Whence, Wherefore, Whither Utopia?

by Deanna K. Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

What does the word “utopia” mean to the battle-scarred denizens of the twenty-first century? A shockingly unscientific survey of the nine or ten people I buttonholed last week suggests that the key connotations of the word are: ideal, perfect, imaginary, unrealistic, and unattainable. I’ve arranged these terms purposefully in that order, so that they imply not a static and fixed definition but rather a narrative arc, a falling away from hope into disappointment: all of the people I spoke to (students and colleagues at the large Southern state-flagship university where I teach, so a fair cross-section of ages, races, ethnicities, and genders) firmly believed that the word “utopia” denotes an unrealistic or quixotic goal. It’s not my thesis here that disappointment is the necessary fate of any utopian project, but it might be a provisional thesis that most people living in Western cultures today think that it is.

As a Victorian literature scholar, I’m a little surprised at how pejoratively the word “utopian” is used today. Because I immerse myself in another historical period for my research and teaching, I am forced to move back and forth, somewhat vertiginously, between the Olden Times I study and the present moment; just like H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I sometimes find it takes a few moments to blink away the “veil of confusion” occasioned by my most recent trip home from the nineteenth century. For the Victorians the word “utopian” did not carry the negative connotations of impossibility, naïveté, and dunderheadedness that it does for us now—the writers and thinkers who used that word were for the most part engaged in actual utopian projects, whether literal or literary (or both).[1] Read more »

Laïcité and The Gap of Cultural Assimilation

By Andrea Scrima

It’s said that European societies are always about assimilation, and that’s almost true, but not entirely. Minority cultures alter the dominant culture in subtle ways. My twenty-one-year-old son speaks with a Turkish-inflected accent he shares with most boys his age who have grown up in Berlin. It’s a mark of masculinity, of coolness, and the ones who go on to college eventually outgrow it—or don’t, because the ways in which it affects everyday German speech will only become apparent in hindsight, after its traces are already securely imbedded in the language. In Europe, the immigrant presence rarely finds acknowledgement in high culture, but you can see it wielding its influence on popular culture in subversive ways. The Turkish ghetto identity, which developed in response to the discrimination a younger, German-born generation of second- and third-generation migrant worker families continues to face there, particularly in the wake of German Reunification and the deadly xenophobic attacks that followed, has always identified heavily with Black American subculture. The Turkish-German assimilation of Hip Hop and Rap was seamless: it gave them a language, dealt embarrassing blows to German political correctness and its many blind spots, incorporated taboo themes otherwise held to be racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, and posed questions that cultural commentators, at a complete loss, are still largely trying to evade.

Some time ago, I went to see Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory with a friend; the film made us hungry, and when we reached Bahnhof Zoo we decided to have a Döner. The young Turkish men working there tried their macho number on us—that unquantifiable, unmistakably sexualized nonchalance as they performed a few moves to the music playing and neglected to take our orders until, appraising our appearance, they realized we were old enough to be their mothers and morphed almost instantly into respectful sons. Paying for our sandwiches, we tried to decide what had annoyed us the most about the film—whether it was the self-absorption and vanity, the male artist cliché, or the absence of any viable female roles apart from the idealized mother and doting assistant—when all at once the volume was cranked up loud and a young Turkish-German guy in a baseball cap came rushing inside and thrust his arms out ecstatically in response to the blaring music. The beat was so loud it penetrated the muscles in my arms and legs; when I heard the words “my neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack” over and over, I jumped up and nearly accosted him. I don’t know what I’m doing in moments like these; the volume was earsplitting, and my body responded to the situation as it would to any other assault. I was shaking with a rage I rarely feel—a rage that wants badly to get into a fistfight, because my mind doesn’t understand that I’m a middle-aged woman and not a boy from the Bronx like my father was, and hence ridiculous—and as the fury blots out all thought, I feel the wave of physical aggression swelling inside me urgently seeking an outlet. The situation felt primal, imminently violent; distant epigenetic memories of war and bloodlust shivered in my veins. Turn the music off, I shouted, the lyrics are misogynistic. Read more »

Effective Altruism and Friendship

by Varun Gauri

Effective altruism is having a moment. Books in the field are getting prominent reviews, the Effective Altruism Global conference took place in Washington DC this past weekend, and the movement now has the backing of at least a couple tech billionaires. Not bad for a social movement that celebrates self-sacrifice.

