The GameStop Squeeze and the Fable of the Bees

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

Do bees have generals? Do they constitute a nation? A tribe? Perhaps a clan?

How we answer these questions may reveal something about our implicit convictions regarding what might be called “the metaphysics and politics of the swarm”. What is it exactly that forms when several individual entities, human or animal or something different still, come together after the manner of the bees, and act as one? And what are the political potentials and hazards of human individuals in particular coming together in this way?

Answering these questions in turn may help us to make some sense of the political promise of such frenzies as we have seen over the past few days, when a concerted effort on the part of the lads from Reddit drove up the price of GameStop stock, squeezing the hedge-fund managers who had hoped to short it, costing Wall Street billions of dollars, and sending the market into chaos.

More here.

The Search for Dark Matter Is Dramatically Expanding

Charlie Wood in Quanta:

Ever since astronomers reached a consensus in the 1980s that most of the mass in the universe is invisible — that “dark matter” must glue galaxies together and gravitationally sculpt the cosmos as a whole — experimentalists have hunted for the nonluminous particles.

They first set out in pursuit of a heavy, sluggish form of dark matter called a weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP — the early favorite candidate for the cosmos’s missing matter because it could solve another, unrelated puzzle in particle physics. Over the decades, teams of physicists set up ever larger targets, in the form of huge crystals and multi-ton vats of exotic liquids, hoping to catch the rare jiggle of an atom when a WIMP banged into it.

But these detectors have stayed quiet, and physicists are increasingly contemplating a broader spectrum of possibilities. On the heavy end, they say the universe’s invisible matter could clump into black holes as heavy as stars. At the other extreme, dark matter could spread out in a fine mist of particles thousands of trillions of trillions of times lighter than electrons.

More here.

Free speech is about more than legal standards

Jacob Mchangama in Arc Digital:

After years of providing oxygen to the political guerrilla tactics of Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey finally decided that fanning the flames of violent insurrection through a firehose of incendiary falsehoods violated their terms of service (sort of).

From a purely legal point of view, Facebook and Twitter were on solid ground. The First Amendment might be the most protective free speech standard in the world, but this bulwark of liberty protects the social media platforms from government officials, not government officials from the platforms.

Since Facebook and Twitter are private entities, some liberals see no free speech issue at all with how they moderate user generated content distributed to billions of people across the world, many of whom rely heavily on social media for news and information.

In the specific context of Trump, the narrow legal purist understanding of free speech is seductive. Indeed, the muting of Trump feels almost cathartic after four years of incessant disinformation, petty grievances, and stab-in-the-back legends with Trump as the victim fighting heroically against the “Enemies of the People.”

However, the larger ecosystem needed for free speech to thrive does not begin or end with the law.

More here.

What the next editor of the Washington Post (or the New York Times) should tell reporters

Dan Froomkin in Salon:

Hi there!

It’s so nice to be here. I’m looking forward to working with all of you amazing reporters and editors. You’ve all shown you’re capable of incredible work, and I respect you enormously. But at the same time, my arrival here is an inflection point. It’s impossible to look out on the current state of political discourse in this country and believe we are succeeding in our core mission of creating an informed electorate. It’s impossible to look out at the looming and in some cases existential challenges facing our republic and our globe — among them the pandemic, the climate crisis, income inequality, racial injustice, the rise of disinformation and ethnic nationalism — and think that it’s OK for us to keep doing what we’ve been doing. So let me tell you a bit about what we need to do differently.

First of all, we’re going to rebrand you. Effective today, you are no longer political reporters (and editors); you are government reporters (and editors). That’s an important distinction, because it frees you to cover what is happening in Washington in the context of whether it is serving the people well, rather than which party is winning. Historically, we have allowed our political journalism to be framed by the two parties. That has always created huge distortions, but never quite as badly as it does today. Two-party framing limits us to covering what the leaders of those two sides consider in their interests. And, because it is — appropriately! — not our job to take sides in partisan politics, we have felt an obligation to treat them both more or less equally.

