The Enlightenment Question

by Holly A. Case


Centrál Kávéház, Budapest, c. 1910

I was sitting with my friend Robi at the Café Central in Budapest when the subject turned to religion and the Enlightenment, namely about the separation of God from moral systems. The topic was a poor choice. We had discussed it before in various forms and quickly came to a stalemate. There was an awkward silence. A young man sat down at the adjoining table and ordered an espresso in English.

Robi and I were speaking Hungarian. "Should we ask our new neighbor the Enlightenment question?" I asked. Robi nodded noncommittally as the neighbor picked up his smartphone. I laid out what could happen: one, the conversation could be short and awkward, two, it could be long and superficial, three, it could be long and not superficial. The likelihood of one or two was very high, I submitted. Robi nodded, unimpressed, and deepened the awkward silence.

"Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask whether you have any views on the Enlightenment?"

"What do you mean?"

"The Enlightenment…18th century, Voltaire, Kant…"

"Yes. What about it?"

"We were discussing the Enlightenment's separation of moral systems from God," I explained. "Pluses and minuses," I added, trying not to poison the well.

"Good or bad, it had to happen," said our neighbor, with an accent now identifiable as Spanish. "It's evolution."

From there we moved to ideas about history, evolution and perpetual struggle versus socialism and the promise of an ultimate end to history, and about the replacement of God with ideology. After getting unfruitfully hung up on Nietzsche for a moment, we agreed that we were living in a post-ideological era.

"Capitalism is the new god," said the man, who by then had a bowl of pasta in front of him. Capitalism wants everything to flow; it abhors barriers, he continued.

We took issue. If capitalism is a god, how come no one is ever willing to sacrifice themselves for capitalism? Lots of people died for gods and ideologies, and both placed heavy demands for self-sacrifice.

"But people sacrifice themselves for capitalism all the time," he rebutted.

"But not explicitly," I protested. "Who ever said ‘Long live capitalism!' on a scaffold or before a firing squad?"

"Perhaps that's because we are implicated it in it. In capitalism, we are both the dictator and the oppressed."

"Like anorexia," I added, the disease of the 1980s that might have told us where we are if we could have read the signs. What is anorexia but an internalization of the two roles: dictator and oppressed? Or at the cellular level cancer…

Read more »

Monday Poem


If it were then
I’d be seated on the step of the well house
gazing at peach tree buds and the tales they told
of waiting, swelling, being
listening with the lake at my back
down and through the steep slope of woods
across the street. I’d see its gleaming surface
spark through voids of oaks and the strangling bittersweet
that climbed and throttled them ….. if I turned

if I turned I’d hear the shouts and splash of swimmers
with muscles like mine, unconsciously prime, no effort just ease,
sounds, raw amplitudes caught in the topology of pink folds
sprung from the sides of my head like wings —

and there’d be birds, of course, that sing,
species unknown to me then, just birds, robins at least
—the first I knew specifically by their russet breasts
pointed out to me by dad, or mom perhaps,
though by this time that certainty’s as gone as the mist
that rose at sunrise from that lake


all except the echoing sense of it:
the ache that clings like the scent of lilac from the bush
that, not far from the well house at the corner of the drive,
stood its ground against the plow which passed again and again
heaving its cold load upon it at the curb
never say die, its blooms later sang in spring unison,
lavender blossoms bundled like choirs
whose songs rose from their bush of pied shadows
performing sweet chemical chansons for my nose

that day then would have been as young as this but less weighted,
less fraught, less freighted, less shadow-cast:
I’d be seated on the well house step inconsiderate of the future
and unperturbed by the past

Jim Culleny

Things related to corn: nixtamalization, planting techniques (the milpa), and journeys in North America

by Hari Balasubramanian

CorncobsThere are techniques of processing food that ancient cultures everywhere seem to have arrived at through an unstructured process of trial and error, and without a formal understanding of chemistry. This is how wheat grains turned into bread loaves, milk to cheese, soybeans to tofu, fruits to alcohol. As the techniques traveled in space and time, there were adaptations to the template, the creation of new variants. Much of what we call ‘cuisine' is precisely this ongoing process of collective experimentation.

