What We Owe The Future

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

If the point of publishing a book is to have a public relations campaign, Will MacAskill is the greatest English writer since Shakespeare. He and his book What We Owe The Future have recently been featured in the New YorkerNew York TimesVoxNPRBBCThe AtlanticWired, and Boston Review. He’s been interviewed by Sam HarrisEzra KleinTim FerrissDwarkesh Patel, and Tyler Cowen. Tweeted about by Elon MuskAndrew Yang, and Matt Yglesias. The publicity spike is no mystery: the effective altruist movement is well-funded and well-organized, they decided to burn “long-termism” into the collective consciousness, and they sure succeeded.

But what is “long-termism”? I’m unusually well-placed to answer that, because a few days ago a copy of What We Owe The Future showed up on my doorstep.

More here.

What The Laws Of Biology Tell Us About The Destiny Of The Human Species

Leon Vlieger at The Inquisitive Biologist:

When considering environmental issues, the usual rallying cry is that of “saving the planet”. Rarely do people acknowledge that, rather, it is us who need saving from ourselves. We have appropriated ever-larger parts of Earth for our use while trying to separate ourselves from it, ensconced in cities. But we cannot keep the forces of life at bay forever. In A Natural History of the Future, ecologist and evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn considers some of the rules and laws that underlie biology to ask what is in store for us as a species, and how we might survive without destroying the very fabric on which we depend.

More here.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Reformist Soviet Leader, Is Dead at 91

Marilyn Berger in the New York Times:

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, whose rise to power in the Soviet Union set in motion a series of revolutionary changes that transformed the map of Europe and ended the Cold War that had threatened the world with nuclear annihilation, has died in Moscow. He was 91.

His death was announced on Tuesday by Russia’s state news agencies, citing the city’s central clinical hospital. The reports said he had died after an unspecified “long and grave illness.”

Few leaders in the 20th century, indeed in any century, have had such a profound effect on their time. In little more than six tumultuous years, Mr. Gorbachev lifted the Iron Curtain, decisively altering the political climate of the world.

More here.

Pakistan has more than 7,000 glaciers. Climate change is melting them into floodwater

Benji Jones in Vox:

Much of Pakistan is now underwater.

A series of extreme floods has utterly devastated the South Asian nation, which is home to some 225 million people, washing away roads and buildings, destroying farms, and stranding hundreds of thousands. Over the weekend, which brought another bout of torrential rain, government officials said the death toll had soared past 1,000 and water had inundated as much as a third of the country. The main fuel for these catastrophic floods is rainfall. Summer is monsoon season, and this has been a particularly wet and wicked one, perhaps made worse by climate change. But there’s another culprit behind the recent devastation: melting glaciers and snow.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

One Year After My Dying Father and I Stop Speaking to Each Other Again

Someone on the internet is mourning
her dad—that old goat—with a goldmine

of anecdotes. Scraps of fondness I scrape off
her tweet—his beef wellington, her frogs. I want

my frown-scored mouth loaded with her clean vocabulary
of love. The way she holds her father’s hand, no pinch

of humiliation. Like the time I saw a teenager
sitting on her father’s lap. How I couldn’t

take my eyes off the alarming purity of it.
How my mouth dried at the sight like I had been drinking

the wrong water all this time. When I pull
the ocherous leaves from my thirsty pothos, it is

too easy. No satisfactory rip. Too ready
to let go. I covet the reels of the lucky ones going on

about their dead. Everyone I have lost
I have lost before the end.

by Eugenia Leigh
Split This Rock

Cancer therapies that defy convention

From Nature:

Can messenger RNA (mRNA) train the immune system to attack cancers that resist conventional treatments? To find out, researchers at Atlantic Health System are conducting a clinical trial, alongside other centres, to evaluate the efficacy of an experimental mRNA vaccine for patients with late-stage melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer. “This trial really resonates with patients,” says oncologist, Eric Whitman, medical director of Atlantic Health’s oncology service line, who is leading the study locally at Morristown Medical Center (MMC) in New Jersey. “They’ve heard how effective mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are; using a similar technology to help their body recognize and destroy melanoma makes sense to them.”

There is a dearth of effective treatments for melanoma, which kills about 8,000 people in the United States annually. Standard therapies fail to halt cancer progression in about 50% of patients, leaving them with no FDA-approved options.

More here.