Both parties are corrupted by money, which has badly perverted the debate for a long time. But one party, you have certainly noticed, has over the last decade or two descended into a froth of racism, grievance and reality-denial. Asking you to triangulate between today’s Democrats and today’s Republicans is effectively asking you to lobotomize yourself. I’m against that.

In reality, the solutions we need — and, indeed, the American common ground — sometimes lie outside the current Democratic-Republican axis, rather than at its middle, which opens up a world of interesting avenues for real journalism. Defining our job as “not taking sides between the two parties” has also empowered bad-faith critics to accuse us of bias when we are simply calling out the truth. We will not take sides with one political party or the other, ever. But we will proudly, enthusiastically, take the side of wide-ranging, fact-based debate.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Channels to fall asleep to

While shoe box to shoe box travels my childhood

Professionals roll garbage cans around a conference room
Half the size of a holding tank
Half the hope of a holding tank
Full of third world retail flattery
“nothing wrong with the blind leading the blind,”

………………………………………………….…….. we think they just said

…………………………… the entire train station crouches behind a piano player
……………………………… ……and why should Harlem not kill for its musicians
……………………………… ……………………………….………………..“He is in a dream”
……………………………… ……………………………………………………..“A spirit world”
……………………………… ………………………………….…“I should introduce myself”
……………………………… ……………………………………“And convince him to sleep”

porcelain epoch
succeeding for the most part
dying for the most part
married for the most part to its death

when a hostage has a hostage
that is u.s. education

stores detach their heads
and expect you to do the same when you enter

God says, “do not trust me in this room”
Two fascists walk into a bar
One says, “let’s make a baby.”
The other says, “let’s make three… and let the first one eat the other two.”

……………………………… ……………………..……………….…….your sky or mine
……………………………… …………………..………………………………….read from
……………………………… ……………..…………the book of pool room enemies

“I’m the best kind of square. Poor and in love with the 1960s. The first picture I ever
saw in my life faded from my storytelling a long time ago.”

Not even ten years old
And most of you are on my shoulders

……………………………… ………………….The store’s detached head smiled

casually be poor
teach yourself
how to get out of this room
and we’ll leave you enough blood
to turn off the lights
on your way out

casually be poor
.. they are all cops when you are poor

by Tony Eisen-Martin
Brooklyn Quarterly

What Indians Who’ve Known Poverty Think Of Netflix’s ‘The White Tiger’ Movie

Kamala Thiagarajan in NPR:

THE WHITE TIGER – Adarsh Gourav (Balram), ​Priyanka Chopra Jonas (Pinky), Rajkummar Rao ​ ​(Ashok) ​in ​THE WHITE TIGER​. Cr. ​SINGH TEJINDER / Netflix ​© ​2020

“Do we loathe our masters behind a façade of love, or do we love them behind a façade of loathing?”

This is just one of the questions that Balram Halwai, a poor, village-bred Indian boy and the central character of the movie The White Tiger, asks himself as he works as a chauffeur to a rich businessman in Delhi. The movie, newly released on Netflix, is an adaptation of the Booker Prize- winning debut novel of the same name by Indian author Aravind Adiga. Produced by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and directed by Ramin Bahrani, the film offers a grim tale of corruption and betrayal, examining the complex dynamics of the employer-servant relationships in India while delving into the country’s stark rich-poor divide and its class and caste issues. A predominant image in the movie is the rooster coop — a metaphor for the oppression of India’s poor: “The greatest thing to come out of this country … is the Rooster Coop. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers … They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”

…Not everyone feels the rooster coop image was an apt representation. Vaishali Shadangule, 42, founder of the fashion house Vaishali.S, left her hometown of Vidisha, about 500 miles from Mumbai, as a 17-year-old, with only the clothes on her back and the burning need to escape the limitations of a small town. Traveling ticketless on the train out of her hometown and headed for the northern Indian city of Bhopal, she had no money and no plan either. “I disliked the way the movie portrays poor people,” she says. “I thought it catered to the white Western gaze, reinforcing stereotypes that the poor are helpless.”