The basic agenda of effective altruism (EA) is that people should a) give to charities; b) give to organizations and in ways that are the most effective, usually understood to be providing the most bang for the buck; c) give as much as they can, up to the point where they begin to sacrifice something of real moral importance.

Most people would agree that it’s good to give and silly to give to hopeless causes. But EA has a particular understanding of effectiveness: One should give to charities that save the most lives or reduce the most suffering, per dollar spent. The rationale for this argument is that the goal of giving (and perhaps of ethical action altogether) is to alleviate suffering and loss, irrespective of the identities of the sufferer and the donor. The goal of giving is not to make yourself feel good by supporting friends and family, your alma mater, a pet cause, or a cute child who happens to resemble your niece. The idea is to give with your head, not with your heart. Because needs are great in developing countries, and the cost of saving a life is so much lower, the upshot is that people should give mostly to organizations that effectively improve the lives of impoverished strangers in faraway places.

Most people would also agree that it’s good to give as much as you can. People praise saints and admire genuine philanthropists. EA, however, argues that everyone should give until they sacrifice something morally important. The reason you should give so much is that you, after all, are just another person, so you should compare the pain from spending marginally less on your own life (fewer dinners out, no luxury brands) to the benefit of spending more on the faraway impoverished stranger (averting episodes of life-threatening malaria, preventing blindness). Obviously, your own money is better spent elsewhere.

I don’t believe that any single theory has a monopoly on sound ethical reasoning. Following EA to its logical conclusions leads to some unsettling inferences. Suppose person A is extremely poor, severely disabled, very sick, and socially marginalized, so much so that charitable giving has little chance of enhancing or prolonging their life. Person B is not as poor, needs cataract surgery, and has access to (but can’t afford) health care. EA might argue that giving to charities promoting the life of person B is always preferable to giving to charities that target person A, given that person A’s quality of life can’t be improved. I’m uneasy with that conclusion because I think resources (and especially government programs) are valuable not only for the suffering they reduce; they are also a signal of respect, a recognition of human dignity, and a commitment to community and social inclusion.

In the mid to late 1990s, I was evaluating the World Bank’s HIV/AIDS programs in Brazil. In 1996, Brazil had begun to provide antiretroviral “cocktails” at a cost of more than $10,000 per patient per year. Many economists, writing at that time, were critical of the decision. They argued that HIV/AIDS spending should go almost entirely to prevention, rather than treatment, because, per dollar spent, one could avert more cases, and save more lives, with condom distribution than antiretroviral therapy.

Traveling across the country, I saw that access to treatment seemed to be making prevention efforts more effective —  when vulnerable individuals and activists experienced hope and dignity, which treatment signified for them, they became more engaged in their own lives, and put more effort into prevention programs both for themselves and on behalf of others. Access to treatment helped to crystallize the Brazilian HIV/AIDS and human rights movement. That movement would eventually play a critical role in lobbying for expanded domestic production of HIV/AIDS medications in Brazil. It also helped inspire the international effort to permit developing countries to circumvent international patent restrictions on the production of generic drugs. Not only Brazil but Thailand, South Africa, and India began producing low-cost AIDS treatments. As a result, the price of those antiretroviral therapy quickly fell to less than a few hundred dollars per patient per year, a price that facilitated HIV/AIDS treatment in places as resource-poor as Haiti and Rwanda.

