Thinking the Worst of Ourselves

Jackson Arn in The Hedgehog Review:

Adolf Eichmann on trial for Nazi war crimes

Psychology is always in the midst of trading itself out. Seven years from now, a recent study estimated, about half of what psychologists believe will have been replaced with something new.1 Pop psychology, on the other hand, is ageless. Its big ideas (six degrees of separation, mothers lifting pickups off their babies, you only use 10 percent of your brainpower) have survived every regime change. They cannot be disproven because they were never completely true in the first place.

In the early 1960s, three events occurred that had a sizable influence on psychology but a massive influence on pop psychology. Taken together, they seemed to suggest a frightening truth about human nature—so frightening that people were afraid to ignore it, even as more and more of the evidence was contradicted. The first event was the trial, beginning in May 1961, of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. The second was the “shock experiment” organized by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in July of the same year. The third was the murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964.

More here.

The Next Frontier of Warfare Is Online

Mark Wolverton in Undark:

Sometime in mid-2009 or early 2010 — no one really knows for sure — a brand new weapon of war burst into the world at the Natanz nuclear research facility in Iran. Unlike the debut of previous paradigm-shattering weapons such as the machine gun, airplane, or atomic bomb, however, this one wasn’t accompanied by a lot of noise and destruction. No one was killed or even wounded. But the weapon achieved its objective to temporarily cripple the Iranian nuclear weapon program, by destroying gas centrifuges used for uranium enrichment. Unfortunately, like those previous weapons, this one soon caused unanticipated consequences.

The use of that weapon, a piece of software called Stuxnet widely concluded to have been jointly developed by the United States and Israel, was arguably the first publicly known instance of full-scale cyberwarfare. The attack deployed a software vulnerability or exploit, called a zero-day, buried so deeply in computer code that it remains undetected until someone — a team of hackers, a criminal, an intelligence or law enforcement agency — activates it. We’ve all heard of, and perhaps even been victimized by, criminal hacks that may have pilfered our credit card numbers and passwords, or been spammed by suspicious emails that invite us to claim supposed Nigerian fortunes. But zero-days operate on a different level entirely.

More here.

‘We are not special’: how triumphalism led India to Covid-19 disaster

Michael Safi in The Guardian:

An outbreak the size of India’s second wave, apparently fuelled by Covid-19 variants that appear to be more infectious than earlier strains, would have overwhelmed most public health systems – let alone one of the most chronically underfunded in the world, serving a vast, spread-out population.

But public health experts, including some involved in advising the government, say the scale of India’s current outbreak was also partly manmade, the result of a feeling of exceptionalism that emanated from the top of the Indian government and rippled across society, leading to countless administrative and personal decisions that, within a few months, would prove disastrous.

“There was a misreading of the situation in January that we had attained herd immunity and were unlikely to see a second wave,” says K Srinath Reddy, the president of the Public Health Foundation of India. “India went into full-blown celebratory mode. And we know the virus travels with people, and celebrates with crowds.”

More here.

Friday Poem

The Edges of Time

It is at the edges
that time
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,

from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent

as fish when seas

by Kay Ryan


Michael Gordin in LA Review of Books:

TRUST THE SCIENCE, we’re told. Wear masks! Science says so! These injunctions are likely to induce a couple of reflex responses. On the one hand, saying that you are in favor of Science — I’ll keep it capitalized for now — is somewhat like saying that you are all for oxygen and cute puppies and pleasant strolls. It is so straightforward as to be anodyne. But then there is the counter-reflex, with the “pro-Science” mantra sounding like a liberal shibboleth, and the Republican Party (or its voters) cast as Those Who Don’t Trust Science. Recent Pew Research Center data back this up a bit, but there’s plenty of leeriness about Science among Democrats as well.

And it gets messier when you actually drill down into specifics. The masks are an exemplary case. Saying that Science supports mask-wearing is unquestionably true, whether you define that support as a consensus among epidemiologists or as the conclusion reached by meta-studies of the scientific literature. Now consider some other questions: Should we open schools when most of the country is not vaccinated? Is it okay to put this nuclear waste depository in the next county? Let’s ask Science! Turns out this Science entity doesn’t have a single voice, and in many cases hearing what it has to say isn’t straightforward. As intellectual historian Andrew Jewett notes at the end of Science under Fire, “Such blanket injunctions to place our trust in science, or religion, or the humanities, or any other broad framework, offer remarkably little guidance on how to respond to the social possibilities raised by particular scientific or technical innovations.”

