The Demon and the Reverend: How Doubt Unites Us

by Jochen Szangolies

Thomas Bayes and Rational Belief

Bayes’ theorem in popular culture: the Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper trying to estimate his total lifespan

When we are presented with two alternatives, but are uncertain which to choose, a common way to break the deadlock is to throw a coin. That is, we leave the outcome open to chance: we trust that, if the coin is fair, it will not prefer either alternative—thereby itself mirroring our own indecision—yet yield a definite outcome.

This works, essentially, because we trust that a fair coin will show heads as often as it will show tails—more precisely, over sufficiently many trials, the frequency of heads (or tails) will approach 1/2. In this case, this is what’s meant by saying that the coin has a 50% probability of coming up heads.

But probabilities aren’t always that clear cut. For example, what does it mean to say that there’s a 50% chance of rain tomorrow? There is only one tomorrow, so we can’t really mean that over sufficiently many tomorrows, there will be an even ratio of rain/no rain. Moreover, sometimes we will hear—or indeed say—things like ‘I’m 90% certain that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon’.

In such cases, it is more appropriate to think of the quoted probabilities as being something like a degree of belief, rather than related to some kind of ratio of occurrences. That is, probability in such a case quantifies belief in a given hypothesis—with 1 and 0 being the edge cases where we’re completely convinced that it is true or false, respectively.

Beliefs, however, unlike frequencies, are subject to change: the coin will come up heads half the time tomorrow just as well as today, while if I believe that Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon, and learn that he was, in fact, a famous Jazz musician, I will change my beliefs accordingly (provided I act rationally).

The question of how one should adapt—update, in the most common parlance—one’s beliefs given new data is addressed in the most famous legacy of the Reverend Thomas Bayes, an 18th century Presbyterian minister. As a Nonconformist, dissent and doubt were perhaps baked into Bayes’ background; a student of logic as well as theology, he wrote defenses of both God’s benevolence and Isaac Newton’s formulation of calculus. His most lasting contribution, however, would be a theorem that gives a precisely quantifiable means of how evidence should influence our beliefs. Read more »

Work and time

by Emrys Westacott

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a great of suffering and has disrupted millions of lives. Few people welcome this kind of disruption; but as many have already observed, it can be the occasion for reflection, particularly on aspects of our lives that are called into question, appear in a new light, or that we were taking for granted but whose absence now makes us realize were very precious. For many people, work, which is so central to their lives, is one of the things that has been especially disrupted. The pandemic has affected how they do their job, how they experience it, or whether they even still have a job at all. For those who are working from home rather than commuting to a workplace shared with co-workers, the new situation is likely to bring a new awareness of the relation between work and time. So let us reflect on this.

In ‘The Superannuated Man,’ Charles Lamb writes,

that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s times, not his.

This is a basic and obvious reason that many people resent having to go to work at all. Work takes up time, and time, as many sages have observed, is supremely valuable, irreplaceable, priceless. It is precious because we each know that we are granted only a limited amount of it.

Time is, in the words of Ben Franklin, “the stuff life is made of.” So insofar as work consumes your time, it consumes your life. If your work is what you really want to do, this is not a problem. But if much of the time when you are working–whether you are selling your services to someone else for an agreed number of hours or drudging away at home–you would really prefer to be doing something else, then your working hours represent an enormous sacrifice. You are using up your supply of a decidedly finite, non-renewable resource. Read more »

Choosing for the Children: Parenting in Times of Uncertainty

by Robyn Repko Waller

© Robyn Repko Waller

Lack of choice is frustrating,  but sometimes choice — choosing for others — can be equally daunting

This August parents and guardians of children across the country are facing unenviable decisions about childcare and school in the time of COVID. Carers of school-age kids have been surveyed by the school district, if they are lucky, as to their preferences for the fall term: Would you prefer that Kid to return to face-to-face instruction, attending class with their teacher and friends, all while social distancing in masks? Or would you rather Kid learn remotely, in your home via Zoom class meetings and online apps? Perhaps you prefer to homeschool Kid this year? 

And then comes the long-awaited roll-out of the official school reopening plans: For some, there are disappointingly limited options, only the course of delivery chosen by the district or institution; that or homeschool. But, for some, there are more options: Kid can learn in the classroom, remote, or be homeschooled. It’s up to you, the parent or guardian. You’ve been afforded the gift of freedom of choice (unless those free will skeptics are right about our reality)! 