The overriding theme of the rooster coop in the movie is offensive and insulting, she says, because it dehumanizes poor people and implies that anyone born poor is subservient and servile.

More here.

From Revolution to Reformism

Adam Przeworski in Boston Review:

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Afterward, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was a widespread atmosphere of demoralization within the party. Nos hicieron hablar un idioma que no era el nuestro, he answered: “They made us speak a language that was not ours.”

Note that the secretary did not evoke the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, which significantly reduced the party’s industrial working class base. Nor did he refer to the emergence of television, which reduced the importance of the party machine in mobilizing that base. He also did not point to cultural transformations in Spanish society, which rendered new ideological dimensions politically salient. Instead, he identified the root of the party’s transformation in language—the language party leaders were expected to use to address their supporters, publicly interpret the world, and justify their policies. What was this language that was not “ours”?

To answer this question we have to go back in time and to venture beyond Spain. The two keywords of the socialist movements born in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century were “working class” and “social revolution,” where the latter was expected to realize the “ultimate goal” of abolishing the class system. Yet when socialist parties entered into electoral competition and, for the first time, gained parliamentary power in the aftermath of World War I, “ultimate goals” were not sufficient to mobilize electoral support or to govern. As political leaders, socialists had to offer a program of immediate improvements to the life conditions of the public. Moreover, socialists learned to dilute or obscure the language of class in order to win elections. While communists continued to adhere to “class contra class” strategy, socialists formed coalitions and fronts aimed at appealing to “the people.”

Thus reformism was born: the strategy of proceeding toward socialism by steps, through electoral expression of popular support.

More here.

Meritocracy and Its Discontents: The View from Outside Harvard Yard

Christopher Kutz in the LA Review of Books:

A FIERCE AND EMOTIONAL debate recently broke out among the first-year law students at UC Berkeley, where I teach. Because of the strain of remote learning during the pandemic, roughly half the class asked that the law school suspend ordinary grading (as we did last spring) and replace our letter grades with pass/fail grades. The other half of the class opposed this proposal in equally heartfelt terms.

It turned out that many advocates for keeping the letter grades were first-generation students and students of color, whom Berkeley enrolls in significant numbers. These students argued that grades give them a chance at competing for jobs. Without grades, they worried, potential employers would rely on stereotypes and hire those students who most resemble themselves.

Meritocracy looks different from different angles, and is easier to dismiss when you’re already sitting pretty.

This matter of angles and perspectives was apparent to me as I read the Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? The book is a jeremiad against meritocracy, taking Harvard as its model. It is a view of Harvard as seen from Harvard. For someone looking at Harvard from 3,000 miles away in California — or more often, looking at meritocracy in the public university system and therefore not looking at Harvard at all — things appear very different.

To Sandel, Harvard represents meritocracy run amok, epitomized by its less than five percent admissions rate. This meritocratic extremism imperils the common good by leaving the other 99.5 percent out in the cold, allocating wealth, power, and cultural prestige to a small elite of “winners,” and creating extreme political, economic, and cultural stratification and polarization in its wake.

To me, in contrast, not only is Harvard not much of a model of meritocracy but there are different and far more important sources for the polarization we are facing. The best hope of a solution to this polarization bypasses Harvard altogether.

More here.

