A Physicist Who Models ISIS and the Alt-Right


Natalie Wolchover in Quanta:

What’s a physicist doing studying terrorist networks, financial markets and all these other systems?

In all these complex systems, the pieces of the system interact with each other and they evolve over time. And there’s something that a collection of objects like that can do which a handful of coins cannot do. I can throw up a set of coins and it would always come down pretty much 50-50 heads and tails, and there will be a little bit of variance around that — it obeys something called a bell curve. We base so much science on the bell curve. Bell-curve distributions arise when you deal with coins, or any collection where the pieces aren’t connected, like heights of people in a room. However, in most of the systems we’re interested in — the hard problems, be they of science or society — those distributions look very different than bell curves; they’re so-called fat-tail distributions.

Thinking about heights, instead of everybody being 5 feet 10 inches, on average, and maybe down to 4 feet and up to 7 feet, but certainly not 70 feet, with the distributions you get in these complex systems, you can get the 70-foot person. In fact, you can get the 700-foot person. There’s something about the way the pieces interact with each other that makes these extreme events happen: the 700-foot person, the stock market crash, the 9/11. So the interesting question is, is there a general science that can govern and tell us about these extreme behaviors? And if we can understand that for one system, can we transfer that understanding over to another one and therefore do something about it?

More here.

Remembering Red Vienna


Veronica Duma and Hanna Lichtenberger in Jacobin:

The combination of social forces in Vienna at the end of and just after World War I created the necessary conditions for the project. Strong labor, feminist, and council movements emerged from the widespread hunger, unemployment, and homelessness that characterized the war years. These culminated in a wave of demonstrations and strikes toward the war’s end. Throughout Vienna, workers and residents organized councils modeled on the Russian Revolution and the Council Republics in Germany and Hungary.

After the Austro-Hungarian monarchy collapsed, space for social transformation opened. In November 1918, the newly formed Austrian republic extended the vote to both women and men. This allowed the Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) to win the most votes in the first elections. The coalition government, consisting of the Social Democrats and the Christian Social Party (CS), which governed until 1920, introduced a series of progressive reforms that immediately improved workers’ living conditions, such as the eight-hour day, paid vacation, the Works Council Act, the establishment of the Chamber of Labor, and rent-control legislation.

The nature of the SDAPÖ — which rested on the organizational integration of various radical and revolutionary currents — facilitated these programs. While some sections of the party negotiated with the opposition, they were able to use the pressure imposed by social movements to win additional concessions. This history helps explain why the party still emphasizes unity. Unlike in Germany, Austria’s SDAPÖ witnessed few major splits, and the Communist Party never — except during periods of illegality under the Austrofascists and the Nazis — established itself as a serious rival.

More here.

How Snobbery Helped Take The Spice Out Of European Cooking


Maanvi Singh in NPR:

In medieval Europe, those who could afford to do so would generously season their stews with saffron, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Sugar was ubiquitous in savory dishes. And haute European cuisine, until the mid-1600s, was defined by its use of complex, contrasting flavors.

"The real question, then, is why the wealthy, powerful West — with unprecedented access to spices from its colonies — became so fixated on this singular understanding of flavor," Srinivas says.

The answer, it turns out, has just as much to do with economics, politics and religion as it does taste.

Back in the Middle Ages, spices were really expensive, which meant that only the upper class could afford them. But things started to change as Europeans began colonizing parts of India and the Americas.

"Spices begin to pour into Europe," explains Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. "What used to be expensive and exclusive became common."

Serving richly spiced stews was no longer a status symbol for Europe's wealthiest families — even the middle classes could afford to spice up their grub. "So the elite recoiled from the increasing popularity of spices," Ray says. "They moved on to an aesthetic theory of taste. Rather than infusing food with spice, they said things should taste like themselves. Meat should taste like meat, and anything you add only serves to intensify the existing flavors."

