A new biography reveals Nietzsche to be a perfect gentleman

Jonathan Rée in Prospect:

“I am not a man, I am dynamite!” Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for this kind of bombast, but most of his works are unassuming in tone, and his sentences are always plain, direct and clear as a bell. Take for instance the celebrated assault on “theorists” in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872. Theorists, Nietzsche says, know everything there is to know about “world literature”—they can “name its periods and styles as Adam did the beasts.” But instead of “plunging into the icy torrent of existence” they merely content themselves with “running nervously up and down the river bank.”

Read this word by word and the meaning seems straightforward enough. But it looks rather different when you zoom out to take in the book as a whole. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by postulating an eternal conflict between two artistic principles: Dionysiac fury versus Apollonian cool. He then denounces philosophical reason as a sworn enemy to “healthy, natural creativity,” and concludes by saying that salvation lies in German music, beginning with Bach and Beethoven and culminating in Richard Wagner.

You don’t have to be a philosophical genius to notice that something strange is going on. Nietzsche’s grand theory of world culture can hardly be exempted from his own strictures on know-it-all theorists who deliver commentaries from the safety of the river bank.

But that, it seems to me, is where the fascination of Nietzsche lies.

More here.

A Bold New Theory Proposes That Humans Tamed Themselves

Melvin Konner in The Atlantic:

DeVore had hanging in his office an 1838 quote from Darwin’s notebook: “Origin of man now proved … He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” It’s an aphorism that calls to mind one of my favorite characterizations of anthropology—philosophizing with data—and serves as a perfect introduction to the latest work of Richard Wrangham, who has come up with some of the boldest and best new ideas about human evolution.

In his third book, The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, he deploys fascinating facts of natural history and genetics as he enters a debate staked out centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (among other philosophers), and still very much alive today: how to understand the conjunction of fierce aggression and cooperative behavior in humans. Why are we so much less violent day-to-day within our communities (in pretty much all cultures) than our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, are within theirs? At the same time, how is it that human violence directed toward perceived enemy groups has been so destructive?

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Brian Greene on the Multiverse, Inflation, and the String Theory Landscape

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

String theory was originally proposed as a relatively modest attempt to explain some features of strongly-interacting particles, but before too long developed into an ambitious attempt to unite all the forces of nature into a single theory. The great thing about physics is that your theories don’t always go where you want them to, and string theory has had some twists and turns along the way. One major challenge facing the theory is the fact that there are many different ways to connect the deep principles of the theory to the specifics of a four-dimensional world; all of these may actually exist out there in the world, in the form of a cosmological multiverse. Brian Greene is an accomplished string theorist as well as one of the world’s most successful popularizers and advocates for science. We talk about string theory, its cosmological puzzles and promises, and what the future might hold.

More here.

The role of First Lady diminishes strong women

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

NOW THAT SHE IS NO LONGER presiding over the East Wing in the White House, Michelle Obama is grateful for the little things. One of them is toast, or rather toast she makes herself. As she recounts in her mega best-selling memoir, Becoming, nothing feels more liberating than tiptoeing to the kitchen of her own home and making toast, specifically cheese toast. It is a relief, she notes, to not have someone offer to make it for her, and a delight to walk to her back porch and eat it, alone and in shorts and with the Secret Service a hundred yards away.

It is an endearing story, with its Oprah-endorsed (she told the story on Oprah’s “SuperSoul Conversations” podcast) appeal underscoring the everyone-loves-her charisma of the most admired woman in America. There is lots more of the same in Becoming; it is laden with curated-for-cuteness interludes. Indeed, sometimes you can almost hear the collective gasps of an invisible Oprah audience rise up from the page: they’re there when she tells of Barack staring at the ceiling one night in bed during their courtship and admitting he was thinking about “income inequality”; they cheer, too, when Michelle recounts how the couple was applauded by diners at a restaurant in New York when they went on a presidential date night; and they hem with smug approval when Michelle talks of laying down the law over family dinnertime at the East Wing regardless of what was going down at the West Wing.

More here.

