How effective altruists ignored risk

Carla Cremer in Vox:

In May of this past year, I proclaimed on a podcast that “effective altruism (EA) has a great hunger for and blindness to power. That is a dangerous combination. Power is assumed, acquired, and exercised, but rarely examined.”

Little did I know at the time that Sam Bankman-Fried, — a prodigy and major funder of the EA community, who claimed he wanted to donate billions a year— was engaged in making extraordinarily risky trading bets on behalf of others with an astonishing and potentially criminal lack of corporate controls. It seems that EAs, who (at least according to ChatGPT) aim “to do the most good possible, based on a careful analysis of the evidence,” are also comfortable with a kind of recklessness and willful blindness that made my pompous claims seem more fitting than I had wished them to be.

By that autumn, investigations revealed that Bankman-Fried’s company assets, his trustworthiness, and his skills had all been wildly overestimated, as his trading firms filed for bankruptcy and he was arrested on criminal charges. His empire, now alleged to have been built on money laundering and securities fraud, had allowed him to become one of the top players in philanthropic and political donations. The disappearance of his funds and his fall from grace leaves behind a gaping hole in the budget and brand of EA. (Disclosure: In August 2022, SBF’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.)

People joked online that my warnings had “aged like fine wine,” and that my tweets about EA were akin to the visions of a 16th-century saint. Less flattering comments pointed out that my assessment was not specific enough to be passed as divine prophecy. I agree. Anyone watching EA becoming corporatized over the last years (the Washington Post fittingly called it “Altruism, Inc.” ) would have noticed them becoming increasingly insular, confident, and ignorant. Anyone would expect doom to lurk in the shadows when institutions turn stale.

More here.

On Kelsy Burke’s “The Pornography Wars”

Whitney Strub in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

The United States’ most important smut-buster, Anthony Comstock, he of the muttonchop sideburns and perpetual scowl, was never at a loss for florid words. Describing the impact of pornography in 1883, he likened it to a cancer, one tending toward “poisoning the nature, enervating the system, destroying self-respect, fettering the will-power, defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of most foul and revolting character, until the victim tires of life, and existence is scarcely endurable.”

A century and a half later, Utah Republicans still agreed with him. They passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis in 2016. At the heart of the resolution lay concern over “deviant sexual arousal” and the “risky sexual behavior” it purportedly facilitated — broadly defined terms but essentially Comstock’s nightmare vision of masturbation and promiscuity unto death.

When it comes to the politics of porn, time can appear a flat line of performative piety: conservatives have been making the exact same arguments about moral rot, bodily debilitation, and lust-driven crime since the object of their ire was lithographs and imported “fancy books.” This is the challenge Kelsy Burke confronts in her new study The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession — how do you make an interesting story out of the same tired tropes?

More here.

How a Catholic Priest Discovered the Expansion of the Universe

Dan Levitt at Literary Hub:

On a cold, uncharacteristically dry London day in September 1931, a short, stocky man with slicked-back hair, a piercing gaze, and a hell of a lot of nerve walked along Storey’s Gate Street. He entered Central Hall, Westminster, a large assembly place near Westminster Abbey. It’s hard to imagine that this man, a thirty-seven-year-old Belgian professor of physics, did not feel some trepidation.

The soaring dome of the Great Hall imposed grandeur on the proceedings: a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Many of the world’s most eminent physicists were among the audience of two thousand to whom Georges Lemaître was about to present a theory that bordered on the crackpot.

Lemaître was not just a physicist and a mathematician, but a Catholic priest as well, and he was to speak in a session on a topic that physicists had just begun to grapple with: the evolution of the universe. Dressed in his black clerical garb and white collar, as if prepared to take confessions, he stepped to the podium and presented an idea that veered perilously close to theology. He had discovered, he claimed, a moment when the entire universe exploded out of a tiny “primeval atom.”

More here.

Professionalize the police

Noah Smith at Noahpinion:

The video of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police has sparked protests across the country. It’s highly unlikely that this will turn into a national conflagration like the one after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, but it shows that general anger against police brutality remains widespread. And it once again raises the question of what to do about the problem.

