‘Without death, there is no art’: How Amitava Kumar’s new novel came to be

Amitava Kumar at Scroll.in:

For the first half of my life, certainly, when I was in my twenties, I was a great disappointment to my parents. College had held no interest for me. I was threatened that I had such a bad record of attendance at Hindu College that I would not be allowed to sit for my final-year exams. Each morning I boarded the University Special, the shuttle bus that the DTC provided for students, but I did so with the sole aim of sitting close to a girl I liked. (In three years, the sum total of our conversation had gone like this: “Would you like to read my poems?” “No.”) Then, I fell in love with another woman, from a different year, a year junior to me. I wrote her many letters, and even received responses, but we spent very little time together. We never even held hands. But I was happy. Instead of going to class, I sat on the college lawns smoking cigarettes, or reading in various libraries in the city, discovering poetry and fiction.

I believed I was improving my mind.

More here.

Self-driving cars are underhyped

Matthew Yglesias in Slow Boring:

The Obama administration saw a flurry of tech sector hype about self-driving cars. Not being a technical person, I had no ability to assess the hype on the merits, but companies were putting real money into it, and so I wrote pieces looking at the labor market, land use, and transportation policy implications. But the tech turned out to be way overhyped, progress was much slower than advertised, and then Elon Musk further poisoned the water by marketing some limited (albeit impressive) self-driving software as “Full Self-Driving.”

That whole experience seems to have left most people with the sense that self-driving cars are 10 years away and always will be.

I am still not a technical person, but at this point I am prepared to make a technical judgment: The current conventional wisdom is wrong and autonomous vehicle technology has become underhyped.

More here.

How justified are recent claims that China has been buying significant quantities of debt to undermine the sovereignty of African nations?

Jamie Linsley-Parrish at JSTOR Daily:

In 2017, strategic studies scholar Brahma Chellaney accused China of using “debt-trap diplomacy” in its lending activities with African countries: in other words, buying significant quantities of debt to increase political leverage in the region. The accusation was leapt upon in the United States, with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claiming Chinese complicity in “miring nations in debt and undercutting their sovereignty.” Sixteen US senators and Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, subsequently used the term to decry Chinese “corruption” through such lending. But are such claims justified, or are they borne from anxiety around China’s rise to become a superpower and the subsequent implications for the West?

More here.


Dan Piepenbring at The Baffler:

There’s the crux of the issue: the k-hole. Ketamine gets you really, elaborately, bizarrely high. Doctors have never quite known how to describe this high or what to do about it. During the drug’s clinical trials in 1964, recovering patients reported that they’d been dead, suspended among the stars, or living in a movie. One researcher observed that ketamine “produced ‘zombies’ who were totally disconnected from their environment.” Investigators had to find the right word to broach these effects; hallucinations and zombies wouldn’t go over well with the FDA. An early contender, schizophrenomimetic (i.e., mimicking schizophrenia), was tossed out for obvious reasons. They settled on dissociative, which suggested a gossamer untethering of body and brain. A hot air balloon dissociates from the earth; the two halves of a Venn diagram are a dissociated circle. Confusingly, there was already a long history of dissociation in psychology, where the word describes someone too detached from reality to function. Dissociative anesthesia is technically unrelated, but people understandably conflate the two, especially now that ketamine is used in mental health contexts. Hence ketamine clinics speak of “the healing powers of dissociation”—seemingly the very thing of which you’d want to be healed.

more here.

Remembering Alice Munro

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain and others at The Paris Review:

I reread “Family Furnishings” this morning because it is one of my favorite stories and because I will be discussing it soon with my students and because Alice Munro, possibly the greatest short-story writer there ever was and certainly the greatest in the English language, is dead. One of my teachers at the University of Montana introduced me to the story when I was an undergrad who had just begun to write and was utterly lost and did not know yet that these two things were one and the same. The story was so far beyond me I had almost no sense of what was going on except that by the end the narrator had been exposed to her own ignorance and arrogance and emotional irresponsibility in a way that was permanently imprinted on me, most likely because I understood it as a premonition of what was to come in my own life. But it is also a story about how the narrator becomes a fiction writer, about the ways a person from a small town might become such a thing, the ways high art will come into your life and separate you from the people who don’t live for art—this is most of them—and the things you must give up in order to commit yourself to the discipline of writing, the ways you will almost certainly piss people off back home when you finally find a way to fork the lightning of the sentence. Munro is one of the only writers whose work has haunted me not just on the first read but more and more as I’ve gotten older. A good story will hold your attention for a while, but a great story will open a new door in your head and then will change with you as you go and “Furnishings” is that kind of story. Each time I read it I see a thing I somehow did not before and understand something about life I did not before or had purposely forgotten; Munro’s best work is always a step past me and no matter what I do or how much older I get it remains that way and I hope it stays that way.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Three Poems by Nils Peterson