Nonetheless, the exhortations continue. This implies that there are quite a few people out there who are anti-Science, or at least cautious about placing unbounded faith in it. Those who are anti-“anti-Science” often portray such individuals as tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, while the anti-Science people see their detractors as credulous lemmings exposing themselves to myriad physical and spiritual harms.

Enter Jewett, who is anti-anti-anti-Science.

More here.

19th century America’s partisan warfare

Jon Grinspan in Smithsonian:

Nearly every day while writing my new book, The Age of Acrimony: How American’s Fought to Fix Their DemocracyI would walk across the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to my office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I’d pass tourists wearing MAGA hats and protestors waving angry signs. In the museum’s secure collections, I’d settle into the cool, quiet aisles that preserve the deep history of our democracy. There, century-old objects—torches from midnight rallies, uniforms from partisan street gangs, ballots from stolen elections—told a forgotten drama of fractious and furious partisanship. Most people don’t often think about the politics of the late 1800s. Call it “historical flyover country,” an era stranded between more momentous times, when U.S. presidents had funny names and silly facial hair. But for our current political crisis, this period is the most relevant, vital and useful. The nation’s wild elections saw the highest turnouts and the closest margins, as well as a peak in political violence. Men and women campaigned, speechified and fought over politics, in a system struggling with problems all too familiar today.

In 1910, the influential Kansas journalist and eventual leader of the progressive movement William Allen White wrote: “The real danger from democracy is that we will get drunk on it.” White’s warning about the intoxicating potential of politics came at a turning point, just as the raucous politics of the 1800s were sobering up into the more temperate style of 20th-century America.

More here.

The Poetry Of Nazik al-Mala’ika

Porochista Khakpour at Poetry Magazine:

There are many reasons Mala’ika’s work has largely evaded the West. It’s hard to pigeonhole her, for one thing, which is by her own design. Mala’ika was always a neither-here-nor-there kind of poet. She was an Easterner with a calculated reverence for the West, a bard of Occidental impulses in a time and place more accustomed to Orientalist ones. She went from being a student of English poetry to being a scholar of it while simultaneously establishing herself as a thoroughly Arab poet. She was also an innovator whose free verse remains accessible while still keeping within her larger cultural tradition. And her feminism specifically concerned the roles of Arab women without evincing a need to compare, or center, the lives of her Western counterparts, as many women poets in her generation and beyond were tempted to do. (Mala’ika, with little fanfare, studied at Princeton in the 1950s, when it was still an all-male university.) She was also, finally, of the modernist and postmodernist eras but is perhaps best classified as a Romantic poet, despite publishing nearly a century after that movement’s heyday. As Drumsta notes in her substantial introduction, all these facts have perplexed Mala’ika’s biographers and translators.

Today, more than a decade after Mala’ika’s death, we can still say, perhaps bittersweetly, that the reception of her work baffles many readers.

more here.

Thulani Davis’s Poetry Conjures A Lost Era Of Jazz

Elias Rodriques at The Baffler:

Nothing but the Music, which collects verse written between 1974 and 1992, reasserts Davis’s centrality to the Black Arts and Black Feminist movements. Though the book covers a wide range of topics, all the poems engage with music: listening to it, composing it, being transformed by it. There are accounts of driving through a rainstorm to see the Commodores, descriptions of Senegalese seamstresses listening to jazz as they work, and visions of enslaved people singing during the Middle Passage. Davis employs a variety of stanza forms, though most of the poems are on the shorter side. “Many of these poems here were performed with a number of musicians in different improvising configurations,” she writes in the acknowledgments. Her collaborators include her late husband and composer Joseph Jarman, free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor, and saxophonist Arthur Blythe.

more here.