Three years ago, activists’ main slogan was “defund the police” (quickly altered from the original “abolish the police”, though many insisted the meaning was the same). This slogan and the idea behind it were a disastrous failure. Even in the initial rush of anti-police fervor after the Floyd protests, cities found it extremely hard to muster the political will to cut police budgets or conduct mass layoffs of police officers. Then a massive wave of murders spread across the country, and Americans remembered that yes, police are very important for reducing violent crime. Pro-cop politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams were elected, and by 2021, even Black Americans — traditionally more likely to be the victims of police brutality — wanted more spending on policing in their neighborhoods.

But the death of “defund the police” doesn’t mean that the popular desire — or the need — for police reform has vanished.

More here.

American Outback

Leath Tonino at the New England Review:

Here are three details I enjoy about Ace, my buddy who resides in Boulder, Utah, a speck of a town (population two hundred thirtyish) that floats atop the creamy cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone, the gargantuan petrified dunes of an Early Jurassic erg: he’s devoted the bulk of two decades to trekking the GSENM hinterlands—heating water with a twiggy fire, sipping tea, casting consciousness to the stars, reeling consciousness back in, striking camp, pushing forward; he’s eager to direct attention to the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando (“It is solved by walking”) engraved on his pocketknife and, furthermore, assumes the phrase’s “it” requires no explanation; he’s got dogs on the rug farting and a pot of tomato sauce on the stove bubbling when—excited, hungry, fatigued from the drive (Boulder was the last municipality in the lower forty-eight to receive mail by mule and remains a long haul from anywhere)—Sophia and I arrive.

more here.

Intuition’s Ear: On Kira Muratova

Timmy Straw at The Paris Review:

1990’s The Asthenic Syndrome takes us to Odesa, too, but this is an Odesa at the fraying edge of a Soviet time-space where, significantly, we never see the sea. The film is shot in places that suggest a borderland, an edge, a wobble: construction sites, mirrors, photographs, headstones, film screenings, cemeteries, a dog pound, a hospital ward, a soft-porn shoot. This in-between sense is temporal, as well: Muratova notes that she “had the great fortune of working in a period between the dominance of ideology and the dominance of the market, a period of suspension, a temporary paradise.” As with the asthenic syndrome itself (a state between sleeping and waking), the film is a realization of inbetweenness, an assembly of frictions and crossover states we feel through form: through Muratova’s use of juxtaposition; through her uncanny overpatterning of echoes and coincidences; through the shifts of register between documentary and opera. The film doesn’t proceed so much as weave itself in front of us, in a dazzling ivy pattern of zones and occurrences. You could call it late-Soviet baroque realism.

more here.

The Navy’s Dolphins Have a Few Things to Tell Us About Aging

Emily Anthes in The New York Times:

SAN DIEGO — White caps were breaking in the bay and the rain was blowing sideways, but at Naval Base Point Loma, an elderly bottlenose dolphin named Blue was absolutely not acting her age. In a bay full of dolphins, she was impossible to miss, leaping from the water and whistling as a team of veterinarians approached along the floating docks. “She’s always really happy to see us,” said Dr. Barb Linnehan, the director of animal health and welfare at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. “She acts like she’s a 20-year-old dolphin.”

But at 57, Blue is positively geriatric, one of the oldest dolphins in the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. So the doctors had come to check on her heart. Dr. Linnehan unpacked a dolphin-friendly electrocardiogram and bent over the edge of the dock, where Blue had surfaced. Then she carefully pressed four rubber suction cups, each containing a Bluetooth-enabled electrode, onto the dolphin’s slippery skin.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

by Elizabeth Bishop
from One Art
Farrar Straus Giroux,1994

The Incommensurable Legacy of Thomas Kuhn

by David Kordahl

Left: Thomas Kuhn (1990). Right: His new book (2022).

