London’s Great Fire in Light of Hurricane Maria

by Terese Svoboda

Last month I saw the Whitney exhibit “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria.” As you might remember, Maria was a Category 4 storm that hit Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. According to Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 4,645 Puerto Ricans died as a result of the storm, but according to the Puerto Rican government, only 64 died. The Whitney’s museum label stated that the smaller number “not only insulted the populace with its miscalculation but also undercounted at-risk sectors that experienced increased deaths from accidents, cardiac conditions, diabetes, suicide, and even leptospirosis—a usually rare, potentially deadly, yet preventable bacterial infection spread by rats that grew prevalent in the months following the storm due to contaminated water.”  A year after the hurricane, an impromptu installation of over 3,000 pairs of shoes was placed in front of Puerto Rican government buildings to memorialize the actual number of dead..[i] Activist Puerto Ricans had the number 4,645 tattooed onto their bodies. During the 2019 summer, protests about the death toll discrepancy finally unseated governor Ricardo Rosselló.[ii]

Which of these numbers will be recorded in history, and why?

According to most historians, only eight people died during the the Great Fire in London in 1666. Bertrand Roehner, my friend and historiographer, brought up this fact when I visited him in Paris last week. He maintains that common sense is the key to recognizing history’s weaknesses, and science is the remedy. Despite having access to the tremendous advances in technology, statistics, and the tools of interpretation, he says the study of history has not progressed as a discipline. Why has archeology, anthropology and paleontology adopted scientific ways of ascertaining what happened in the past, but not history? He likes to point out how much the study of physics has moved forward in the three centuries since Newton’s theories in Principia. His choice of this 1687 publication as a milestone coincides with the nearly contemporaneous Great Fire of London. Read more »

Monday Poem

The Hunter

I hike up the hill at a clip
to keep this heart alive

Orion’s over my left shoulder
with arms raised always
in his almost-never-ending black
place in sky immersed in
blazing stars in utter space

Skirting single Cheryl’s
I wonder again what it is she does
in summer her shingled house
is ablaze with lilies
She works them in a goofy hat
stopping now and then to swab sweat

I watch while beyond the blue
the hunter stands with his legs apart
“I’ll live near forever,” he mocks,
and his belt-stars testify

I pick the pace up now and feel
the suck of cool air into my lungs
At the top of the hill the road’s crown
is the pate of a disturbed
menace standing, straining
beneath asphalt, bending it up

A cleat-pocked phone pole’s
draped life-line wires
disappear into the dark

An old sugar maple’s there too
its cleft bark bathed in amber sodium vapor,
bare limbs a wild, strobed lattice
moving at my pace as I pass

While the hunter in the background,
knees ever sprung for action
perseverates for years and years,
I whistle past the graveyard popping Lipitor

by Jim Culleny
Odder Still
Lena’s basement Press, 2015

How woke was the Enlightenment?

by Jeroen Bouterse

At the core of Susan Neiman’s new book Left is not Woke, which is an attempt to sever what she sees as reactionary intellectual tendencies from admirable progressive goals, is the idea that for progressive values to be sustainable, their roots in the philosophy of the European Enlightenment need to be recognized and nourished. “If we continue to misconstrue the Enlightenment”, she says, “we can hardly appeal to its resources.”

The misconstruction that Neiman alludes to is a view that sees Enlightenment thought as deeply hypocritical: talking the talk of liberty and equality, but guilty in practice of systematic motivated reasoning that at best failed to question, and at worst actively contributed to racist and sexist ideologies justifying oppression by European men. Her double thesis is that this is an inaccurate view of enlightened thought, and that bad-mouthing the Enlightenment in this way leads us to discard indispensable tools for combating injustice in the present.

For Neiman, this error defines wokeness: ‘woke’ escalates a concern for inequalities of power and for historical injustice into the belief that history is a matter of power only. “Anybody who says the word ‘humanity’ wants to deceive you” sums up the cynicism that Neiman sees herself as being up against. It is a quote from the Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt, who in Neiman’s narrative serves as a bridge of sorts between the 18th-century counter-Enlightenment, and a post-WW2 anti-humanism that got us Foucault and left-wing “tribalism”. It is an uneasy grouping from the start, but this could be a sign that an interesting argument is coming up. Read more »

Irrepressible Blundering

by Akim Reinhardt

Did All Chicagoans Support The Civil War?I first heard “The Blundering Generation” in the 1990s when I was taking a course on Civil War history. As my professor explained, the early 20th century saw a new cohort of historians who no longer personally remembered the war and debated anew the nature of its origins. They were trying to move past the earlier, caustic interpretations of Northerners and Southerners who openly blamed each other, the former decrying the Southern “slaveocracy” and the latter bemoaning the “war of Northern aggression.” So instead, these thinkers at the vanguard of historical study decided to blame everyone. Or no one.