This piece is about a millennia-old method of preparing corn which I discovered this year and which led me to other, unexpected links in history. In May I'd purchased a few pounds of corn grains. Not fresh corn on the cob that can be eaten grilled or steamed, but grains of corn that, like grains of wheat or barley or rice, have been kept dry for months after harvest. Naively I thought that cooking them should be easy: either soak them, like one soaks beans, and then, after they've softened a little, boil or pressure cook them. But the outer skin of each corn grain – the hull – was very tough. Even many hours of soaking and then cooking did not produce satisfactory results. While the cooked grains were softer, they still were somewhat difficult to chew. Something was clearly off.

I was missing an important step, a chemical process called nixtamalization. The word nixtamal comes from an indigenous Mexican language, Nahuatl. It refers to the process of cooking dried corn in an alkaline solution. This can be done easily at home. All you need is to boil corn, water and lime (not the citrus lime but the powder calcium hydroxide) together for fifteen minutes, then let it rest. After a few hours, the tough outer skin loosens, peels off easily on rinsing, leaving the kernels. The kernels can then be ground and made into a dough or masa. And it is masa that gives the remarkable aroma and taste to the freshly made tortillas, tacos, and tamales that Mexico and other Central American countries are famous for. If you mill whole corn grains without nixtamalizing them, then not only is the milling process harder because of the tough hull, but the resulting flour may not form into a dough. So much for the new fad of eating whole and unrefined grains!

But there's more to it than convenience and taste. Nixtamalization may have evolved for a specific reason. Niacin, a source of Vitamin B3, which remains trapped and inaccessible if the corn is not nixtamalized, becomes more available if it is. This vital fact, however, remained unknown for a long time. As we'll see, cultures around the world that took up a diet high in corn but without nixtamalization paid a heavy price.

Read more »


by Richard King

4o1JvuurI'll say one thing for the Cheeto Jesus: he's done wonders for the journalistic trade in specious literary comparisons. In the year or so since Donald Trump became the GOP's presidential nominee, I must have read hundreds of articles comparing his rise and behaviour in office to dystopias and alternative histories such as Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. It's almost as if this presidency comes with its own reading list. "Okay guys, that's it for today. Next week we're going to look at Orwell, so please bring your copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four …"

I mean, it's all a bit predictable, this stuff about novels predicting Trump. It's the kind of thing a weekend editor, under orders to go "behind" the headlines, is almost duty-bound to publish. But now we are offered another novel with which to dissect the current regime, and this one seems to have set the minds and hearts of the commentariat racing. I refer of course to Margaret Atwood's dystopia The Handmaid's Tale (1985), which imagines a United States under ruthless puritanical rule, subject to a religious caste system, and officially misogynistic, homophobic and cruel. Yes, apparently Donald Trump – Trump the bumptious billionaire; Trump the carrot-coloured conman; Trump the very essence of late capitalist trash – is now to be seriously and solemnly compared to a council of puritanical commanders who enforce gender conformity through the barrel of a gun and punish deviations from it through the bowline of a rope. Seriously? Apparently.

As I probably don't need to tell 3QD readers, the occasion for this outbreak of It Can Happen Here-ism is the recent adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale for the subscription video-on-demand service Hulu. Starring the excellent Elisabeth Moss, whose stints as a Democratic president's daughter and a young, determined secretary in the world of 1960s advertising have forever endeared her to progressive viewers, this adaptation has proven hugely popular with critics and TV audiences alike, gaining scores of 100% and 93% (from critics and audience, respectively) on the review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. It has thirteen Emmy nominations, and has sent sales of Atwood's novel through the roof. It's even popped up in a speech by Hillary Clinton, who now has lots of time to watch TV.