Pier Paolo Pasolini Philosopher

Santiago Zabala in the Hong Kong Review of Books:

There are some artists, scientists, and economists whose oeuvre is significant for philosophers even though we generally overlook them. This occurs because too often we deem worthy of philosophical interpretation only other philosophers and their investigations. But there are figures who have provided philosophers with new cultural, scientific, and political paradigms who are absent from our philosophical traditions. Although we could say they were philosophers without defining themselves as such, their works have often presented innovative concepts, meanings, and truths that give them the same ontological status as the work of other philosophers. For most continental thinkers—as analytic philosophers still believe our discipline is circumscribed exclusively to logical problems derived from mathematics and science—these figures are vital to understanding our past, present, and also future.

Along with Freud, Einstein, and Marx, the Italian artist, director, filmmaker, poet, editor, painter, writer, and self-styled ethnographer Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975) is certainly such a figure, which Toni Hildebrandt and Giovanbattista Tusa demonstrate in this marvelous collection of essays to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

More here.

One Man’s Dream of Fusing A.I. With Common Sense

Steve Lohr in the New York Times:

David Ferrucci, who led the team that built IBM’s famed Watson computer, was elated when it beat the best-ever human “Jeopardy!” players in 2011, in a televised triumph for artificial intelligence.

But Dr. Ferrucci understood Watson’s limitations. The system could mine oceans of text, identify word patterns and predict likely answers at lightning speed. Yet the technology had no semblance of understanding, no human-style common sense, no path of reasoning to explain why it reached a decision.

Eleven years later, despite enormous advances, the most powerful A.I. systems still have those limitations.

Today, Dr. Ferrucci is the chief executive of Elemental Cognition, a start-up that seeks to address A.I.’s shortcomings. “To me, the Watson project was always a small part of a bigger story of where we want to go with A.I.,” he said.

More here.

These are energy bills many Britons simply can’t afford, some will pay with their lives

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian:

The sixth-richest country in the world faces a winter of humanitarian crisis. Unless the government acts now, millions of Britons will be unable to keep their homes warm. Some will die while, as the NHS warns, many more will fall seriously ill. Schools, hospitals and care homes across the country must choose between busting their budgets or freezing. Countless shops and businesses will close, never to open again. More than 70% of pubs are preparing for last orders, while any restaurant, cafe, chippy or kebab shop must now face existential threat, thanks to a quadrupling of their energy bills, surging food prices and a recession that will kill discretionary spending. As economic catastrophes go, this looks far bigger than the 2008 crash. It promises to reshape our everyday lives and social fabric.

That is the meaning of today’s statement from the watchdog Ofgem. The new price cap of £3,549 it has set for household energy bills is almost triple that of last winter, and for many it is simply unaffordable. When it kicks in, at the start of October, 25% of Britons will not be able to pay their fuel bills.

More here.

Edith Stein and the power of empathy

Peter Salmon in Prospect Magazine:

In October 1943, Henrich Himmler gave two speeches in Posen, Poland. The Posen speeches, as they have come to be known, represent the first time a member of Hitler’s Cabinet had publicly articulated the Nazi policy of the extermination of the Jews. Himmler, the head of the SS, acknowledged that the task was not without personal difficulty—to see 1,000 corpses and remain “decent” was hard, he said, but the experience made those who carried out the exterminations “tough.” What about the killing of women and children? According to Himmler, they needed to be exterminated because they might become—or give birth to—avengers of their fathers. In the end, he said, “the difficult decision had to be made to have this people disappear from the earth.” Empathy, while a natural human response, needed to be set aside.

A year earlier, 51-year-old Edith Stein had been one of those disappeared by the Nazis on 9th August. Born Jewish, she was one of the remarkable women who had become part of the first followers of the new philosophy of phenomenology. She received her doctorate at the age of 25 and became, along with Martin Heidegger, one of Edmund Husserl’s teaching assistants and closest intellectual confidantes. Her doctoral thesis tackled one of phenomenology’s most pressing questions: it was called On the Problem of Empathy. For Stein, “the problem of empathy” was more than a theoretical subject: it guided her brief life in unexpected ways—killed for being Jewish, she was at the time of her death a Catholic nun. Too often overlooked as a thinker, she is now one of the six patron saints of Europe known as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

More here.

The Animal Translators

Emily Anthes in The New York Times:

The naked mole rat may not be much to look at, but it has much to say. The wrinkled, whiskered rodents, which live, like many ants do, in large, underground colonies, have an elaborate vocal repertoire. They whistle, trill and twitter; grunt, hiccup and hiss. And when two of the voluble rats meet in a dark tunnel, they exchange a standard salutation. “They’ll make a soft chirp, and then a repeating soft chirp,” said Alison Barker, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, in Germany. “They have a little conversation.” Hidden in this everyday exchange is a wealth of social information, Dr. Barker and her colleagues discovered when they used machine-learning algorithms to analyze 36,000 soft chirps recorded in seven mole rat colonies.