By the Sea

To watch a seagull fly overhead,
a girl child on the beach in red pajamas
tilts her head back and back,
impossibly back to anyone a second older.

Now she digs a hole
tossing the sand back between her legs
as if her hands were forepaws.

Now she sits on her haunches
in the hole and draws a circle
all about herself.

Now she is safe from everything.

With William

With Black William, half Lab and half
Golden Retriever, at the percolation ponds.
He is learning he likes the water and stands in it
up to his chest, snaps three times at the midges, then
erupts up the bank in a great larruping horsey gallop
surrounded for a moment by a fine thin silvery shield
of water curved like the battle shields of the Assyrians.

Tao from a Train Window

……….. a white cow
……….. picks up her
……….. right foot and
……….. places it
……….. down again.

from: All the Marvelous Stuff
Caesura Editions, Poetry Center of San José, 2019

Ozempic keeps wowing: trial data show benefits for kidney disease

Rachel Fairbank in Nature:

The blockbuster diabetes drug Ozempic — also sold as the obesity drug Wegovy — can add another health condition to the list of maladies it alleviates. Researchers presented clinical-trial data today at a conference in Stockholm, showing that it significantly reduces the risk of kidney failure and death for people with type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease. Scientists are thrilled with the result, and think that the drug, otherwise known by its generic name, semaglutide, will eventually be proved to help a more general population of people with kidney disease. This trial is a first step towards that goal, they say.

Semaglutide manufacturer Novo Nordisk, based in Bagsværd, Denmark, announced in October that it had halted its kidney-disease trial because of a recommendation from an independent data-safety monitoring board that the overwhelmingly positive results made it unethical to continue to give some participants a placebo. But until now, it hadn’t revealed the full data analysis, which is also published today in The New England Journal of Medicine.

More here.

Monday, May 27, 2024

The Frozen Trucker and the Fugitive Slave

by Barry Goldman

The “frozen trucker case” got a fair amount of attention a few years back. At Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing Senator Al Franken hammered him about it. You can watch it here. The facts of the case are these:

Alphonse Maddin was employed as a truck driver by Petitioner TransAm Trucking (“TransAm”). In January 2009, Maddin was transporting cargo through Illinois when the brakes on his trailer froze because of subzero temperatures. After reporting the problem to TransAm and waiting several hours for a repair truck to arrive, Maddin unhitched his truck from the trailer and drove away, leaving the trailer unattended. He was terminated for abandoning the trailer.

Maddin challenged his discharge in a proceeding before an Administrative Law Judge and won. TransAm appealed to the Administrative Review Board, and Maddin won again. TransAm then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which issued its decision in August of 2016, more than seven years after the incident.

The 10th Circuit found in Maddin’s favor, with Gorsuch in dissent. All that is water under the bridge. Today Gorsuch has a life appointment to the Supreme Court, and Franken is back in private life. But it is worth revisiting the case for what it can tell us about legal reasoning and judicial decision making. Read more »

The Large Language Turn: LLMs As A Philosophical Tool

by Jochen Szangolies

The schematic architecture of OpenAI’s GPT models. Image credit: Marxav, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a widespread feeling that the introduction of the transformer, the technology at the heart of Large Language Models (LLMs) like OpenAI’s various GPT-instances, Meta’s LLaMA or Google’s Gemini, will have a revolutionary impact on our lives not seen since the introduction of the World Wide Web. Transformers may change the way we work (and the kind of work we do), create, and even interact with one another—with each of these coming with visions ranging from the utopian to the apocalyptic.