More here.

the abiding charm of horace walpole

218f949e-8cce-11e7-a5d5-0066a735a5c34Margaret Drabble at the TLS:

The forty-eight large volumes of the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s correspondence march along three open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Room of the British Library. They occupy a lot of space. Their indexes and footnotes are formidable. This monumental undertaking by W. S. Lewis, the great, wealthy and obsessed scholar and collector, was launched in 1937 and brought to completion after his death in 1979. Volume One contains correspondence between the Revd William Cole, an antiquarian, and Walpole. (The opening salvo from Cole is engagingly and somewhat informally described by Lewis as “incredibly dull”). Lewis justifies his decision to publish not chronologically, but by correspondent, by arguing that the vast collection of some thousands of letters fell naturally into divisions by subject matter, as Walpole “selected his correspondents with a subject more or less in mind”. So each individual correspondence, according to Lewis, tended to have its own theme – the social, the literary, the Gothic, the antiquarian, the political, the historical. When a correspondent died or “cooled off”, he or she would be replaced by another with similar interests, so a kind of coherence continued. On this principle Lewis gives us separate volumes dedicated to letters to and from such figures as the Florence-based diplomat Sir Horace Mann (eleven whole volumes to himself, in Lewis’s phrase a “great Andean range”), the Parisian hostess Madame du Deffand (six volumes, in French), the Countess of Upper Ossory (three volumes), while others, less attentive, less long-lived or less prolific (including the poet Thomas Gray and the writer-philanthropist Hannah More), are obliged to rub shoulders and share space.

more here.

The Temporal Fried

51pQo-Y4-VL._SX380_BO1 204 203 200_Marnin Young at nonsite:

In early 1995, Michael Fried delivered the Una’s Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley. The Alumni Hall was packed for “Some Thoughts on Caravaggio” and “Caillebotte’s Impressionism,” and the spillover audience carried into the panel discussion with T. J. Clark and Richard Wollheim some days later on March 15. For many of us at the time, the appeal of Fried’s writing and lectures was primarily, as Clark put it, his “remarkable descriptions.”1 And remarkable they were. No one, I think, could ever look at Caravaggio or Gustave Caillebotte the same way after encountering his close reading of them (to say nothing of Chardin, Courbet, Eakins, Manet, or Menzel). But equally, there was a sense of engaged curiosity about Fried’s status as a by-then legendary art critic. Or at least, the possible link between the art historian and the art critic prompted what, for me, has remained the most interesting question posed at the panel discussion. How, Anne Wagner asked from the audience, might we understand the relation between these new accounts of Caravaggio and Caillebotte on the one hand and on the other hand the analysis of Minimalism in “Art and Objecthood”?

In part, Wagner’s question flowed from her work on the introduction to the 1995 edition of Gregory Battcock’s Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology.2 Taking its title from an essay by Wollheim, the book had long offered the most widely available, unexpurgated reprinting of “Art and Objecthood” since its original publication in the June 1967 issue of Artforum.3 The succinct editorial summary of the argument probably did as much as anything to determine the contours of its later reception.

more here.

The Ontology of Circus Peanuts

Peanuts_circJane Stern at The Paris Review:

There is one tangential remnant of the circus that thrills me to the bone, and that is the low-grade confectionary candy called Circus Peanuts. Circus Peanuts, as far as I can tell, have literally nothing to do with circuses, or even with peanuts. They are usually found on the bottom candy shelf at gas-station convenience marts or at some chain drug stores.

A Circus Peanut is a about two inches long, it is the anemic orange color of the astronauts’ favorite drink, Tang, and it has been machine stamped to vaguely resemble a shelled peanut. The most amazing thing about Circus Peanuts is they are always stale. Not rock-hard but weirdly deflated and tough. It is hard to make a marshmallow go stale. In my kitchen pantry, I have a bag of them that has seen me through four years of holiday yam casseroles, and they are still squishy and fresh. Therefore one can’t blame the problem with Circus Peanuts on the general pillowy constitution of the marshmallow. Maybe even more mysterious then the ubiquitous staleness is that, for no logical reason, Circus Peanuts are banana flavored. Real peanuts are none of these things.

I have a few theories.

more here.

Phones and drones transforming healthcare

Fran Blandy in Phys.Org:

AneyespecialIn the developing world, basic healthcare is often a challenge—let alone expensive medical screening or tests for easily treatable, preventable illnesses. TEDGlobal, an annual conference devoted to "ideas worth spreading" taking place in Tanzania this week, heard of new technologies that could revolutionise healthcare for the poor. Infectious diseases are fast being overtaken by afflictions such as cancer as the biggest health problem in Africa, where some countries have only one pathologist per one million people.

Sierra Leonean roboticist David Sengeh believes training more specialists is not enough, and is working with his team at IBM Africa on artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can predict a cancer's progression. AI software can be trained with a database of images to detect colour changes inside the cervix that point to patients at high risk for cervical cancer, which can be treated if caught in time, but which kills 60,000 women in Africa a year. Addressing a similar problem, Pratik Shah of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a system to use simple cellphone or camera pictures—instead of expensive MRI or CT scans—to identify biomarkers that point to oral cancer. He told AFP that while AI systems typically need tens of thousands of data points to function, he has found a way to use only 50 images to train algorithms to identify a specific disease. "We believe our approach could be used to massively reduce the amount of data an AI algorithm currently consumes, and empower physicians to diagnose patients using simple images," he said. In the developing world, basic healthcare is often a challenge—let alone expensive medical screening or tests for easily treatable, preventable illnesses.