Read more »

What if technology keeps killing more jobs than it creates?

by Emrys Westacott

Images (1)The industrial revolution transformed the world entirely. Its most profound legacy, though, is not anything specific like electricity, motorized transport, or the computer, but the state of permanent technological revolution in which we now live, move, and have our being. There are some, it is true, like economist Robert Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, who argue that we should not expect future innovations to match what we have experienced in the past. But like the fabled salt machine at the bottom of sea, the tech industries continue to churn out innovations–smart phones, driverless cars, Wikipedia, delivery drones, solar panels, camera-based surgery–that quickly and significantly affect the lives and expectations of us all.

For more than two centuries, this ongoing technological revolution has consistently done two things.

  • It has eliminated jobs by replacing humans with machines
  • It has created new jobs

Agriculture offers a paradigmatic example of the first trend. In 1830, 83% of the workforce in the US was employed in agriculture. By 2014, the percentage working in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting was down to 1.4%. Most of this reduction is due to the introduction of machines that in a few hours could plough, sow, gather, winnow, stack or store what used to take teams of workers days to accomplish.

From the start, the displacement of people by machines has caused problems. The original Luddites were English textile workers in the early nineteenth century who sought to protect their jobs by smashing the new weaving machines introduced by factory owners looking to save labour costs. Since then the same pattern of technology replacing or displacing workers has been repeated countless times. When the sort of work involved is boring, repetitive, and requires little skill or training, the loss is less likely to be lamented. But very often workers who identify with a specific trade, and pride themselves on skills acquired over many years, find themselves the victims of innovation. And this can happen very quickly.

Read more »

‘Ants Among Elephants’ offers a window into the complexities of India

James Norton in The Christian Science Monitor:

AntIt should go without saying that India is a complicated place, a churning cauldron of languages, ethnicities, castes, and religions bubbling atop and throughout one another in a perplexing mass that we call, for the sake of convenience, a "nation." But to many Western readers, the story of India begins and ends with Gandhi's campaign against the British, followed (for those who were paying attention) by the bloody events of Partition in 1947.

The gift given to us by the new memoir/history book Ants Among Elephants is the opportunity to see post-independence India through the eyes of its untouchables, Christian converts, and the Maoist rebels known as Naxalites. It's difficult to fully conceive of the privilege and power of the caste system from a foreigner's perspective; from the viewpoint of people so low on the system that they stand outside of its levels, it's a mesmerizing horror to behold, and author Sujatha Gidla spares no detail. The book revolves around two poles: Gidla's mother, Manjula, who struggles to raise children amid conditions of utmost poverty and political chaos, and her uncle, Satyam, who dedicates his life to class struggle on behalf of the untouchables and common laborers of Andhra Pradesh, a coastal state in southeastern India.

More here.

When Beethoven Met Goethe

Sudip Bose in American Scholar:

Incident_Teplitz_1812-600x326When Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz in July 1812, he was ill, heartbroken, anxious about his finances, and growing deafer by the day—the dismal weather that greeted him, cold and sopping wet, could not have lifted his spirits all that much. He had been to Teplitz before, indeed, the previous summer, when his doctor had similarly ordered him to take a restorative cure. The town was renowned not only for its hot springs but also for its sylvan setting, the deep forests and pristine lake offering the sick and weary the promise of recuperation. Royals and other noble types frequented the spa, and during the summer of 1812, that glittering crowd would have been abuzz with news of Napoleon’s recently commenced invasion of Russia. Beethoven, the consummate anti-aristocrat, had no wish to hobnob with such a crowd. Yet there was one illustrious man, a regular at Teplitz, whom the composer was desperate to meet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Beethoven revered Goethe, having composed incidental music to the 1788 drama Egmont as well as several songs set to Goethe’s verse. The two artists had already made initial contact in the spring of 1812, Beethoven writing to Goethe a letter brimming with effusive praise and Goethe responding in warm, encouraging terms. As Jan Swafford notes in his recent biography of Beethoven, the period of the early 1800s was the Goethezeit, the age of Goethe, and following the death of Immanuel Kant, Goethe and Beethoven stood alone as the two colossi of German culture. That they should not only meet, but perhaps become friends, even collaborate on an opera, as Beethoven desired, seemed inevitable. And yet, it was not to be.

