The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society


John Bellamy Foster in Monthly Review:

The narrative found today in every neoclassical economics textbook portrays work in purely negative terms, as a disutility or sacrifice. Sociologists and economists often present this as a transhistorical phenomenon, extending from the classical Greeks to the present. Thus Italian cultural theorist Adriano Tilgher famously declared in 1929: “To the Greeks work was a curse and nothing else,” supporting his claim with quotations from Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, and other figures, together representing the aristocratic perspective in antiquity.

With the rise of capitalism, work was seen as a necessary evil requiring coercion. Thus in 1776, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations defined labor as a sacrifice, which required the expenditure of “toil and trouble…of our own body.” The worker must “always lay down…his ease, his liberty, and his happiness.” A few years earlier, in 1770, an anonymous treatise entitled an Essay on Trade and Commerce appeared, written by a figure (later thought to be J. Cunningham) whom Marx described as “the most fanatical representative of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie.” It advanced the proposition that to break the spirit of independence and idleness of English laborers, ideal “work-houses” should be established imprisoning the poor, turning these into “houses of terror, where they should work fourteen hours a day in such fashion that when meal time was deducted there should remain twelve hours of work full and complete.” Similar views were promoted in subsequent decades by Thomas Robert Malthus, leading to the New Poor Law of 1834.

Neoclassical economic ideology today treats the question of work as a trade-off between leisure and labor, downplaying its own more general designation of work as a disutility in order to present it as a personal financial choice, and not the result of coercion. Yet it remains true, as German economist Steffen Rätzel observed in 2009, that at bottom “work,” in neoclassical theory, “is seen as a bad necessary to create income for consumption” (italics added).

This conception of work, which derives much of its power from the alienation that characterizes capitalist society, has of course been challenged again and again by radical thinkers. Such outlooks are neither universal nor eternal, nor is work to be regarded simply as a disutility—though the conditions of contemporary society tend to make it one, and thus necessitate coercion.

More here.

Footnote Number 6: Art and Objectness

Download (4)Joseph Marioni at nonsite:

In 1951, Wallace Stevens gave a talk at the Museum of Modern Art titled “The Relations Between Poetry and Painting.” In it, he did not offer a universal Pythagorean theorem of the transcendent divinity in a numerical correspondence between poetry and painting, nor did he give an abstract analysis of the structural identity of the two art forms. Rather, he proclaimed that there is a universal poetry that is reflected in everything, and one could become a painter after one becomes a poet. Sayings about paintings have value for poets, Stevens said, “because they are, after all, sayings about art.” Stevens’ remarks are well within the character of his later work—which gave him the reputation as a philosopher of aesthetics—in which he argues for the primacy of the creative imagination. He also stands in a long tradition of writers on comparative aesthetics, from Gotthold Lessing’s “Laocoön” of 1766, all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics.

What we have in the tradition of this comparative understanding is a deeply entrenched syncretic belief system. It is a system that mixes two different forms together, like the uniting of early Christian religion with Roman law to produce the Roman Catholic Church. The art of painting has been married to the structure of language since the early church declared painting acceptable as the visual bible for the illiterate. This system unites “painting”—a site-specific material-based form of art—with “language”—a form of communication that is separate from what it signifies, and defers materiality to the category of mere craft. This syncretic system interprets all the arts as being language-based, and this justifies the art of painting as a picture-language. Picture-paintings tell a story.

more here.

The Surprising History (and Future) of Paperweights

Madame-colette-photographed-by-robert-doisneau-with-some-of-her-paperweights-in-1950.Chantel Tattoli at the Paris Review:

In the late forties, Jean Cocteau arranged for a young Truman Capote to have tea with Colette at her apartment in Paris. They did not manage to discuss literature; instead, Capote was moonstruck by the Frenchwoman’s collection of valuable antique paperweights, which she called “my snowflakes”:

There were perhaps a hundred of them covering two tables situated on either side of the bed: crystal spheres imprisoning green lizards, salamanders, millefiori bouquets, dragonflies, a basket of pears, butterflies alighted on a frond of ferns, swirls of pink and white and blue and white, shimmering like fireworks, cobras coiled to strike, pretty little arrangements of pansies, magnificent poinsettias.

