found him amiable and brilliant, if aloof; a professor to look up to.)

All this made many in the academy very uncomfortable. Haidt publicly denounced the world he came from—he’s been a professor since the early 1990s—and scrutinized universities at a time when Truth and Expert Knowledge were already under attack. What’s more, Haidt actively exposed weaknesses that academics did not want to think about just yet. Haidt is like the friend who tells you you’re overreacting before you’re ready to hear it. And he fulfils that role with the glee of the kid who always wins in debate class. Read more »

The Absent Self

by Christopher Horner

Insist on your self; never imitate. —Emerson

How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself? —Dostoevsky

The key promise of the modern world was the freedom of the individual. It was the motivating cry of the great revolutions of the modern age, meaning two things, at least: first, the removal of the external barriers to freedom: no more oppression by kings and priests, and later, freedom from the democratic masses themselves: the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Second, freedom as the ability to be oneself, to express who one truly is; the ideal of authenticity. The free, unique individual, able at last to to express their unique self. But this ‘real’ self needs to be found in order to be freed, and this has proved to be more difficult than the removal of oppressive rulers.


The authentic self is hard to reach. Something keeps getting in the way. Perhaps the culprit is an inauthentic self, a mask or double woven by social convention, and adopted through self deception. So one becomes two, or perhaps three. The alienated self must discard the false in order to find the True Self. The great task for moderns is to be authentic and unique.

That this should seem natural to us may be because we have been shaped by the brave new world of bourgeois freedom that followed the Age of Revolutions. Mill, Constant, de Tocqueville, Emerson, all have it for their theme, which was also that of much romantic art of the period. Here is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay Self Reliance:

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of our own mind. [1]

Emerson continues in this vein at some length, in a high flown peroration. He refers repeatedly to the evil effects of the crowd, the multitude the mass of men (it’s always men) who threaten to suffocate the genius of the individual. This can seem like tedious over insistence. It still finds an audience, especially in the self-help and get-ahead-in-business circles that dream of the remarkable person who achieves success, by liberating their unique self with all its talents.  Read more »

“The Unjustly Convicted Cannot Be Forgotten” How Russia Is Violating the Geneva Convention Over and Over Again

by O. Del Fabbro

Bürgenstock, near lake Lucerne, June 15-16, 2024. Switzerland has organized a peace summit to address the war in Ukraine. Many countries participate, but the aggressor, Russia, was not invited. The main topics of discussion that Switzerland and Ukraine have listed are nuclear and food safety, as well as humanitarian aspects. In regard to the latter, still today, thousands of Ukrainian Prisoners of War (POWs) and civilians are imprisoned in modern Russian concentration camps, thousands of Ukrainian children have been kidnapped and brought to Russian territory. Russia is violating the Geneva Conventions in many ways.

In the shadow of the summit and the high profile visitors from around the world, a group of mostly women has traveled from Ukraine to Lucerne to raise awareness to their issue: the unlawful and unrightful conviction of members of the Azov Brigade, the defenders of Mariupol in the steel plant, Azovstal. These women form one body and together they defend their cause: to bring their loved ones back home. “We are here to tell the whole world what Russia is doing with Ukraine, our husbands and sons,” Anna says.[1]

Anna is the fiancé of a 26 year old POW, Bohdan. For more than 80 days, without any supplies or medical help, Bohdan helped defend Azovstal, until his unit was ordered to surrender to the Russians in May 2022. Ever since, Anna has not heard from Bohdan. In Russia, Ukrainian POWs are deprived of communication with the outside world – a violation of the Geneva Conventions. The only way to get information about their fiancés, husbands, and sons is to scroll endlessly through official Russian Telegram channels. That’s how Anna found out that her husband has been sentenced two times: in November 2023, he was sentenced to 24 years for the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and in March 2024, he was sentenced to 28 years for murdering a civilian. These sentences are a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because Bohdan is a POW, and cannot be put on trial as a civilian. Moreover, Bohdan’s health is deteriorating. While defending Azovstal, his left hand was injured, and ever since being captured, he has not received medical help – yet another violation of the Geneva Conventions. All this is brought to Anna’s attention, because one of Bohdan’s friends was freed in a prisoner exchange in May 2023. The friend told Anna that Bohdan’s hand is still ulcerating and completely dysfunctional. “That’s why it is important to not just talk about POWs in general, but also the unjustly convicted of the Azov Brigade”, Anna concludes. Read more »