One new interpretation was The Irrepressible Conflict: Increasingly divergent economic, social, and cultural differences between the North and South were so profound and so deeply rooted, that the war was essentially unavoidable. Oh well. The other new viewpoint was The Blundering Generation: The Civil War, tragically, had been entirely avoidable, but was brought on by thirty years of missteps and increasing vitriol by a generation of incompetent and extremist political and social leaders.

It’s easy to imagine why these men (these historians were all men), born after the Civil War, raised in its long shadow and the seemingly endless animosity it spawned, would look for a way to move past it. But their groundbreaking debate, inevitability vs. endemic stupidity and extremism, proved to be a false dichotomy. Newer, better, smarter schools of thought eventually followed and displaced them. Yet nowadays I am reminded of this early Civil War historiography when I listen to observers talk of our current divided society. Read more »

Al-Andalus, the Bridge of Books

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Spanning just shy of a thousand years,  al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492), has a riveting history. To picture the Andalus is to imagine a world that gratifies at once the intellect, the spirit and all the senses; it has drawn critical scholars, poets and musicians alike. Barring cycles of turbulence, it is remembered as an intellectual utopia, a time of unsurpassed plentitude and civilizational advancements, and most significantly, as “la Convivencia” or peaceful coexistence of the three Abrahamic faiths brought together as a milieu. Al-Andalus was a syncretic culture shaped by influences from three continents— Africa, Asia and Europe – under Muslim rule. This civilization came to be known as a golden age for setting standards across all human endeavors, a bridge between Eastern and Western learning, sciences and the fine arts, between the public and private, native and foreign, sacred and secular— a phenomenon hitherto unknown in antiquity. The decline and eventual collapse of al-Andalus is no less of a legend; it is a history of in-fighting and brutal intolerance perpetrated throughout the three centuries of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) with ramifications to witness in our own times. The stark contrast between the Convivencia and the Inquisition makes al-Andalus a poignant story of reversals.

What made al-Andalus great? The flux of travelers from the Muslim world, among them, major intellectual and artistic figures, and the continuous arrival of trends, influence and material culture from societies far ahead of Europe— helped in integrating past learning with innovative technology and ideas. Andalus participated in the great translation movement (8th/9th centuries) of the fast-progressing Muslim world centered in Baghdad, and absorbed influences from the rich scholarly environment of places such as Fez. Greek works were translated into Arabic and then Latin, classical ideas were surveyed, amalgamated, built upon and passed on. Al-Andalus created a necessary link that brought together the best of antiquity from various geographical regions and forged what would later be identified as rudiments of the modern world. It was a veritable bridge of books. Located on the cusp of Africa, Asia and Europe, Iberian Muslims built further on Persian and North African architecture, aesthetics, medicine, linguistics, Roman engineering, Greek philosophy, Indian mathematics, so on. The spirit of mutual learning and collaboration, a corollary of the Convivencia, is the distinguishing feature of al-Andalus. Read more »

Social Darwin and the “Useless Eaters”

by Marie Snyder

Some people are arguing that the removal of mask mandates in hospitals is a form of eugenics. Tamara Taggart, President of Down Syndrome BC, said on “This is Vancolour,” 

“This is eugenics, like 100%. So now we don’t care about people. . . . All those people are expensive. I mean, it’s a harsh thing to say, but it is true. . . . My kid with a disability, he’s expensive in the grand scheme of things. A disabled person in the hospital? They’re expensive. So why else would we remove masks? Elderly people at long-term care facilities? They’re expensive!”

In an older Tyee article, currently recirculating, “My Daughter Shouldn’t be Sacrificed to ‘Get Back to Normal,'” Laesa Kim writes,

“Our family has learned more about ableism and eugenics throughout this pandemic than we should have. We have witnessed both individuals and institutions shrug as COVID more heavily affects marginalized communities.  . . . Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Good Morning America that ‘the overwhelming number of deaths of vaccinated individuals, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really these are people who were unwell to begin with and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.’ This is eugenic. . . . Public health directions are subtly promoting the same thought: It is fine to allow a virus to spread through the population, largely unchecked and unchallenged, because the assumption is that is will only kill certain demographics of people.” 