Thomas Kuhn’s epiphany

In the years after The Structure of Scientific Revolutions became a bestseller, the philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) was often asked how he had arrived at his views. After all, his book’s model of science had become influential enough to spawn persistent memes. With over a million copies of Structure eventually in print, marketers and business persons could talk about “paradigm shifts” without any trace of irony. And given the contradictory descriptions that attached to Kuhn—was he a scientific philosopher? a postmodern relativist? another secret third thing?—the question of how he had come to his views was a matter of public interest.

Kuhn told the story of his epiphany many times, but the most recent version in print is collected in The Last Writings of Thomas S. Kuhn: Incommensurability in Science, which was released in November 2022 by the University of Chicago Press. The book gathers an uncollected essay, a lecture series from the 1980s, and the existing text of his long awaited but never completed followup to Structure, all presented with a scholarly introduction by Bojana Mladenović.

But back to that epiphany. As Kuhn was finishing up his Ph.D. in physics at Harvard in the late 1940s, he worked with James Conant, then the president of Harvard, on a general education course that taught science to undergraduates via case histories, a course that examined episodes that had altered the course of science. While preparing a case study on mechanics, Kuhn read Aristotle’s writing on physical science for the first time. Read more »

Hear No Evil: The South And The Gag Rule

by Michael Liss

However tiresome to others, the most indefatigable orator is never tedious to himself. The sound of his own voice never loses its harmony to his own ear; and among the delusions, which self-love is ever assiduous in attempting to pass upon virtue, he fancies himself to be sounding the sweetest tones. —John Quincy Adams, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory: Delivered to the Classes of Senior and Junior Sophisters in Harvard University.”

John Quincy Adams, by William Hudson Jr., National Portrait Gallery.

Oh, my goodness, could that man talk. And talk. And talk some more. It might amuse you to know that, in the above quote, he was referring to his fellow lawyers.

So much you can say about John Quincy Adams. Annoying, crabby, bilious, voluble. Also, one of the most remarkable men ever to occupy the Oval Office—and even more to serve in the House of Representatives. A superb diplomat, who literally began his career at his father’s elbow prior to the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, he served four Presidents (Washington, Adams I, Madison, and Monroe) as Ministers to the Netherlands, Russia, Prussia, and the UK. He was Monroe’s Secretary of State. During the wilderness that was Thomas Jefferson’s Presidency, he spent six years in the Senate. In typical Adams manner, he managed to irritate his own Federalist Party enough for them to deny him renomination. In 1824, he won the Presidency against three strong candidates, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and William Crawford. None got a majority of the Electoral College, and the race was thrown into the House. There, Clay endorsed Adams, enraging Jackson supporters (who called it a “Corrupt Bargain” when Adams picked Clay for Secretary of State).

Adams was not as deft a President as he was a diplomat, and Jackson trounced him in a rematch in 1828, sending the then-61-year-old home to his failing farm in Massachusetts. He was not thrilled to be back in the Commonwealth; he sulked and became even more a pain until his own neighbors rescued him by sending him back to Washington as a Congressman. Read more »

Monday Poem


. . .on a painting by Jack Braudis








. . .Your slope is russet and graceful; seems soft.

. . .It is. I see it echoes the grace of your gunnels, stem to stern.

Boat:. . .
. . .We approach your still grace, having been upon water the day.

Land:. . .. . .
. . .Who is that with you, the who with articulating sticks?

. . .He rows, he brings me to you to lie in your shade.
. . .He imagines the sky would be good to gaze into
. . .with you beneath his back; our painter has
. . .rendered us true and sure & his clouds
. . .follow the breath of wind as they must

. . .But I’m confused, what painter?
. . .I am real and true and so is sky.

. . .Yes, and so is he and so am I.

Jim Culleny, 11/16/22
Painting by Jack Braudis

By Any Other Name

by Akim Reinhardt

Van Bokkelen Hall Directions & Parking | Towson University
Van Bokkelen Hall

There is a building on the Towson University campus called Van Bokkelen Hall. In that building, one of the rooms has recently been renamed for Richard E. Vatz. I don’t know who Van Bokkelen was (I should probably look into that), but I can tell you who Vatz is.

