Elegy for a Window Seat: The Death and Life of the Convivial City

by David Oates

An empty space sits where I once sat. I miss it. I miss the strangers I shared it with, and a few regulars with whom I achieved a nodding relationship. A couple of baristas I might greet and chat up. Very briefly.

I miss the space itself – long and wide, its tall ceiling held up by industrial concrete pillars of old-fashioned ornateness reflecting its Model-T era use as a Ford manufactory. The space gave room to think and to be connected yet anonymous, with big tables for groups and – the star attraction for me – counter tables all along the windows where for years I have sat for my afternoon writing and reading. Getting lost in a poem or a book. Jotting a few words experimentally, or working on a chapter in progress. Gazing idly at someone at a sidewalk table (peeking at a book title if I can see it). Taking in the rush of cars and trucks, heading towards their 4:30 gridlock.

Strangers walk by with dogs, or with addictions, or with clothes nicer than I even know the words for. They all make me think. . . of what? Hard to say. How much I like a kind face, or a handsome one. Or an old one with lines.

What unknowabilities we all are.

But this space now sits plague-emptied, closed down apparently permanently. Here I wrote large pieces of my last book. And the one before it. I relied on this perfect one-mile walk from my home, an afternoon leg-stretch, a change of scenery, a change of mind. A way to feel connected to the humans. (But not too connected.)

This sociable, urbane space was a bit of what is called the “New Urbanism,” a thing for which Portland, Oregon had become renowned. But New Urbanism is shut down now. Public spaces empty. Restaurants shuttered. Transit deserted.

As if all that was left us was to revert to the 1950s and move back to the suburbs, isolated and safe, bourgie and dull. For the plague, we fear, may be killing cities as well as individuals. Read more »

The Mathematics of Desistance

by Jonathan Kujawa

A striking aspect of math is its ability to stimulate both our minds and our humanity. We saw this already in our discussion of Francis Su’s book, the Mathematics of Human Flourishing. As he explains more eloquently than I ever could, mathematics belongs with music, poetry, art, and nature in its ability to lift us up from the everyday mundane. Rather recently I learned of a perfect example I thought the readers of 3QD would appreciate. It’s a story that involves both neat mathematics and beautiful humanity.

Mr. Havens [7]
First, the mathematics. Almost exactly one year ago a research paper was released by Christopher Havens, Stefano Barbero, Umberto Cerruti, and Nadir Murru. You can find it here if you’d like to read the technical details, but let me give you the flavor of what they do.

The topic of the paper is continued fractions. As everyone knows, even if they’ve forgotten, we usually use write numbers using sums. For example, 327 is really shorthand for 300 + 20 + 7. And 0.327 is really shorthand for 3/10 + 2/100 + 7/1000. Of course, to capture all the numbers we are interested in using, we have to allow for infinite sums, even if that is sometimes a dangerous thing to do. For example, when we write

√2 = 1.41421356237…,

this is really a shorthand for

√2 = 1 + 4/10 + 1/100 + 4/1000 + 2/10000 + 1/1000000 + ….

But there is nothing sacrosanct about using repeated sums. We can also use repeated divisions. Once again you need to allow for infinitely many divisions to capture all the numbers we’d like to consider [1]. For example,

Like with sums, we’ve devised a more compact way of writing such continued fractions. Since we can always arrange so that the number above the division bar is a one, we can save ourselves work by only recording the number in front of the addition sign that appear at each level of the fraction. In this case, we would write [1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, …] for √2. Read more »

Truth, Lies and Pragmatism

by Chris Horner

I won that election —Donald J Trump

The truth is out there —X files

There is a story that Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, was in conversation with some German representatives during the Paris peace negations in 1919 that led to the Treaty of Versailles. One of the Germans said something to the effect that in a hundred years time historians would wonder what had really been the cause of the Great War and who had been really responsible. Clemenceau, so the story goes, retorted that one thing was certain: ‘the historians will not say that Belgium invaded Germany’.

The anecdote repays some reflection. On the one hand, its main point seems clear: the brute fact that it was Germany that invaded Belgium and not the other way around cannot be wished away by later historians, whatever else they may say. Clemenceau, of course, is pointing to this as the evidence for the German responsibility for starting the war. On the other hand, the German representative also seems to be right: historians have been discussing the causes and the responsibility for World War One ever since 1914, and show no signs of concluding. The assessment of an event like that depends on interpretation and the sifting of evidence. It isn’t just a matter of pointing what happened on an August day in 1914. Yet some things remain stubbornly the case, we think: German troops violated Belgian neutrality in 1914.

