Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Travails of Bidenomics

Justin H. Vassallo in American Affairs:

The recent media flurry over “Bidenomics” is the latest attempt to distill a complex but far from complete rupture with neoliberalism. Premised in part on lifting the wages and employment rate of historically low-income groups, Bidenomics is really about two things: strengthening the relationship between climate policy and national security, and prodding capital to commit to more useful, more productive investment in the domestic economy. Industrial policy is its core feature—the main means of inducing, steering, and even compelling capital to serve societal and national goals short of explicit economic planning. Like a heresy without a new church, industrial policy has been the watchword of the last two years despite having no organized base in the American electorate. As for Bidenomics in general, according to an Associated Press poll released in June, just 34 percent of the public approves of Biden’s overall handling of the economy.

More ambitious than anything attempted by a Democratic administration since the mid-1960s, Bidenomics nevertheless marks another uncertain chapter for the party in the twenty-first century. While some analysts, pointing to bipartisan agreement over the imperative to strategically decouple from China, have been quick to declare a new economic consensus in Washington, debates over industrial policy and Bidenomics more generally are stimulating new divisions within the liberal-left.

For those who hail it as the start of a “new progressive era,” Bidenomics is both the apotheosis and transmutation of the legislative potential glimpsed in Barack Obama’s electoral coalition. It demonstrates that today’s Democrats have finally embraced activist government to achieve inclusive growth, enhance the welfare state, pursue social justice, and meet ambitious climate targets.

Economic progressives of a more populist, New Deal bent are likewise sympathetic, if more cautious. Developmental states, they argue, require time to build up their capacities; altering the composition of a country’s industrial mix does not occur overnight. This is no less true of the West’s ultra-polarized hegemon, pockmarked as it is by staggering social and regional inequalities.

More here.


Eli Zaretsky in Sidecar:

As if demonstrating that the repressed does return, politics has erupted in the supposedly apolitical world of American psychoanalysis. An advocacy group, Black Psychoanalysts Speak, and a documentary film, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, seek to redress the racial and class biases of analysis. Unbehagen, a psychoanalytic list-serve, features a roiling debate over whether it is necessary to match the analyst’s gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation with the patient’s. The American Psychoanalytic Association itself has been shaken by political recriminations, purges, resignations and denunciations. An article by Donald Moss, published in the association’s journal, provided the catalyst in this case. According to its abstract:

 Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has – a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable and perverse.

The reaction to the article was sharply divided. Some saw it as a valuable extension of psychoanalytic theory, while others believed it neglected vital determining factors of racialization, such as deindustrialization, union discrimination and the inequities of the real estate market. In response to the controversy, an internal body was appointed, the Holmes Commission, to ‘investigate systemic racism and its underlying determinants embedded within APsaA, and to offer remedies for all aspects of identified racism’. Among the repercussions has been a debate over anti-Semitism precipitated by a speaking invitation to a controversial Lebanese psychoanalytic therapist, which led to the resignation of the President of the Association, Kerry Sulkowicz.

These developments are noteworthy in themselves, but they also raise wider questions about the relation between psychoanalysis and politics. What is striking about the politicization of contemporary psychoanalysis is the extent to which it conforms to the liberal identitarianism, sometimes termed ‘wokeness’, prevailing in the broader culture, which views systematic wrongs such as racism as emanating from individual psyches, along the model of sin.

More here.

Goth: A History

Caroline Sullivan at The Guardian:

At its core, goth is an alternative lifestyle that finds beauty in the dark and melancholy aspects of life, using music, literature and cinema as guideposts. It can be a mere fashion preference, but for the fully committed, it’s a design for life. Lol Tolhurst, a longtime adherent, believes it is “a way to understand the world” – and as relevant a form of cultural rebellion now as it was in the 1980s. Goth: A History eloquently presents his case, up to his concluding assertion that goth’s “beautiful, bleak wave of art” is an ideal form of resistance against “the terrible slide our world is taking toward oppressive authoritarianism”. At the very least, he argues, “something good” will come of it, though he doesn’t say what.