Not only did each mole rat have its own vocal signature, but each colony had its own distinct dialect, which was passed down, culturally, over generations. During times of social instability — as in the weeks after a colony’s queen was violently deposed — these cohesive dialects fell apart. When a new queen began her reign, a new dialect appeared to take hold. “The greeting call, which I thought was going to be pretty basic, turned out to be incredibly complicated,” said Dr. Barker, who is now studying the many other sounds the rodents make. “Machine-learning kind of transformed my research.”

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Rearview Mirror

This little pool in the air is
not a spring but a sink into which
trees and highway, bank and fields are
sipped away in minuteness. All
split on the present then merge in
stretched perspective, radiant in
reverse, the wide world guttering
back to one lit point, as our way
weeps away to the horizon
in this eye where the past flies ahead.

by Robert Morgan
The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat
University of North Caroline Press, 1994

Science and politics at the Creation Museum

by Paul Braterman

Righting America at the Creation Museum (Medicine, Science, and Religion in Historical Context) by [Susan L. Trollinger, William Vance Trollinger]
Righting America at the Creation Museum, Susan L.Trollinger and Wiliam Vance Trollinger, Jr., Johns Hopkins University Press
Do we really need 230 pages of at times closely argued text, followed by 70 pages of footnotes, just to tell us about Kentucky’s intellectually bankrupt Creation Museum and the authoritarian organisation, Answers in Genesis, that brings it to us? The answer, I fear, is yes.

For instance, this book will tell you that Ebenezer the Allosaurus, prize exhibit at Answers in Genesis’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, was donated by the Peroutka Foundation. It will also tell you that Michael Peroutka, in a 2013 speech still available on youtube, states that government schools indoctrinate children away from Christian ideas (a theme that recurs throughout this book), and that this is what they were designed to do. The book also points out that he served on the Board of Directors of the League of the South, whose chairman had defined southern people as white. I recently learned that Peroutka is the official Republican Party candidate for the post of attorney general of the State of Maryland in the November 2022 elections. We had better pay attention.

Front of Museum in 2007

There is no shortage of books refuting antiscientific creationism, but this volume nonetheless manages to find many new and important things to say about the subject, as manifested at the Museum. Susan Trollinger is an Associate Professor (now Professor) of English at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and author of Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia, while William is Professor of History at the same university, and author of God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism. Both are committed Christians and critical Catholics. Thus they are unusually well-placed to analyse the rhetorical devices, the historical roots, and the theological assumptions and moral universe of the Museum, and its parent organisation, Answers in Genesis. On their blog, they have applied much the same critique to the Museum’s sister attraction, the Ark Encounter, which was under construction when this book went to press and features here in an epilogue. Read more »

Who Wants to Be a Science Savvy Congressperson?

by John Allen Paulos

Herschel Walker claims that we have enough trees already, that we send China our clean air and they return their dirty air to us, that evolution makes no sense since there are still apes around, and freely offers other astute scientific insights. He may be among the least knowledgeable (to put it mildly) candidates running for office, but he’s not alone and many candidates, I suspect, are also surprisingly innocent of basic math and science. Since innumeracy and science illiteracy remain significant drivers of bad policy decisions, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that congressional candidates (house and senate) be obliged to get a passing grade on a simple quiz.

Nobody expects these candidates to calculate quantum wave functions or spit out the first 10 digits of pi, but reasonable answers to a few elementary questions on mathematics and science would nevertheless be reassuring. After all, high-tech companies often require applicants to take a difficult high-tech test, so why shouldn’t low-tech organizations like Congress require applicants to take a simple low-tech test. I thus propose a biennial Who Wants to Be a Scientifically Literate Candidate test, which could perhaps be broadcast on local TV stations nationwide. (The somewhat snarky answers to it are below.)

If I were the moderator of such a test (the least likely aspect of this wishful fantasy), I would begin by welcoming whichever of the candidates have been shamed or dragooned into taking it. I’d go on, “Let’s start with five simple questions on arithmetic and statistics whose only purpose is to gently ascertain your understanding of some basic facts and notions.”

“I suggest that you write your responses on the special tablets in front of each of you.” The candidates’ answers, I announce, will be private, but their total score – the number of correct responses to the 15 questions I will ask- will be published.