Professor Richard E. Vatz has been at Towson University more than twice as long as I have, and I’ve been there over twenty years. When I first met Vatz, he struck me as a fairly harmless, banal right winger. He was a type. Fashioning himself a Socatic gadfly, he complained about the school and state bureaucracy (Towson is a public university). He warned against faculty unionization (it’s actually against the law for professors to unionize in Maryland). He was a free speech advocate who cut against academia’s grain in his conversations and later in his uninspiring blog posts. I found him to be entirely unimpressive. But the university was big enough that I was able to largely ignore him, despite his efforts to be a presence and a “character.”

Then it got serious.

First he made himself the faculty sponsor of a hardcore racist student club: Matthew Heimbach’s White Student Union. A history major, Heimbach was a student in one of my classes. He was smart. He was articulate. He was over-the-top polite. And he was a very committed White nationalist. Because of this, and because being such a person on a college campus was such an oddity in pre-Trumpist America, Heimbach garnered his fair share of press. CNN, the New York Times, and some other major outlets all indulged him with interviews and coverage, holding him up as a curio.

Richard Vatz sponsored Heimbach’s White Student Union. This made it an official Towson University student organization, which it could not be without faculty sponsorship. Their activities included things like campus safety patrols. You don’t need to read too hard between the lines to understand just whom Heimbach and his cronies thought were the threat. Read more »

Translating Plum Blossoms 宋徽宗〈蠟梅山禽〉 

by Leanne Ogasawara

Emperor Huizong (1082-1135; r. 1101-25). Birds in a Blossoming Wax-Plum Tree. Hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, 83.3 x 53.3 cm. Taipei, National Palace Museum

山禽矜逸態 梅紛弄輕柔  已有丹青約 千秋猜白頭
Mountain birds, proud and unfettered
Plum blossoms, pollen scattering softly
This painting but a promise
Of a thousand autumns to come

  1. The Painting

Nine-hundred years ago, a Chinese emperor painted a picture of a pair of birds in a plum tree –to which he then inscribed a poem in calligraphy of unsurpassed elegance, in a style all his own. It is interesting to consider that very few new styles of calligraphy emerged in China after the sixth century. But Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25), while still only a young prince, created his own way of writing. Later dubbed the “slender gold” (瘦金體), it has been described by admirers as being writing like “floating orchid leaves,” or like “bamboo moving in the wind.” Or even more aptly, like “the legs of dancing cranes.” Detractors complained that the “skinny legs” are “too scrawny” to hold up the body, or “too bony”, like “a starving student in misfitting clothing.”

Whether one is partial to his characters or not, the fact remains that the “slender gold” style is probably the most famous –or maybe even the only– example in Chinese history of an emperor creating his own style of writing.

We see his four-line poem on the bottom left of the ink painting. Also there on the right of the delicately-drawn narcissus flowers, the emperor has signed his work –again, in that exquisite calligraphy like dancing cranes: “In the Xuanhe Hall, the Emperor drew this [picture].”

And what of the picture?

Well, we see two birds huddled together on a plum tree, under which grows a clump of narcissus. According to Chinese poetic convention, the plum and the narcissus are representative of the landscape of late winter and early spring. The plum, in particular, came to be admired for its capacity to blossom during extreme cold–even in the snow. Associated with pine and bamboo, both which remain green even in winter, the three became known collectively throughout East Asia as the “friends of the cold” (歲寒三友) and were considered to be symbols of fortitude and fidelity. Read more »

A Road Not Taken

by Rafaël Newman

Max Liebermann paints Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg in 1927

It’s been 90 years since Hitler was appointed German Chancellor, on January 30, 1933, despite his party, the NSDAP, having failed to achieve a majority in the elections to the Reichstag held the previous year; so naturally I’ve been thinking about Max Liebermann.

Born decades before the establishment of the German Empire, or Second Reich, in 1871, the painter Max Liebermann (July 20, 1847—February 8, 1935) was to die just as the Third Reich was rising to its hideous feet. Liebermann was a pillar of the German art world—or rather, he had become one by 1933, when he resigned from the Prussian Academy of Arts, the body he had served as president, but which had now fallen into line with the Nazis and had ceased exhibiting works by Jewish artists.