As a source, Tolhurst is hard to beat. In 1978, he and his Crawley schoolmates, Robert Smith and Michael Dempsey, formed one of goth’s foundational bands, the Cure, which put him at the heart of the emerging culture.

more here.

The Man Who Wrote Everything

Alexandra Jacobs at the NYT:

Indeed, Talese’s relative indifference to celebrity is what ensured his own. Long before “quiet quitting” there was Bartleby’s phrase “I would prefer not to,” and that’s the essence of what Talese first replied to Harold Hayes, the editor of then-mighty Esquire, when asked to write the profile that would become perhaps the most venerated in magazine history, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966). The article would inspire countless lesser talents to circle whatever famous subject they couldn’t corner for 40 minutes over a Cobb salad and contort the result into a florid narrative for the glossies.

Part 2 of “Bartleby and Me” is the story behind the Sinatra story, and even the story behind the story behind the Sinatra story: a chart of Talese’s notes published in the same issue, wherein the author cusses out and expresses his mistrust of Hayes.

more here.

How to Change Your Mind-Set About Aging

Holly Burns in The New York Times:

At a pool party this summer, Johnnie Cooper climbed onto the diving board, executed a perfect dive and then joined a raucous game of Marco Polo. The occasion? Her 90th birthday. “I’ve always looked forward to this age,” said Ms. Cooper, who lives in Huntsville, Ala., and is retired from the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command. “You no longer have a lot of the struggles you had. There’s a lot more peace.”

Her enthusiasm for getting older could be part of the reason she has lived such a long, rich life. While everyone’s experience with aging is different, experts are increasingly finding that having a positive mind-set is associated with aging well.

A decades-long study of 660 people published in 2002 showed that those with positive beliefs around getting older lived seven and a half years longer than those who felt negatively about it. Since then, research has found that a positive mind-set toward aging is associated with lower blood pressure, a generally longer and healthier life and a reduced risk of developing dementia. Research also shows that people with a more positive perception of aging are more likely to take preventive health measures — like exercising — which, in turn, may help them live longer.

More here.

How to train your jellyfish: brainless box jellies learn from experience

Dyani Lewis in Nature:

A tiny jellyfish has, for the first time, demonstrated a mighty cognitive capacity — the ability to learn by association. Although it has no central brain, the finger-tip-sized Caribbean box jellyfish (Tripedalia cystophora) can be trained to associate the sensation of bumping into something with a visual cue, and to use the information to avoid future collisions. The experiment shows a type of learning called associative learning — made famous by neurologist Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs in the late-nineteenth century — in which an animal learns to associate one stimulus with another through training. “Associative learning is now considered solid evidence of cognitive capacity,” says Ken Cheng, an animal behaviour researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Many other animals — from humans to birds, octopuses and even insects — have the ability to learn by association.

“The box jellyfish finding is very important because it shows that a centralized nervous system, or brain, is not necessary for associative learning,” says Pamela Lyon, a cognitive biologist at the University of Adelaide, Australia. “It’s super,” says Gaëlle Botton-Amiot, a neurobiologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, who published a study in March1 showing that the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis is also capable of associative learning. Sea anemones and jellyfish both belong to a group of organisms known as cnidarians, and Botton-Amiot thinks that “this ability to do associative learning is present across probably the entire cnidarian tree”.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Portrait of a Real Hijo de Puta

— for Michael

Not the obscenity,
but a real ten year old
son of a whore,
locked out of the apartment
so mamá could return
to the slavery
of her ancestors
who knew the master’s burglary
of their bodies at night,
mama who sleeps
in a pool of clear rum;

and the real hijo de puta poses
with the swim team photograph
at the community center,
bragging fists in the air,
grinning like a cheerleader
with hidden cigarette burns,
a circus strongman
who steals cheese and crackers
from the office
where the door is deliberately
left open.

