How to Kidnap the Rich – a satire on modern India

Sana Goyal in The Guardian:

The opening chapter of How to Kidnap the Rich comes to a close with the narrator, a chai wallah’s son and con artist, clarifying that this isn’t a story about poverty, it’s a story about wealth. A few pages further in, we’re told that Delhi isn’t saffron; isn’t spice – it’s sweat. In Rahul Raina’s satirical state-of-the-nation debut, which slices into the soul of contemporary Indian society, things aren’t always the way they appear.

Ramesh Kumar is himself a sham. Having long left behind a childhood filled with abject poverty on the streets of East Delhi, a “grey smear on Google Maps”, he becomes an “examinations consultant” who commits academic fraud. Now a self-proclaimed “charming, witty, urbane man about town”, he sits entrance exams that are entry points to the west – the best universities, “the whitest lives” – for the elite. When Rudi, a teenager with a “no-matches-on-Tinder-face”, opts for the “All India Examinations: Premium Package”, little does Ramesh know that it will gain him beyond-belief riches and cost him a finger. If you place in the top thousand, it’s your ticket out of India. But what if you rank first?

More here.

How Maxwell’s Demon Continues to Startle Scientists

Jonathan O’Callaghan in Nautilus:

The universe bets on disorder. Imagine, for example, dropping a thimbleful of red dye into a swimming pool. All of those dye molecules are going to slowly spread throughout the water. Physicists quantify this tendency to spread by counting the number of possible ways the dye molecules can be arranged. There’s one possible state where the molecules are crowded into the thimble. There’s another where, say, the molecules settle in a tidy clump at the pool’s bottom. But there are uncountable billions of permutations where the molecules spread out in different ways throughout the water. If the universe chooses from all the possible states at random, you can bet that it’s going to end up with one of the vast set of disordered possibilities. Seen in this way, the inexorable rise in entropy, or disorder, as quantified by the second law of thermodynamics, takes on an almost mathematical certainty. So of course physicists are constantly trying to break it.

One almost did. A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits. In the thought experiment, Maxwell imagined splitting a room full of gas into two compartments by erecting a wall with a small door. Like all gases, this one is made of individual particles. The average speed of the particles corresponds to the temperature of the gas—faster is hotter. But at any given time, some particles will be moving more slowly than others.

What if, suggested Maxwell, a tiny imaginary creature—a demon, as it was later called—sat at the door. Every time it saw a fast-moving particle approaching from the left-hand side, it opened the door and let it into the right-hand compartment. And every time a slow-moving particle approached from the right, the demon let it into the left-hand compartment.

More here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Will France Go Woke?

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

On arriving in Paris in 2013, I went to open a bank account. The personal banker assigned to me, who would remain with me for a few years after that, was a Senegalese immigrant, a proud professional, and most of all a proud Frenchwoman. When I showed her my immigration papers and my confirmation of employment by the University of Paris, she said something like, “Oh, sure, you’re one of the good immigrants.” I thought she had meant to speak damningly of the hypocrisy of her adoptive country, and I started to say, “You mean because I’m…”. But before I got to that color-coding adjective I wrongly presumed she had in mind, she completed her thought: “You’re one of the good immigrants, like me. You’ve got diplomas, you’ve got a job.” Then she pointed to the family of Roma people encamped on a styrofoam mattress on the sidewalk right outside: “Not like them,” she said, “they don’t want to work. It’s easier to just sit there and make people feel sorry for you.”

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Emily Riehl on Topology, Categories, and the Future of Mathematics

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

“A way that math can make the world a better place is by making it a more interesting place to be a conscious being.” So says mathematician Emily Riehl near the start of this episode, and it’s a good summary of what’s to come. Emily works in realms of topology and category theory that are far away from practical applications, or even to some non-practical areas of theoretical physics. But they help us think about what is possible and how everything fits together, and what’s more interesting than that? We talk about what topology is, the specific example of homotopy — how things deform into other things — and how thinking about that leads us into groups, rings, groupoids, and ultimately to category theory, the most abstract of them all.

More here.