Inflation, Specific and General

Andrew Elrod in Phenomenal World:

Until 1980, the annual rate of change of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the weighted measure of the cost of a basket of core consumer goods, increased at an accelerating pace in every business-cycle expansion, reaching double digits during the 1940s and 1970s. Inflation—its causes and consequences—was at the heart of economic debates throughout this period, when the discipline of macroeconomics took its current form. While we understand individual industry price changes in terms of supply, demand, and market power, our conceptual tools for understanding inflation remain weak. Neither monetarist attention to the “money supply” nor the institutionalist focus on the Phillips Curve have provided a reliable guide with which to construct macroeconomic policy: the relationship between the price level and the unemployment rate has attenuated with the decline of collective bargaining, and a more than eleven-fold increase in the sum of checking deposits, savings deposits, and cash on hand in the US since 1980 (the standard M2 measure of the money supply) has seen the annual increase in the CPI fall below four percent for all but a handful of the past forty years. Even the phenomenon implied by the term is the subject of confusion: Does it refer to the amount of money or debt in circulation, or to a rise in price and values? If the latter, which prices or values?

More here.

The Parallel Lives Of A Pair Of Romantics

Rachel Cooke at The Guardian:

This may be why I find the ambition of Jonathan Bate’s new book a little on the mad side. Crikey, but this is daring. Attempting to squeeze the short, dazzling lives of Fitzgerald and Keats, already so much written about, into one short volume, he asks a huge amount of himself, and of his reader. Flipping between 19th-century Hampstead and 20th-century Los Angeles, between Keats’s mooning after the barely outlined figure of Fanny Brawne and Fitzgerald’s tortured relationship with the altogether more vivid creation that was his wife, Zelda, has the potential to cause a certain amount of dizziness. I felt at moments as though I was caught between two lovers. When I was with Keats, I longed to get back to Fitzgerald; when I was with Fitzgerald, I would experience a sudden, fierce pang for Keats.

more here.

The Copenhagen Trilogy

Parul Sehgal at the NYT:

How does great literature — the Grade A, top-shelf stuff — announce itself to the reader?

Nabokov spoke of the shiver between the shoulder blades. Emily Dickinson required more persuasion. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” she wrote in a letter, “I know that is poetry.”

I’m sorry to say that I occasionally experience it as the dishonorable and squirrelly impulse to hoard the book in question, to keep it my secret. This can prove difficult, as you might imagine, given my line. All of which is to say, I bring news of Tove Ditlevsen’s suite of memoirs with the kind of thrill and reluctance that tells me this must be a masterpiece.

more here.

Saturday Poem

On the Bearing of Waitresses

Always I thought they suffered, the way they huffed
through the Benzedrine light of waffle houses,
hustling trays of omelets, gossiping by the grill,
or pruning passes like the too prodigal buds of roses,
and I imagined each come home to a trailer court,
the yard of bricked-in violets, the younger sister
pregnant and petulant at her manicure, the mother
with her white Bible, the father sullen in his corner.
Wasn’t that the code they telegraphed in smirks?
And wasn’t this disgrace, to be public and obliged,
observed like germs or despots about to be debunked?
Unlikely brides, apostles in the gospel of stereotypes,
their future was out there beyond the parked trucks,
between the beer joints and the sexless church,
the images we’d learned from hayseed troubadours—
perfume, grease, and the rending of polarizing loves.
But here in this men’s place, they preserved a faint
decorum of women and, when they had shuffled past us,
settled in that realm where the brain approximates
names and rounds off the figures under uniforms.
Not to be honored or despised, but to walk as spies would,
with almost alien poise in the imperium of our disregard,
to go on steadily, even on the night of the miscarriage,
to glide, quick smile, at the periphery of appetite.
Read more »

Ye olde Substack: publishing’s hot new business model has 17th-century origins

Tom Standage in 1843 Magazine:

As Twitter and Facebook become more acrimonious and less trusted, an older means to get information has made a comeback: the email newsletter. Chances are that newsletters make up a larger part of your media diet than they did a couple of years ago. You may even be paying for some of them. In recent months several journalists have left jobs at established publications to earn a living by asking their most loyal readers to subscribe to a personal email newsletter instead. Entrepreneurs, cookery writers and academics have also embraced this model. Who needs a publisher if you can sell your writing straight to your readers? Most of these people are established experts in a particular field. They have chosen to bypass the involvement of advertisers and algorithms in favour of the pleasingly straightforward approach of delivering their thoughts directly to the inboxes of paying subscribers. Writers with large online followings can earn a respectable income even if only a small fraction of their fans sign up (typically for $5 a month, or $50 a year).