Now there are numerous ways in which this freedom of choice is problematic — or  perhaps isn’t actually a freedom of choice in the first place. These complicating factors of childcare have been much discussed in recent months: The reality on the ground is that COVID-related childcare changes have exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities, especially for those with essential or essentially in-person jobs, single parents, or those without back-up carers. On the one hand, those parents face job loss (and so critical income) if reliable workday care is not available, and on the other, they must send children back to f2f schooling even if they don’t believe it is wise to do so. Learning pods — small groups of children with private instruction — aren’t an option for most considering the cost. In this way, the choices made aren’t from an expansive freedom of choice.  Read more »

The Gait of Water-Nymphs

by Eric Miller


What was it, again, that, by 1877, Thomas H. Huxley decided to call the voice box of a bird? Syrinx. He alludes to a tale from Ovid.

Rough Arcadia’s peremptory god, Pan, bears a name proclaiming an appetite that would have everything. Now he wants sex with Syrinx. The nymph refuses. She sprints as far as the marshy bank of the river Ladon, asks her sisters to rescue her, and (perhaps with their assistance) evasively adopts the shape of a hollow reed. Frustrated of his object—using beeswax as connective matter—Pan confects his typifying pipe from the stems of the calamus plant that Syrinx has become. Unlike Pan, a bird carries its pipe internally. Its wild music pleasingly resembles that of Pan’s instrument, but enfranchised or escaped to an original nymph-like liberty. In a bird, the air resounds independently of human artifice. It is worth listening while the song lasts.

Does the name syrinx conjure not just Ovid, but the reed, also, that shakes in an oboe’s mouthpiece, a chanter’s, a bassoon’s? Located, often, where the trachea branches, equipped with a tympanum on the right side and on the left, a bird’s cartilaginous syrinx can produce two separate voices—the note held by neither a harmonic of the other—as the singer breathes out. Jean Dorst explains that an avian ear responds ten times faster than ours and, further, that the Wood Thrush of North America, in whistling, may alter its pitch—its frequency of vibration—two hundred times per second. I used to hear these thrushes in Toronto. Formerly, they nested near the house where I was raised. Read more »

Review: An Enticing Little Greek Horror Film

by Alexander C. Kafka

Here’s to your health: Danae (Anastasia Rafaella Konidi) introduces Panos (Prometheus Aleifer) to the not-so-simple life.

“The forest is deep. It’s easy for those unfamiliar with its ways to find themselves lost.”

So says a beguiling young woman, Danae (Anastasia Rafaella Konidi), who lives in a tumble-down cabin in the woods. She says this in caution to Panos (Prometheus Aleifer), a doctor who has just moved to a nearby village. Panos, in a moment of cell-phone distraction, nearly ran her over and has tracked her down to see if she’s OK. 

She’s not. Marring her wholesome beauty is an alarming intermittent skin condition, although it doesn’t seem to bother her very much. And her father, an old, long-bearded flesh-and-bone maniac, molests her. 

Panos wants to go seek help for her. After all, as he tells a villager, “we’re not living in the Middle Ages.” But some women are hard to leave. Very. 

Panos and Danae become, as the film’s title reflects, Entwined.

Danae speaks in a peculiarly old-fashioned, literary manner. Obsessed with keeping her hearth fire lit, she lives primitively and seems not of this time, nor of any specific time really. She dresses in loose white skirts and blouses, cooks simple fare, gathers branches, and listens to an eerie violin tune on an ancient, warped phonograph. She’s hospitable, tender, and has a pantheistic reverence for her surroundings. 

As Danae casts her spell over Panos, so this defiantly minimalistic, low-budget Greek horror fantasy, director Minos Nikolakakis’s first feature, casts its spell over us. 

Its screenplay by John de Holland, who also plays Panos’s half-brother George, is willfully gaunt, though it unmistakably underlines the idea that science can’t explain everything.

Cinematographer Thodoros Mihopoulos brings the woods very much alive — beautiful and more than a bit threatening. Composer Sotiris Debonos’s score combines scratchy strings, neo-baroque themes, and electronic atmospherics. These enhance the resonant tree creaks and bird calls mixed by editor Giorgos Georgopoulos into a hallucinogenic, lulling, primal embrace.

Every now and then we cut away to George, back in civilization and calling repeatedly to see what’s become of Panos. George’s wife assures him that Panos is probably doing just fine. 

After all, what horrible force could involuntarily isolate us so completely in the modern world? Add to the 2019 film’s chilling characteristics its power as premonition. 

“I need light, not prayers,” Panos irritably tells a muttering villager at a patient’s bedside. But as it turns out, the good doctor may need both.