Dramatic music begins and I proclaim, “First off, a very easy question.” Read more »

Job Interviews I Have Known

by Deanna Kreisel [Doctor Waffle Blog]

Illustration by Scott R. MacKenzie

Where do you see yourself in ten years? What is your greatest weakness as an employee? What do you know about our company?

To the best of my recollection, I have never been asked any of these cliché questions during a job interview. Here are the kinds of questions I have been asked instead:

  • Can you drive a stick shift? [Newspaper delivery company]
  • Can you fit into this leotard? [Dive bar near the race track]
  • Can you fit into this gorilla suit? [Singing telegram service]
  • What is the most perfect comma in English literature? [We’ll get to that]

As discomfiting as the first three questions may have been (the answer to all three was Yes), I still contend that university faculty members—which is what I now am, having left my bartending and singing-telegram days behind me[1]—have crazier shit happen to them during job interviews than members of any other profession.[2] Among that rarefied group, humanities professors experience the crème de la … shit. (Sorry.) The reasons are manifold: 1. We are desperate. (For more information, consult any article on the labor situation in the academy published in recent years. Here is one, and another one, and another one). 2. Our interviewing procedure is bananapants. Because academic positions ideally carry the potential for tenure (but see those articles again), and it can be very hard to get rid of an insane/unproductive/lecherous colleague, the interviewing stakes are high. Still, that is no excuse. Just no excuse at all. Read more »

Thinking Big About the Future

by Charlie Huenemann

I recently listened to a discussion on the topic of longtermism, or the moral view that we need to factor in the welfare of future generations far more seriously than we do, including generations far, far into the future. No one should deny that the people of the future deserve some of our consideration, but most people soften that consideration with fluffy pillows of uncertainty. We take ourselves to have a rough idea of what the next generation will face, but after that everything gets cloudy fast, and most of us aren’t sure what exactly we should do for those possible people in the clouds, so we start dropping them from our moral calculations.

But if you insist on considering them, and treating them as real (but real elsewhen), their numbers and their interests get big fast. How many people might exist in the whole future of the universe? Millions of billions, maybe, if we go full-on Star Trek. If they each deserve only one millionth of our concern, that still ends up being a whopping amount of concern. Look at things that way, and really just about all of our moral thinking should be focused on the future generations of the universe. The Iroquois who asserted that we should “have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations” were severely understating the magnitude of the task before us.

Look, I’m not about to say anything against caring for the people of the future. But when anyone starts talking about the universe, or the rest of time, I feel compelled to remind them that they have no idea what they are talking about. Even saying “it sure is a big place” or “the scale of the thing is mind-boggling” or “there sure are a lot of possibilities” runs the risk of suggesting we have more of a grip on the business than we really do. It’s slightly safer just to say, “we really have no idea.”  Read more »


by Rafiq Kathwari

When I was ten, Grandpa drove me on a crisp autumn evening to see geese, gulls, and ducks descend with expanded wings on Wular. “Asia’s largest freshwater lake,” he said. “They fly in disciplined formation like copper-tipped arrows across the desolation of sky, along Himalayan foothills, arcing between Mughal domes from Kashgar to Kashmir.”

I remember, a pristine mirror polished by the breeze. Geese glinted in wild ochre, gulls mottled in brown, ducks in gold. “We measure time,” Grandpa said, “by their arrival and departure.” On the foothills, encircled by grand mountains white turbans on peaks, trees their grand architecture revealed. Rushlight induced a silence I can still hear 50 years later, at dawn in March as I park

my car across an army bunker secured by barbed wire. Bold white letters on a signpost sound like a mantra: Respect All Suspect All. Soldiers on a watchtower stare at me as I step down to a lookout gazebo.

My heart sinks: strips of land, mud, and peat float on a sullied mirror as do lotus leaves. Foothills are bare, no trees only stump after stump after stump. Weeds are heaped on paddle boats. Walnut saplings line the shore. Freshly axed logs are stacked high. An odd colony of gabled homes has encroached the banks. Rubbish is strewn near a cowshed next to an outhouse. An open drain moves all things raw into the lake. Swallows perched on power lines are sharp and flat notes.

A lone signal tower is flashing red. A tubular beam of sunlight pierces the clouds, spotlighting a flight of ducks emerging from the shelter of water lilies. Flapping their wings rapidly, they ascend from a childhood sanctuary, now the world’s most militarized place. A nightingale perched on the gazebo sings, Respect all Suspect all Respect all Suspect all . . .

for Justine Hardy