They did meet in Teplitz. For most of one week, they took walks together, talking constantly. Beethoven played the piano for the writer and brought up the idea of an opera libretto. Goethe seemed amenable, but once the two men returned home—Beethoven to Vienna, Goethe to Weimar, where he was an official of the court—nothing came of these tentative plans. More than likely, the artists never met again.

More here.

100 best nonfiction books: No 77 – The Life of Samuel Johnson LLD by James Boswell (1791)

Robert McCrum in The Guardian:

BoswellLike some of the greatest titles in this list, James Boswell’s life of Dr Johnson, the most famous biography in the English language, had a protracted, tortuous and tortured gestation. Boswell first advised his friend and mentor of his intention to write his life in 1772, when Johnson was 62, and the would-be biographer 31. He had, however, been making notes and gathering materials for his “presumptuous task” since their first encounter in 1763. After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell settled down to organise a “prodigious multiplicity of materials”, a labour that, he admitted after five years of struggle, was costing him acute labour, perplexity and vexation. Moreover, he was being overtaken by rival lives (A potboiling “biographical sketch” by Thomas Tyers had appeared in 1784; Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson in 1786; then A Life of Samuel Johnson by his friend and executor, Sir John Hawkins, came out in 1787). Worse, he was becoming a figure of pity and contempt in Grub Street, the self-appointed biographer who had both missed the bus and simultaneously failed his own life’s mission.

However, when it was published in 1791, Boswell’s Life was soon recognised as a masterpiece, a fitting monument to a great English writer and an extraordinary work of art in its own right. Naturally, there was the usual sniping. During the course of a life in Grub Street, Boswell had acquired many enemies. The main objections to his work fall under three heads: first, as the work of an acolyte, it’s plainly not a conventional biography; second, even by that standard, it fails – Boswell only knew Johnson in the latter half of his life and sometimes took outrageous liberties with his material; third, as an exercise in “life-writing”, it falls short, being scarcely more than a loosely linked string of scenes from a life. To which the obvious riposte is: open the book, forget about the narrow academic critique and read one of the most original works of English prose, as much a mirror to its author as to it subject.

More here.

Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

David Sexton in the Evening Standard:

PortofhydraThere’s been quite a spate of novels recently about people becoming severely unstuck abroad — holiday noir, a trend-spotting article called it last week.

If that’s a genre, its master is Lawrence Osborne. In the past few years, he has published fine novels about Westerners losing their bearings in Morocco, Macau and Cambodia (the excellent Hunters in the Dark). Beautiful Animals is another such tale of moral disorientation, his best version of it yet.

It’s set on the small Greek island of Hydra, once a boho hangout where in the Sixties Leonard Cohen bought a house for $1,500 but now a favoured retreat for the super-rich and the art world. Osborne wrote a sly, observant travel-piece about Hydra and its yacht-owning billionaires for the

New York Times in 2014 — and in this novel he brings together the privileged holidaying Westerners and a stranded would-be migrant.

More here.

In Game Theory, No Clear Path to Equilibrium


Erica Klarreich in Quartz:

When players are at equilibrium, no one has a reason to stray. But how do players get to equilibrium in the first place? In contrast with, say, a ball rolling downhill and coming to rest in a valley, there is no obvious force guiding game players toward a Nash equilibrium.

“It has always been a thorn in the side of microeconomists,” said Tim Roughgarden, a theoretical computer scientist at Stanford University. “They use these equilibrium concepts, and they’re analyzing them as if people will be at equilibrium, but there isn’t always a satisfying explanation of why people will be at Nash equilibrium as opposed to just groping around for one.”

If people play a game only once, it is often unreasonable to expect them to find an equilibrium. This is especially the case if — as is typical in the real world — each player knows only how much she herself values the game’s different outcomes, and not how much her fellow players do. But if people can play repeatedly, perhaps they could learn from the early rounds and rapidly steer themselves toward an equilibrium. Yet attempts to find such efficient learning methods have always come up dry.

