Is Democracy a Sport?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

In a democracy, political decisions are typically made by way of elections. In winner-take-all systems, elections produce winners and losers. It seems natural, then, that in the United States our talk about democracy tends to focus on the competitive aspects of politics. For example, processes for filling political offices are called “contests” and “races”; candidates for such offices are called “contenders” and “hopefuls”; and electoral wins are called “victories,” while losses are called “defeats.” When a candidate loses especially decisively, we reach for stronger language; we sometimes say the candidate was “trounced” or side was “clobbered.” Our popular political vocabulary closely resembles the way we talk about sports. So, in addition to wins, losses, and races, there are cases of running up the score, playing out of bounds, and even spiking the political football.

Seizing on this, candidates and commentators tend to proceed as if political wins are deeply like sports victories. Winners present themselves not only as having prevailed against the other candidates, but also as having defeated everything the opposing side stands for. The team that wins the World Series is thereby the champion, and there’s nothing for the other teams to do other than begin training for next season; similarly, winning candidates tend to proceed as if those they prevailed against are relegated to a similar status: they must reconcile themselves to their losses, step aside, and look towards the next election.

Of course, part of the reason why the sporting vernacular is so prominent in our politics is that it indeed captures fundamental features of how democracy in the United States works. As we noted at the beginning, our winner-take-all elections really do produce winners and losers. So, that similarity is not an illusion. However, the similarity with sports goes only so far, and it is shallower along other lines than its prominence may suggest. Read more »

Monday Poem

What Are You Best At?

“So, after all these millennia,
what are you best at, my man?
What rocks your boat,
what stokes your passion,
what makes your day?”
God asks
His creature

His creature replies,
“What I love most is conflict.
It’s what I do most reflexively
(not counting ruts of lust), and in
serial manner I might add,
down bloody centuries.
What I do best, my specialty,
is war —if I must say so myself,”

“And why do you think
this is so?”
asks God.

“Isn’t that something only
you would know?”
His creature, paraphrasing

Jim Culleny

On Busy Beavers and the Limits of Computability

by Jonathan Kujawa

Some years ago we discussed Brobdingnagian numbers. You can find the 3QD essay here. These are numbers that are so mind-bogglingly large they defy human imagination. Perhaps the most famous is Graham’s number. It’s so large I can’t write it down for you. It’s not that I refuse to write it down; I can’t. If I used one Planck volume per digit, Graham’s number would take up more than the observable universe [1]. Still, we would like to use and study such numbers and other hard-to-contemplate mathematical objects.

With the advent of computers and computer science, one reasonable way to describe a mathematical object is via a computer algorithm. That is, a step-by-step recipe that describes the number or question we are interested in and that could (at least in principle) be implemented on a computer. This is a pretty reasonable way to ringfence the parts of mathematics on which we might claim our minds can handle (maybe with help from computers).

For example, computable numbers are real numbers that are knowable in this sense. If we want to know the number’s nth digit, we can write down an algorithm that computes that nth digit for us. Even though the digits of π go on forever and have no discernable pattern, we have such algorithms for the digits of π, so it is computable. Likewise, there is a recursive formula for Graham’s number. It, too, is computable.

We aren’t limited to numbers. In a pair of 3QD essays last year (here and here), we saw that mathematicians have made significant progress in turning mathematics and mathematical thinking into things a computer can work with. There we saw machine learning help mathematicians make new connections and insights, and theorem verification software can help check the validity of results.

Before getting too cocky, it is worth remembering that we learned that most real numbers aren’t computable. Things that are computable go far beyond our everyday experience, but we shouldn’t forget there are vast seas beyond computable’s shores.

With this in mind, it is perhaps worth trying to understand the limits of what is computable. Read more »

What Freeman Dyson taught the world

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Freeman Dyson combined a luminous intelligence with a genuine sensitivity toward human problems that was unprecedented among his generation’s scientists. In his contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics he was second to none in the 20th century, but in the range of his thinking and writing he was probably unique. He made seminal contributions to science, advised the U.S government on critical national security issues and won almost every award for his contributions that a scientist could. His understanding of human problems found expression in elegant prose dispersed in an autobiography and in essays and book reviews in the New Yorker and other sources. Along with being a great scientist he was also a cherished friend and family man who raised six children. He was one of a kind. Those of us who could call him a friend, colleague or mentor were blessed.