Psychology, Misinformation, and the Public Square

Teresa Carr in Undark:

One idle Saturday afternoon I wreaked havoc on the virtual town of Harmony Square, “a green and pleasant place,” according to its founders, famous for its pond swan, living statue, and Pineapple Pizza Festival. Using a fake news site called Megaphone — tagged with the slogan “everything louder than everything else” — and an army of bots, I ginned up outrage and divided the citizenry. In the end, Harmony Square was in shambles.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 10 minutes of villainy — even laughed outright a few times. And that was the point. My beleaguered town is the center of the action for the online game Breaking Harmony Square, a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, psychologists at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and DROG, a Dutch initiative that uses gaming and education to fight misinformation. In my role as Chief Disinformation Officer of Harmony Square, I learned about the manipulation techniques people use to gain a following, foment discord, and then exploit societal tensions for political purposes.

More here.


The Unintended Beauty of Disaster

Adrian Searle at The Guardian:

Akomfrah plays fast and loose with time and place, the real and the constructed, to make larger, more complex narratives. A second three-screen video, Triptych, set in an unnamed location, is a panoply of street portraits. The title is taken from a track by jazz drummer and composer Max Roach, from his 1960 album We Insist! Roach’s wonderful Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace, which provides the soundtrack, with singer Abbey Lincoln keening and wailing wordlessly as Akomfrah’s camera glides and pauses. Practitioners of Candomblé, transgender people and queers of all sorts, street musicians, sassy kids and game old ladies, families, friends and passersby pose and smile for Akomfrah’s camera. Towards the end, we see an overhead shot of a vast portrait commemorating Breonna Taylor (shot dead by US police in her home in March last year), covering two basketball courts in Annapolis, Maryland.

more here.

Barbara Hepworth: Art & Life

Tanya Harrod at Literary Review:

Barbara Hepworth’s life was by any standard a remarkable one. It was a triumph of determination. She did not come from a deprived background: her father was a civil engineer who became a well-respected county surveyor for the West Riding of Yorkshire. She went to a good school and was exceptionally gifted musically. She wrote with great clarity and was an accomplished draughtswoman. She sailed into Leeds School of Art and in 1921 won a senior scholarship to the Royal College of Art, then under the invigorating leadership of the recently appointed William Rothenstein. At the college, which at the time occupied a building attached to the Victoria and Albert Museum, she chose to concentrate on sculpture, drawing from casts, modelling in clay, carving reliefs in plaster, with some stone and wood carving too. It was a traditional education, undertaken alongside another student from Yorkshire, Henry Moore.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Something Invisible

Once I asked my master
“What is the difference
Between you and me?”

And he replied,
“Hafiz, only this:

If a herd of wild buffalo
Broke into our house
And knocked over
Our empty begging bowls,
No a drop would spill from yours.

But there is Something Invisible
That God has placed in mine.

If That spilled from my bowl,
It could drown this whole world.”

by Hafiz
I Heard God Laughing
Penguin Books, 2006
Renderings of Hafiz by Danliel Ladinsky

‘Mother Trees’ Are Intelligent: They Learn and Remember

Richard Schiffman in Scientific American:

Few researchers have had the pop culture impact of Suzanne Simard. The University of British Columbia ecologist was the model for Patricia Westerford, a controversial tree scientist in Richard Powers’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Overstory. Simard’s work also inspired James Cameron’s vision of the godlike “Tree of Souls” in his 2009 box office hit Avatar. And her research was prominently featured in German forester Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 nonfiction bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees.

What captured the public’s imagination was Simard’s findings that trees are social beings that exchange nutrients, help one another and communicate about insect pests and other environmental threats. Previous ecologists had focused on what happens aboveground, but Simard used radioactive isotopes of carbon to trace how trees share resources and information with one another through an intricately interconnected network of mycorrhizal fungi that colonize trees’ roots. In more recent work, she has found evidence that trees recognize their own kin and favor them with the lion’s share of their bounty, especially when the saplings are most vulnerable.