by Martín Espada
from Alabanza, New and Selected Poems—
W.W. Norton, 2003

Friday, September 22, 2023

Lasker Award for Revolutionizing Protein Structure Predictions

Laura Tran in The Scientist:

Today (September 21), the Lasker Foundation announced this year’s award winners. John Jumper, a computational biologist at DeepMind, and Demis Hassabis, cofounder and CEO at DeepMind, were awarded the 2023 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for “the invention of AlphaFold, the artificial intelligence (AI) system that solved the long-standing challenge of predicting the three-dimensional structures of proteins from the one-dimensional sequence of their amino acids,” announced the Lasker Foundation.

Jumper and Hassabis led the AlphaFold team that revolutionized the field of structural biology by accelerating the process of protein structure prediction with speed and accuracy. Their approach melded together different backgrounds and disciplines, and researchers have adopted the platform to answer diverse biological questions.

…Then in 2021, DeepMind publicly released the source code for AlphaFold and its impressive database of more than 350,000 proteins in collaboration with the European Bioinformatics Institute at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.6 This database has since grown to more than 200 million structures.



More here.

The Bloomsbury Group Is Back in Vogue

Rebecca Meade in The New Yorker:

In July, 1918, Virginia Woolf spent a weekend at Garsington—a country home, outside Oxford, owned by Lady Ottoline Morrell, a celebrated hostess of the era, and her husband, Philip Morrell, a Member of Parliament. The house, a ramshackle Jacobean mansion that the Morrells had acquired five years earlier, had been vividly redecorated by Ottoline into what one guest called a “fluttering parrot-house of greens, reds and yellows.” One sitting room was painted with a translucent seafoam wash; another was covered in deep Venetian red, and early visitors were invited to apply thin lines of gold paint to the edges of wooden panels. The entrance hall was laid with Persian carpets and, as Morrell’s biographer Miranda Seymour has written, the pearly gray paint on the walls was streaked with pink, “to create the effect of a winter sunset.” Woolf, in her diary, noted that the Italianate garden fashioned by Morrell—with paved terraces, brilliantly colored flower beds, and a pond surrounded by yew-tree hedges clipped with niches for statuary—was “almost melodramatically perfect.”

Woolf characterized Morrell herself with a note of satire, observing that her conversational “drift is always almost bewilderingly meandering.” While on an afternoon walk, Morrell had leaned on a parasol and offered a discourse on love—“Isn’t it sad that no one really falls in love nowadays?”—before declaring her dedication to the natural world and to literature. “We asked the poor old ninny why, with this passion for literature, she didn’t write,” Woolf wrote. Morrell replied, “Ah, but I’ve no time—never any time. Besides, I have such wretched health—But the pleasure of creation, Virginia, must transcend all others.”

More here.

Book Review: The Alexander Romance

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

Sometimes scholars go on a search for “the historical Jesus”. They start with the Gospels, then subtract everything that seems magical or implausible, then declare whatever’s left to be the truth.

The Alexander Romance is what happens when you spend a thousand years running this process in reverse. Each generation, you make the story of Alexander the Great a little wackier. By the Middle Ages, Alexander is fighting dinosaurs and riding a chariot pulled by griffins up to Heaven.

People ate it up. The Romance stayed near the top of the best-seller lists for over a thousand years. Some people claim (without citing sources) that it was the #2 most-read book of antiquity and the Middle Ages, after only the Bible. The Koran endorses it, the Talmud embellishes it, a Mongol Khan gave it rave reviews. While historians and critics tend to use phrases like “contains nothing of historic or literary value”, this was the greatest page-turner of the ancient and medieval worlds.

More here.

AI-focused tech firms locked in ‘race to the bottom’, warns MIT professor

Dan Milmo in The Guardian:

The scientist behind a landmark letter calling for a pause in developing powerful artificial intelligence systems has said tech executives did not halt their work because they are locked in a “race to the bottom”.