Colette suggested she might take them with her in her coffin, “like a pharaoh.” When she gave a Baccarat with a single white rose inside to Capote, he caught the fever. He sought paperweights at auctions in Copenhagen and Hong Kong. Once, he found a four-thousand-dollar weight in a junk shop in Brooklyn for which he shelled out just twenty bucks. In East Hampton, he successfully bid seven hundred dollars for a millefiori (“the real thing,” “an electrifying spectacle”) worth seven grand.

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)

Austenistan: Jane Austen’s books are remarkably relevant to women in Pakistan today

Moni Mohsin in More Intelligent Life:

JaneDressed in muslin gowns, they sip Assam tea and nibble on cucumber sandwiches. A maid refills the silver teapot while her mistress and her guests discuss the merits of Lyme Regis over Bath. Outside in the garden, trees drip from a recent shower and birds hop on a damp lawn. It could be afternoon tea in Mansfield Park, the seat of the Bertram family in Jane Austen’s novel – except that the trees are banyans, the birds are Indian hoopoes and the maid wears a shalwar kameez. This is not Northamptonshire but Lahore. Billed as an “Austentatious Tea Party” on Facebook, it is a gathering of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, JASP to its members. Founded by Laaleen Sukhera, a journalist, JASP is two years old. It has chapters in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, a Facebook page with over 1,000 followers, and a blog, Ladies’ Finger. There is just the one dress-up party annually but they meet two or three times a year to discuss all things Austen. The members of JASP, while perhaps a tad more ardent, are not alone in their passion for Jane Austen. For the truth – universally acknowledged – is that Jane Austen is enduringly popular in Pakistan. Bookshops have whole shelves dedicated to her novels, critiques of her novels and novels inspired by her novels. Visit a DVD rental store and you will find film and tele­vision adaptations of her work. She is taught in schools and read at home. “Pride and Prejudice” has been translated into Urdu, and “Aisha”, the Bollywood adaptation of “Emma”, was watched by millions of Pakistanis. Plans are afoot to publish adaptations of all six novels with contemporary sub-continental settings. Meanwhile, “Austenistan”, a book of short stories written by members of JASP and edited by Laaleen Sukhera, has been acquired for publication. Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan,” says Sukhera, 40, a mother of three girls. “I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.”

…As Mehr Husain, an ardent JASP member, comments: “There was a time when land-owning families of the Punjab only married among themselves. They knew each other’s family trees intimately and were really particular about caste and bloodlines. Now, as long as you’re loaded, no one asks any questions.” Faiza Khan, editorial director of Bloomsbury India, a Pakistani and an Austen devotee, agrees that Austen’s appeal lies in her relevance to Pakistani society now. “Social values have moved on in the West. The conventional drivers of an Austen plot – the obstacles to marriage like discrepancies in class and wealth, the disapproval of parents, the compromising behaviour of your ghastly family – disappeared long ago. All those old tropes like the Unmarried Daughter, the Repressive Father, the Poor Relation seem quaint now. Whereas I, an unmarried daughter, have Mrs Bennet sitting in the next room, dropping hints about some acquaintance or other being ‘a nice boy’.”

More here.

CRISPR used to peer into human embryos’ first days

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

CriprGene-edited human embryos have offered a glimpse into the earliest stages of development, while hinting at the role of a pivotal protein that guides embryo growth. The first-of-its-kind study stands in contrast to previous research that attempted to fix disease-causing mutations in human embryos, in the hope of eventually preventing genetic disorders. Whereas those studies raised concerns over potential ‘designer babies’, the latest paper describes basic research that aims to understand human embryo development and causes of miscarriage. Published online today in Nature1, the study relied on CRISPR–Cas9, a gene-editing system that can make precise changes to DNA in the genome. In this case, researchers harnessed CRISPR–Cas9 to disrupt the production of a protein called OCT4 that is important for embryo development.

