Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life

Daisy Dunn at Literary Review:

Edith Hall, a professor of classics at King’s College London, tried astrology, Buddhism, transcendental meditation, psychotropic drugs and spiritualism before discovering Aristotelianism as an undergraduate. Aristotle appealed to her because he rejected the idea of divine intervention in human affairs in favour of scientific explanations for life and its phenomena. He was also considerably less miserable than the average philosopher. For Aristotle, Hall explains, ‘the ultimate goal of human life is, simply, happiness’. And who doesn’t desire happiness? In the tradition of Alain de Botton, she has written a practical and enjoyable guide to Aristotle’s philosophy as a recipe for contentment in the modern world.

‘Wherever you are in life,’ she writes, ‘Aristotle’s ideas can make you happier.’ Much of the time you need only to stop and ask yourself: what would Aristotle do? 

more here.

The meaning of life in a world without work

Yuval Noah Harari in The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if the ex-insurance agent somehow makes the transition into a virtual-world designer, the pace of progress is such that within another decade he might have to reinvent himself yet again. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable. The same technology that renders humans useless might also make it feasible to feed and support the unemployable masses through some scheme of universal basic income. The real problem will then be to keep the masses occupied and content. People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day?

One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. This, in fact, is a very old solution. For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions”. What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Boats in Fog

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voices of music,
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.
…………………………….. A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean,
A throbbing of engines moved in it,
At length, a stone’s throw out, between the rocks and the
One by one moved shadows
Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other
Following the cliff for guidance,
Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog
And the foam on the shore granite.
One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me,
Out of the vapor and into it,
The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and
Coasting all round the peninsula
Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.

by Robinson Jeffers
from A Book of Luminous Things
Harcourt Brace 1996

The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code

Kit Chellel at Bloomberg:

Benter and Coladonato watched as a software script filtered out the losing bets, one at a time, until there were 36 lines left on the screens. Thirty-five of their bets had correctly called the finishers in two of the races, qualifying for a consolation prize. And one wager had correctly predicted all nine horses.

“F—,” Benter said. “We hit it.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how much they’d made, so the two Americans attempted some back-of-the-envelope math until the official dividend flashed on TV eight minutes later. Benter and Coladonato had won a jackpot of $16 million. Benter counted the zeros to make sure, then turned to his colleague.

“We can’t collect this—can we?” he asked. “It would be unsporting. We’d feel bad about ourselves.” Coladonato agreed they couldn’t. On a nearby table, pink betting slips were arranged in a tidy pile. The two men picked through them, isolating three slips that contained all 36 winning lines. They stared at the pieces of paper for a long time.

More here.

Thinking about artificial intelligence can help clarify what makes us human—for better and for worse

Tad Friend in The New Yorker:

Precisely how and when will our curiosity kill us? I bet you’re curious. A number of scientists and engineers fear that, once we build an artificial intelligence smarter than we are, a form of A.I. known as artificial general intelligence, doomsday may follow. Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web, recognize the promise of an A.G.I., a wish-granting genie rubbed up from our dreams, yet each has voiced grave concerns. Elon Musk warns against “summoning the demon,” envisaging “an immortal dictator from which we can never escape.” Stephen Hawking declared that an A.G.I. “could spell the end of the human race.” Such advisories aren’t new. In 1951, the year of the first rudimentary chess program and neural network, the A.I. pioneer Alan Turing predicted that machines would “outstrip our feeble powers” and “take control.” In 1965, Turing’s colleague Irving Good pointed out that brainy devices could design even brainier ones, ad infinitum: “Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” It’s that last clause that has claws.

More here.  [Thanks to Ali Minai.]

The Very First Animal Appeared Amid an Explosion of DNA

Carl Zimmer in the New York Times:

The animal kingdom is one of life’s great success stories — a collection of millions of species that swim, burrow, run and fly across the planet. All that diversity, from ladybugs to killer whales, evolved from a common ancestor that likely lived over 650 million years ago.

No one has found a fossil of the ur-animal, so we can’t say for sure what it looked like. But two scientists in Britain have done the next best thing. They’ve reconstructed its genome.

Their study, published in Nature Communications, offers an important clue to how the animal kingdom arose: with an evolutionary burst of new genes. These may have played a crucial part in transforming our single-celled ancestors into creatures with complex bodies made of many kinds of cells.