“Economists have proposed mechanisms for how you can converge [quickly] to equilibrium,” said Aviad Rubinstein, who is finishing a doctorate in theoretical computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. But for each such mechanism, he said, “there are simple games you can construct where it doesn’t work.”

Now, Rubinstein and Yakov Babichenko, a mathematician at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, have explained why. In a paper posted online last September, they proved that no method of adapting strategies in response to previous games — no matter how commonsensical, creative or clever — will converge efficiently to even an approximate Nash equilibrium for every possible game.

More here.

Liberals often blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs. That’s not quite right.


German Lopez in Vox:

Much of the attention to mass incarceration, including from reform efforts, has gone to low-level offenses, especially for drug and property crimes. In large part, this is likely a result of the media focusing too much on the federal prison system instead of the state prison systems: While about half of federal prisoners are in for drug crimes, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are — and more than half of state prisoners are in for violent crimes.

This is notable because the great majority — 87 percent — of prisoners in the US are housed at the state level, not the federal level. So to greatly reduce incarceration, the country will need to focus on the state level. And to do a lot at the state level, the US will need to reduce the incarceration of violent offenders.

This obviously gets a lot trickier, politically, than addressing low-level drug offenses. A pollconducted by Morning Consult for Vox last year, for example, found that nearly eight in 10 US voters support reducing prison sentences for people who committed a nonviolent crime and have a low risk of reoffending. But fewer than three in 10 backed shorter prison sentences for people who committed a violent crime and have a low risk of reoffending.

“It’s one of the spaces where the policy and public safety arguments are going to have the least impact,” Pfaff acknowledged, “because many will view it as the right thing to do to lock them up forever.”

But there are ways to cut prison sentences for violent offenders without leading to more crime.

For one, incarceration is simply not a good way to combat crime. A 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration — and its abilities to incapacitate or deter criminals — explained about 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s. Other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s. And a 2014 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that states that reduced their imprisonment rates also saw some of the biggest drops in crime, suggesting that there isn’t a hard link between incarceration and crime.

More here.

Became, Become, Becoming

Download (1)

David Adger on Arrival in Inference:

IN THE ORIGINAL short story, ideas from physics and mathematics are crucial to the plot. Among them is Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that light traveling between two points traverses the shortest possible path. The refraction of light can be understood in terms of this principle. Upon coming into contact with water, a beam of light changes direction because the index of refraction of water is different from that of air. Because light travels more slowly through water than air, the amount of time light spends travelling through water is minimized. The overall length of the path is also minimized. Understanding the behavior of a beam of light at the interface between air and water seems to require knowledge of both its starting and end points—a notion that is counterintuitive.

Fermat’s principle describes behavior in the physical world in terms of how the system works globally. The difference between the immediate agent of change and some final result that the system aims to achieve has been the subject of study for centuries, going back as far as the time of Aristotle and the distinction he made between effective (efficient) cause and final cause. In 1744, Leonhard Euler wrote that “there is absolutely no doubt that every effect in the universe can be explained as satisfactorily from final causes … as it can from the effective causes.”

In the original short story, not just light, but the whole universe is depicted as being susceptible to explanation from two distinct standpoints. Human language and physics are shaped by an inclination to see the world in terms of cause and effect. It is for this reason that Fermat’s principle seems unintuitive. The aliens in Arrival understand the universe as involving final, not efficient, causes. Humans think of refraction as being caused by the differing densities of air and water—in effect, a succession of causal chains. The aliens would see it as a point of equilibrium of the system, and the system as an atemporal whole.

Chiang’s short story interweaves ideas from both linguistics and physics, but the latter are largely absent from the film. Fermat’s principle featured in early versions of the script, but did not make the final cut. This is a shame because the notion that the world can be perceived and understood from two distinct perspectives, local and causal versus global and atemporal, helps to explain the effects that learning the alien language has on Banks. In the original story, the physics and linguistics reinforce one another. In the film, more has to be taken on trust.

More here.