Bullshit For Dummies

by Laurence Peterson

Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with. —Richard Rorty

Truth is nothing but a bad excuse for a poor imagination. —Unknown

Some things in life are very hard to give up. For me, I hope in a most singular manner, it is bullshit. I have spent nearly twenty years reading whatever literature I can find on what bullshit might be.  Since the publication of Professor Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005) as a book, his view, in a way almost unknown in philosophy, has generated absolutely no strongly dissenting accounts in the score of years that have elapsed since its publication.

As I write these lines, I have before me a Wired piece from June 19th, 2024, “Perplexity Is a Bullshit Machine”, which itself links to another piece, published a mere 11 days earlier in Ethics and Information Technology, called “ChatGPT Is Bullshit”. Both articles pretty much ratify Frankfurt’s view of bullshit in a wholesale manner, which suggests to me that Frankfurt’s original position maintains its utter dominance in discussions of bullshit, and retains a vigorous wider relevance up to the present day. In my mind, there is something unusual, something exaggerated about the bullshit phenomenon that says something unique about the way we all live today.  In this piece, I would like to attempt to subject Frankfurt’s view to a more fundamental critique than any I have seen in the last twenty years. Read more »

American Soap

by Azadeh Amirsadri

In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, my maternal grandmother spent a lot of time in the United States. She would return to Iran, her suitcase filled with presents like candy and fruity bubble gum for her grandchildren, and pretty shirts and dresses for our mom. She also brought back a part of her daily American life: cartons of red Winston cigarettes, Crest toothpaste, hand and face creams with English writings on the bottles, and Dial Soap in that beautiful saffron gold color that was unlike any soap I had seen or smelled before. Our soaps in Iran were usually either flower scented and over perfumed, or green and organic because of the local olive oil used to make them. Everyone valued the green soaps, but I just wanted the American gold soap. I would watch her put the soap back in a plastic container after her shower to keep it from drying and when she was away from her room, I would go open the plastic container and smell the  magic of that gold bar of soap.

In the summer of 1975, when I was 16 years old and a rising junior in high school, I fell in love with a young man who was a college student. We had a standing date every Thursday where he was off from his internship at an architectural firm and didn’t have to attend classes at the university; and me, damn any class that was going to stand in my way of keeping me away from him. Every Wednesday evening, I would take my grandmother’s soap, go in the shower and rub my body with that gold Dial. The next day, I skipped school to hang out with him, first in parks and coffee shops, eventually graduating to stairwells where we would kiss frantically, but faced the danger of getting caught. Then when he finally could afford it, he bought a Citroen Deux-Chevaux, and would pick me up from school where we had the whole city of Tehran to ourselves.  We’d go to dark restaurants that were so popular in the 1970’s where you could make out under the cover of semi- darkness, especially after over tipping the doorman. We’d go outside the city and walk around talking about our scorching love and how no one has ever known this type of love, no one ever will and how lucky we were to have created this magical connection.

My Thursdays during the school year were wrapped in the loving perfume of his sweet words and the faint scent of my grandmother’s American soap. Read more »

Brave Spaces of Learning and Teaching in Troubling Times

by Eric J. Weiner

One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn’t know. —Albert Camus

From a Deweyan perspective, public education’s central role in a democracy is to provide the conditions for students to learn the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that are essential for democratic life. For Dewey, democracy is a form of associated living among heterogeneous peoples and therefore requires students to learn how to understand, interrogate, evaluate, and manage conflicts, big and small, democratically. The ability to evaluate, understand, and resolve our conflicts peacefully and respectfully are an important index of democracy’s health and viability. Just as the health of a nation can be measured by how well its children fare, the health of a nation’s democracy can be measured, in part, by how well it teaches its children.