Researchers have traditionally done such studies in mouse embryos, which are more plentiful and carry fewer ethical considerations than human embryos. But the latest study highlights key differences between the role of OCT4 in human and in mouse embryos, underscoring the limitations of relying on animal models, says stem-cell scientist Dieter Egli of Columbia University in New York City. “If we are to truly understand human embryonic development and improve human health, we need to work directly on human embryos,” he says. “We cannot rely only on inference from model organisms.”

…It soon became clear that normal development had derailed in embryos that lacked normal levels of OCT4. About half of the controls (which had unaltered, normal OCT4 levels) developed to form multicellular embryos called blastocysts. Of the edited embryos with disrupted OCT4 levels, only 19% made it that far. The results will reassure scientists that CRISPR–Cas9 is efficient enough for studies in human embryos, says Fredrik Lanner, a developmental biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. “If you do this in mice, you can test hundreds of embryos,” he says. “But you have a limited access to human embryos.”

More here.

Daniel Dennett: Philosophy as the Las Vegas of Rational Inquiry

Daniel Dennett in Free Inquiry:

Daniel-DennettPhilosophy is always going to be the default home of non-naturalists and anti-naturalists. Since no other discipline will take them seriously, they gravitate to philosophy and find each other. Anti-naturalism is like the tide; you can try to beat it back but another wave will arrive with each new crop of thinkers. And each generation tries to find a flaw in naturalism and raises one banner or another before retiring, literally, in defeat with honor.

I view this the same way I view Las Vegas: it’s actually a very “green” installation, like the red light district in Amsterdam: every society has a subpopulation that loves trashy, glittery entertainment, porn, gambling, . . .and it would be foolish to despoil some beautiful area with it. Plunk it in the middle of some otherwise irredeemably inhospitable and infertile desert, concentrate the glitz and sleaze in one place where it can be indulged in with a minimal impact on the rest of the world. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! It can be policed efficiently, so that most of the “evil” is just make-believe evil, carnival evil.

So I see philosophy as the Las Vegas of rational inquiry, where every ism is permitted to be promulgated, where outrageous doctrines are “taken seriously” (well, taken sorta seriously), and in general, nobody gets hurt, because, hey, it’s philosophy, and who takes that seriously? What happens in philosophy stays in philosophy, by and large, and a good thing it is, too.

More here.

Whitesplaining Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ralph Michaels in the Huffington Post:

ScreenHunter_2827 Sep. 20 22.49

Ta-Nehisi Coates calls Donald Trump "the first white President" and suggests that his election must be attributed to white supremacy. Coates has become the most influential writer in America today; this latest Atlantic essay is already being taught in college courses. So it becomes urgent forme, with help from other white commentators, to whitesplain why he is wrong.

Coates is not without talent and can certainly turn a phrase. Reading him makes it almost impossible to "make the "Lost Cause" argument for the Confederacy, which is unfortunate when you really want to do just that. Coates is perhaps the most influential black intellectual. In other words, he is pretty intellectual for a black man, but he is also unfortunately pretty black for an intellectual, and thus necessarily biased. (The problem with folk like Coates is that they cannot overcome their identity politics driven worldview position. As opposed to me, whose position is unfettered by identity.)

Coates wants to show that white backlash is the only factor behind Trump's success, the single cause. (OK, what he really says is that "the politics of race are, themselves, never attributable 'just to the politics of race.′" But I am sure that is what he means, and so I will treat it as though it was what he said.) Coates takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race. I object: all factors matter, not just black lives. You see, America isn't a monolith of white supremacy but rather a big, messy nation where individuals make their own choices. And if sometimes those choices happen to bring to power a man who espouses white supremacy, that really does not mean that much, does it? People are complicated. Coates cannot know that; one wonders if Coates knows even a single Trump voter or understands what drove many millions to vote for a man who — truth be told — they didn't much like. How could he? He is black! And I really wish he showed more sympathy for these poor white voters who had to hold their noses when they voted for Trump; it must have been so hard for them. (Not me ― I supported neither unfit major party candidate, which is my privilege and clearly means I cannot be blamed if either of them wins.)