The Galilean Challenge


Noam Chomsky in Inference:

In the Discourse on Method, Part V, Descartes argued that the creative use of language marked the distinction between human beings and other animals, and between human beings and machines. A machine may be impelled to act in a certain way, but it cannot be inclined; with human beings, it is often the reverse.5 Explaining why this is so, is the Galilean challenge.

In the modern era, the challenge, although occasionally expressed, was also widely ignored. Wilhelm von Humboldt is an especially suggestive case to the contrary:

The processes of language must provide for the possibility of producing an undefinable set of phenomena, defined by the conditions imposed upon it by thought. … It must, therefore, make infinite use of finite means… [emphasis added]

The capacity for language is species specific, something shared by humans and unique to them. It is the most striking feature of this curious organism, and a foundation for its remarkable achievements. This is in its full generality the Galilean challenge. The challenge is very real, and should, I think, be recognized as one of the deepest questions in the rich two-thousand-five-hundred-year history of linguistic thought.

Until the twentieth century, there was never much to say about the Galilean challenge beyond a few phrases. There is a good reason why inquiry languished. Intellectual tools were not available for formulating the problem in a way clear enough to be seriously addressed. That changed thanks to the work of Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, Emil Post, and Alan Turing, who established the general theory of computability. Their work demonstrated how a finite object like the brain could generate an infinite variety of expressions. It became possible, for the first time, to address part of the Galilean challenge directly, even though the earlier history remained unknown.

With these intellectual tools available, it becomes possible to formulate what we may call the Basic Property of human language. The language faculty of the human brain provides the means to construct a digitally infinite array of structured expressions; each is semantically interpreted as expressing a thought, and each can be externalized by some sensory modality, such as speech.

More here.

Trump won on “white fright”: Why identity politics win elections


David Masciotra in Salon:

Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington, not only predicted the nomination and presidential victory of Donald Trump. He also accurately forecasted the flatulent rise of the white reactionary constituency when the Tea Party was in its embryonic stage.

Parker and his research partner Matt Barreto wrote “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America,” which won the American Political Science Association’s award for the best book in race, ethnicity and politics, and are currently working on a book examining how “white fright” led to the Trump victory. Racial resentment and terror at the prospect of social change is what animated the Tea Party and now energizes Trump supporters, according to their research, not perceptions of economic interest.

The meticulous research and masterful argumentation of Parker and Barreto is difficult to dispute, especially considering that they have correctly predicted the outcome of American politics for several years. Yet, they are largely invisible, far from mainstays on television and radio and anything but viral. The mediocre punditry, while scrambling to dissect and decipher Trump’s ascension, has ignored the two men who consistently called it.

Parker suspects that the reason for his own obscurity bears hideous resemblance to the impetus for the rightward shift in American politics. It is the purloined letter left out in the open that no one wants to see, much less read. It is racism.

More here. The intro to Parker and Barreto's book can be found here.

Apocalypse: The Original Rapture Novels

800px-Apocalypse_vasnetsovSusan Gray Blue at The Millions:

Kirban set the trend of framing the rapture in fiction, and his sensationalist bent got more Christians to hear the apocalyptic clock ticking. In the mid-’90s, this view of the apocalypse would be further popularized by the Left Behind novels. When many of the evangelicals who now follow Donald Trump look to the end of the world, what they’re picturing isn’t far from Kirban’s version. (Well, except maybe for the guillotines on church lawns.)

Salem Kirban himself remains something of a mysterious figure. In one photo of him from the ’70s, he’s posed at the front of a church he visited, wearing a red bow tie and a dark-blue suit, one hand resting on a Bible. He was born in 1925 and lived most of his life in Pennsylvania, graduating from Temple University. During WWII, he served in the Navy. Somewhere along the way, he developed an interest in two topics that he would eventually write dozens of books about: the apocalypse (How the World Will End: Guide to Survival; What in the World Will Happen Next?) and fresh juice (How Juices Restore Health Naturally; Fat Is Not Forever). In that photo of him at the church, he has bushy eyebrows and thick dark hair that’s brushed away from his face. For a man who wrote about sinister conspiracies, he looks surprisingly friendly. Kind of like a guy you might want to grab a juice with.

more here.