In a hundred years time will historians wonder who won the US Presidential Election of 2020? Perhaps not, but the world we live in seems to be one in which the most ‘stubborn’ facts are in question. Much of the confusion can be wrought by bad faith actors, people who know they are lying when they claim certain things to be true. These bad faith actors aren’t just figures from the margins of the political spectrum, or among the deluded ‘QAnon’ conspiracy enthusiasts. In our time we have seen the US and UK governments, supported by the bulk of the established media outlets repeat falsehoods about the possession of WMDs in Iraq, to give just one example. No wonder there is a lot of ‘fake news’ when so much of it is generated by government itself.  Read more »

Round Trip

by Brooks Riley

We are not where we were one year ago—or have we just returned?

This is the paradox of the pandemic: Lockdown has sent many of us on the wildest of journeys—not to a different place, but to a different self, even if such a destination is temporary.

What if a consequence of going nowhere and doing nothing for a year is finding out there’s a stranger living inside you? Unlike yourself these days, the stranger isn’t in isolation. It goes everywhere you can’t, especially down rabbit holes where the ‘you’  you think you know would never go. Uninvited, this stranger is no guest, it’s just been squatting in your brain until the time was right.

Don’t confuse the stranger with an inner voice. The stranger doesn’t chat or chatter. It’s not interested in your opinions, nor does it want to convince you of  something, or help you ‘harness’ an inner anything. Its agenda is to hold you hostage, no questions taken, no answers given.

I’m unclear as to the stranger’s gender. Is it a girl, a middle-aged man, a woman, an old lady, a boy? Does it matter now that the stranger lives in the part of yourself that once indulged in its own peregrinations?

When you weren’t looking, it pulled up a chair next to you and grabbed the mouse, that most direct instrument of intent, and began to map out a new itinerary. It’s become harder not to notice as it steers your ship of self away from its charted course and into unknown territory. An interloper in your command central, the stranger now begins to assert itself, to exert its will in appalling ways–mostly having to do with music. Read more »

Glassholes Revisited

by David Kordahl

In the part of my life when I was most actively trying to invent myself as a writer, I was working as a high school teacher and was desperately unhappy. (Notice the way that I put this: “I was working as a high school teacher,” not “I was a high school teacher”; the notion that a job defines a person still disgusts me.) In the evenings, I left work and wrote magazine pitches, not as many, I realize in retrospect, as could have brought me success, but enough to keep me talkative in the teacher’s lounge. I had the impression, back then, that a writer could make a name for himself on the basis of a single strong piece, and since my work was deeply derivative—I was, after all, inexperienced—I hatched a plan.

Some of my favorite writers, from Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson to David Foster Wallace (I know, go on, roast me), had visited Las Vegas to mine its filth for gold. I figured that I could do the same. No one responded to my pitch (why would they), but I was undeterred. I bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas to write a piece so great it would be undeniable, an X-ray of American culture.

The site I chose for my con was the Consumer Electronics Show, the 2014 International CES. This required a bit of planning, since CES was (and is) an officially closed event, whose guidelines only allow industry insiders to attend—writers, for instance, whose venues reach “more than 1,000 unique monthly visitors and [are] updated weekly with original tech-industry related news.” I was no professional, but I listed myself as writing for an online book review, which was sort of true. After an initial rejection, CES (mistakenly?) gave me a press pass, which I took as a good omen.

The piece that I wrote about this event, all 13,000 words of it, was never published, but I reread it recently and was surprised. The world (to repeat a cliché) seems to have experienced a schism in the past decade, but such schisms aren’t so easy tracked in oneself.

My piece used the appearance of convention-goers wearing the Google Glass, that relic of wearable tech, as an organizing motif. In January 2014 this seemed futuristic (a commercial version wouldn’t be released until March), a symbol of the cyborg world to come.

I could hardly have been less prescient. Read more »

What Do You Call a Republican Who Smokes Pot?

by Tim Sommers

A libertarian. Old joke. I mean, marijuana is not even illegal in a lot of states anymore. How about this one? A libertarian walks into a bear. Okay, that’s not really a joke. It’s the title of a recent book by Matthew Honogoltz-Hetling, subtitled “The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)”. It’s about a group of libertarians who move to a rural town with the express purpose of dismantling the local government and producing a libertarian utopia. The resulting problems with coordinating refuse disposal attract a lot of bears and the lack of a government makes it difficult to mount a response. Bears 1. Libertarians 0.

