A Theoretical “Case Against Education”

Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten:

There’s been renewed debate around Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education recently, so I want to discuss one way I think about this question.

Education isn’t just about facts. But it’s partly about facts. Facts are easy to measure, and they’re a useful signpost for deeper understanding. If someone has never heard of Chaucer, Dickens, Melville, Twain, or Joyce, they probably haven’t learned to appreciate great literature. If someone can’t identify Washington, Lincoln, or either Roosevelt, they probably don’t understand the ebb and flow of American history. So what facts does the average American know?

More here.

A New Chapter in the Quest for a Longer Life

Emily Cataneo in The Undark:

IN 2023, tech mogul Bryan Johnson revealed that he had been receiving blood plasma exchanges from his 17-year-old son, in the hope that siphoning his son’s young blood into his middle-aged body would help him combat aging and cheat death. Johnson might be an extreme outlier, but his quest exemplifies a common human trait: denial about our mortality. As Venki Ramakrishnan writes in his new book, “Why We Die: The New Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality,” searching for the secrets to longevity has “driven human civilization for centuries.” Humans may be unique among animals in our ability to understand and anticipate death, and ever since we evolved into this awareness, we’ve struggled to accept it. We espouse religious beliefs about reincarnation or the everlasting immortal soul, we attempt to live on through offspring and legacy, and, of course, since antiquity, we have searched for eternal life.

Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who has spent his career studying how cell proteins are made, is primarily occupied with that last coping strategy in his fascinating book. For much of the 20th century, serious scientists dismissed gerontology, or the study of aging, as the provenance of cranks and loons. But in this century, it’s become a major research priority. In the past 10 years alone, Ramakrishnan writes, more than 700 startups have invested billions of dollars into solving this greatest human problem.

More here.

A Revolutionary Story Of Eggs, Evolution And Life On Earth

Leon Vlieger in The Inquisitive Biologist:

Jules Howard is no stranger to sex. A science writer and zoological correspondent, his gleefully amusing 2014 book Sex on Earth is particularly relevant to the topic at hand. Even there, however, eggs were just a sideshow. And therein lies the problem. Likely, the first question to be asked when eggs come up in conversation is how you like them for breakfast, or some hackneyed joke involving chickens. Focusing on the oology in zoology, Infinite Life retells the history of life, this time from the perspective of the almighty egg.

Howard’s approach in Infinite Life is to take the reader chronologically through the history of life, one geological period per chapter. Familiar as that framework might be for readers of popular evolutionary history books, it is the subject matter that is engrossing; eggs really have been a neglected topic so far.

More here.

“Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World” by Roger Crowley

Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books:

Although it is the Silk Road that captures most of the contemporary attention and discussion, it was in fact spices, not silk, that drove Western Europeans to seek routes to Asia. “Lightweight and durable, spices” writes Roger Crowley in his new history (appropriately entitled Spice), “were the first truly global commodity … they could be worth more than their weight in gold.” 

And it was, for the most part, not China, Japan or India that was the object of Western fever dreams but a handful of tiny, now relatively obscure islands in what is now Indonesia:

Five microscopic volcanic islands – Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian and Bacan – were the only places on the planet where clove trees grew. Four hundred miles south another three islands – the Bandas – were the unique source of nutmeg.

The Moluccas, he writes, “were destined to become the epicentre of a sixteenth-century great game that literally shaped the world.”

More here.

Friday Poem

To Love Somebody

There’s a light, a certain
kind of light that has never
shone on me—

Nina’s version.
Not the Bee Gees
or even Janis Joplin,

but the way Nina
sings it, almost a plea.
Not the studio
version either. No, her
performance in Antibes.
Her earrings

dangling their own mute
musics, her silk headwrap
an aureole of sorts.
The sheen of her face
a thesis in Black glamor
sui generis.

I want to be glamorous
in the way she was
glamorous. The way
women I knew growing
up were glamorous: campy,
yes, but regal.

If I knew of Nina then
I would have drawn
her. Drawing being
how I coped
with the expurgated chorus
of my childhood.

I drew women then
because I could not be
one. Nina knew
a life of could-nots
too. Little girl blue rejected
from music school.

Read more »

The Prophet Who Failed

Emily Harnett at Harper’s Magazine:

Like many, I had assumed that her name, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, was an alias or affectation. Given what I knew of her—of the strange books she wrote, of the strange church she led—it seemed a little on the nose. But in fact it was her actual married name: her second husband, Mark, came from a long line of Prophets, and Elizabeth—his soulmate, his twin flame—remained one long after his death. In a way, her first name belonged to him, too. As a child, she went by Betty Clare; Mark preferred Elizabeth, so Elizabeth she became. But Betty was how she was known to her parents and, later, to her enemies.

As for the people who knew her, who loved her, who still believed in her—they called her Mother. This is what Pamela calls her when I meet her for the first time, on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. The room is purple, and Pamela herself wears purple: purple pants, purple sweater, purple T-shirt beneath it. The carpet is purple, too.

more here.