I’m broadly sympathetic to EA. I believe in reducing charity for vanity projects, like named university buildings or concert halls, and more generally, in making charitable giving more effective. I also believe that people should give more to distant strangers, and that if they did so the world would be a better place. Still, I suspect my work experience in Brazil points to a blind spot in EA. In the long run, most people want help not from strangers but from friends. They not only seek the mitigation of their suffering but the security that it won’t return; they want a measure of social recognition and the guarantees that go with it. The logic of EA, and its accompanying cost-effectiveness calculations, seem most suited to remaining a stranger, not a friend, to the people one is trying to help.

At least one or two of the big EA donors are investing in politics. But a political campaign is not a social movement. Social movements, like the one around HIV/AIDS in Brazil, could help tackle some of the major structural barriers that disadvantage poor people in developing countries. Those include odious debt (the sovereign debt taken on by corrupt and odious leaders, which citizens are obligated to repay), tax havens in rich countries that allow local capital to escape taxation, intellectual property rules raising costs and limiting innovation in developing countries, and the arms trade, to name a few. Those are complex challenges that will not, I believe, be resolved without significant social transformation and a new species of solidarity, which is a kind of friendship.

The Great American Bigot

by Mark Harvey

Salinas, California – A tractor operator works the agricultural fields of the Salinas Valley of central California.

There are a number of videos circulating on the web that show angry white people screaming at Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to “Go back to where you came from!” It takes a special brand of stupid for, say, a Texan living in a town with a name like Llano located in Llano County to tell a Mexican or Mexican-American to “go back to where they came from.” For when you’re in Texas—a different spelling of the Spanish Tejas—in a county named Llano, which means plain or flat in Spanish, and in a town also named Llano for its flat ground, and you find yourself yelling at someone named Garcia or Gallegos to go home, you might be the one with the problem.

In a country with state names like Colorado, California, and New Mexico, and city names like Santa Fe, Amarillo, La Junta, and San Diego, it’s obvious that explorers, ranchers, store owners, priests, and law men had previous history in what is now Mexico. Our forebears were not just the ones who landed on the east coast after crossing the Atlantic, but also the ones who came up from south of the border, long before a border existed.

More than 200 years before the United States was even a gleam in the eye of one of our revolutionaries, Spaniards traveling up from what is now Mexico were exploring the southwest. In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado set off on a two-year exploration in search of the mythological seven cities of Cibola with hopes of bringing home gold and silver. Leaving the territory of present day Mexico, he traveled through what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and possibly Kansas. On his trip he encountered the Grand Canyon but never found the promised gold and his trip was considered a failure. Read more »

Anecdote, Belief, And Wonder

by Mike Bendzela

How would you account for the following weird experience? Do you have a handy explanation, or do you dismiss it outright?

When I was twelve, Dad used to drop me off in the twilight in front of the parish across town to serve Mass, usually a Wednesday before dawn, because that was the time new altar boys served their shifts.

“Pray for me,” Dad would say as I got out of the car, “and for your poor mother’s soul.” He parked the car far down the block and sat there in the dark waiting for me to return from Mass — swigging whisky, I now assume, from his paper bag all the while.

The time I spent with my fellow altar boy, Michael, was a refuge from the horrors of home. We got dressed together, laid out brass artifacts and towels and books together, lit candles together. The priest who had my dad excommunicated was more than kind to me, and groomed me for the priesthood with effusiveness and, I saw later, with the intent to elevate me above my fallen parents. I didn’t want to leave the sacristy; I didn’t want to go back to my dad’s car; I wanted to camp out there with Michael, forever. Perhaps he and I could both become priests and secretly live there in the rectory. I even passed this by Father Frank.

He looked at me with something like triumph and affection. “It is not outside the realm of possibility,” he said.

After Mass, I nearly flew back to the car.

Once I was inside, dad asked, “Did you pray for us?”

I stared blankly. In my excitement about moving into the church with Michael, I had forgotten all about my ritual prayer for my parents.