Wine’s Very Own Imitation Game

by Dwight Furrow

I often hear it said that, despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, winemaking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If a wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And, of course, the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude “it’s only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what is in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it is not all that matters, and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås, in their book The Aesthetics of Wine, engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed, not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point), but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Read more »

Ecstasy; Or, Further Remarks on Cultural Appropriation

Justin E. H. Smith at his own blog:

Justin E. H. Smith

I recently published a short piece on cultural appropriation in Persuasion. Some of my fears about its reception quickly came true. Within hours of its posting, I had the singular misfortune of being linked approvingly by the odious cornball Ben Shapiro. In no time at all I was being followed by all manner of know-nothing right-wing riff-raff, people I do not respect and do not at all wish to affirm in their flimsy little construction of a belief system. This made me think it would be worthwhile to dilate somewhat more longwindedly on the topic here, in the hope of making it clear to those people the many respects in which I am not one of them, and also in the aim of reflecting a bit on how it is that we have arrived at this strange conjuncture, where defense of cultural appropriation is interpreted as a right-wing talking point, and on why I still believe it is essential to win it back from them.

I’ll say in passing, before getting to the main part of my reflection, that in part I blame the structures of information-flow, in which we are all forced to (pretend to) communicate today, for the automatic channeling of this topic to the side of the right. The algorithms on which the social-media parody of a public sphere operate are dichotomous in nature, and every statement has to be channeled in the one direction or the other. You can fight against these structural constraints, speaking your mind as your conscience dictates, etc., but all the forces are against you. Persuasion is itself an effort to defy the dichotomy, and so far, from what I have seen, it is maintaining a rather delicate balancing act. As for me, I find that my conscience comes through most clearly when I am writing on my own website— but this is only because it stands somewhat further apart from the structures that support all media interventions in the proper sense. Which is to say that the only way for me to say what I really mean, and not to be misunderstood, is to accept that I will be read by far fewer people.

More here.

A stepping stone for measuring quantum gravity


A group of theoretical physicists, including two physicists from the University of Groningen, have proposed a ‘table-top’ device that could measure gravity waves. However, their actual aim is to answer one of the biggest questions in physics: is gravity a quantum phenomenon? The key element for the device is the quantum superposition of large objects. Their design was published in New Journal of Physics on 6 August.

Already in the preprint stage, the paper that was written by Ryan J. Marshman, Peter F. Barker and Sougato Bose (University College London, UK), Gavin W. Morley (University of Warwick, UK) and Anupam Mazumdar and Steven Hoekstra (University of Groningen, the Netherlands) was hailed as a new method to measure . Instead of the current kilometers-sized LIGO and VIRGO detectors, the physicists working in the UK and in the Netherlands proposed a table-top detector. This device would be sensitive to lower frequencies than the current detectors and it would be easy to point them to specific parts of the sky—in contrast, the current detectors only see a fixed part.

More here.

Confessions of a Xinjiang Camp Teacher

Ruth Ingram in The Diplomat:

Qelbinur Sedik has witnessed wanton cruelty, gratuitous violence, humiliation, torture, and death meted out to her people on an unimaginable scale — but has been forced to keep the crushing secret until now.

When she first arrived in Europe, she was so traumatized she could barely speak about her ordeal. Then she found the Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation (DUHRF), where people patiently listened through her many tears. The DUHRF wrote down her story, calling it “Qelbinur Sidik: A Twisted Life.” Through it, she now feels ready to tell the world what she saw in the internment camps of Xinjiang.

This account is based on excerpts from the memoir and my own interviews with her.

More here.

A lauded book about antiracism is wrong on its facts and in its assumptions

Coleman Hughes in City Journal:

Ibram X. Kendi

In 2016, Ibram X. Kendi became the youngest person ever to win the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His surprise bestseller, Stamped from the BeginningThe Definitive History of Racist Ideas, cast him in his role as an activist-historian, ambitiously attempting to make 600 years of racial history digestible in 500 pages. In his follow-up, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi––now 37, a Guggenheim fellow, and a contributing writer at The Atlantic––reveals his personal side, weaving together memoir, polemic, and instruction as he invites the reader to join him on the frontlines of what I like to call the War on Racism.

If the book has a core thesis, it is that this war admits of no neutral parties and no ceasefires. For Kendi, “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea,” only “racist ideas and antiracist ideas.” His Manichaean outlook extends to policy. “Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity,” Kendi proclaims, defining the former as racist policies and the latter as antiracist ones.

