Steven Pinker on Effective Altruism

Tarun Timalsina at the Harvard Political Review:

Harvard Political Review: You have called effective altruism, and I quote, one of the great new ideas of the 21st century. Could you briefly introduce our readers to the core philosophy of the effective altruism movement and explain why you think the movement can be a big deal? 

Steven Pinker: The idea behind effective altruism is to channel charitable giving and other philanthropic activities to where they will do the most good, where they would lead to the greatest increase in human flourishing. And the reason that it’s needed is that we are all altruistic. It is part of human nature. On the other hand, we have a large set of motives for why we’re altruistic and some of them are ulterior — such as appearing beneficent and generous, or earning friends and cooperation partners. Some of them may result in conspicuous sacrifices that indicate that we are generous and trustworthy people to our peers but don’t necessarily do anyone any good. And so the idea behind effective altruism is to determine where your activities actually save lives, increase health, reduce poverty, and at the very least provide people opportunities to channel their philanthropy where it will do the most good. And, of course, also to encourage people to do that. So part of it is just informing people if that is their goal and telling them that these are the ways to do it. And the other is to spread the value that that’s where philanthropy ought to be directed.

More here.

Research may help clear path for use of psychedelics in treating psychiatric patients

Alvin Powell in The Harvard Gazette:

GAZETTE: There’s been a lot written about psychedelics in recent years. How did the center get started?

ROSENBAUM: In retrospective, it appears inadvertent. I spent a little less than 20 years as chief of psychiatry at Mass General and toward the end of that term, I was talking to a patient about his suffering, his torment, what was really bothering him. He was very vivid, and I had this “aha” moment. Much of the burden of all the different conditions that we treat in psychiatry, whether it’s OCD, anxiety disorders, addiction, depression, a main source of suffering is a kind of repetitive, stuck, painful dwelling on things: rumination. I made a practice of asking every one of my patients about rumination and found that it was a substantial part of their suffering. I realized that as a field we had not paid sufficient attention to it.

I have a friend who is a passionate advocate for decriminalization and the development of psychedelics as therapeutics. There was a conference on psychedelics at the Broad Institute and he asked me to attend.

More here.

The G7 helped to build this low-tax world, Are they really ready to change it?

Mark Blyth in The Guardian:

In the early 90s, governments started buying into an argument about capital mobility, taxes and welfare states: in a world of global capital, investors will seek the best returns they can get globally. If those returns are reduced by “distortions” such as taxes, investment will flow to countries that tax less. Consequently, those expensive and expansive welfare states that neoliberal economists had always targeted had to go. Funding them through taxing the wealthy and corporations would lower investment and employment, so the story went.

Governments across the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD) used this argument to cut taxes on both individuals and corporations. The UK’s corporate tax rate fell from 34% to 19% between 1990 and 2019, while the US’s rates fell from 35% to 21% over the same period. But rather than those reductions leading to an explosion of investment in both countries, investment levels actually fell, as the tax-savings made were taken as profit and pushed into asset markets. In the UK, gross fixed-capital investment fell from 23.5% of GDP in 1990 to 17% in 2019. In the US, it fell from 23.5% to 19%.

While utterly failing to promote investment, what such changes did set up was ruinous tax competition between states.

More here.

‘The Counterforce: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice’ By J. M. Tyree

Justin St. Clair at the LARB:

Tyree’s answer to our present dilemma is weirdness, “cultivated eccentricity as an antidote to a world gone mad.” He proposes a Pynchonian counterforce, a ragged band of outsiders and misfits to resist all the orthodoxies of the day. Despite the polarization of the moment, both the left and the right feverishly engage in what Tyree terms timewashing: “[O]ur era’s signature creation of fake pasts that purport to cleanse history of its deep stains and recurring nightmares with the scented spray of propaganda.” Our “incapacity to live with the past in all its troubling complexity” poses a grave danger, he argues, and better fiction could be our salvation. He’s right, of course, but he also knows the unlikelihood of his solution: “Is it naïve to assert that we badly need dreamers like Pynchon to help us imagine a different future by reading through a different lens on our past?” Tyree answers his own question just three sentences later: “Yeah, that’s probably naïve.”

more here.

Friday Poem

The Son

Ah son, do you know, do you know
where you come from?

From a lake with white
and hungry gulls.

Next to the water of winter
she and I raised
a red bonfire
wearing out our lips
from kissing each other’s souls,
casting all into the fire,
burning our lives.

That’s how you came into the world.