And I also used that term originally in the title of a recent post, “At What Point is Inaction a Form of Eugenics??,” showing the similarity between our dismissiveness of the disabled and elderly and children now and the experience of gay men with AIDS in the 80s. 

But then I changed it. It’s not quite eugenics as we think of it now. It’s potentially genocide Read more »

World, Mind, Learnability, Large Language Models, and the Metaphysical Structure of the Cosmos

by Bill Benzon

By cosmos I mean “the universe as seen as a well-ordered whole.” It thus stands in opposition to chaos. By metaphysical I mean…well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Wikipedia tells me that it is one of the four main branches of philosophy, along with epistemology, ethics, and logic and “the first principles of: being or existence, identity and change, space and time, cause and effect, necessity, and possibility.” Well, OK.

Perhaps I’m thinking something like: It is through metaphysics that chaos is ordered into cosmos. I rather like that. I doubt that they’ll buy it in Philosophy 101, but then this isn’t Philosophy 101. It is rather stranger and, perhaps, more interesting.

We’ll see.

Grasping the Cosmos: Powers of Ten, Fantasia

Let’s start with the physical universe. Back in 1977 Charles and Ray Eames toured the known universe in a nine-minute film called Powers of Ten. The film starts with an aerial view of a couple sitting on a blanket in a Chicago park at the shore of Lake Michigan. The field of view measures one meter. Then we zoom out by powers of ten, 10 meters, 100 meters, 1000 meters and so forth. As we zoom out voice-over narration explains what’s we’re seeing until the field of view measures 10^24 meter (100 million light years). We zoom back, very quickly, the voice-over pointing out that some regions are empty while others are populated. Once we reach the point where we started the field of view narrows to the man’s hand, and then every smaller until, at 10^-16 we’re viewing quarks. Note that almost all of the interesting visual action is between 10^9 and 10^-9 meters. Outside that range we see dots. Read more »

Can ChatGPT give us the 4-day work week?

by Sarah Firisen doesn’t love a three-day weekend? If an extra day to relax isn’t good enough, the following week always seems to go quickly, making a Memorial Day, Labor Day, or a bank holiday in the UK, the gift that keeps on giving. Of course, most of us should consider ourselves lucky only to have to work a 5-day week. No law of the universe says a work week has to be 5 days. In fact, the concept of a 40-hour workweek is relatively new; it was only on June 25, 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited the workweek to 44 hours, and two years later, Congress amended that to 40 hours. 

However, there’s now a growing dialog about the efficacy of moving towards a 4-day work week of 32 hours. The idea of a 4-day work week has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more and more companies experimenting with this alternative schedule. The theory is, perhaps counterintuitively,  that reducing the number of workdays can lead to increased productivity and that it definitely leads to better work-life balance and overall employee satisfaction. 

Conversations about the future of work were thrown into a global, real-time social experiment with the COVID-19 lockdowns. Suddenly, every white-collar worker was remote, and every prediction made by skeptical bosses about productivity losses if workers weren’t in the office was mostly proven incorrect. Indeed, companies found that their employees were even more productive while working remotely than in the office. This was partly due to fewer distractions, such as meetings and office chatter, and the ability to work flexible schedules that accommodated their personal needs. In fact, as many of us experienced, when freed from a daily commute and the structure of an office, we often found ourselves working more hours than ever.  Read more »

A Montreal Bagel In Zurich

by Rafaël Newman

In the 1960s, when I was a boy growing up on the west side of Montreal, whenever my father needed a hit of soul food — a smoked-meat sandwich, some pickled herring, or a ball of chopped liver with grivenes—he would head east (northeast, really, in my hometown’s skewed-grid street plan) to his old neighborhood on the Plateau. He would make for Schwartz’s, or Waldman’s, to the shops lining boulevard St.-Laurent, once known as “the Main” in memory of its service as a major artery through the Jewish part of town before the district changed hands: or rather, reverted to majority rule. On weekends my father would travel a little farther, in the direction of Mile End, to either of two places, St. Viateur Bagels and Fairmount Bagels, each located on the street from which it took its name and each, as its name candidly proposed, a baker and purveyor of bagels.