The new genes also proved to be remarkably durable. Of all the genes in the human genome, 55 percent were already present in the first animal.

More here.

Donald Trump and the media’s quest for a Goldilocks conservative

Brian Beutler in Crooked:

At a company-wide town hall-style event in early April, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, and his star writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in some candid public soul searching about how it is the venerable magazine, founded by abolitionists over 150 years ago, had hired (very briefly) a writer who advocated state-sanctioned hanging of women who abort pregnancies, and compared a small black child he encountered on a reporting trip to “a three-fifths scale Snoop Dogg” who gestured like a “primate.”

An Atlantic employee surreptitiously recorded the event, which leaked to Huffpost Thursday, giving the public unique insight into how journalists are grappling internally with both Donald Trump’s presidency and the lengthy campaign the conservative movement has undertaken to discredit mainstream media among fellow travelers.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

On Driving Home from the Dream Workshop

That play is over, 
and we are in the tiring house 
changing costumes, 
putting on the masks 
of our usual lives.  
Yet sometimes,
when we listen to the voice 
riding through our lips, 
we hear something different, 
a deeper timbre, perhaps, 
or a new word.
We say something 
we could not
have said before.
That is the gift 
we have received, 
and the gift 
we can now give.
by Nils Peterson
Tiring House: The room where Elizabethan actors changed 
their clothes.

What is Beauty?

Shahidha Bari at Aeon Magazine:

In its long philosophical history, beauty has taken detours. It has been derailed by technical wrangles and commandeered by authoritative proclamations of good taste. But perhaps now, we are only just starting to understand the exceptional nature of the experience it demarcates, how it works upon the body, alerts us to our susceptibility to the world and reminds us of our commitment to it. When the literary critic Elaine Scarry investigated beauty in the late 1990s, she noticed the ‘contract’ between the beautiful object and those who recognise it as such. Each, she notes, confers ‘the gift of life’, welcoming the other. It’s a cloying, rather vague expression, but there is something to this idea of a compact, the notion of a mutual realisation that unfolds between us and the object of our attention when we are engaged in judgments of beauty. Something rises to challenge our particular perceptual faculties, and we rise to meet it in turn.

more here.

I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic:

Kanye west, a god in this time, awakened, recently, from a long public slumber to embrace Donald Trump. He hailed Trump, as a “brother,” a fellow bearer of “dragon energy,” and impugned those who objected as suppressors of “unpopular questions,” “thought police” whose tactics were “based on fear.” It was Trump, West argued, not Obama, who gave him hope that a black boy from the South Side of Chicago could be president. “Remember like when I said I was gonna run for president?,” Kanye said in an interview with the radio host Charlamagne Tha God. “I had people close to me, friends of mine, making jokes, making memes, talking shit. Now it’s like, oh, that was proven that that could have happened.”

more here.

Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom

Steven Nadler at the TLS:

Among the boldest elements of Spinoza’s philosophy is his conception of God. The God of the Ethics is a far cry from the traditional, transcendent God of the Abrahamic religions. What Spinoza calls “God or Nature” lacks all of the psychological and ethical attributes of a providential deity. His God is not a personal agent endowed with will, understanding and emotions, capable of having preferences and making informed choices. Spinoza’s God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations, or make judgments. Neither does God possess anything like moral character. God is not good or wise or just. What God is, for Spinoza, is Nature itself – the phrase he uses is Deus sive Natura – that is, the infinite, eternal and necessarily existing substance of the universe. God or Nature just is; and whatever else is, is “in” or a part of God or Nature. Put another way, there is only Nature and its power; and everything that happens, happens in and by Nature. There is nothing supernatural; there is nothing outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its laws and operations.

more here.

Is genome-guided cancer treatment hyped?