You know how I know that racism is not what brought Trump to power? Because the most popular recent president or presidential candidate in America was … Barack Obama.

More here.

Researchers Unite in Quest for “Standard Model” of the Brain

Alison Abbott in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2826 Sep. 20 21.23Leading neuroscientists are joining forces to study the brain—in much the same way that physicists team up in mega-projects to hunt for new particles.

The International Brain Lab (IBL), launched on September 19, combines 21 of the foremost neuroscience laboratories in the United States and Europe into a giant collaboration that will develop theories of how the brain works by focusing on a single behaviour shared by all animals: foraging. The Wellcome Trust in London, and the Simons Foundation in Washington DC have together committed more than US$13 million over five years to kick-start the IBL.

The pilot effort is an attempt to shake up cellular neuroscience, conventionally done by individual labs studying the role of a limited number of brain circuits during simple behaviours. The ‘virtual’ IBL lab will instead ask how a mouse brain, in its entirety, generates complex behaviours in constantly changing environments that mirror natural conditions.

The project will use chips that can record the electrical signals of thousands of neurons at once. It will also use other emerging technologies, such as optogenetics toolkits that control neurons with light. “It’s a new approach that will likely yield important new insights into brain and behaviour,” says Tobias Bonhoeffer, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany, who is also a Wellcome Trust governing-board member.

More here.

Where Modern Macroeconomics Went Wrong


Joseph Stiglitz over at INET Economics:

Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models, which have played such an important role in modern discussions of macroeconomics, in my judgment fail to serve the functions which a well-designed macroeconomic model should perform. The most important challenge facing any macro-model is to provide insights into the deep downturns that have occurred repeatedly and what should be done in response. It would, of course, be even better if we had models that could predict these crises. From a social perspective, whether the economy grows next year at 3.1% or 3.2% makes little difference. But crises, when GDP falls and unemployment increases, have large consequences for individual well-being now as well as for future growth. In particular, it is now well recognized that periods of extended economic weakness such as confronted by the US and Europe after 2008 have significant implications for future potential growth.

While the 2008 crisis, and the inability of the DSGE model to predict that crisis or to provide policy guidance on how to deal with the consequences, precipitated current dissatisfaction with the model, the failings are deeper: the DSGE model fails similarly in the context of other deep downturns.

The DSGE models fail in explaining these major downturns, including the source of the perturbation in the economy which gives rise to them, why shocks, which the system (in these models) should have been able to absorb, get amplified with such serious consequences, and why they persist, i.e. why the economy does not quickly return to full employment, as one would have expected in an equilibrium model. These are not minor failings, but go to the root of the deficiencies in the model.

More here.

chatting with julian schnabel

Schnabel-10Phong Bui at The Brooklyn Rail:

Rail: Earlier you said you hoped a painting could be perceiving of perception, and observing observation. I wonder how the viewer, who is once removed, would be able to mediate the whole experience?

Schnabel: Well, it means different things in different mediums. If I’m making a film, for example, instead of making certain scenes more naturalistic I’d just change the color to a more of green palette so you know you’re watching a movie. Or there’s a cut in it that’s more abrupt, which may cause you to have a physical sensation. That may be a part of the narrative that I might desire, though somebody else might think, Oh, that looks like a mistake. And maybe that notion of idiosyncratic work, where something looks like it’s atypical in some way, or jarring, is something that I am attracted to. Around 2001 I was at the sculpture museum in Rome, and there were all these extraordinary busts and torsos installed all around the courtyard, but in the middle there was a tree that was nearly fossilized. I couldn’t believe there were a couple of leaves on it. It also had a brace on the bottom, cause it was so old, and I thought, Wow, that looks like something! So when I came home, I built Ahab (2001), which is very much like what I saw. I remember clearly, I felt like I knew what sculpture was at that moment. I knew what I needed to do.

more here.