More here.

Putting Art on Wheels and Taking It Back to the Streets

Raphael Minder in The New York Times:

TruckMADRID — Jaime Colsa owns a transport company that delivers ordinary consumer goods — computers, food, drinks. The contents of his trucks aren’t eye-catching, but his vehicles certainly are, adorned with paintings showing cartoonlike faces, dogs, brightly colored geometric patterns, spirals and landscapes. These trucks that crisscross Spain have been painted by artists as part of the Truck Art Project. Financed by Mr. Colsa, the project aims in part to bring street art back to its roots. “Thanks to people like Banksy, this kind of art has made its way into the gallery,” Mr. Colsa, 45, said here recently. “But I thought it would be interesting and challenging to do the opposite — to get artists out of the gallery or the museum and actually back on the street.”

Banksy is not among the participants, but many of Mr. Colsa’s truck painters, most of whom are Spanish, started out as street artists, though by now they have also exhibited in major galleries and museums. Abraham Lacalle, whose work has been shown at the Reina Sofía Museum here, painted what he called a truck’s “explosion,” inspired by thoughts of what could happen to the merchandise transported inside. Two years after completing his painting, Mr. Lacalle said in a phone interview that it was strange to see how trucks and vans had more recently also become associated with terrorism, after attacks in Nice, Berlin, London and, earlier this month, Barcelona. “I painted with some sense of humor, imagining what could happen to the content of a truck in movement,” he said. “Nobody was then thinking about trucks as a tool of terrorism, so a work that was meant to be fun could now unintentionally appear pretty provocative.”

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Song of the Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,

Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

by W.B. Yeats
from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)


Peter Singer: Is Violence the Way to Fight Racism?

Peter Singer in Project Syndicate:

Peter_singer1Let’s grant that the antifa activists are right about the irrationality of hard-core racist fanatics. It remains true that in the United States, and other countries where elections are the path to power, the far right can achieve its goals only by winning over middle-of-the-road voters. Even if many of these voters are also not completely rational – few people are – they are not likely to be won over to the anti-racist cause by seeing footage of anti-racists hitting racists with clubs or throwing urine-filled water bottles.

Such images convey, more than anything else, the idea that anti-racists are hooligans looking for a fight. Dignified nonviolent resistance and disciplined civil disobedience are more conducive to demonstrating a sincere ethical commitment to a better, non-racist society than clubbing people and hurling piss at them.

Violent resistance is particularly dangerous in the US because some states allow anyone to carry a firearm. In Charlottesville, a large number of white supremacists paraded through the streets dressed in camouflage and carrying semi-automatic assault rifles. If the antifa activists are going to match the racists in violence, will it be possible to hold the line at clubs? How long will it be before the deadly weapons now openly on display are also used?

More here.

Quantum Physics Isn’t Magic, But Thermodynamics Seems That Way

Chad Orzel in Forbes:

Blue_boil-1200x800As someone who has written a book about quantum physics and is at work on another, I get asked a fair number of questions about quantum phenomena. These are often portrayed as a kind of magic, but if you spend enough time thinking about the subject, it's very clearly not magic. Quantum phenomena are weird, certainly, because they confound everyday intuition, but they follow very naturally from the application of fairly simple rules. Knowing more about it doesn't make the subject any less amazing, but the weirdness recedes a bit.

The physics of thermodynamics, on the other hand, follows the opposite trajectory, at least initially. That is, when I find myself thinking more about what's going on in a process like boiling, knowing a little bit about the underlying physics makes it seem more magical. Even more so because there's minimal quantum content, just unimaginably vast numbers of particles interacting in a mostly classical way.

On a bulk level, boiling is just a manifestation of a phase transition in water: as you heat a container of water, eventually you reach a point where the water switches from liquid to gas.

More here.

Colonialism is alive and well as Puerto Ricans ‘celebrate’ 100 years of US citizenship

Belen Fernandez at Al Jazeera:

ScreenHunter_2806 Aug. 30 17.17This year, the inhabitants of debt-ridden Puerto Rico marked a dubious anniversary: one entire century of United States citizenship.