Simard’s first bookFinding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, was released by Knopf this week. In it, she argues that forests are not collections of isolated organisms but webs of constantly evolving relationships. Humans have been unraveling these webs for years, she says, through destructive practices such as clear-cutting and fire suppression. Now they are causing climate change to advance faster than trees can adapt, leading to species die-offs and a sharp increase in infestations by pests such as the bark beetles that have devastated forests throughout western North America.

More here.

Meet the Other Social Influencers of the Animal Kingdom

Natalie Angier in The New York Times:

Julia, her friends and family agreed, had style. When, out of the blue, the 18-year-old chimpanzee began inserting long, stiff blades of grass into one or both ears and then went about her day with her new statement accessories clearly visible to the world, the other chimpanzees at the Chimfunshi wildlife sanctuary in Zambia were dazzled.

Pretty soon, they were trying it, too: first her son, then her two closest female friends, then a male friend, out to eight of the 10 chimps in the group, all of them struggling, in front of Julia the Influencer — and hidden video cameras — to get the grass-in-the-ear routine just right. “It was quite funny to see,” said Edwin van Leeuwen of the University of Antwerp, who studies animal culture. “They tried again and again without success. They shivered through their whole bodies.”

Dr. van Leeuwen tried it himself and understood why.

“It’s not a pleasant feeling, poking a piece of grass far enough into the ear to stay there,” he said. But once the chimpanzees had mastered the technique, they repeated it often, proudly, almost ritualistically, fiddling with the inserted blades to make sure others were suitably impressed.

Julia died more than two years ago, yet her grassy-ear routine — a tradition that arose spontaneously, spread through social networks and skirts uncomfortably close to a human meme or fad — lives on among her followers in the sanctuary. The behavior is just one of many surprising examples of animal culture that researchers have lately divulged, as a vivid summary makes clear in a recent issue of Science. Culture was once considered the patented property of human beings: We have the art, science, music and online shopping; animals have the instinct, imprinting and hard-wired responses. But that dismissive attitude toward nonhuman minds turns out to be more deeply misguided with every new finding of animal wit or whimsy: Culture, as many biologists now understand it, is much bigger than we are.

More here.

Monday, May 10, 2021

What is living and what is dead in the Enlightenment?

by Charlie Huenemann

Talking about “The Enlightenment”, when understood as something like “an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries” (thanks, Wikipedia), is like talking about Batman: do you mean classically heroic comic Batman? or the delightfully campy Adam West Batman? or the Batman of the movies, or of the gloomy Dark Knight era? The Batman one selects will determine what further questions need to be settled, and what scales of evaluation should be used. 

Similarly, the Enlightenment can be seen as a cluster of philosophical values (placed upon individual liberty, human equality, political and scientific progress, and independence from religion), or the ways in which those values helped to form economic institutions (slavery of various forms, global capitalism, and free markets), or as a stand-in term for whatever deep injustice people think has become dominant over the last three centuries (global economic inequalities, political states favoring the wealthy, and enduring white privilege). It is often thought that the Enlightenment is somehow a single thing behind all these things, in the way some of us think there can be a steady “Batman” character behind his various depths and flavors. 

These various flavors of “Enlightenment” are not wholly disconnected. For example, John Locke formulated a system of rights, contracts, and obligations that justified slavery on at least some occasions. The notion of actual human equality was interpreted by colonizers to mean potential human equality, which licensed the brutal process of more civilized nations forcing benighted savages into “more advanced conditions”. Scientific progress seemed to demand that we regard the natural world as a resource to be controlled and consumed, and soon our air became unbreathable. Freedom from religion came to mean that the only considerations that belong in the public sphere are measurements of material loss and gain; so “sin” and “virtue” need not apply.

And so, the criticism goes, the core ideals of Enlightenment lead to an alien and inhuman operating system that maximizes material well being for some, while annihilating any local traditions and values that are not readily uploaded into the system. Read more »

Of Mice and Moderna

by Mike O’Brien

I recently booked an appointment to be vaccinated. The provincial government here in Québec has opened up vaccine eligibility to people under 45 in 5-year tranches. 40-to-44-year-olds were able to log in to the health ministry’s web portal and book an appointment in a few minutes. A few days later, 35-to-39-year-olds were eligible, and few days after that, 30-to-34-year-olds, and so on and so on (to quote Zizek). I didn’t do much thinking about this decision. Within minutes of the portal opening I received two messages from friends, alerting me to hop on and register. The only consideration, besides getting the earliest booking possible, was which vaccine would be provided at which venues, and even that was a minor point.