The back story was something I would only learn much later from an aunt: During a rough spot in their marriage, my mother had become pregnant by another man, and Dad decided she should have an abortion (then illegal in our state); he took her where she could get one, and she died of sepsis. My father was consequently forbidden from setting foot in the Catholic Church he was raised in, even though he was prostrate with grief and remorse. He could do nothing to assuage the pain, not even drink it away. Read more »

Acorn Season

by Carol A Westbrook

The intermittent taps on the roof roused me from a deep sleep, and then I remembered the acorns. The acorns had begun dropping. It was the first week of September, the days were still warm, and the leaves were still green. The leaves wouldn’t turn colors and start falling for several weeks yet.

But somehow our oak trees knew it was time to drop their acorns, and all twelve of our oaks began releasing their hard brown nuts with the little caps. The racket came from our larger trees which had branches over the roof; while the chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, deer and other critters showed up to share the wealth before they bedded down for the winter.

It was acorn season. Acorn season starts at the same time as Pumpkin Pie Spice season does, but it lasts only as long as it takes for the trees to drop all of their nuts, about a week and a half. Pumpkin Pie Spice season, on the other hand, continues through Thanksgiving. Picture it. It’s early September, you are still wearing sandals and shorts, and winter is the last thing on your mind, when all of a sudden you pass a Starbucks and get a whiff of that alluring combination of nutmeg, allspice, ground cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, which, in true Proustian fashion, evokes pleasant memories of fall. Read more »

Mists, Mellow Fruitfulness, Spiders in Bedsheets—Enter Autumn

by David S. Greer

The table is set, dinner guests welcome….  Myles Clarke photo.

John Keats can be forgiven for overlooking the spiders in his ode “To Autumn”. Who can blame him for accentuating the positive, given the health issues that eventually overcame him, barely 25, in his rude room by the foot of the Spanish Steps?

My sometime island abode in the Salish Sea, the inland sea that touches Vancouver and Seattle and is home to the Canadian Gulf Islands and the American San Juans, is a long way from the Spanish Steps and a favorite haunt of spiders in autumn. Early on a late September morning on the cliff-edge path to Gowlland Point, dewdrops sparkle like diamonds in elaborate silken webs draped over long grasses with exquisite care. Spiders are to autumn as strawberries are to June. What’s not to like?

An older cabin in the woods is an invitation to wildlife invasion. Black-tailed deer content themselves with napping under the deck, and river otters make the quarter-mile trek from the ocean on rare occasions to investigate the crawl space as a potential den, but entering the interior of the cabin is the particular province of birds and bats (accidentally) and spiders (less so). Field mice would gladly join the parade, and have done so in the past, but for the time being are flummoxed by plugs of steel wool in every mouse-sized hole. Their tactical engineering squads are believed to be working on solutions every day. As for other invaders, live rescues are my preferred approach. Hummingbirds and wrens can be trapped in Tupperware containers, a sheet of cardboard slipped over the opening, and released outdoors. A juice glass will suffice for errant wasps and moths. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 63

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

The international academic conference circuit—for an amusing account of such circuits, one may read the British writer David Lodge’s novel Small World, which is second in his trilogy of campus novels, the first of which Changing Places is largely on Berkeley in the 1960’s—also brought me to some potentially hazardous situations. Once a reception given for us conference participants by the King of Spain indirectly helped me in what could have been a serious loss from a pickpocket in Madrid. The public reception hall was not far from the hotel where we were staying. I was walking there from the hotel with a fellow conference participant. I was busy explaining a particular point to her in conversation when I had a half-sense that two young women who brushed by seemed a bit too close, and I ignored that for a minute. The next minute I felt the inside of my jacket pocket and it was gone—a wallet containing not just money but a few important cards including credit cards (since then I have been careful not to put everything in the same wallet or pocket). So I excused myself from my companion and ran to a nearby policeman and told him about it. He brought out a whistle and made a signaling sound. Within 5 minutes another policeman from the opposite pavement came toward me with my wallet and asked me to check if everything was in place. Those two unlucky young women did not realize that as the King was to be there soon, the whole area was thick with plain-clothes policemen.