The island was charitably commandeered by the US in 1898 following the Spanish-American War, but the conferral of citizenship didn't take place until 1917 when, The Economist has noted, the move "conveniently allowed 20,000 [Puerto Ricans] to be drafted into service in the first world war the following year".

In addition to the luxury of being eligible to fight and die in every US war since, Puerto Ricans have enjoyed numerous other perks as Americans do.

In the 1940s and 50s, for example, there was a pretty cool law prescribing 10 years of jail time for anyone who said, sang, or whistledanything that could be construed as being against the US government.

Add to that a lengthy campaign of forced sterilisation of Puerto Rican women, the conversion of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques into a US military base and navy bombing range, and the suffocation of the local economy for the benefit of US corporate financial interests, and you wonder how Puerto Rico could possibly be better off independent.

More here.

Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech


David Cole in the NY Review of Books:

People who oppose the protection of racist speech make several arguments, all ultimately resting on a claim that speech rights conflict with equality, and that equality should prevail in the balance.* They contend that the “marketplace of ideas” assumes a mythical level playing field. If some speakers drown out or silence others, the marketplace cannot function in the interests of all. They argue that the history of mob and state violence targeting African-Americans makes racist speech directed at them especially indefensible. Tolerating such speech reinforces harms that this nation has done to African-Americans from slavery through Jim Crow to today’s de facto segregation, implicit bias, and structural discrimination. And still others argue that while it might have made sense to tolerate Nazis marching in Skokie in 1978, now, when white supremacists have a friend in the president himself, the power and influence they wield justify a different approach.

There is truth in each of these propositions. The United States is a profoundly unequal society. Our nation’s historical mistreatment of African-Americans has been shameful and the scourge of racism persists to this day. Racist speech causes real harm. It can inspire violence and intimidate people from freely exercising their own rights. There is no doubt that Donald Trump’s appeals to white resentment and his reluctance to condemn white supremacists after Charlottesville have emboldened many racists. But at least in the public arena, none of these unfortunate truths supports authorizing the state to suppress speech that advocates ideas antithetical to egalitarian values.

More here.

How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free


Sam Dresser in Aeon:

If the idea of freedom bound Camus and Sartre philosophically, then the fight for justice united them politically. They were committed to confronting and curing injustice, and, in their eyes, no group of people was more unjustly treated than the workers, the proletariat. Camus and Sartre thought of them as shackled to their labour and shorn of their humanity. In order to free them, new political systems must be constructed.

In October 1951, Camus published The Rebel. In it, he gave voice to a roughly drawn ‘philosophy of revolt’. This wasn’t a philosophical system per se, but an amalgamation of philosophical and political ideas: every human is free, but freedom itself is relative; one must embrace limits, moderation, ‘calculated risk’; absolutes are anti-human. Most of all, Camus condemned revolutionary violence. Violence might be used in extreme circumstances (he supported the French war effort, after all) but the use of revolutionary violence to nudge history in the direction you desire is utopian, absolutist, and a betrayal of yourself.

‘Absolute freedom is the right of the strongest to dominate,’ Camus wrote, while ‘absolute justice is achieved by the suppression of all contradiction: therefore it destroys freedom.’ The conflict between justice and freedom required constant re-balancing, political moderation, an acceptance and celebration of that which limits the most: our humanity. ‘To live and let live,’ he said, ‘in order to create what we are.’

More here.

Arthur Schopenhauer: the first European Buddhist


Julian Young in the TLS:

Schopenhauer’s discovery that the underlying “essence” of life is will is not a happy one. For, as the second of the Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” tells us, to will is to suffer. What follows, as the first of the “Truths” tells us, is that life is suffering, from which Schopenhauer concludes that “it would be better for us not to exist”. He offers two main arguments in support of the claim that to will is (mostly) to suffer, the first of which I shall call the “competition argument” and the second the “stress-or-boredom argument”.

The world in which the will – first and foremost the “will to life” – must seek to satisfy itself, the competition argument observes, is a world of struggle, of “war, all against all” in which only the victor survives. On pain of extinction, the hawk must feed on the sparrow and the sparrow on the worm. The will to life in one individual has no option but to destroy the will to life in another. Fifty years before Darwin, Schopenhauer observes that nature’s economy is conserved through overpopulation: it produces enough antelopes to perpetuate the species but also a surplus to feed the lions. It follows that fear, pain and death are not isolated malfunctions of a generally benevolent order, but are inseparable from the means by which the natural ecosystem preserves itself.