Climate cooling a driver of Neanderthals’ extinction

Maddie Bender in Earth Magazine:

Neanderthals disappeared from Europe roughly 40,000 years ago, and scientists are still trying to figure out why. Did disease, climate change or competition with modern humans — or maybe a combination of all three — do them in? In a recent study, researchers offer new evidence from Eastern Europe that climate change was a major player in the Neanderthals’ disappearance. Our knowledge of Eastern Europe’s climate late in the Paleolithic has been informed largely by sediment cores from the Black Sea. However, it’s not clear that these marine records accurately represent conditions on land at the time, says Michael Staubwasser, a geochemist at the University of Cologne in Germany and lead author of the new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

To study Eastern Europe’s paleoclimate in more detail, Staubwasser and his colleagues analyzed cave deposits called speleothems from two caves in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. Ratios of carbon and oxygen isotopes preserved in successive layers of the speleothems offer records of regional temperatures and precipitation during the Paleolithic. The team identified two periods of cooling resulting in temperature drops of 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius each about 44,000 and 40,000 years ago. The timing of these cooling periods matched with long absences of Neanderthal tools in the archaeological record. Based on these so-called sterile layers, the researchers suggested that the cold might have caused the Neanderthals’ disappearance from Europe.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The One Day

We were behind on the job
so waited out the rain in the pickup.
Because the backhoe would mire
he shouldered the four-foot pipe joints
and brought them to us in the ditch.
The red mud clutched and tugged at his boots
and Bill laughed at his “Swan Lake”
as he fought through, lurching and staggering
when the mud would suddenly let go.
But he kept them coming, lugging the red joints
to us and then slogging back for another
while we slid on the gasket and fit the pipes together.
You can see how, pushing like that, he wound up,
two years later, with the tiny plastic piping of IVs
feeding into both arms and the three drainage tubes
snaking from under the patch on his chest.
His skin was a shade away from being same as the sheet
when I saw him in the ICU,
and he couldn’t have lifted the drinking straw
on the bedside tray.
But that one day he brought two hundred yards of pipe
and even the red earth couldn’t stop him.

by Michael Chitwood
from My Laureate’s Lasso

The Real Secret of Youth Is Complexity

Lewis A. Lipsitz in Nautilus:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” Henry David Thoreau exhorted in his 1854 memoir Walden, in which he extolled the virtues of a “Spartan-like” life. Saint Thomas Aquinas preached that simplicity brings one closer to God. Isaac Newton believed it leads to truth. The process of simplification, we’re told, can illuminate beauty, strip away needless clutter and stress, and help us focus on what really matters. It can also be a sign of aging. Youthful health and vigor depend, in many ways, on complexity. Bones get strength from elaborate scaffolds of connective tissue. Mental acuity arises from interconnected webs of neurons. Even seemingly simple bodily functions like heartbeat rely on interacting networks of metabolic controls, signaling pathways, genetic switches, and circadian rhythms. As our bodies age, these anatomic structures and physiologic processes lose complexity, making them less resilient and ultimately leading to frailty and disease.

To understand this loss, we must first define what we mean by “complexity” in the scientific sense. Consider a Rube Goldberg machine, in which one action leads to another, then another, and so on in linear fashion to finally, say, scratch one’s back or bring a napkin to one’s mouth. Although this over-engineered contraption may look complicated, it’s actually quite simple: A given input always produces the same output. Its simplicity makes its behavior easy to predict. It also makes the system vulnerable because a single break in the chain will undermine its entire function. A complex process, in contrast, involves multiple different components interacting across multiple scales in time and space. Because these interactions are nonlinear, outputs are not proportional to inputs and thus are more erratic and unpredictable.

More here.

A Study on Driverless-Car Ethics Offers a Troubling Look Into Our Values

Caroline Lester in The New Yorker:

Today, cars with semi-autonomous features are already on the road. Automatic parallel parking has been commercially available since 2003. Cadillac allows drivers to go hands-free on pre-approved routes. Some B.M.W. S.U.V.s can be equipped with, for an additional seventeen-hundred dollars, a system that takes over during “monotonous traffic situations”—more colloquially known as traffic jams. But a mass-produced driverless car remains elusive. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a sliding scale that ranked cars on their level of autonomy. The vast majority of vehicles are still at level zero. A car at level four would be highly autonomous in basic situations, like highways, but would need a human operator. Cars at level five would drive as well as or better than humans, smoothly adapting to rapid changes in their environments, like swerving cars or stray pedestrians. This would require the vehicles to make value judgments, including in versions of a classic philosophy thought experiment called the trolley problem: if a car detects a sudden obstacle—say, a jackknifed truck—should it hit the truck and kill its own driver, or should it swerve onto a crowded sidewalk and kill pedestrians? A human driver might react randomly (if she has time to react at all), but the response of an autonomous vehicle would have to be programmed ahead of time. What should we tell the car to do?

More here.

Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong

Jason Hickel in The Guardian:

Last week, as world leaders and business elites arrived in Davos for the World Economic ForumBill Gates tweeted an infographic to his 46 million followers showing that the world has been getting better and better. “This is one of my favourite infographics,” he wrote. “A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved over the past two centuries.”

Of the six graphs – developed by Max Roser of Our World in Data – the first has attracted the most attention by far. It shows that the proportion of people living in poverty has declined from 94% in 1820 to only 10% today. The claim is simple and compelling. And it’s not just Gates who’s grabbed on to it. These figures have been trotted out in the past year by everyone from Steven Pinker to Nick Kristof and much of the rest of the Davos set to argue that the global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone. Pinker and Gates have gone even further, saying we shouldn’t complain about rising inequality when the very forces that deliver such immense wealth to the richest are also eradicating poverty before our very eyes.

It’s a powerful narrative. And it’s completely wrong.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


I found the blue jay on the driveway
under the pink drunk Czechoslovakian-
grandma-planted peonies which were
under the restrained Scotch pine.
The bird’s nape was wide open.
You could kaleidoscope-look
into its neck and see rubber bands
leading to its complex brain.
You could see everywhere
it had ever flown: chaparral, scrub-oak
woodlands, coniferous & oak forests. There
were nuts, & insects, & seeds, & amphibians,
& even a piece or two of snake.
There was a cache of foil-bright objects, &
sounds: zreeks & shook, shook, shook & all
the colors of sex and death. I bent to it,
picked it up and brought it to my heart
like the strange forest pioneer women who took
abandoned bear cubs to their bare breasts
and rock-nursed them in front
of cabin fires until the cubs could live
on their own. I have not often since
had such patience. But then with that
found jay I stroked its wingbars & flight
feathers; I memorized its eye-rings, & crown,
wing coverts, & eye-stripes. And with weeks
and water, food, and breath
I brought it back to flight. For that
short summer I loved it more than myself,
enough to let it go. For months it would not.
Every time I went outside, it flew streetlight
straight to my head or shoulder
where it easy perched. There are photos
of me teenaged giving it milk-blue
bowls of water and photos of me bikini sun-
bathing, the blue jay on my then-
tan, flat belly, the jay feeling deceivingly
light as the first intimate gift-flesh touch
of love, as the children who swell and fall
from our love-soaked bodies, deceiving
as the hollow-boned, song-filled birds
that daily blue-grass drop dream feather
trails throughout our skin-heavy days.

by Susan Firer
from Rattle #16, Winter 2001

American Evangelicalism has varieties — and these are the ones you should be worried about

Sarah Burris in AlterNet:

A new report from the Center for Religion and Civil Culture at the University of Southern California revealed that evangelical Christians can be divided into five different sects. “The Varieties of American Evangelicalism,” detailed the ways in which the community has managed to divide, thanks in part, to President Donald Trump, The Christian Postcited. The five groups are described as Trump-vangelicals, Neo-fundamentalist evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians, and Peace and Justice evangelicals.

Trump-vangelicals are exactly what many think of when they picture political evangelical Christians. The Post described them as a kind of “Christian nationalist” serving as Trump’s base. They’re primarily white, with only a few Latino or black pastors. “They value access to political power and many believe God chose and blessed Trump in order to ‘make American great again.’”

Neo-fundamentalists can also be folded into the Trump-loving group of evangelicals, the study concluded. The difference is that they still maintain some semblance of their Christian values and distance themselves from the president’s “moral failings.” They focus on understanding their theology and being more personally moral.

iVangelicals sound exactly like the name. The megachurch movement helped spur them on and they aren’t as politically active as the other groups. They tend to be conservative, but they focus more on being non-partisan. Pastors like Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are good examples of iVangelicals ministering to mostly white suburbanites.

More here.

The twenty minutes in 1966 that created the Internet

From Delanceyplace.com:

In 1966, Robert “Bob” Taylor, an employee at the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, had an insight that led to the creation of the internet: “[Bob Taylor’s] most enduring legacy, however, was … a leap of intuition that tied together everything else he had done. This was the ARPANET, the precursor of today’s Internet.

“Taylor’s original model of a nationwide computer network grew out of his observation that time-sharing was starting to promote the formation of a sort of nationwide computing brotherhood (at this time very few members were women). Whether they were at MIT, Stanford, or UCLA, researchers were all looking for answers to the same general questions. ‘These people began to know one another, share a lot of information, and ask of one another, “How do I use this? Where do I find that?”‘ Taylor recalled. ‘It was really phenomenal to see this computer become a medium that stimulated the formation of a human community.’