The Secret History of Dune

PhpThumb_generated_thumbnail (1)Will Collins at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradiselanguishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development.

Great travel writing makes no pretense of objectivity, and The Sabres of Paradiseowes more to Blanch’s background as a travel writer than any traditional history. Blanch traveled and wrote extensively about the Middle East and Russia, and she doesn’t bother hiding her affection for her subject matter. She was clearly captivated by the culture and peoples of the Caucasus, and it’s difficult not to be swept away by her enthusiasm.

The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.

more here.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times

51F73o6tLYL._SX327_BO1 204 203 200_Robert Service at Literary Review:

It is one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that Mikhail Gorbachev, who did more than any other Kremlin leader to show his ‘personal’ side to a watching world, has eluded his biographers. Nobody before William Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait. Political accounts have been two a penny; economic and ideological studies have come at a discount. But what made Gorbachev tick, as a man and a leader, has always been hooded in speculation. Taubman has dedicated a dozen years to gathering first-hand evidence from the man himself. This cannot have been an easy task. When I met Gorbachev in the early 1990s I ruined my brief chance of getting him to open up by mentioning that I was doing research on Lenin. Gorbachev instantly closed down what he sensed might be an indelicate conversation. Taubman, by contrast, has gained Gorbachev’s full cooperation, even though the man himself warned him, ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand.’

Leaders who speak of themselves in the third person often turn out to be egotists of the first degree. Julius Caesar exhibited this linguistic trick to rhapsodise about his war against the Gauls. Leon Trotsky found that it enabled him to commandeer the historical spotlight without committing the sin of direct self-eulogy. But neither Caesar nor Trotsky presented himself as an enigma. Perhaps it is Gorbachev’s way of consoling himself in old age, living as he does in a Russia that seems unimpressed with the freedoms that he provided and has unhappy memories of the economic collapse over which he presided. While Germans continue to fete him as the statesman who reunited their nation, Russians cannot forget the mess that he left behind when the USSR fell apart in 1991.

more here.

The Jazz Pianist Vijay Iyer Played “Remembrance” for Us on 9/11

Kevin Berger in Nautilus:

When we visited Vijay Iyer three years ago, on Sept. 11, at his home in Harlem, the monthly Nautilus theme was Genius. The jazz pianist was glad to talk about the subject and play signature pieces by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane for us. But the first thing he wanted to tell us was he didn’t care for the label “genius.” Too often the term was used to describe a lone master, born with special genes, and that was the wrong way to think about an artist. “The ‘G word’ is often used to shut down conversation or inquiry into a particular artist, into his or her community and connection to others,” Iyer said. “No music happens in a vacuum. Anybody who’s able to make music, who’s had the privilege of doing it for others, got there through the help of others. Even singular talents have been nurtured and brought into a community. So I always try to understand the term relationally, to understand artists in the social and political currents they were living in.” Once you appreciate artists in their environs, you realize a select few leave their mark. Take Monk, the New York pianist and composer, who lived from 1917 to 1982, and wrote the now jazz standards “ ’Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser.” “When you see the impact of Monk on the language of American music, that’s when you can start to use—and even then it’s relational—a term like ‘genius,’” Iyer said. “Certainly you can say this guy had ideas that stood out from the community he was in, that influenced that community, that stuck and are still here.”

Iyer, who has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley—his dissertation explored embodied cognition and music—and today teaches at Harvard, analyzes the morphology of jazz with the precision of a scientist. In our article, “Rhythm’s the Thing,” he explained what made the voicings of Monk and Coltrane original, and backed up his explanations with demonstrations on the piano. When our conversation rolled around to his own compositions, we asked the pianist to play a work that represented his own voice. He chose “Remembrance” from his 2006 album, Raw Materials.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Nostalgia for the present

I don’t know about the rest of you,
but I feel the cruelest
nostalgia -not for the past-
but nostalgia for the present.

A novice desires to approach the Lord
but is permitted to do so only by her Superior.
I beg to be joined, without intermediary,
to the present.