My father’s parents were from Eastern Europe, born and raised in territories still administered by the Czar at the time of their births. They emigrated separately to Canada in the 1920s, fleeing economic ruin (in my Zaideh’s case) and Cossacks (in my Bubbi’s). Together with their birth families, and as yet unknown to each other, the two of them made it to Montreal, in those days the largest city in the Dominion and among the international goals of choice for people on the move. Read more »

On the Road: Tanzania to Zambia by Train

by Bill Murray

Tazara train station, Dar es Salaam

We left last month’s column worried about getting tickets on a train across a swath of Africa’s midsection, from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Lusaka, Zambia. There’s a funny system for getting on that train. You can reserve tickets over the phone but you can’t buy them online.

You must come to the train station in person, Tanzanian Shillings in hand, and buy your tickets with cash. When we turned up the day before departure, the whole, massive, foreboding station was deserted except for a sprinkle of porters loitering outside for lack of business, and one man behind the ticket window.

We offered our $188 in cash in shillings. He offered a big smile, the fact that he had a son in Missouri, and four tickets, so that the two of us, my wife Mirja and I, claimed an entire four person compartment for our own.

There is a cliché about Africa, about the need to build in extra time for everything. It’s a cutesy, knowing, slightly smug expression of superiority among tourists when they learn it and use it for the first time; it is, in fairness, also true.

Welcome to the Tazara (TA for Tanzania, ZA for Zambia and RA for railroad) railroad. Its timetable led us to expect a forty two hour ride, but we stayed on that train for fifty seven hours and forty minutes, busting through a scheduled Sunday morning arrival time and instead arriving after midnight the next day.

Not that you’d have thought so at the start. Remarkably, even a touch triumphantly, the Tazara pulled out of Dar es Salaam station three minutes late at 3:53 on Friday afternoon. It didn’t take long for its true character to emerge, though; the Tazara was three hours late by its second stop. Read more »

A new theory of embodied consciousness

Forget ‘I think therefore I am’. In a new theory of embodied consciousness, the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio propose that feelings are the source of consciousness. Long dismissed as secondary to reason, feelings are where consciousness begins. Without them, consciousness is impossible, they argue – with radical implications for the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness and the future of AI.

Antonio Damasio and Hanna Damasio at IAI News:

Please pause for a moment and notice what you are feeling now. Perhaps you notice a growing snarl of hunger in your stomach or a hum of stress in your chest. Perhaps you have a feeling of ease and expansiveness, or the tingling anticipation of a pleasure soon to come. Or perhaps you simply have a sense that you exist. Hunger and thirst, pain, pleasure and distress, along with the unadorned but relentless feelings of existence, are all examples of ‘homeostatic feelings’. Homeostatic feelings are, we argue here, the source of consciousness.

More here.

A New Kind of Symmetry Shakes Up Physics

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

It’s not an exaggeration to say that every major advance in physics for more than a century has turned on revelations about symmetry. It’s there at the dawn of general relativity, in the birth of the Standard Model, in the hunt for the Higgs.

For that reason, research across physics is now building to a crescendo. It was touched off by a 2014 paper, “Generalized Global Symmetries,” which demonstrated that the most important symmetries of 20th-century physics could be extended more broadly to apply in quantum field theory, the basic theoretical framework in which physicists work today.

This reformulation, which crystallized earlier work in the area, revealed that disparate observations physicists had made in the past 40 years were really manifestations of the same lurking symmetry. In doing so, it created an organizing principle that physicists could use to categorize and understand phenomena. “That’s really a stroke of genius,” said Nathaniel Craig, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

More here.

Ellen O’Brien on Driving

Ellen O’Brien in the Sydney Review of Books:

When I’m driving my car, I feel like I’m in my own private domicile, bitch! I’m the driver, so I’m in control: I choose the music, the temperature level, how fast or slow we go. I also suffer the consequences, but that’s fine—it’s my life! And yes, there are things I should consider—agreements between us, called ‘road rules’ and ‘traffic laws’—but if I disregard them, I can pretend that I’m the queen of my own little castle. So, vroom fucking vroom, baby! Let’s ride.

More here.

“Luxury” construction causes high rents like umbrellas cause rain

Noah Smith in Noahpinion:

Imagine if you went outside and saw that it had started to rain, and that people on the street were opening their umbrellas. And imagine that you ran around waving your arms and saying “Stop! Stop! Umbrellas make rain worse!!” People would think you were a silly person, and rightly so.

But why don’t people think that umbrellas make rain worse? After all, everyone knows that rain typically starts to intensify shortly after people start opening their umbrellas. But we have a good causal theory of why rain happens, and we know that umbrellas have nothing to do with it; we know that the umbrellas are a response to the problem, rather than the cause.

The same should be true for market-rate housing construction and rising rents.

More here.