Absent from my thinking was any question of whether or not I would get vaccinated at all. There is a growing concern about vaccine “hesitancy”, but this is still thankfully low in Canada relative to our (conservatively) 30% insane neighbours to the south. I have enough background in basic science and medicine to sort out the usual innumerate nonsense that underlies most resistance to vaccination. And while I do believe that there are nefarious, power-hungry cabals of conspirators perverting the workings of government, industry and public discourse, I don’t think that their schemes include putting mind-control chips into syringes. Why go to all that bother just to control people’s minds? That’s what media monopolies are for.

In a few years, we may discover that the vaccines have worrying side-effects. Or they may unexpectedly result in whiter teeth and clearer skin. From the limited vantage of the present moment, however, vaccination is an undeniably better bet for continued good health on the individual level, and so obviously beneficial to collective health that many sober minds might countenance making it obligatory. (I am on the fence about this. For context, note that I am also ambivalent about dispersing anti-mask protests with grapeshot. Happy 200th, Monsieur Bonaparte).

The lack of equivocation and hesitation in this decision bears a curious contrast with how I think about other areas of my health. Read more »

Goodbye Covid, Hello Climate

by Thomas O’Dwyer

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty is the only ancient international agreement for which versions of both sides have survived. This hieroglyphic text, found in 1828, is at Karnak Museum, Egypt.
The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty is the only ancient international agreement for which versions of both sides have survived. This hieroglyphic text, found in 1828, is at Karnak Museum, Egypt.

Complicated international agreements on managing the planet’s many human and natural resources may seem essentially modern, a consequence of the interdependence between nations that has been growing since the 19th century. Such accords are as necessary as sewage pipes that underpin healthy societies and just as boring. However, we possess copies of the first known international agreement signed in human affairs — and it is 3,300 years old. This treaty for peace and economic cooperation ended conflicts between the Egyptian and Hittite empires. Archaeologists found a copy of the treaty from each side, one in Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1828 and the other in Hittite cuneiform text in 1908. The treaty itself, signed by Pharaoh Ramses II and King Hattusilis, became a model of endurance in the fractious Middle East of the 13th century BCE (plus ça change). The formerly warring states remained friends and allies for nearly 100 years until Assyria invaded and destroyed the Hittite kingdom.

And now we move from possibly the first international agreement in human history to maybe the last — if it doesn’t work, and fast. In November, Scotland will host the most prominent international conference ever seen in Britain, a memorable event with an eminently forgettable title, the 26th Conference of the Parties — COP26. (The United Nations is well known for the tedium of its terminology). A conference of the parties is the supreme governing body of any international convention and includes representatives of all the states involved plus any observers. In UN-speak, a COP aims “to review the implementation of the convention and any other legal instruments that the COP adopts.” The COP descending on Glasgow in six months has the task of saving humanity, no less, for it has to advance the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Most will have been unaware that this conference of the parties has met (almost) every year since the first in 1995 in Berlin. The “parties” are 197 states and territories that signed on to the Climate Change Convention. And what, you may well ask, have these vast gatherings of blathering heads achieved since 1995? The answer, in good British slang, would be “Bugger all!” Read more »

America’s Stolen Sisters

by Mark Harvey

Three years ago while filling my truck with gas in western New Mexico on a cold fall evening, a young woman, barefoot and wearing nothing but a sundress, came up to me and asked if she could get a ride into the town of Gallup. Her bare feet and summer clothing in the biting air made me suspicious so I asked her a few questions. She told me she was traveling home to Taos after spending some time in the Pacific Northwest and that she had no money and had been hitchhiking for days. She was a little disheveled, startlingly beautiful, and her story didn’t make much sense. But she looked cold so I agreed to take her to Gallup, thinking I might be of some small help.