On the one hand, we might soon outsource large swaths of boring, routine tasks—summarizing large, dry technical documents, writing and checking code for routine tasks. On the other, we might find ourselves out of a job altogether, particularly if that job is mainly focused on text production. Image creation engines allow instantaneous production of increasingly high quality illustrations from a simple description, but plagiarize and threaten the livelihood of artists, designers, and illustrators. Routine interpersonal tasks, such as making appointments or booking travel, might be assigned to virtual assistants, while human interaction gets lost in a mire of unhelpful service chatbots, fake online accounts, and manufactured stories and images.

But besides their social impact, LLMs also represent a unique development that make them highly interesting from a philosophical point of view: for the first time, we have a technology capable of reproducing many feats usually linked to human mental capacities—text production at near-human level, the creation of images or pieces of music, even logical and mathematical reasoning to a certain extent. However, so far, LLMs have mainly served as objects of philosophical inquiry, most notable along the lines of ‘Are they sentient?’ (I don’t think so) and ‘Will they kill us all?’. Here, I want to explore whether, besides being the object of philosophical questions, they also might be able to supply—or suggest—some answers: whether philosophers could use LLMs to elucidate their own field of study.

LLMs are, to many of their uses, what a plane is to flying: the plane achieves the same end as the bird, but by different means. Hence, it provides a testbed for certain assumptions about flight, perhaps bearing them out or refuting them by example. Read more »

Monday Poem

—“For all practical purposes a lie is as true
as the bias of its believer.”
 —Roshi Bob

Plum of a Lie

If I told you a lie
would you believe it?

….. Will it be a true lie? Will it
….. pierce my bias to the bone? Will it
….. meet my need?

Does that matter?

….. As sure as my world is flat, it does.

It would be a help then?

….. I cannot believe without a true lie
….. therefore, please tell me a plum of a lie,
….. gild it, make it sing, craft it so well
….. I’ll not know, have it swell,
….. have its juice challenge the
….. breadth
 of the universe

Shall I then?

….. Please, please—

.Jim Culleny,

Living Your Best Life?

by Martin Butler

The expression ‘Live your best life’ is very much in vogue. It appears more than 3 million times in Instagram posts, which are no doubt full of pictures of smiling attractive 20-somethings completing amazing sporting feats, strolling along glorious beaches or doing exciting things in exotic places. Working 12 shifts delivering parcels for Amazon presumably doesn’t make the grade. As with many other inspirational (or is it aspirational) sayings that pepper the internet, perhaps we should dismiss this expression as just part of the froth produced by internet influencers desperate for our attention. But what does its popularity say about our times? Let’s look beyond the predictable healthy lifestyle stuff and try to actually make sense of it as a philosophical idea. After all, if interpreted generously, it does have a certain philosophical pedigree.

To start with, what does best actually mean? It very much depends on how we view human beings. Regarded in a narrowly hedonic way, where the only things that matter are pleasure and pain, our best life would be one where we avoid as much pain and experience as much pleasure as possible.  This is clearly implausible for many reasons, one being the conclusion of Nozick’s powerful thought experiment: few would regard their best life as being permanently hooked up to an ‘experience machine’ which eliminated pain and provided you with nothing but delightful pleasure. The passive experiencing of pleasure would not be enough. A best life surely requires that we participate in meaningful activities which lead to fulfilment and flourishing, a point which tends to lead to a more individualistic notion. Most people are roughly similar in terms of what they find pleasurable and painful; masochists excepted, human beings tend to find physical injury painful and sweet food pleasant. This is not the case, however, with regards to living a fulfilling life. I personally wouldn’t find a life dedicated to martial arts, rock climbing or running marathons fulfilling, but for many these activities are deeply fulfilling. So is there something distinctively modern about the individualism implicit in living your best life? Read more »

This is Called Freedom

by Rebecca Baumgartner

A little over a year ago, in Allen, Texas, we saw the precise moment when a “good guy with a gun” became a “bad guy with a gun.” It turns out that the line between these two different types of people (and there are only two, we’re told) is as slight as a finger squeezing a trigger. Certainly nothing prior to that trigger-squeeze at the Allen Premium Outlets was illegal. In Texas, as of 2021, someone can legally carry eight guns in public – without a license or permit of any kind. 