Quantum Dialectics

Jim Baggott at Aeon Magazine:

The quantum revolution in physics played out over a period of 22 years, from 1905 to 1927. When it was done, the new theory of quantum mechanics had completely undermined the basis for our understanding of the material world. The familiar and intuitively appealing description of an atom as a tiny solar system, with electrons orbiting the atomic nucleus, was no longer satisfactory. The electron had instead become a phantom. Physicists discovered that in one kind of experiment, electrons behave like regular particles – as small, concentrated bits of matter. In another kind of experiment, electrons behave like waves. No experiment can be devised to show both types of behaviour at the same time. Quantum mechanics is unable to tell us what an electron is.

More unpalatable consequences ensued. The uncertainty principle placed fundamental limits on what we can hope to discover about the properties of quantum ‘wave-particles’. Quantum mechanics also broke the sacred link between cause and effect, wreaking havoc on determinism, reducing scientific prediction to a matter of probability – to a roll of the dice.

more here.

The Casual Villainy of Greek Heroes

Claire Heywood in The Millions:

In the early fifth century BC, the Olympic boxer Kleomedes was disqualified from a match after killing his opponent with a foul move. Outraged at being deprived of the victory and its attendant prize, he became “mad with grief” and tore down a school in his hometown, killing many of the children who were studying there. Kleomedes managed to escape the angry mob that soon pursued him, and disappeared without trace. When the community sought answers from the oracle at Delphi, they were told that Kleomedes was now a hero, and should be honored accordingly with sacrifices. This the people did, and continued to do for centuries to come.

This story, recorded by the ancient writer Pausanias, feels bizarre to modern readers. But to the ancient Greeks who honored Kleomedes, even after he had murdered their children, the oracle’s answer may not have seemed strange at all. Many of the most famous Greek heroes had, after all, committed similar acts of violence. Herakles, son of Zeus, had to complete his famous labors as penance for murdering his own wife and children in a fit of “madness.” (Unsurprisingly, this detail didn’t make it into Disney’s Hercules.) Ajax, a great hero of the Trojan War, went on a murderous rampage against his own Greek allies, though it was thwarted by Athena. The reason for Ajax’s violent rage? He was denied the right to inherit Achilles’s prized armor, which he took as an insult to his honor.

More here.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

“The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction”, edited by Tarun K Saint

Soni Wadhwa in the Asian Review of Books:

Detective fiction in the West is often grouped with crime fiction and thrillers; but in detective fiction, the focus is on a puzzle and the process of solving it. It’s a game with the reader in which a mystery needs to be unraveled before the detective figures it out. In some places, the detective becomes a figure of interest in himself—detective figures have been, traditionally if less so at present, more often than not, men—a complex personality whose story is interesting and deserves an independent treatment of its own. It is a genre that solves problems, finds answers, holds the culprit accountable: all very attractive attributes for those who just like a good story.

To this genre, Indian writers bring a depth of cultural context, making the genre more about societal constructs of crime, power, and inequalities of caste, gender, and so on than about a straightforward resolution of a problem. In order to archive the diversity of this form in India, literary critic and translator Tarun K Saint has produced a two volume anthology titled The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction which brings together writing both in English and in translation (from Tamil and Bengali).

More here.

Psychology and neuroscience crack open AI large language models

Matthew Hutson in Nature:

The latest wave of AI relies heavily on machine learning, in which software identifies patterns in data on its own, without being given any predetermined rules as to how to organize or classify the information. These patterns can be inscrutable to humans. The most advanced machine-learning systems use neural networks: software inspired by the architecture of the brain. They simulate layers of neurons, which transform information as it passes from layer to layer. As in human brains, these networks strengthen and weaken neural connections as they learn, but it’s hard to see why certain connections are affected. As a result, researchers often talk about AI as ‘black boxes’, the inner workings of which are a mystery.

In the face of this difficulty, researchers have turned to the field of explainable AI (XAI), expanding its inventory of tricks and tools to help reverse-engineer AI systems.

More here.

How Jimmy Carter Changed American Foreign Policy: An Enduring—and Misunderstood—Legacy

Stuart E. Eizenstat in Foreign Affairs:

On September 17, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter faced a momentous crisis. For nearly two weeks, he had been holed up at Camp David with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, trying to hammer out a historic peace deal. Although the hard-liner Begin had proven intransigent on many issues, Carter had made enormous progress by going around him and negotiating directly with Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, and Legal Adviser Aharon Barak. On the 13th day, however, Begin drew the line. He announced he could compromise no further and was leaving. The talks on which Carter had staked his presidency would all be for naught.

But then, Carter made a personal gesture. Knowing that Begin had eight grandchildren and was exceptionally devoted to them, Carter signed photographs of the three leaders, which he addressed to each grandchild by name, and then personally carried them over to Begin’s cabin, where Begin was preparing to depart. As Begin read the names of his grandchildren, his lips quivered and his eyes watered and he put down his bags. Later that same day, he reached a breakthrough agreement with Sadat on what became the framework for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty six months later.

More here.