Jocelyn Kaiser in Science:

For people with advanced cancer who are running out of options, many cancer centers now offer this hope: Have your tumor’s genome sequenced, and doctors will match you with a drug that targets its weak spot. But this booming area of cancer treatment has critics, who say its promise has been oversold. Last week, two prominent voices in the field faced off in a sometimes-tense debate on what’s often called precision oncology at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Chicago, Illinois. Their dispute threw a splash of cold water on a meeting packed with sessions on genome-based cancer treatments. Read more »

Monday Poem

Snake Tales

1. Taking the Rap

. . . so I said to Eve the Courageous:

here’s something extraordinary—
a thing as sweet as knowing
but bitter too, possibly lethal,
and (at the very least)
a gateway to trouble,
yet a wonder worth the risk

while Adam (you must know)
was not off on some pious ramble
through the garden picking figs
and licking maple sap
….. praying, Lord, Lord,
but was right there,
his side with dubious absent rib
pressed against her, naked, attentive,
positively inclined but cautious,
prepared in case things went south
to slap a fig leaf on
and have the woman
take the rap

Jim Culleny

On Sodomy and Restoration 

by Liam Heneghan

A celebrated altercation between Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the Florentine artist, and fellow sculptor Bartolommeo Bandinello (1493-1560) resulted in the latter exclaiming “Oh sta cheto, soddomitaccio.” [Shut up, you filthy sodomite!]. The accusation had merit in the legal sense at least since Cellini had indeed been accused of the crime of sodomy with at least one woman and several young men. The incident is oftentimes recalled in writings about the period as it provides a compelling illustration of the sexual appetites of the artists of the Renaissance.

Bandinello unleashed his invective against Cellini in front of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, who was patron of both artists. The incident is recorded in Cellini’s autobiography My Life. The insult is infamous, but events that culminated in the insult are remarkable in their own right for they shed light, not on the sexual peccadilloes of the times, but rather on the attitudes of Renaissance artist to works of antiquity. They also are helpful in thinking more generally about how the quality of works might be assessed.

As Cellini reports it, the encounter started with Cellini visiting the ducal palace in Florence, where the Duke is expressing his enthusiasm about a box sent to him by Stefan Colonna, a general employed in the Florentine services. Cellini opens the crate on the Duke’s behalf and marvels at its contents. It is a statue in Greek marble. Although the statue is damaged, as is the case of many of the works of great antiquity, Cellini writes, “It is a miracle of beauty.” Furthermore, he declares, “I have never seen a boy’s figure so excellently wrought and in so fine a style among all the antiques I have inspected.” High praise indeed. Read more »

Why 21st century academics should read Trollope

by Emrys Westacott

What do 21st century American college faculty and 19th century Church of England Clergyman have in common?  A surprising amount. This is one reason I would heartily recommend the novels of Trollope, Austen, and others to my colleagues in academia.

Clerics are interesting figures in a number of 19th century novels.  Sometimes they are portrayed sympathetically, as is Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey; often, though, they are ridiculed, either gently, like Bishop Proudie in Barchester Towers, or scathingly, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. But what should draw rueful smiles of recognition from academics today is not the personality types represented but their situations within a complicated, hierarchical system that dispenses enviable benefits to some and chronic frustration to others.

Extrapolating from such novels with a little imaginative license, we can form the following picture. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Church of England had about 11,500 “livings”–positions tied to particular parishes. These typically came with a house (the vicarage, the rectory), and an income, often quite modest. Such livings were usually dispensed by individuals or institutions that were major landowners in the parish. They provided life-long security and social respectability.

Under the primogeniture system of inheritance, the eldest son inherited the bulk of his father’s estate.  This meant that younger sons of the gentry had to pursue some profession, and the respectable options for those who viewed trade as rather sordid were few: the military, the law, medicine, or the church. One of the important functions of the Church of England at that time was thus to provide socially acceptable employment to educated middle and upper-middle class men who lacked independent means.

Unfortunately, there were many more educated young men seeking positions in the church than there were “livings.”  Supply exceeded demand.  As late as 1830, about fifty percent of Oxbridge undergraduates intended to enter the church. Recently minted Ph.D.s seeking tenure-track positions will have no trouble relating to their situation. Read more »

Innocent Remembrance

by Carl Pierer

Since 2014, various student societies at the University of Edinburgh have but on musical performances commemorating the first world war. This article takes a look at one performance in particular. The content is neither highly original nor particularly radical; others have written more insightful and more sophisticated pieces. It constitutes merely an attempt to formulate and to clarify what is problematic with these particular performances, thereby hoping to understand something about the greater memorial tradition in the United Kingdom. In other words, by examining how a nationalistic, martial and oppressive Erinnerungskultur is reproduced in an amateur to semi-professional context – be it deliberately or not -, we may see how these values become normalised and why it matters that this takes place in this particular context.