Every policy? That question was posed to Kendi by Vox cofounder Ezra Klein, who gave the hypothetical example of a capital-gains tax cut. Most of us think of the capital-gains tax, if we think about it at all, as a policy that is neutral as regards questions of race or racism. But given that blacks are underrepresented among stockowners, Klein asked, would it be racist to support a capital-gains tax cut? “Yes,” Kendi answered, without hesitation.

More here.

Comedy of Heirs

Eileen Myles in Bookforum:

TRISTRAM SHANDY sailed into eighteenth-century literary history alongside such bawdy picaresques as Tom Jones. But unlike the rest Laurence Sterne’s creation is an antinovel: It starts and stops, has entire pages that aren’t even text—blank or solid black or marbled or filled with lines and swirls that indicate the wayward shapes of the narrative (at such moments it seems like what Sterne really is is a concrete poet). On the occasions when the author doesn’t want you to know what naughty thing he’s saying (though he quit being a minister to write, Sterne was still a modest man) there are heaving piles of asterisks. By such means—explained in an insanely arch but persistently conversational manner—you get that the book in your hands is alive and it will turn any whimsical damn way he wants. Laurence Sterne is a funny guy and there is a devastating presentness to this work.

The list of Shandean admirers includes Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, James Joyce, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace. All the fuss is because so early on in English literature there was this upstart minister laughing at the act of writing and metonymically he’s laughing at life itself. And it’s the heaven of this book for me on both counts.

Yet in the midst of Tristram Shandy’s wily form-defying nature—there’s still no agreement as to whether the book is a novel at all—there is this blatant subject matter that can be variously identified as castration anxiety, (wounded) masculinity, impotence, fear of female genitalia and power, and an anticipation of, or even the fact of, being cuckolded. And kind of not minding it. One critic pointed out that every male is impotent in Tristram Shandy, including the town bull who ends the story.

More here.

The Zombie Ants: When ants are accidentally marked as dead, they find a way to rejoin the living

Edward O. Wilson in The New York Times:

Every corpse is an ecosystem. Each fallen bird, landed fish, beached whale, decomposing log, plucked flower is destined to change from a conglomerate of giant molecules, the most complex system in the universe known, into clouds and drifts of much smaller organic molecules. The process of decay is driven by scavengers, in nature beginning with vultures and blowflies and ending with fungi and bacteria. What do ants do with their dead? In many species, if a colony member is badly injured in the field it is carried home and eaten. If injured only moderately, it may be allowed to live and heal. Most ant warriors that die in battle outside the nest never return. They instead fill the jaws and beaks of predators. An ant that dies from old age or disease inside the nest simply comes to a standstill or else falls to the side with her legs crumpled up. In most cases, she is allowed to stay in place. After, at most, a few days, a nest mate picks her up and carries her out of the nest or to a refuse pile in one of the chambers within the nest. In this cemetery chamber is also dumped miscellaneous refuse, including the inedible remains of prey. There is no ceremony. It occurred to me early in my studies of chemical communication in ants that the bodies of the dead are likely recognized by the odor of their decomposition. Of all the substances uniquely present in dead insects, one or more must be the signal that triggers corpse disposal by ants. If live ants demonstrably use such molecules to release other instinctive social behavior in the service of the colony, why not in death also?

…As a first step, I made extracts of decomposing ants. I put droplets of this material on “dummies” of dead ants made of flecks of balsam about the size of workers. When these were dropped into nests of laboratory colonies of harvesting ants, each was picked up and taken speedily to the refuse pile.

…So I asked a new question: What would happen if I daubed a live, healthy worker with one of the funereal substances? The result was gratifying. Worker ants that met their daubed nest mates picked them up, carried them alive and kicking to the cemetery, dropped them there, and left. The behavior of the undertaker was relatively calm, even casual. The dead belong with the dead. The daubed ants did what you and I would do if we were turned into zombies: We would take a bath.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Two Excerpts from Tomas Tranströmer

Two truths approach each other. One comes from within,
one comes from without—and where they meet you have the chance
to catch a look at yourself.
Noticing what is about to happen, you shout desperately: “Stop!
Anything, anything, as long as I don’t have to know myself.”
……………………………..………..—Selected Poems, 1954-1986

I am welcomed aboard–
a canoe of the darkest wood. It is extremely unsteady, even
when I crouch on my heels. The act of balance. If the heart
is on the left, lean the head slightly to the right, keep
your pockets empty, make no big gestures—leave all
the rhetoric behind. That’s it: rhetoric is impossible here.
The canoe skims over the water.
………………………………Windows & Stones, Selected Poems

“Savings Glut” Fables and International Trade Theory: An Autopsy

Lance Taylor in INET Economics:

The structure of the US economy began to shift markedly 40 or 50 years ago. The profit share of income grew across business cycles at 0.4% per year, or by more than 20% (that is, by eight percentage points) over five decades. Driven by rising profits, the size distribution of income shifted strongly toward households in the top one percent. The economy became increasingly dualistic, with big employment increases in low wage/low productivity sectors (Taylor with Ömer, 2020).