I have been thinking about libertarianism again since I read Thomas Wells’ smart 3 Quarks Daily article Libertarianism is Bankrupt arguing that libertarianism, “like Marxism or Flat-Earthism”, has “nothing to offer”. Which is kind of unfair to Marxism if you ask me. But a real-world example of how dead the libertarian horse is, is offered by the departure of many recovering libertarians from the Cato Institute recently, the bulk of them forming a new non-libertarian think tank (Nikensas). What lead most of these former Cato staffers to abandon libertarianism was the existence of a political problem that they felt libertarianism had no response to. I bet you can guess what it is. (I’ll tell you at the end, just in case.)

In the meantime, given the moribund state of libertarianism, rather than beat on it some more, I thought it would be fun to return to its glory days, to Robert Nozick and his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick was arguably the most philosophically sophisticated libertarian ever. He was charismatic. He was purportedly widely read in the Reagan White House. And he was lauded as one of the Philosopher Kings of Harvard by Esquire Magazine in 1983 (including a full-page photospread in which he looked very thoughtful). (The other Philosopher-King, John Rawls, refused to be interviewed or photographed for the piece.) Read more »

Hardy’s Milk Maid and Me

by Thomas Larson

Milk Maid 19th Century England

One late spring day in my twelfth-grade English class, my teacher carried a box up and down the aisles, handing each of the thirty students a new Signet Classic paperback. Mr. Demorest, who had a waddle under his chin and a doo-wop singer’s curve in his hairdo, said this novel might be tough reading and pledged plenty of mimeos. He said the school district had prepared us by reading, in previous grades, Silas Marner, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and The Scarlet Letter, whose baroque language (“Fruits, milk, freshest butter, will make thy fleshy tabernacle youthful”) brought a cascade of snickers from the back of the room. Demorest said that he’d taught this novel before, but he’d be reading it with us again, since with literature there was always more to glean. That word glean fell inside me like a coin tossed in a fountain. The novel was Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Demorest said to get through the first 50 pages until Tess meets Alec. What’s the story? It’s about a girl becoming a woman. As we’ll see, she has a child by one man, Alec, runs from him and marries another, name of Angel. Angel is her true love but, fearful he’ll discover her dark secret on his own, confesses the child’s fate to him. Mortified, Angel abandons her, and she ends up with the first man again, with whom she is forced, for the sake of her family and her reputation (what’s left of it) to—well, you’ll see, he said. Don’t get hung up on the names of English villages. You might look up any Biblical allusions. Pay close attention to how the book makes you feel. Does it make you feel? Where in the story are you moved? Make a mark. Do you care what happens to Tess? Why? Think about it—what does Alec and Angel want from Tess and what does she want from these two men, opposites though they may be? Read more »

Public Narratives are Bad Stories About Fears

by Varun Gauri

In his recent book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers insights into writing good short stories. I may consider his craft advice in another context; here, I want to explore the book’s implications for bad stories and, specifically, the bad stories we call public narratives.

Saunders contends that “we might think of the story as a system for the transfer of energy.” This comes in a discussion of Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” in which a description of Marya, an unhappy, lonely school teacher, creates an expectation for the reader that Marya must necessarily endeavor to become less unhappy, less lonely, as the story unfolds. That’s the energy transfer — an observation at one point in time creates heightened attention, and specific expectations that are the springboard for action, later on.

Public narratives are similar. When we say America is “the land of free,” we not only evoke, implicitly or explicitly, the stories of the American Revolution and the liberation of people under the Axis powers, but create specific expectations that America will later fulfill or fail. Robert Shiller, in Narrative Economics, makes a similar point: “If we want to understand people’s actions . . . we need to study the “terms and images that energize” (Shiller is quoting the historian Ramsay MacMullen). Authoritarian societies provide many examples of the energetic function of public narratives; for example, a statement that the Aryans were the master race was not only an historical claim but an exhortation to make it true, by dominating and destroying other races. Read more »

What we can learn from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s years in lockdown

Fiona Sampson in The Guardian:

The expression of frustration could have been sent from any tier in travel-restricted Britain: “Where do you go in July? For me, I cant answer. I am longing to go to London, & hoping to the last. That is all. For the present, … certainly the window has been opened twice – an inch – but my physician shakes his head or changes the conversation (which is worse) whenever London is mentioned. But if it becomes possible, I shall go – will go! Putting it off to another summer is like a never.”