Substack, the newsletter-publishing platform that has championed this new model, takes 10% of the proceeds in return for handling distribution and billing. Launching a Substack newsletter today is like launching a blog 20 years ago, or a podcast five years ago, with one important difference: people are actually getting paid.

There are some enviable success stories. Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, is thought to make more than $1m a year from her politics newsletter, “Letters from an American”. The New York Times recently described her as “by accident the most successful independent journalist in America”. Substack paid Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, an American news website, an advance of $250,000 when he left his job to concentrate on his newsletter, “Slow Boring”. Other journalists who’ve gone solo include Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Haley Nahman. In January Twitter bought Revue, a Dutch startup and rival to Substack. Your inbox could soon be stuffed with new newsletters.

More here.

The Dark Reality Behind Saudi Arabia’s Utopian Dreams

Robert Worth in The New York Times:

To the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia may look like a quasi-medieval kingdom where women still struggle for basic rights, where bearded clerics run the courts and where convicts are routinely beheaded by sword in public. But the Saudi monarchy — like its neighbors in Dubai and Abu Dhabi — has long cherished dreams of leapfrogging into a high-tech future. The last Saudi king created plans for six new cities in the desert, all billed as transformative steps toward a world beyond oil.

Now the Saudis have announced a fantasy that makes all their previous efforts look tame. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, released a short film in January outlining his plans for the Line, a postmodern ecotopia to be built on the kingdom’s northwest coast. It will be a narrow urban strip 106 miles long with no roads, no cars and no pollution. M.B.S., as the crown prince is known, plans to pour $500 billion into the Line and related projects, which is a lot of money even by Saudi standards. He calls the Line a “civilizational revolution” to be inhabited by one million people “from all over the world.” Why anyone would want to move there, and why a city should be shaped like a strand of capellini, is anyone’s guess.

To watch the crown prince’s promotional video is to be immersed in a distinctively Saudi form of arrogance, blending religious triumphalism and royal grandiosity. The film begins with a fast-moving montage of the 20th-century’s greatest scientific and technical breakthroughs, including an incongruous image of Saudi Arabia’s founding king — as if he’d been a Steve Jobs-style innovator rather than a camel​-riding desert warrior. Dates flash on the screen in a vintage font as we see images of the first commercial radio broadcast (1920), the first color TVs (1953), the first successful kidney transplant (1954), the first man on the moon (1969), the birth of the internet. After flicking past the glories of YouTube and virtual reality, the screen goes blank and the words appear, white on a black background: “What’s next?”

More here.

Bill and Melinda Gates: The year global health went local

Bill and Melinda Gates in Gates Notes:

We are writing this letter after a year unlike any other in our lifetimes.

Two decades ago, we created a foundation focused on global health because we wanted to use the returns from Microsoft to improve as many lives as possible. Health is the bedrock of any thriving society. If your health is compromised—or if you’re worried about catching a deadly disease—it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Staying alive and well becomes your priority to the necessary detriment of everything else.

Over the last year, many of us have experienced that reality ourselves for the first time. Almost every decision now comes with a new calculus: How do you minimize your risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19? There are probably some epidemiologists reading this letter, but for most people, we’re guessing that the past year has forced you to reorient your lives around an entirely new vocabulary—one that includes terms like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” and the “R0” of a virus. (And for the epidemiologists reading this, we bet no one is more surprised than you that we now live in a world where your colleague Anthony Fauci has graced the cover of InStyle magazine.)

More here.