We got in my truck and started down the highway when she said, “Do you mind if we go back and get my boots?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“My boots, I left them on the road a little before the gas station.”

So we turned around and drove back a few hundred yards and sure enough, there was a pair of pink cowboy boots neatly placed on the side of the road. At that point—as if the signs weren’t strong enough already–I realized the woman might be suffering some psychological trauma and that her thinking was foggy. I asked her if she had some family to call in Taos, but she said she couldn’t get in touch with them.

I had just been shopping for groceries and the woman asked if she could have something to eat.  I told her to eat anything she wanted from the bag. She devoured a bag of almonds and a couple of apples as if she hadn’t eaten for days. As we approached Gallup, I asked her again if there was someone she could call for help. She said there was no one and that she would be fine. Read more »

Dubravka Ugrešić’s FOX

by Andrea Scrima

“If the spirit of the fox enters a person, then that person’s tribe is accursed.”


In his 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which postulates two quintessential moral dispositions at the heart of history’s main opposing ideologies, Isaiah Berlin divides the world’s influential writers into two categories of thought. Elaborating on Berlin’s dichotomy in her latest book Fox, which came out the spring of 2018 in English translation, Dubravka Ugrešić distinguishes between “those who write, engage, and think with recourse to a single idea (hedgehogs), and those who merge manifold heterogeneous experiences and ideas (foxes).” Clearly, the fox sounds more enticing; Berlin equates the hedgehog with authoritarianism and totalitarianism, while the fox is deemed liberal and tolerant. The only problem is the questionable reputation it’s earned among the world’s oldest mythologies, fairytales, and legends: whatever it might have going for it in the way of “pluralistic moral values,” the fox has long been accused of “cunning, betrayal, wile, sycophancy, deceit, mendacity, hypocrisy, duplicity, selfishness, sneakiness, arrogance, avarice, corruption, carnality, vindictiveness, and reclusiveness.” That’s quite an indictment—and all the more reason for Ugrešić to select the wily animal as patron saint of her new book.

Fox is subtle, virtuosic, and jarring; it’s also mordantly funny. In light-footed, deceptively playful detours and digressions, the book skips from Stalinist Russia to an American road trip with the Nabokovs, academic conferences and literary festivals to the largely untold story of the Far-East diaspora of persecuted Russian intellectuals on the eve of World War II. Fox is a novel, but its formal structure poses a challenge; some chapters read as essays, some as autonomous short stories, and while many recurrent threads reveal themselves upon closer inspection and reflection, it requires attention to unravel the author’s narrative strategy. Read more »

Is Tesla the Future of the Auto Industry?

by Fabio Tollon

Tesla Model S

Elon Musk. Either you love him or you love to hate him. He is glorified by some as a demi-god who will lead humanity to the stars (because if it’s one thing we need is more planets to plunder) and vilified by others as a Silicon Valley hack who is as hypocritical as he is wealthy (very). When one is confronted by such contradictory and binary views the natural intuition is to take a step back and assess the available evidence. Usually this leads to a more nuanced understanding of the subject matter, often resulting in a less binary, and somewhat more coherent narrative. Usually.

The idea to write something about Musk was the result of the reality bending adventure that was Edward Niedermeyer’s Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors.

Let us take a look at the basics. Musk is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made a fortune by helping to found PayPal. Using the capital gained from this venture, he invested $30 million into Tesla Motors, and became chairmen of its board of directors in 2004. He also eventually ousted the founders of the company Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. He is currently CEO of Tesla, Inc. (the name was officially changed from Tesla Motors to Tesla in 2017) and is in regular competition with human rights champion Jeff Bezos for the glamorous title of “world’s most successful hoarder of capital”. I don’t want to spend too much time on the psychology of Elon Musk, as Nathan Robinson has already done a fine job in this regard. Rather, I want to focus on how Tesla is not the market disrupting company many think it is.  Here I will be concerned with the mismatch between Silicon Valley’s software driven innovation versus the kind of innovation that exists in the auto industry. Read more »