Dispatch from India: A sixth of the world’s population awaits tomorrow with horror

Mahesh Rao in Prospect:

What does a health care catastrophe in a country of almost 1.4bn people sound like? Ambulance sirens wail night and day, phones beep relentlessly with messages of new Covid-positive diagnoses, desperate pleas for help, brief announcements of lives lost. Newscasters on most mainstream channels report on the numbingly grim scenes, but with little analysis and no demands for accountability. This, of course, is the soundtrack for anyone lucky enough to be cloistered at home merely fearing the worst. Others who have to travel to work, or seek medical treatment, will have heard and seen far worse.

India is in the grip of a public health calamity, reporting almost 350,000 coronavirus cases on 25th April, the highest number recorded in one day in any country since the pandemic began. Hospitals have been pushed beyond all capacity; people are dying laid on stretchers in car parks or in stationary ambulances; metal equipment in crematoriums has melted from the sheer number of bodies. Some of India’s finest hospitals have begun announcing on Twitter how long they have before their oxygen supply runs out: two hours, one hour, 30 minutes.

More here.

High-bandwidth wireless Brain-Computer-Interface demonstrated in humans for first time

Jennifer Ouellette in Ars Technica:

Coming on the heels of the Neuralink announcement earlier this month—complete with video showing a monkey playing Pong with its mind, thanks to a wireless brain implant—researchers with the BrainGate Consortium have successfully demonstrated a high-bandwidth wireless brain-computer interface (BCI) in two tetraplegic human subjects. The researchers described their work in a recent paper published in the journal IEEE Transactions in Biomedical Engineering.

BCIs interact with brain cells, recording the electrical activity of neurons and translating those signals into action. Such systems generally involve electrode sensors to record neuronal activity, a chipset to transmit the signals, and computer algorithms to translate the signals. BCIs can be external, similar to medical EEGs in that the electrodes are placed onto the scalp or forehead with a wearable cap; or they can be implanted directly into the brain. The former are less invasive but can be less accurate because there is more noise interfering with the signals; the latter require brain surgery, which can be risky.

More here.

James Carville on the state of Democratic politics: “Wokeness is a problem and we all know it”

Sean Illing interviews James Carville at Vox:

James Carville: You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in … neighborhoods.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases. But this is not how people talk. This is not how voters talk. And doing it anyway is a signal that you’re talking one language and the people you want to vote for you are speaking another language. This stuff is harmless in one sense, but in another sense it’s not.

More here.

Conversations, and how we end them

Elizabeth Stokoe in Nature:

Conversation has been described1 as “the primordial site of human sociality”. We all have a lifetime’s experience to draw on if asked how it works, or when we reflect on the conversations we have participated in. But because conversation is something that we know tacitly how to do, scientific attempts to understand it are often relegated to the ‘soggy’ end of social psychology. Conversation certainly differs from other subjects of scientific scrutiny. For instance, black holes do not exist to be understood by people, whereas conversation exists only to be understood by people and to help us understand each other. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mastroianni et al.2 report how they have taken up the challenge of researching conversation scientifically.

The authors focused on the question of whether conversations end when people want them to, and gathered data from two studies. In the first one, individuals (806 in total) taking part in an online survey were asked to recall the most recent conversation they had in person, report its duration and indicate whether it ended when they wanted it to. If they indicated that the conversation didn’t end when they wanted, they were asked to estimate how much longer or shorter they would have liked it to have been. Participants were also asked how they thought the person they were speaking to might have answered the same questions. These conversations were mostly between people who were familiar to each other; 88% were between those who had known each other for at least a year, and 84% of the participants spoke to the person in question at least a few times each week.

More here.

We are witnessing a crime against humanity

Arundhati Roy in The Guardian:

During a particularly polarising election campaign in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, waded into the fray to stir things up even further. From a public podium, he accused the state government – which was led by an opposition party – of pandering to the Muslim community by spending more on Muslim graveyards (kabristans) than on Hindu cremation grounds (shamshans). With his customary braying sneer, in which every taunt and barb rises to a high note mid-sentence before it falls away in a menacing echo, he stirred up the crowd. “If a kabristan is built in a village, a shamshan should also be constructed there,” he said.