Foreign trade was part of this transformation. On the world stage Japan, Germany, and more recently, China exported far more than they import, creating gluts of traded goods and services. They accordingly built up stocks of “saving” which took the form of newly acquired liabilities (bonds and even money) from the rest of the world. For the USA, the process worked in reverse. The economy became an international sump with imports exceeding exports, financed by issuing liabilities such as Treasury bonds or dissaving, thus turning the country into a large net debtor.

Two decades after the process started, former Federal Reserve Governor Ben Bernanke was a canary in the world trade coal mine when he announced the presence of a “global saving glut.” The glut had already led to the 1985 Plaza Accord to devalue the dollar. By the turn of this century it was scarcely a surprise.

Bernanke (2015) is a recent reassessment, one of several shambolic mainstream explanations for the foreign trade situation. A new INET working paper (Taylor, 2020) describes their incoherence, employing Keynesian open economy macroeconomics.

More here.

130 Degrees

Illustration by Anders Nilsen

Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books:

So now we have some sense of what it’s like: a full-on global-scale crisis, one that disrupts everything. Normal life—shopping for food, holding a wedding, going to work, seeing your parents—shifts dramatically. The world feels different, with every assumption about safety and predictability upended. Will you have a job? Will you die? Will you ever ride a subway again, or take a plane? It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

The upheaval that has been caused by Covid-19 is also very much a harbinger of global warming. Because humans have fundamentally altered the physical workings of planet Earth, this is going to be a century of crises, many of them more dangerous than what we’re living through now. The main question is whether we’ll be able to hold the rise in temperature to a point where we can, at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization. The latter is a distinct possibility, as Mark Lynas’s new book, Our Final Warning, makes painfully clear.

Lynas is a British journalist and activist, and in 2007, in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate conference, he published a book titled Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. His new volume echoes that earlier work, which was by no means cheerful. But because scientists have spent the last decade dramatically increasing understanding of the Earth’s systems, and because our societies wasted that decade by pouring ever more carbon into the atmosphere, this book—impeccably sourced and careful to hew to the wide body of published research—is far, far darker.

More here.

The Enigma of Gloom: On George Scialabba’s “How To Be Depressed”

Gerald Russello in LA Review of Books:

The physical or mental causes of depression still evade definitive analysis. But Scialabba argues that economic conditions can certainly exacerbate existing depression or trigger someone into a depressive episode. In one of its guises, depression makes people feel worthless, in both the cultural and economic senses. Unemployment can move someone from “the merely miserable” into actual, clinical depression.

The recent coronavirus pandemic that brought unemployment claims to record numbers has thrown this vulnerability into sharp relief. Worries over mental health have skyrocketed; the Washington Post reported that the pandemic has caused a “historic” rise in mental health issues. So, in this sense, depression is indeed an economic issue; as Scialabba wryly notes, one’s susceptibility to depression, like the skills and talents one may have at birth, are apportioned largely at random.

Suffering exists, and will exist. Money, however, and our ability to use it to ameliorate that suffering, is not random and can be directed where it is needed. Better mental health services, or a wider social safety net, might have ameliorative effects on people balanced on the edge. The suffering of many caused by depression, diagnosed or otherwise, “would also have been lessened by crumbs of that wealth”; transferred to the “already rich” over the last four decades. Scialabba’s own life is testament to that; although he remained generally consistently employed, he has never been financially secure, a concern that has only grown over his years of treatment.

More here.

The Policy Bedrock of a True New Deal

Felicia Wong in Boston Review:

4. Federal Charters for Corporations

The relationship between corporations and the American public is broken. In good times, companies reward executives and shareholders, and in bad times, companies expect and receive bailouts. Workers are rarely the beneficiaries, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Corporations derive their very existence—and the special advantages that come with it, like limited liability for shareholders—from the government. But for the last five decades they have steadily strayed from behavior that builds shared prosperity toward practices that maximize profit extraction and prioritize short-term profits over long-term stability. U.S. corporations started to shift toward this “shareholder value maximization” approach in the 1980s. Instead of balancing the needs of all their stakeholders, corporations focused narrowly on sending as much money as possible to shareholders. That shift contributed to a variety of economic harms: wage stagnation for workers, declining long-term investments and innovation, and slowing worker productivity.

More here.