Max Tegmark, a co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, organised an open letter in March calling for a six-month pause in developing giant AI systems.

Despite support from more than 30,000 signatories, including Elon Musk and the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the document failed to secure a hiatus in developing the most ambitious systems.

Speaking to the Guardian six months on, Tegmark said he had not expected the letter to stop tech companies working towards AI models more powerful than GPT-4, the large language model that powers ChatGPT, because competition has become so intense.

More here.

Saving Liberalism from ‘The Identity Trap’: An Interview with Yascha Mounk

Jonathan Kay in Quillette:

Some call it “wokeness”—a word that once felt right but now feels more like an overbroad culture-war term of abuse. Others might call it social-justice extremism. But that seems too charitable: True “social justice” is about helping the world’s poor and (truly) oppressed, whereas the fashionable ideology we’re talking about here is more about privileged westerners demanding correct pronoun usage and race quotas in movie casting. As Yascha Mounk argues in his new Penguin Press book, The Identity Trap, A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, this lack of commonly agreed-upon terminology is a problem: How can we coherently oppose an ideology if we can’t even properly describe it?

More here.

Friday Poem

I keep lighting candles on my stoop and watching the wind snuff them out

I keep thinking about Breonna Taylor asleep/ between fresh sheets/ I keep thinking/ about her skin cooling after a shower/ about her hair wrapped in a satin bonnet/ I think about what she may have dreamed that night/ keep thinking about her bedroom/ whether she had painted it recently/ argued with her partner about the undertones in that paint/ this one more blue/ this one more pink/ that she may have felt more at home now that she had chosen the color on her walls/ I keep thinking about how she could use her hands to keep blood moving through a human heart/ how she could use her hands to stanch the flow of blood until platelets arrived/ I wonder how many times she heard/ thank you for saving/ please save/ I wonder how many nights she could/ I keep thinking about her when I lie in bed at night/ when I wake up and look in the mirror/ when I walk to my front door/ I keep thinking about the life she wanted to build/ whether she had her eye on a ring and was dropping hints to the man who chose to protect her/ whether he was working on it/ whether it was in his sock drawer already as he waited for the right time/ I keep wondering why a black woman’s death alone can’t begin the revolution/ whether the sweet smoke rising to the heavens across this nation is offering enough/

by Amy M. Alvarez
Split This Rock

Breonna Taylor

Thursday, September 21, 2023


Morgan Meis at Slant Books:

I always thought that the song Troy by Sinéad O’Connor was a song about romantic love. But she explained, some years ago, that the song is really about her mother. Sinéad did not like her mother, who died in a car crash when Sinéad was eighteen and who she described as extremely physically and mentally abusive. I’m going to continue to refer to Sinéad O’Connor as simply Sinéad, by the way, since I feel that intimately about her and since she will always be Sinéad to me.

As most people know, Sinéad died this past July. I’m assuming that this was suicide, though I guess this has not been confirmed. She had certainly attempted suicide many times and was never in anything that could be described as good mental health. I don’t know what to say about any of this or about what the song Troy was actually trying to communicate, in her mind.

I simply know that this extremely complex person who was often in a high degree of pain and distress created some extremely beautiful and powerful music.

More here.

Silkworms genetically engineered to produce pure spider silk

Alice Klein in New Scientist:

Spider silk has been eyed as a greener alternative to synthetic fibres, which are derived from fossil fuels and leach harmful microplastics into the environment. Farming silk from spiders themselves is difficult, however, because they tend to eat each other and only produce a small amount of silk fibre to make their webs. A 4-square-metre spider silk shawl that was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, had to be created from the silk of over 1 million golden orb-weaver spiders.

As a result, several groups have tried to genetically engineer silkworms so that they make spider silk instead of their own silk, since silkworms are easier to farm and spin much larger quantities of fibre. But until now, the silk produced by these modified silkworms has been less than 36 per cent spider silk.

More here.