“Shamshan! Shamshan!” the mesmerised, adoring crowd echoed back. Perhaps he is happy now that the haunting image of the flames rising from the mass funerals in India’s cremation grounds is making the front page of international newspapers. And that all the kabristans and shamshans in his country are working properly, in direct proportion to the populations they cater for, and far beyond their capacities. “Can India, population 1.3 billion, be isolated?” the Washington Post asked rhetorically in a recent editorial about India’s unfolding catastrophe and the difficulty of containing new, fast-spreading Covid variants within national borders. “Not easily,” it replied. It’s unlikely this question was posed in quite the same way when the coronavirus was raging through the UK and Europe just a few months ago. But we in India have little right to take offence, given our prime minister’s words at the World Economic Forum in January this year.

Modi spoke at a time when people in Europe and the US were suffering through the peak of the second wave of the pandemic. He had not one word of sympathy to offer, only a long, gloating boast about India’s infrastructure and Covid-preparedness. I downloaded the speech because I fear that when history is rewritten by the Modi regime, as it soon will be, it might disappear, or become hard to find. Here are some priceless snippets:

“Friends, I have brought the message of confidence, positivity and hope from 1.3 billion Indians amid these times of apprehension … It was predicted that India would be the most affected country from corona all over the world. It was said that there would be a tsunami of corona infections in India, somebody said 700-800 million Indians would get infected while others said 2 million Indians would die.”

“Friends, it would not be advisable to judge India’s success with that of another country. In a country which is home to 18% of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

Modi the magician takes a bow for saving humanity by containing the coronavirus effectively. Now that it turns out that he has not contained it, can we complain about being viewed as though we are radioactive?

More here. (Note: Thanks to Nazli Raza!)

Two Pacific Voyages Of Discovery A Thousand Years Apart

Nathan Beacom at The New Atlantis:

As he later told the story in Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, he was brushed off by many in the scientific establishment — and so went to extraordinary lengths to prove the theory’s plausibility, reconstructing the ancient journey by sailing across the sea on a wooden raft in 1947. This spectacular feat captured the imagination of the world, and researchers, skeptical as they might have been, have ever since debated what really had happened in prehistoric times between South America and Polynesia (the group of Pacific islands stretching from New Zealand to Hawaii). Most scientists never accepted the amateur anthropology in which Heyerdahl couched his theory, but the mystery of an ancient trans-Pacific journey was a live one. All sorts of evidence would be marshalled, sometimes seeming to affirm Heyerdahl in part, sometimes seeming to show him entirely wrong.

The question Heyerdahl had thrust into the spotlight with some forty feet of balsa wood and a handful of sunburnt Scandinavians — namely, whether an ancient journey really had been made between South America and Polynesia — would take seven decades of anthropology, botany, linguistics, archaeology, genetic analysis, and computer science to answer.

more here.

The Unlikely Legacy of Milman Parry

Robert Kanigel at Lit Hub:

Milman Parry was arguably the most important American classical scholar of the 20th century, by one reckoning “the Darwin of Homeric Studies.” At age 26, this young man from California stepped into the world of Continental philologists and overturned some of their most deeply cherished notions of ancient literature. Homer, Parry showed, was no “writer” at all. The Iliad and the Odyssey were not “written,” but had been composed orally, drawing on traditional ways that went back centuries.

Generations of high school and college students can recall descriptive flourishes of Odysseus, as “much-enduring,” or “the man of many schemes”; or of the goddess Athena as “bright-eyed”; or of “swift-footed Achilles.” Parry showed that these “ornamental epithets” were not odd little explosions of creativity. Nor, in their repetition, were they failures of the imagination. Nor were they random. They were the oral poet’s way to fill out lines of verse and thus keep the great river of words flowing. They were the product of long tradition, and many voices.

more here.

Thursday Poem


In the absence of women on board,
when the ship reached the point where no landmass
was visible in any direction
and the funk had begun to accrue-
human funk, spirit funk, soul funk-who
commenced the moaning? Who first hummed that deep
sound from empty bowels, roiling stomachs,
from back of the frantically thumping heart?
In the absence of women, of mothers,
who found the note that would soon be called “blue,”
the first blue note from one bowel, one throat,
joined by dark others in gnarled harmony.
before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how? In the middle
of the ocean, in the absence of women,
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue.

by Elizabeth Alexander
American Sublime
Graywolf Press, 2005