My conferences sometimes took place in cities where more violent robberies were quite frequent even in broad daylight. I remember the first day we were in our MacArthur network conference in Rio de Janeiro, at the lunch break we were told that the lunch would be in a restaurant just one block away. When we came out the building we saw that some giant commandos were guarding us all along the road as we were walking to the restaurant. I was told that this was part of the conference arrangement. I thought the organizers were over-doing it. But in the afternoon during the conference one woman in our group, who without telling anyone went to the store just next door to the hotel main gate, came back in tears saying that she was mugged. I faced a roughly similar situation in Nairobi and also in a couple of cities in South Africa; during the lunch break I thought I’d just go out for short walk around the big hotels where our conferences were, but the hotel guards would refuse to let us go out for the sake of our safety. I noted this situation might not be unrelated to the fact that in all those 3 countries, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, the level of inequality is extremely high. Read more »

Mahsa Amini and the bravery of Iran’s anti-hijab protesters

Joanna Williams in Spiked:

The word ‘bravery’ is applied all too liberally nowadays. A posh actress tells the world she is non-binary and wants to be called ‘they / them’? How brave! An ageing television presenter comes out as gay? So brave! Footballers kneel for Black Lives Matter? Stunning and brave! But then, every so often, we are confronted with true bravery, with breathtaking acts of courage. And we find that the words we might once have reached for now seem woefully inadequate.

Over the past few days, women and men have been taking to the streets in towns and cities all over Iran, in protest against the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. Despite the risk of death, injury, arrest and social shaming, the demonstrations have gained momentum day by day. And while they were sparked by the treatment of Amini, they have now become a broader expression of anger with the Iranian regime.

Mahsa Amini personifies courage. Last week, Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan, was stopped by police outside a metro station in Tehran, the Iranian capital. Amini had shown her hair in public. In Iran, this is a punishable offence. Under the regime’s strict Islamic laws, women must wear the hijab when in public and must make sure their arms and legs are covered by loose-fitting clothing. Amini’s refusal to comply led to her arrest by the Iranian state’s so-called morality police.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Your Data is Political

Your presence rises from scavenging: pages and words
and webs and signs. You’ve become a target but without
the old spy store gadgets. I’d like to know what you know,
not just your count. I click on you, then you click back,
precious darling surface. We add, poke, text.
On my iPhone, you’re called The Outlier.
Your profile pic of a yellow vase
is so allusory, so art, or your skirt flips up and you’re viral,
or someone else outs you as the double-crossing wife
because it’s the Old West open season on Facebook.
Pages ripple with alacrity, with betrayal and Outlook keeps
the other engine purring and sneaky. Two presences.
The real and the fable vanish before you and to them
within barcode, a cornucopia of insight
(a family’s fleecing, caravans of product, blurry pirated video).
I’ll play Sarah McLachlin over your visage, elegiac, or someone
will paste your face onto the porno performance artist
baptized with secretion. I’ll be the cultural anxiety,
and you can be the Luddite. We’ll be the perfect pairing
of antediluvian (the wine) and digital (the host).

by Carmen Gimenez Smith
Milk & Filth
University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2013

Has Henry James Put Me in This Mood?

Donna Dennis in The Paris Review:

Ted and I saw one another off and on for about five years. In the spring of 1970, we lived together on Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village, until June, when Ted went to teach a course in Buffalo. I moved into the artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette’s loft on East Fourteenth Street while they summered in Maine. Ted stayed with me for a number of weekends that summer, and he proposed that we undertake a collaborative book. As I remember, I began the collaboration by making drawings with empty word balloons. I’m pretty sure Ted provided the project’s title at the outset. Ted would take the drawings—I think I made them in batches of four or five—back to Buffalo, where he began to fill in the words. We went back and forth this way, sometimes in person, sometimes by mail. I had forgotten all about this collaboration by the time Ted Berrigan’s youngest son, Eddie, contacted me in the summer of 2018. He wanted to bring me something his father and I had done together, which had recently turned up. As I looked at sixteen pages of my drawings and Ted’s handwritten words, the memories came back. These diaries describe some of them, along with the artistic milieu I was in in New York at that time—which included the painter Martha Diamond and the poets Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, Anne Waldman, and John Giorno.