René Girard: We Do Not Come in Peace

Cynthia Haven at Church Life Journal:

Girard’s corpus is not just an erudite self-help manual, however; his intellectual landscape is not intended to be therapeutic, and yet it is. What he came to see was not a comfort, however, but something fierce and intractable. What he learned about the individual also limns the destiny of our species. Our impossible plight: the mechanism of scapegoat violence—whether on the level of the individual, or society, or epoch—is rooted in the very imitation that teaches us to love and learn, in fact, the very tissue that connects us with the rest of humanity.

His realm extends far beyond the personal, the “me”: his theories also anatomize political campaigns, world banking, international statecraft, and nuclear escalation; they illuminate our history from the beginning of time. The mystery of imitation is what threatens our survival and enables it, and for that reason alone it merits more careful study.

more here.

Why Do People Hate People?

Kristine Hoover in Discover Magazine:

Have you ever said “I hate you” to someone? What about using the “h-word” in casual conversation, like “I hate broccoli”? What are you really feeling when you say that you hate something or someone?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes the word “hate” as an “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” All over the world, researchers like us are studying hate from disciplines like education, history, law, leadership, psychology, sociology and many others.

If you had a scary experience with thunderstorms, you might say that you hate thunderstorms. Maybe you have gotten very angry at something that happened at a particular place, so now you say you hate going there. Maybe someone said something hurtful to you, so you say you hate that person.

More here.

Can ChatGPT Mimic Theory of Mind? Psychology Is Probing AI’s Inner Workings

Shelly Fan in Singularity Hub:

If you’ve ever vented to ChatGPT about troubles in life, the responses can sound empathetic. The chatbot delivers affirming support, and—when prompted—even gives advice like a best friend. Unlike older chatbots, the seemingly “empathic” nature of the latest AI models has already galvanized the psychotherapy community, with many wondering if  they can assist therapy. The ability to infer other people’s mental states is a core aspect of everyday interaction. Called “theory of mind,” it lets us guess what’s going on in someone else’s mind, often by interpreting speech. Are they being sarcastic? Are they lying? Are they implying something that’s not overtly said?

“People care about what other people think and expend a lot of effort thinking about what is going on in other minds,” wrote Dr. Cristina Becchio and colleagues at the University Medical Center Hanburg-Eppendorf in a new study in Nature Human Behavior.”

In the study, the scientists asked if ChatGPT and other similar chatbots—which are based on machine learning algorithms called large language models—can also guess other people’s mindsets. Using a series of psychology tests tailored for certain aspects of theory of mind, they pitted two families of large language models, including OpenAI’s GPT series and Meta’s LLaMA 2, against over 1,900 human participants. GPT-4, the algorithm behind ChatGPT, performed at, or even above, human levels in some tasks, such as identifying irony. Meanwhile, LLaMA 2 beat both humans and GPT at detecting faux pas—when someone says something they’re not meant to say but don’t realize it. To be clear, the results don’t confirm LLMs have theory of mind. Rather, they show these algorithms can mimic certain aspects of this core concept that “defines us as humans,” wrote the authors.

More here.

Thursday Poem

For Victor Jara

A tribute to Victor Jara

Victor Jara
Victor Jara

Your name
bears the sound
of guitarra
your instrument of love

Victor Jara
Victor Jara

Your name
bears the sound
of tierra
the earth you cherished
like your mother’s songs

How I wished
there was no need
for yet another poem
dedicated to hands
that still sing and bleed

How I wished
the silence of this poem
was shattered now
by bullets of love
from your guitar

Victor guitarra
Victor tierra
Victor ah Jara

by John Agard
from Poetry International

About Victor Jara

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Wednesday Poem


Now is the time to speak
Lips not sealed
Body unbroken
Blood coursing still
Through your veins

Now is the time to speak
The iron glows red
Like your blood
The chain lies open
Like your lips

Now is the time to speak

For the tide of life runs out

For truth and honor shall not wait

Say all that needs to be said today

by Anjum Altaf
Transgressions- Poems inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz
LG Publishers, 2019

Learning to be happier

Bruce Hood at Aeon:

My own tutee students, whom I met on a regular basis, were reporting poor mental health or asking for extensions because they were unable to meet deadlines that were stressing them out. They were overly obsessed with marks and other performance outcomes, and this impacted not only on them, but also on the teaching and support staff who were increasingly dealing with alleviating student anxiety. Students wanted more support that most felt was lacking and, in an effort to deal with the issue, the university had invested heavily, making more provision for mental health services. The problem with this strategy, however, is that by the time someone seeks out professional services, they are already at a crisis point. I felt compelled to do something.

At the time, Bristol University was described in the British press as a ‘toxic’ environment, but this was an unfair label as every higher education institution was, and still is, experiencing a similar mental health crisis. Even in the Ivy League universities in the United States, there was a problem, as I discovered when I became aware of a course on positive psychology that had become the most popular at Yale in the spring of 2018. On reading about the course, I was somewhat sceptical that simple interventions could make much difference until I learned that Yale’s ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ course was being delivered by a colleague of mine, Laurie Santos, who I knew would not associate herself with anything flaky.

That autumn term of 2018, I decided to try delivering a free lunchtime series of lectures, ‘The Science of Happiness’, based on the Yale course.

More here.