“Die Gänserupferinnen” (1872)

Max Liebermann was himself Jewish, but by the time of his death at the age of 87 he had long been accepted in the wider German bourgeois society into which he had been born, and which had persisted in its Prussian, Wilhelmine, and Weimar variations. After a rocky start to his career with scandalously “ugly” scenes of working-class life and “blasphemous” depictions of religious motifs, Liebermann would go on to play a leading role in the Berlin Secession, the fin-de-siècle movement opposed to the strictures of academic painting, which championed Impressionism and Realism and counted among its members such notable artists as Max Beckmann, Lovis Corinth, Käthe Kollwitz, and Otto Modersohn. Liebermann resisted the Secession’s eventual support for Expressionism, however, which moved him towards the conservative camp and prepared his entry into the Academy, the establishment’s artistic watchdog, and the mainstream of German culture. Read more »


by Bill Murray

I’m scared of birds. They’re dinosaurs, you know. They descend from the Jurassic when, just like in Jesus Loves Me, ‘they were big and we were small.’ Did you see those huge dinosaur tracks they found in Texas last summer? You were a scurrying little proto-mammal, foraging and minding your own business in the underbrush when that thing came along and blotted out the sun.

Birds are not cute little hopping around pixies, as likely shitting on your hand as sitting on it. Birds don’t have the presence of mind to fly off the hand that feeds it before despoiling it. Hummingbirds don’t even make sense in theory.

After the noise and furor that humans send up, birds are this world’s most insistent, annoying noisemakers, operating in the frequencies between bad manners and prison. The vocal rancor and pith of seagulls (find and bring to me a seagull that calms you) and the cage of two, three, four notes the rest of the bloody lot are doomed to stand inside and repeat all morning before it’s time to wake up, between those is where madness lies.

Privileged humans love birds. Birds’ appeal, they say, stacks right up alongside the majesty of the lion and the cheetah on safari. After you and your safari guide have rooted around for your fill of those mud trenches hippos make, say, and avoided the tse tse fly outbreak in day long pursuit of the famous muttering toad of this unique valley, somehow apparently, accidentally spying a dwarf cassowary in the sawgrass makes the day perfection. Read more »

Dating for Dogs

by Marie Snyder

Lots of people discredit the Myers-Briggs as just a horoscope, but it’s significantly different and can be useful in recognizing that we’re all innately different kinds of people. This awareness can help us get along in this world and maybe even find love, or at least a better roommate.

Dividing people into types based on intrinsic tendencies has been around for millennia, born of scrutinized observations of human nature. Ayurvedic Doshas were recorded about 3,000 years ago identifying people who are Vata (energetic but scattered), Pitta (systematic and ambitious, but dogmatic), or Kapha (methodical but slow moving). The four humours came around 500 years later with Alcmaeon of Croton to differentiate those who tend to be sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic. If you think of those categories long enough, you can easily find yourself playing a game of slotting your friends and family under each term.

Then Jung wrote Psychological Types in 1921, outlining opposing traits along three continuums: extraverted/introverted, sensing/intuitive, and thinking/feeling. (That last one might be better updated to task-oriented/people-oriented.) Although it produces only nine specific types, the continuum set-up provides infinite possibilities within each set of four letters.  It’s similar to being mainly melancholic with a touch of sanguine, or having a primary and secondary dosha. Jung explains his stance on innate personality:

“The fact that, in spite of the greatest possible similarity of external conditions, one child will assume this type while another that, must, of course, in the last resort be ascribed to individual disposition.”

This typology was popularized by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers who added the perception/judgment continuum and found a market for attaching types to careers. Later the Big 5 added another continuum: sensitive/resilient, and now it’s used by data miners. The fact that companies like Cambridge Analytica use psychographic marketing to influence our purchasing and decisions (and possibly our voting choices), means there’s likely something to understanding people under categories.  Read more »