In fact, it was mailed from Torquay in June 1840, by someone who had already spent two years in virtual lockdown there. Its recipient was Richard Hengist Horne, a literary man about town. Horne has since fallen into obscurity, but the letter writer would go on to become world famous as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of many pioneering works, including one of the best-known poems ever written, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”.

For now, though, she was an emerging talent struggling to keep any sense of herself as a writer alive. The success of her The Seraphim and Other Poems two years earlier had been eclipsed by the onset of severe illness that prompted her medical evacuation from the polluted capital. As a result she was feeling isolated, and left behind.

More here.

A public health expert discusses centuries of fighting infectious disease, with a focus on early Boston

Dan Falk in Undark:

Boston is one of America’s oldest cities — and one that has arguably fought the lengthiest battles with infectious disease. It is, as Charles Vidich puts it, the “most quarantine tested city in America.”

For more than three and a half centuries, the city’s leaders have struggled to develop strategies for keeping citizens safe from communicable disease. Boston’s situation was unique, Vidich explains, because of its role as a major center of trade and commerce; because many of its quarantine strategies were copied by other cities; and because, thanks to the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, it had a significant degree of independence in terms of setting policy.

Investigating this history has been a lifelong project for Vidich, a consultant on public health and bioterrorism issues. He’s also been a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, where he spent a decade working on quarantine policy.

More here.

Congress Escalates Pressure on Tech Giants to Censor More, Threatening the First Amendment

Glenn Greenwald in his Substack Newsletter:

For the third time in less than five months, the U.S. Congress has summoned the CEOs of social media companies to appear before them, with the explicit intent to pressure and coerce them to censor more content from their platforms. On March 25, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will interrogate Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Facebooks’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai at a hearing which the Committee announced will focus “on misinformation and disinformation plaguing online platforms.”

The Committee’s Chair, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), and the two Chairs of the Subcommittees holding the hearings, Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), said in a joint statement that the impetus was “falsehoods about the COVID-19 vaccine” and “debunked claims of election fraud.” They argued that “these online platforms have allowed misinformation to spread, intensifying national crises with real-life, grim consequences for public health and safety,” adding: “This hearing will continue the Committee’s work of holding online platforms accountable for the growing rise of misinformation and disinformation.”

House Democrats have made no secret of their ultimate goal with this hearing: to exert control over the content on these online platforms.

More here.

India’s Farm Laws Are a Global Problem

Kaushik Basu in Project Syndicate:

I had long felt that India’s existing farm laws needed changing, and that the country’s food grain market needed to be more open. The new laws, among other things, permit farmers to sell grain outside designated state-regulated areas called mandis in states where they previously were not allowed to do so. The government appears to be giving farmers more choice. Why should anyone object to that?

Then I read the fine print of the legislation. With their uncanny grassroots intuition, the farmers had realized something that many economists, including me, had missed.

If the government permitted farmers to sell their products outside the mandi, the farmers would surely benefit, even if the market outside the mandi was unregulated. With all else remaining constant, they would simply be gaining an additional option. But belief in the ceteris paribus condition – that all other conditions will remain unchanged – requires farmers to trust the government. They clearly don’t – and, on closer examination, with good reason.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Stag Boy

He enters the carriage with a roar –
he clatters in wildly and fills up the carriages with heat,
running through the train, staining the floor
with hooves dirty from the street;
tearing at the ceilings with his new-branched horns,
banging his rough sides against the seats and
the women, who try to look away: Gallant!
He sings hard from his throat,
his young belling tearing at his chest,
pushing at his boy-throat.

Stag-boy –

the train’s noise hums in his ears,
sharp and high like crickets pulsing
in the tall grass,
and he wounds it with his horns,
maddened like a stung bull,
pushing up his head,
pushing up his mouth for his mother’s teat:
Where is her beestings?
Where is the flowered mug she used to warm his milk in?
No good, no good now.

He’s smashing out of the train door,
he’s banging his hooves in the industrial air,
he’s galloping through the city squares,
and drinking from a vandalised spring –

And still his mother walks through the house, crying:
Stag-boy, oh stag-boy come home!

by Tara Bergin
from The Poetry Archive

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