Now there is a volume commemorating his remarkable mind from MIT Press that is a must-read for anyone who wants to appreciate the sheer diversity of ideas he generated and lives he touched. From spaceships powered by exploding nuclear bombs to the eponymous “Dyson spheres” that could be used by advanced alien civilizations to capture energy from their suns, from his seminal work in quantum electrodynamics to his unique theories for the origins of life, from advising the United States government to writing far-ranging books for the public that were in equal parts science and poetry, Dyson’s roving mind roamed across the physical and human universe. All these aspects of his life and career are described by a group of well-known scientists and science writers, including his son, George and daughter, Esther. Edited by the eminent physicist and historian of science David Kaiser, the volume brings it all together.  I myself was privileged to write a chapter about Dyson’s little-known but fascinating foray into the origins of life. Read more »

Is Moral Equality a Christian Idea?

by Tim Sommers

“Mankind was first taught to stammer the proposition of equality” – “Everyone is equal to everyone else” – “In a religious context, and only later was it made into morality,” Nietzsche wrote. Elsewhere, he called “human equality,” or “moral equality,” a specifically “Christian concept, no less crazy [than the soul],” moral equality “has passed even more deeply into the tissue of modernity…[it] furnishes the prototype of all theories of equal rights.”

There is some evidence for this view.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says America’s Declaration of Independence, “that all men [sic] are created equal…” “Self-evident” is not in the first draft.  It appears in Benjamin Franklin’s, not Jefferson’s, handwriting. Franklin apparently struck out what Jefferson had written and replaced it with “self-evident” – a philosopher’s word. Jefferson had written “sacred & undeniable.” His first draft also specified that people weren’t just created as equals, but that it was  “from that equal creation [that] they derive their rights inherent & unalienable.” (We should also note that, ironically, though quite typically, Jefferson equates human equality with equality between men, in fact, he implicitly presupposes that only white, property-owning men or equals. Equality has excluded as well as included.)

Nietzsche isn’t the only one who thinks that moral equality is a Christian idea. The “Judeo-Christian idea of equality,” that “All humans are of equal and positive worth because of some intrinsic property,” Louis Pojman has argued, “must be grounded in a transcendent reality, one that is not discoverable apart from religious authority.” Read more »

The Rehearsal: Can realistic simulations transform us?

by Robyn Repko Waller

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Cringy. Real. Surreal. Socially Suspect. A lot can (and has been) said about Nathan Fielder’s HBO docu-comedy The Rehearsal. Are the clients actors? Are the actors acting? Is Fielder an actor or  client? Script becomes life and life becomes script in a recursive dream (nightmare?) of which one cannot help but be an onlooker. [Season 1 spoilers ahead.]

The initial premise seems wholesome if it was not so intrusive. Help folks live out their fraught future endeavors with a host of trained actors, replica sets, and practically limitless rewinds. ‘Immersive’ doesn’t do The Rehearsal justice. Fielder, the former magician, spins realism. Fielder and HBO seem to spare little expense to engineer clients’ test scenarios — the full-scale bustling bar down to the torn chairs and spices and patrons, an Oregon farmhouse homestead with the dream garden and steady supply of child actors. Creator of worlds of possibility. Worlds of possibility for action and transformation.