“There was still a long way to go before reaching that ideal, however. The community was less like a nation than a swarm of tribal hamlets, often mutually unintelligible or even mutually hostile. Design differences among their machines kept many groups digitally isolated from the others. The risk was that each institution would develop its own unique and insular culture, like related species of birds evolving inde­pendently on islands in a vast uncharted sea. Pondering how to bind them into a larger whole, Taylor sought a way for all groups to interact via their computers, each island community enjoying constant access to the others’ machines as though they all lived on one contiguous virtual continent.

More here.

How the Right Is Using Venezuela to Reorder Politics

Greg Grandin in The Nation:

Donald Trump has been hot for Venezuela for some time now. In the summer of 2017, Trump, citing George H.W. Bush’s 1989–90 invasion of Panama as a positive precedent, repeatedly pushed his national-security staff to launch a military assault on the crisis-plagued country. Trump was serious. He wanted to know: Why couldn’t the United States just invade? He brought up the idea in meeting after meeting.

His military and civilian advisers, along with foreign leaders, forcefully dismissed the proposal. So, according to NBC, he outsourced Venezuela policy to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who, along with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, began coordinating with the Venezuelan opposition. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence called on Venezuelans to rise up and overthrow the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. On Wednesday, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the heretofore unknown 35-year-old Juan Guaidó (whose political godfather is, according to The Washington Post, jailed far-right leader Leopoldo López), declared himself president. Guaidó was quickly recognized by Washington, followed by Canada; a number of powerful Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia; and the United Kingdom.

More here.

It’s time to rewrite the narrative of “Trump Country”

Elizabeth Catte in the Boston Review:

Political veterans such as Pelosi and Israel think that the cornerstones of the emerging left platform—housing as a human right, criminal justice reform, Medicare for all, tuition-free public colleges and trade schools, a federal jobs guarantee, abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and for-profit prisons, campaign finance reform, and a Green New Deal—might perform well in urban centers but not so much elsewhere. Appalachia has become symbolic of the forces that gave us Trump. After all, his pandering to white racial anxiety did find purchase here. His fantasies to make America great again center on our dying coal industry. And the region’s conservative voters, who have been profiled endlessly, have been a reliable stand-in for all Trump voters, absorbing the outrage of progressive readers. But what Pelosi and Israel see as common sense and pragmatism can also be interpreted as tired oversimplifications and a failure of imagination.

We remain attached, after all, to narratives that have worked very hard to simplify and neatly divide the state of the union: blue cities, red rural areas, a few swing suburbs. “In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties,” sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in Strangers in Their Own Land (2016). Indeed, the biggest gift that the left has given the right since 2016 is not a few avowed socialists but the myth that Trump voters are inscrutable and monolithic.

More here.

Israeli Scientists: “We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer”

Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman in the Jerusalem Post:

The potentially game-changing anti-cancer drug is based on SoAP technology, which belongs to the phage display group of technologies. It involves the introduction of DNA coding for a protein, such as an antibody, into a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria. That protein is then displayed on the surface of the phage. Researchers can use these protein-displaying phages to screen for interactions with other proteins, DNA sequences and small molecules.

In 2018, a team of scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work on phage display in the directed evolution of new proteins – in particular, for the production of antibody therapeutics.

AEBi is doing something similar but with peptides, compounds of two or more amino acids linked in a chain. According to Morad, peptides have several advantages over antibodies, including that they are smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce and regulate.

More here.

How People Become Radicalized

Scott Atran in Scientific American:

With support from Minerva Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense and National Science Foundation, we recently published the first neuroimaging study of a radicalizing population. The research used ethnographic surveys and psychological analysis to identify 535 young Muslim men in and around Barcelona—where ISIS-supporting jihadis killed 13 people and wounded 100 more in the city center in August 2017.

Half of these young men (267) scored higher that the other half (268) on all measures of vulnerability to recruitment into violent extremism. From the more vulnerable group, 38 men, second-generation immigrants of Moroccan origin who had already “expressed a willingness to engage in or facilitate violence associated with jihadist causes,” agreed to have their brains scanned.

The young men selected for the neuroimaging study then played a ball-throwing game (Cyberball) with fellow Spaniards, and half of them were abruptly and deliberately excluded from being passed the ball. Their brains were then scanned while asking them questions about behavior and policies they considered sacred and inviolable (e.g., forbidding cartoons of the Prophet, preventing gay marriage) as well non-sacred but important values (e.g., women wearing the veil, unrestricted construction of mosques).

More here.