The most recent performance in this series was the Edinburgh University’s Brass Band spring concert. The programme featured some classical, some modern classical and contemporary pieces loosely linked by the theme ‘pictures, moving pictures’, as well as some others, which were put together under the theme of ‘war’. While this in itself might already be seen as problematic, there are three features of this programme that I would like to focus on: First, the introduction and subsequent dedication given by the band’s director. Secondly, the poem read to accompany a piece in the second part of the concert. Lastly, the omnipresence of poppies.

The evening’s programme was introduced by the band’s director as a mix of pieces fitting the ‘moving pictures’ theme and – because “to remember the Great War in our days is important” – others fitting the ‘war’ theme. There is something odd about this amalgamation of themes. For one, it seems to take away from the remembrance aspect to see it intermingled with unrelated pieces such as Mussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  What was even more bizarre was the almost casual introduction of the serious topic of remembrance. Yet, the most bewildering issue was that – in 2018 – such a memorial concert can be dedicated expressly and exclusively to the ‘heros’ of World War I. Of course, the term ‘heros’ in itself appears as a poor choice, for – unless problematised – it risks simply repeating the military distinction between soldiers willing to ‘die for their country’ (worthy of praise) and cowards, weaklings, traitors (who actively refuse to participate – and hence are worthy to be shot –  or who are excluded from becoming ‘heros’ because of their sex, age, gender or some other reason). But above that, it is the exclusive use of ‘heros’ that is deeply problematic. Aren’t all the people, who battled to survive through the First World War but who didn’t (or refused to) die a ‘heroic’ death worth being remembered? Moreover, even if we were to accept this terminology, how can we continue to praise only the male ‘heroes’ – all but erasing the female ‘heroines’? As will become clearer below, the ‘heroes’ comprised by this dedication were only British ones, an implicit nationalistic tinge that is uncannily present in too many memorial events for the first world war in particular. Read more »

Beasts at Bedtime — A review

by Evan Edwards

When my partner and I were expecting our first child, I remained obstinately distant from all parenting books. I had adapted, and taken to heart, Rainer Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus about avoiding introductions to great works of art, and reckoning that, in the poet’s words, “such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite.” Rilke’s point seems to be that introductions do more to obscure our ability to reach the work of art than elucidate it. Since a child is, among other things, a living, breathing work of art, it took very little for me to translate the great poet’s advice to the work of child-rearing. Surely no book would truly help me approach a task as infinitely arduous and dizzyingly beautiful as bringing a human being into the world.

But my embargo on introductions to being a parent stopped short on one question: how do I raise a child in an age of accelerating mass extinction? And how best to teach them to care for the world, for nature? How do I talk to my child about the end of the world? While other issues in raising children often prompt answers that are simply as idiosyncratic as the authors pumping out these tracts, the question of how to raise a child who is not simply environmentally tuned, but tuned to a global ecosystem whose new overarching rule is rapid and often unpalatable change is one that any conscious parent will recognize as being largely outside the purview of the instinct for care folded into our biological and cultural DNA.

A good amount of thought has been put into this problem, explicitly starting with Richard Louv’s 2005 diagnosis of “nature-deficit disorder” in (mostly American) children of the time. Louv found that the rise of a “culture of fear” in parents, and the increasing influence of the emerging Web 2.0 were the main culprits for the children of the aughts’ disconnection from ‘nature.’ Since then, organizations like the No Child Left Outside Coalition and authors like Scott Sampson (in How to Raise a Wild Child) represent a growing chorus of voices that are aimed at getting children to spend more time outdoors. I know I need these books, and to hear these conversations, because I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, and thus was part of the first generation of individuals bearing this diagnosis. This is, in part, why I decided to lift the parenting book embargo. One last note: although critics have pointed out that this “condition” is not new, it is probably right to say that before now, it was present in trace amounts, or steadily increasing amounts, until it got so bad (during my childhood) that it was finally diagnosed as lethal. The way that steadily increasing your daily arsenic intake can only keep you safe until it doesn’t. Liam Heneghan’s Beasts at Bedtime is partly in this tradition, but approaches it from an entirely different angle. Read more »