But can being embedded in a rich social simulation transform us? Prepare us for a changed future self? Plenty of shows and movies exploit the intrigue of transformation to capture viewers, but few are philosophical enough to explore the conditions for transformation, for shaping the self. Read more »

Darkness Visible

by Christopher Horner

Port Sunlight was a model village constricted in the Wirral, in the Liverpool area, by the Lever brothers, and especially under the inspiration of William Lever, later lord Leverhulme. Their fortune was based on the manufacture of soap, and the village was built next to the factory in the  Victorian/Edwardian era, for the employees and their families. It’s certainly a remarkable place, with different houses designed by various architects, parks, allotments, everything an Edwardian working class person might want. An enlightened employer, Lever was still a paternalist: he claimed his village was a an exercise in profit sharing, because “It would not do you much good if you send it down your throats in the form of bottles of whisky, bags of sweets, or fat geese at Christmas. On the other hand, if you leave the money with me, I shall use it to provide for you everything that makes life pleasant – nice houses, comfortable homes, and healthy recreation.” Overseers had the right to visit any house at any time to check for ‘cleanliness’ and that the rules about who could live in which house were observed (men and women could only share accommodation if they were in the same family). Still, by the stands of the day it was quite progressive – schools, art gallery, recreation of all sorts for the employees were important. Read more »

A Bit of Berthold Laufer

by Eric Bies

In 1930, the German anthropologist Berthold Laufer published a monograph on the phenomenon of people eating dirt.

A sinologist by training, Laufer’s study—“the evaluation of the whole question of geophagy”—begins with a trip through Ancient China, where for hundreds of years Han, T’ang, and Sung soil disappeared down eager gullets. From there, the globe: he tours Malaysia, Polynesia, Melanesia, Australia, India, Burma, Siam, Central Asia, and Siberia, stopping off among Persians and Arabs before continuing on to Africa, Europe, North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America. His conclusion? People all over have eaten dirt for a very long time … And yet rarely does one find a Malaysian or an Indian, a Siberian or an Arab, an African or a Mexican swallowing down the plucked clod raw. Almost always water is added to the earth first: in the Yun-ho Mountains, white clay “is mixed with water and beaten on a stone” before it is eaten; in the Philippines, “it is a common thing to mix the earth taken from the nests of ‘white ants’ with water”; in Nishapur, where Omar Khayyam penned his Rubáiyát, the clay is softened with “rose-water and a little camphor,” then shaped into loaves.

Of course, few have particularly prized the practice Laufer describes in all its inventive renditions: as when the occupants of Leningrad remained under unremitting siege for 872 days and turned, in the interest of evading death by starvation, to their suppers of book glue and snow, so the chronically hungry everywhere and forever have tended to eye the lumps of mud out back with all the despairing expediency of a cratered gut.

Even now it remains common practice in the poorer parts of places like the Subsaharan to attempt to recuperate certain vital minerals as iron, calcium, and zinc, including incidental traces of vitamins B and C, through a sometime diet of dirt. Read more »

Prized and Feral

by Ethan Seavey

My grandmother’s bird of choice is the rooster. She was raised in rural Kentucky and now lives in rural Wisconsin. She collects all sorts of roosters (and, by extension, some hens): wall art, printed dish towels, ceramic statues as small as a pinky and as large as a lamp, coin bowls and blankets and something nostalgic in each one.

If you don’t mind stepping briefly into her condo, we can see what it’s like. Eyes everywhere. Thoughtless, energetic eyes. Suspicion and preparedness. A rooster’s eye is life because it is anxiously awake, unsure why, but it is safe because it is always aware of sources of suspicion; suspicion, of course, comes from an abundance of anxiety. So those eyes don’t think much about what they’re watching. I’m sure you’ll find it hard to find hundreds of rooster eyes in your peripheral vision, but you’ll get used to it. If you feel overwhelmed, you can look outside her large windows, you can see the small and glassy lake with sailboats gliding over its surface like razors through taut fabric.

My mother’s bird of choice is the crow. She unconsciously developed an uncanny connection with them. It started during our group quarantine, after the onset of the pandemic. We spent April through May isolated in our ski cabin. We had no friends there so we could not be tempted to socialize. We could social distance easily, with the majority of the houses nearby sitting empty, their owners waiting for the ski resort to reopen. Read more »

Welcome to hell, Elon

Nilay Patel in The Verge:

Twitter is a disaster clown car company that is successful despite itself, and there is no possible way to grow users and revenue without making a series of enormous compromises that will ultimately destroy your reputation and possibly cause grievous damage to your other companies.