It is true that with respect to the human species, civilization has somewhat ameliorated the red-in-tooth-and-claw savagery of nature. Yet, in essence, human society, too, is an arena of competition. If one political party gains power another loses it, if one individual gains wealth another is cast into poverty. As the Romans knew, homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man: “the chief source of the most serious evils affecting man is man”.

More here.

‘Stark Mad Abolitionists’ is a dramatic and gripping account of the battle over slavery fought in Kansas

David Hugh Smith in The Christian Science Monitor:

BookThe words “Bleeding Kansas” trigger memories from high-school history. Those who paid attention in class recall the violence had something to do with the issue of slavery in America. Robert K. Sutton brilliantly brings academic memories to life in Stark Mad Abolitionists. Furthermore, readers of this thoroughly researched and passionately recounted story will come to understand the profoundly significant history of Lawrence, Kan., and care deeply about the drama of its founding. It’s a drama that involves blood, slavery, and people willing to sacrifice everything to oppose it. The story begins in late spring 1854. “Boston was in an uproar,” Mr. Sutton writes, because an escaped slave named Anthony Burns had been captured by his “owner.” Two thousand federal troops escorted Burns to a boat that would take him back to Virginia. Wealthy businessman Amos Adams Lawrence was among those who were angry. He wrote to his uncle that when he awakened one morning, he had become a “stark mad” abolitionist.

Lawrence quickly involved himself in the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, an organization created to encourage and enable people opposed to slavery to move to the territory of Kansas. It was hoped that sufficient antislavery advocates would settle there to vote for it to become a “free state.” Far from being “stark mad,” Lawrence himself was a generous man of quiet temperament. Ironically, he and his family “made their fortunes from buying, selling, and producing textiles, mostly made of cotton” picked by slaves in the South. Sutton tells how Lawrence, as treasurer of the Emigrant Aid Company, paid a large portion of company costs, to the point where his own resources were dangerously depleted. Under his direction, a promising tract of land was found “near where the Wakarusa River entered the Kansas River, about forty miles west of the Missouri line.” On Aug. 1, 1854, the first settlers camped there. In recognition of Lawrence’s enormous contribution, the new town was named “Lawrence.” Early on, “[t]he Emigrant Aid Company clearly had not prepared for the settlers it was encouraging to emigrate to Kansas.” Many quickly returned to home, dismayed by the rigors of a community where homes initially were made from straw.

More here.

Will the Earth Ever Fill Up?

Adam Kucharski in Nautilus:

RobTo say that Thomas Robert Malthus was unpopular would be putting it mildly. His 19th-century contemporary Percy Shelley, the revered poet, called him a eunuch and a tyrant. The philosopher William Godwin dubbed him “a dark and terrible genius that is ever at hand to blast all the hopes of all mankind.” As Malthus’ biographer later put it, he was the most abused man of his age. And that was the age of Napoleon Bonaparte. The catalyst for this vilification was the 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, Malthus—a curly haired, 32-year-old curate of a small English chapel—attacked the claims of utopian thinkers like Godwin, who believed that reason and scientific progress would ultimately create a perfect society, free of inequality and suffering. Malthus took a more pessimistic view. Using United States census data compiled by Benjamin Franklin, he predicted that the “passion of the sexes” would soon cause human populations to outstrip their resources, leading to poverty and hardship. If unchecked, people would continue to multiply exponentially, doubling every 25 years. Agricultural yields, however, would at best increase linearly, by a similar amount each year. In 100 years, Great Britain would have 16 times as many mouths to feed (112 million), but less than half enough food.

That didn’t happen, of course. By 1900, the British population had swelled only fivefold, to 35 million citizens, most of them well fed. But Malthus foresaw the possibility of this slowdown in growth, too. To prevent populations from booming and busting—the infamous “Malthusian catastrophe”—he said that Nature imposed two types of checks. “Preventive” checks reduced the birth rate: When times were hard, and food scarce, men—particularly poor men—would foresee the troubles ahead and delay getting married and starting families. “Positive” checks—famine, disease, murder, war—increased the death rate. Once food production caught up with demand, however, strife would lessen and families would grow. Thus the “grinding law of necessity, misery, and the fear of misery” kept the size of a population oscillating in sync with supply. To his critics’ disgust, Malthus used this theory to argue against England’s Poor Laws, which provided welfare to needy families according to the number of children they had. Why encourage the poor to procreate, he argued, when Nature will turn around and trample them?

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Hay for the Horses

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
—The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds—
“I’m sixty-eight” he said,
“I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that’s just what
I’ve gone and done.”

by Gary Snyder
from Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
North Point Press