Constrained by constitutional principles of justice, liberty, and rights, educating future generations to be able and willing to live democratically means that schools must stop privileging safe spaces over brave spaces and help students lean into the most difficult and challenging conflicts of the day. Conflicts should not be avoided and our students should not be protected from them. On the contrary, they are a vital pedagogical and curricular resource for developing syncretic knowledge and cultural literacies; an opportunity for dialectical and intersectional thinking; offer a check against coercive and indoctrinating pedagogies from both the left and right; and make the learning experience democratic, meaningful, and transformative.

Mirroring its societal context, schools today at all levels are politicized and polarized to a degree where democratic education is seen by many as a luxury we can no longer afford to practice because of the threat of authoritarianism. They believe that the drift toward some embryonic form of American authoritarianism demands a hard stop when it comes to teaching about issues from different “conservative” heterodox perspectives. These include White Christian Nationalism, MAGA, and other anti-democratic/pro-authoritarian ideologies and their associated ideas, practices, and policies about everything from immigration to abortion. For others, ironically, democratic education represents a threat to American Exceptionalism. They see democratic education as a form of leftist indoctrination and therefore believe it must be policed, disciplined, and restrained. For these folks, American democracy has reached its tipping point in which its excesses have overwhelmed its value as a check against monarchy, communism and totalitarianism. Both sides reject democratic education as a way forward, choosing instead to double-down on the politicization of education in the name of “freedom.” But their conception and practice of freedom is “negative” in that it is driven essentially by fear, avoidance and escape. Politicization of education is a tool wielded by those who fear that their ideas won’t hold up under critique. Read more »

What Should an Old Man Read?

by Nils Peterson

I have finally come to understand that I cannot read everything. There aren’t enough years left. So, what should I read?

The question is complicated by the fact that I have a taste for not very good literature. I like John Buchan despite his racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and his foolish sense of the supremacy of the English gentleman.

39 Steps, based on his novel, was the first Hitchcock movie I ever saw. In the mid-40’s, I was invited to be for a few days the companion of a boy, a grandson of the old New York aristocracy. He lived with his mother in a great apartment a couple of stories high (the apartment, not the building) near Gramercy Park. One afternoon, his twin sister went with her friend to the ballet. I was envious, but his mother took us to an arty NY movie theater to see what seemed to be thought of as boy’s fare. I was entranced by the film, and, when I got back to my own home, went immediately to the library and got the novel. I’ve read it since at least a half dozen times. It’s quite different from the movie. A great movie. (Not a great, though engaging, book.) I liked somewhat, no, quite a bit, less (most are really dreadful), E. Phillips Oppenheim (though The Great Impersonation is fun) and am glad one can find things like that on the internet.

I’ve liked H. Rider Haggard whose novel She was Carl Jung’s favorite because it portrayed so well his sense of the anima, the female energy he thought we all had a version of. I have managed to save through the years a Classic Comic version. There is also an excellent Jungian analysis of it, Anima as Fate, by the Jungian analyst Cornelia Brunner. She gives a chapter-by-chapter plot summary as she goes through the book if you haven’t the heart for the text. (I bet you’d find it interesting.) And I liked Rafael Sabatini, particularly Scaramouche with its opening sentence, “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” When I read that as a boy, I thought there could be no finer writing nor richer sense of the nature of the world.

You must understand that the above is not necessarily a list I am proud of, but I cannot, should not, disown it. I change my mind. I’m proud of it. Read more »


by Terese Svoboda

Built in 1958, the father designed the house along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright, with a flat roof, lots of full-length glass windows, old brick, patios instead of porches, and a sunken garden with a St. Francis birdbath surrounded by ivy beside the entrance. The door had a starburst handle in the middle. Actual prairie abutted the house, as it was situated at the edge of town, population five thousand, not the best place to show off architecture unless there were parties of out-of-towners. The entrance hall where the guests arrived was covered with irregular big pieces of flagstone  broken by a wall of amber ripple glass girded by mahogany. The flagstone continued on the other side under a circular wrought iron glass-topped table and chairs and a bar. An expanse of an oatmeal-color-carpeted living room met the flagstone just past the powder room and master bedroom, which was situated as far as possible from the children’s sleeping quarters.