More here.

Flooded with AI-generated images, some art communities ban them completely

Benj Edwards in Ars Technica:

The arrival of widely available image synthesis models such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion has provoked an intense online battle between artists who view AI-assisted artwork as a form of theft (more on that below) and artists who enthusiastically embrace the new creative tools.

Established artist communities are at a tough crossroads because they fear non-AI artwork getting drowned out by an unlimited supply of AI-generated art, and yet the tools have also become notably popular among some of their members.

In banning art created through image synthesis in its Art Portal, Newgrounds wrote, “We want to keep the focus on art made by people and not have the Art Portal flooded with computer-generated art.”

More here.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll visualizes a mind-bending geometry that inspired many, from Einstein to Escher

Sean Carroll in Pioneer Works:

Of Euclid’s five postulates, which form the basis of Euclidean geometry, the fifth is the most controversial. Called the Parallel Postulate, it’s a pretty basic idea. Take a flat piece of paper, draw a line segment and then draw two lines that are perpendicular to it. The Parallel Postulate simply says that the lines will remain forever parallel, staying precisely the same distance apart even if we extend them to infinity on either side of the line segment.

For a long time mathematicians strived to prove the Parallel Postulate using the first four (more) basic postulates, and so elevate it from a postulated axiom to a proven theorem. It turns out that you can’t, and for good reason—the postulate isn’t true for all geometries. Euclidean geometry, represented by the flat piece of paper, and on which lines that start off parallel never intersect, is just one kind of geometry, but there are others. You can imagine replacing the Parallel Postulate with some alternative: maybe lines that are parallel initially draw closer together and touch eventually, or maybe they always move apart. The first option is the case with spherical geometry, which describes shapes drawn on the surface of a sphere (think of lines of longitude that start of parallel at the equator but converge at the poles), while the second defines hyperbolic geometry, which is more like the surface of a saddle or a Pringle’s potato chip.

These non-Euclidean alternatives weren’t noticed for millennia. Euclid himself flourished around 300 BCE, and the first alternatives to the Parallel Postulate were proposed in the early 1800s by Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky and Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai. Interestingly, both studied the hyperbolic alternative to flat Euclidean geometry.

This raises two questions: First, why did it take so long? And second, why did the mathematicians study hyperbolic geometry before spherical? Everyone knew about spheres. How hard could it have been to imagine drawing some lines on them, and exploring the geometric consequences of doing so?

The questions share a common answer.

More here.

Janus’ GPT Wrangling

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

Janus (pseudonym by request) works at AI alignment startup Conjecture. Their hobby, which is suspiciously similar to their work, is getting GPT-3 to do interesting things.

For example, with the right prompts, you can get stories where the characters become gradually more aware that they are characters being written by some sort of fiction engine, speculate on what’s going on, and sometimes even make pretty good guesses about the nature of GPT-3 itself.

Janus says this happens most often when GPT makes a mistake – for example, writing a story set in the Victorian era, then having a character take out her cell phone. Then when it tries to predict the next part – when it’s looking at the text as if a human wrote it, and trying to determine why a human would have written a story about the Victorian era where characters have cell phones – it guesses that maybe it’s some kind of odd sci-fi/fantasy dream sequence or simulation or something. So the characters start talking about the inconsistencies in their world and whether it might be a dream or a simulation. Each step of this process is predictable and non-spooky, but the end result is pretty weird.

Can the characters work out that they are in GPT-3, specifically?

More here.