I say this with utter confidence because the problems with Twitter are not engineering problems. They are political problems. Twitter, the company, makes very little interesting technology; the tech stack is not the valuable asset. The asset is the user base: hopelessly addicted politicians, reporters, celebrities, and other people who should know better but keep posting anyway. You! You, Elon Musk, are addicted to Twitter. You’re the asset. You just bought yourself for $44 billion dollars.

More here.

Does Science Need History? A Conversation with Lorraine Daston

Samuel Loncar in Marginalia:

What do you make of the dominance of the conception of “science,” as someone who’s familiar with the European context? “Science” has narrowed its meaning in the English language, moving from the whole of knowledge to just the natural sciences. This narrowness is fairly recent: the mid- to late-nineteenth century is when historians tell us our current idea of “science” and “scientists” originated. So how do you see the current role of the word and concept “science” in our culture?

Lorraine Daston: You’re right about the contraction of the expansiveness of “science,” which in all the European languages that derived some cognate from the Latin scientia used to refer to any form of organized knowledge. But it contracts not only in English but also in French, albeit a bit later in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century. The French term for the scientist or scholar goes from being savant, which is still a word you can easily encounter in nineteenth-century French, to scientifique to refer exclusively to a scientist. And it surely has to do with the soaring prestige of the natural sciences, which is also the case in Germany.

More here.

Bar-tailed godwit sets world record with 13,560km continuous flight from Alaska to southern Australia

Graham Readfearn in The Guardian:

A juvenile bar-tailed godwit – known only by its satellite tag number 234684 – has flown 13,560 kilometres from Alaska to the Australian state of Tasmania without stopping, appearing to set a new world record for marathon bird flights.

The five-month-old bird set off from Alaska on 13 October and satellite data appeared to show it did not stop during its marathon flight which took 11 days and one hour.

Tagged in Alaska, the bar-tailed godwit, Limosa lapponica, flew at least 13,560km (8,435 miles) before touching down at Ansons Bay in north-east Tasmania.

The previous record was held by an adult male of the same species – 4BBRW – that flew 13,000km (8,100 miles) last year, beating his own previous record of 12,000km the year before.

More here.

Democracy v. The People

Alberto Polimeni in the Boston Review:

For some, late 2020 brought with it an air of optimism regarding the fate of right-wing populism. In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party faded into obscurity, and the populist right’s GB News experiment foundered. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to COVID-19 seemed to hemorrhage his support and threaten his reelection chances. Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn party was legally disbanded, Germany’s AfD started slowly losing popularity and parliamentary seats, and Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.

The picture looks different today. Trump continues to claim election fraud, Bolsonaro may win reelection later this month, and far-right parties have advanced in Sweden and Italy. But with the apparent respite came a flurry of political analysis seeking to draw key lessons from it—about strategies used to defeat the populist right and structural reforms that could codify these victories.

One of the most prominent voices on these trends has been Princeton political theorist and historian of political thought Jan-Werner Müller.

More here.

Sunday Poem


When I first met Pony he wouldn’t
touch a drink. He dealt pot and
he worked at an aircraft factory
and had a blond girlfriend
who he said was crazy.

He let me stay at his place
overlooking the Pacific.
He bought me canvas to paint on,
gave me food to eat.
He kept me alive.

Now Pony calls me from bars
where loud music is playing
in the background.
He says, “Ray, what’s happening
man. How’s the lady, the kid,
how’s the writing, you’re a painter,
how’s the painting? Man, I’d like
to see you, but you know how it is.
Having a good time and living
the life. Maybe I’ve got a gig

A year later he calls.
“Ray, what’s happening man?
How’s the . . .
How’s the . . .
“Whatever happened to that lady
you were with?” I ask him.

“Where have you been?”
“At the end of the earth, man.”
“ And where are you now?”
“Man,” he says, “don’t ask metaphysical

by Raphael Zapeda
Paper Dance- 55 Latino Poets
Persea Books, NY, 1995