It’s as if I had done something wrong,
Not I even –but others.
I fall down in a field and feel
nostalgia for the living earth.

No one can ever tear you away,
and yet when I embrace you again
I feel overcome by terrible pain
as if you were being stolen from me.

When I hear the nasty tirades
of a friend who has taken a false step,
I don’t look for what he seems to be,
I grieve for what he really is.

A window opening on a garden
will not redeem loneliness.
I long not for art –I choke
on my craving for reality.

And when the Mafia laughs in my face
idiotically, I say:
“Idiots are all in the past. The present
calls for fuller understanding.”

Black water spurts from the faucet,
Brackish water, stale water,
rusty water flows from the faucet –I’ll wait
for the real water to come.

Whatever is past is past. So much the better.
But I bite at it as at a mystery,
nostalgia for the impending
And I’ll never catch hold of it.

by Andrei Voznesensky
from World Poetry Movement
translation:Vera Dunham and H. W. Tjalsma

A New Way to Learn Economics


John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even morefor some hardcover editions. The core curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The core approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The corecurriculum also takes economic history seriously.

More here.

The great nutrient collapse


Helena Bottemiller Evich in Politico:

Irakli Loladze is a mathematician by training, but he was in a biology lab when he encountered the puzzle that would change his life. It was in 1998, and Loladze was studying for his Ph.D. at Arizona State University. Against a backdrop of glass containers glowing with bright green algae, a biologist told Loladze and a half-dozen other graduate students that scientists had discovered something mysterious about zooplankton.

Zooplankton are microscopic animals that float in the world’s oceans and lakes, and for food they rely on algae, which are essentially tiny plants. Scientists found that they could make algae grow faster by shining more light onto them—increasing the food supply for the zooplankton, which should have flourished. But it didn’t work out that way. When the researchers shined more light on the algae, the algae grew faster, and the tiny animals had lots and lots to eat—but at a certain point they started struggling to survive. This was a paradox. More food should lead to more growth. How could more algae be a problem?

Loladze was technically in the math department, but he loved biology and couldn’t stop thinking about this. The biologists had an idea of what was going on: The increased light was making the algae grow faster, but they ended up containing fewer of the nutrients the zooplankton needed to thrive. By speeding up their growth, the researchers had essentially turned the algae into junk food. The zooplankton had plenty to eat, but their food was less nutritious, and so they were starving.

More here.

Redoing the Electoral Math


John Judis in The New Republic:

If you take the percentage of Americans that the U.S. census defines as “minorities” and project their past voting habits into the next decade and beyond, you’ll come up with a very sunny version of the Democrats’ prospects. There are only two problems with this line of thinking, but they’re pretty big ones. For starters, the census prediction of a “majority-minority” America—slated to arrive in 2044—is deeply flawed. And so is the notion that ethnic minorities will always and forever continue to back Democrats in Obama-like numbers.

The U.S. census makes a critical assumption that undermines its predictions of a majority-nonwhite country. It projects that the same percentage of people who currently identify themselves as “Latino” or “Asian” will continue to claim those identities in future generations. In reality, that’s highly unlikely. History shows that as ethnic groups assimilate into American culture, they increasingly identify themselves as “white.”

Whiteness is not a genetic category, after all; it’s a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as whites. “This town has 8,000,000 people,” a young Harry Truman wrote his cousin upon visiting New York City in 1918. “7,500,000 of ’em are of Israelish extraction. (400,000 wops and the rest are white people.)” But by the time Truman became president, all those immigrant groups were considered “white.” There’s no reason to imagine that Latinos and Asians won’t follow much the same pattern.

In fact, it’s already happening. In the 2010 Census, 53 percent of Latinos identified as “white,” as did more than half of Asian Americans of mixed parentage. In future generations, those percentages are almost certain to grow. According to a recent Pew study, more than one-quarter of Latinos and Asians marry non-Latinos and non-Asians, and that number will surely continue to climb over the generations.

More here.