Under Texas’ recently expanded “open carry” law, you can take as many guns as you want into a library. You can take as many guns as you want into the state Capitol building in Austin. You can take as many guns as you want with you while walking down the street.

This is called freedom.

It’s a freedom that requires you to accept some logical catch-22s, though. For example, the dividing line between a law-abiding citizen exercising his supposed right to bear arms and a mentally unstable man who should never have had a gun in the first place is only discernible after he has killed people. Once someone becomes a gun-wielding maniac, they retroactively never should have been allowed to have a gun. (It’s a shame they don’t have the courtesy to tell us ahead of time that they’re the bad guys.)

You can get around this conundrum if you believe in a world where people are either all good or all bad, and we can tell the difference. Gun extremists believe in a fairytale world split into dark and light. They would have us believe that it’s just a matter of finding out who falls into which camp. The forces for good get as many guns as they want and are trusted implicitly, and the forces of darkness are (somehow, without legislative intervention) kept from getting guns. And then the good guys with guns keep us safe from the bad guys with guns. Just like in stories.

But notably, and tragically, this is precisely what does not tend to happen during mass shootings in the real world. This is not what happened at the Parkland school shooting or the Orlando nightclub shooting. This is not what happened at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, either. The good guys with guns just stood there, scared out of their minds, while people died. Read more »

Theories of Art and Rachel Cusk

by Derek Neal

An excerpt of Rachel Cusk’s forthcoming novel, Parade, appeared in the Financial Times last week. The story features two narratives, one about a female painter simply referred to as “G,” told in third person, and another about a group of people visiting a farm in the countryside, told in first person plural. It is unclear how these two stories intersect in terms of plot—is G the narrator of the second story? Is she the woman living on the farm?—but these are not questions worth asking. Thematically, the two stories fit together as they both tell of women constrained and controlled by male figures of authority: in this case, their husbands.

Nestled within this narrative is a fascinating articulation of a theory of art, which is what I will focus on in this essay. Cusk does not pause the story to explain this theory, as some purveyors of “autofiction” might do, but embeds it within the story by explaining G’s different artistic periods and the way her art relates to her personal life. The story is stronger because of this.

In the beginning of G’s career, she is seemingly self-taught, lacking formal and technical skill but compensating for it with inspiration and honesty. Her painting is described as existing “autonomously, living in her like some organism that had happened to make its home there.” In this characterization, G is simply the vessel giving shape to an artistic drive she scarcely understands, rather than the source of its creation. Read more »

Pantomime: Not Just For Horses

by Mike O’Brien

This is going to be a broad-strokes, fast-and-loose affair. Or at least loose. In April I wrote a piece about recent work in the field of animal normativity, a quickly developing area of research that is of interest to me for two key reasons: first, it promises to deepen our knowledge of animal cognition and behaviour, allowing us to better attend to their welfare; second, it promises to fill in the genealogical history of our own normative senses, allowing us to better understand the human experience of morality.

Mostly following the cohort of researchers around Kristin Andrews, who are working on de-anthropocentrized taxonomies and conceptual frameworks for studying animal normativity, I noted that one question of particular interest remains outstanding, viz. “do animals have norms about norms?”. Put another way, do animals think about the (innate, and learned) norms governing life in their communities, and do they (consciously or unconsciously) follow higher-order “meta-normative” rules to resolve conflicts between two or more conflicting norms? The answer still seems to be that they do not, at least not among the higher primates who are the principal focus of study for these questions.

One possible explanation for this apparent absence of recursive or reflexive normativity among non-human animals is a lack of language. It is supposed by some that in order to make norms the object of thought, capable of being analyzed, evaluated, compared and synthesized, some system of external representation is needed, and such a system would fit most definitions of a language. If other species possessed such a powerful cognitive tool, we might suppose that they would use it for all kinds of things, not just resolving normative quandaries. And yet we don’t see much evidence for that kind of abstract, propositional communication among other species. Some tantalizing exceptions come to mind, like enculturated apes using sign language and cetacean communication exhibiting structure and complexity that we have yet to fully understand. But as yet there are no examples of bonobo judges or dolphin sages sorting out the immanent logic of their societies’ rules. Read more »