Very soon the sunken garden was sacrificed to the plethora of children. Enclosed, it became  a bedroom for whomever was about to escape the house. The occupant had to go through the father’s office, where he lounged behind his desk after hours, usually asleep, farm boots beside the chair. His labors on the land had produced this house meant to keep his wife happy so she would not miss the other end of the state where all things architectural happened.

The rest of the children had to find a place in the basement that was never quite finished, or occupy the TV rec room where ostensibly guests might sleep, if the parties went late. This room was soon converted into a bedroom for more children. It had what is known as a dry sink, an anomaly of a closet, really just a half-closet. The definition is a cabinet with a recessed top where one could put a pitcher of water but this one had a door and a lock that eventually the father’s caregiver used to conceal things she was stealing. The youngest was molested in that room by a friend of the family. Read more »

Monday, July 1, 2024

Deep Utopia – Will We Be Terminally Bored or Pleasure Blobs?

by John Allen Paulos

With apologies to Charles Dickens, it will be the best of times, it will be the worst of times.

In his recent book, Deep Utopia: Life and Meaning in a Solved World, philosopher Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence, speculates about human and trans-human lives after AI has developed to a kind of fearsome maturity at some indeterminate point in the future. What do our descendants do when AI can do virtually everything faster, more efficiently, better than they can? What, if anything, will be worth doing is the question underlying much of the book. Will we be become terminally jaded without purpose or will be become, as Bostrom puts it, mere hedonistic “pleasure blobs”?

The book provides a bountiful wealth of details, speculations, and extrapolations on boredom, interestingness, repetitiveness, and activities that might replace and make up for our loss of functional work and meaningful vocations. He mentions activities such as amateur art, music, personal reveries, social interactions, gardening, and the like.

The closest contemporary version of our distant descendants might be very wealthy young retirees or entitled trust fund kids. Still, the latter are not at all the purposeless self-indulgent, bored, unproductive, nihilistic descendants he first sketches. Gradually Bostrom attempts to complexify and significantly brighten this dim characterization of our distant future utilizing a variety of abstract philosophical arguments citing Malthus, Nozick, Thaddeus Metz, and many others. (The conceit is that these lectures are delivered by a professor (essentially Bostrom) to three students who rarely ask questions.) Read more »


by Richard Farr

Hubble Deep Field North – detail.

On a road trip once, navigating a deliberately eccentric route from Houston to El Paso, I was enjoying the emptiness — rocks, ravines, three other vehicles per hour — when I spotted something alien and odd. On a ridge to the northwest two monstrous hard-boiled eggs sat fresh-peeled and gleaming. It might have been a witty installation by Claes Oldenberg. I stood by the car in the brick-oven heat and peered at my paper map. 

The ridge was part of the Davis Mountains; the eggs were the U of T’s MacDonald Observatory. I pulled into the parking lot just as a tour group emerged from a purple van. Their bumper sticker said ASTRONOMERS DO IT ALL NIGHT. They looked like extras from a movie about the glory days of the Apollo program. One of the men actually had a buzz cut, a pocket protector, and eyeglasses mended with tape; it might almost have been cosplay, but wasn’t. 

One of the resident gazers gave us an al fresco lecture. The astro-tourists didn’t ask him which end of the telescope was which. They asked about precession, and how to collimate the mirror in a large Dobsonian, and how to get the best out of deep-sky subjects with hydrogen-alpha filtering. One of them mentioned the Veil Nebula; others nodded sagely and proffered advice on best practices for capturing the Rosette, the Tarantula, the Horsehead. They discussed how to star-hop from M-this to NGC-that as if comparing routes to Albuquerque. Our guide warmed to them, digging deeper into his expertise, tossing off references to Fraunhofer lines and Cepheid variables.

It was unexpected and strangely exhilarating to find this intense, quirky, intelligent inquiry, naïve inquisitiveness in the noblest sense, in the emptiest reaches of Texas. In universities, in the urban wilderness, you sometimes meet people like this. Just for the jazz of it they’re retranslating Hölderlin’s poetry or trying to prove Goldbach’s conjecture or performing Palestrina on the original instruments. Read more »