But she, to see me
and to see you, one day
crossed the seas
and I, to clasp, her tiny waist,
walked all the earth,
with wars and mountains,
with sands and thorns.

That’s how you came into the world.

You come from so many places,
from the water and the earth,
from the fire and the snow,
from so far away you journey
toward the two of us,
from the terrible love
that has enchained us,
that we want to know
what you’re like what you say to us
because you know more
about the world we gave you.

Like a great storm
we shook
the tree of life
down to the hiddenmost
fibers of the roots
and you appear now
singing in the foliage,
in the highest branch
that with you we reach

by Pablo Neruda
The Captain’s Verses
New Directions Books, 1972
Translation: Donald D. Walsh

Original Spanish at “Read More”

Read more »

The Classicist Who Killed Homer

Adam Kirsch in The New Yorker:

The Western tradition has never been more appealingly portrayed than in Rembrandt’s 1653 painting “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Whether you stand in front of it at the Metropolitan Museum or look at it online, the painting turns you into a link in a chain that goes back three thousand years. Here you are in the twenty-first century, contemplating a painting made in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, which portrays a philosopher who lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C., looking at a poet thought to have lived in the eighth century B.C. Tradition abolishes time, making us all contemporaries. Yet the painting hints that Homer doesn’t quite belong in the same dimension of reality occupied by you, Aristotle, and Rembrandt.

Aristotle is portrayed realistically in the dress of Rembrandt’s time—sumptuous white shirt, simple black apron, and broad-brimmed hat. (It wasn’t until the twentieth century that art historians determined that the figure was Aristotle; earlier identifications included a contemporary of Rembrandt’s, the writer Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.) In other words, Aristotle is a human being like us, albeit an extraordinary one. Homer, however, is a white marble bust—a work of art within a work of art.

It’s a reminder that, even for Aristotle, Homer was more a legend than a man. In his Poetics, the philosopher credits the poet with inventing epic, drama, and comedy. “It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully,” he writes with evident ambivalence. Herodotus, known as the first historian, saw Homer, along with the poet Hesiod, as having invented Greek mythology, calling them the first to “give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations, and describe their forms.” When it comes to things like when and where Homer lived, however, the earliest sources are already unreliable. According to tradition, the poet was blind and was born on the island of Chios, where a guild of rhapsodes—reciters of epic poetry—later became known as the Homeridae, “children of Homer,” and claimed to be his direct descendants. But there is no evidence for any of these assertions, and some ancient biographies of Homer are obviously fanciful.

Herodotus writes that Homer lived “four hundred years before my time,” which would put him in the ninth century B.C., but adds that this is “my own opinion,” with no real proof behind it.

More here.

Pinpointing how cancer cells turn aggressive

From Phys.Org:

It’s often cancer’s spread, not the original tumor, that poses the disease’s most deadly risk. “And yet metastasis is one of the most poorly understood aspects of  biology,” says Kamen Simeonov, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

In a new study, a team led by Simeonov and School of Veterinary Medicine professor Christopher Lengner has made strides toward deepening that understanding by tracking the development of metastatic . Their work used a mouse model of pancreatic cancer and cutting-edge techniques to trace the lineage and gene expression patterns of individual cancer cells. They found a spectrum of aggression in the cells that arose, with cells that were likely to remain in place at the primary tumor at one end and those that were more likely to move to new sites and colonize other tissues at the other end.

Of the cells that eventually became metastatic and grew in tissues and organs beyond the pancreas, the majority shared a common lineage, the researchers discovered. “By building a precision tool for probing cancer metastasis in vivo, we’re able to observe previously inaccessible types of information,” says Simeonov. “We were able to use this lineage tracing approach to rank cells based on how metastatic they were and then relate these differences in behavior to .” The group’s findings, published in the journal Cancer Cell, suggest that it’s not only genetic mutations that can drive cancer’s spread; the single-cell RNA profiling results underscore that gene expression patterns—which  cells are turning on and off—play a key role in disease outcomes.

More here.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Last Day: 3 Quarks Daily Is Looking For New Monday Columnists

Dear Reader,

Here’s your chance to say what you want to the large number of highly educated readers that make up 3QD’s international audience. Several of our regular columnists have had to cut back or even completely quit their columns for 3QD because of other personal and professional commitments and so we are looking for a few new voices. We do not pay, but it is a good chance to draw attention to subjects you are interested in, and to get feedback from us and from our readers.

We would certainly love for our pool of writers to reflect the diversity of our readers in every way, including gender, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc., and we encourage people of all kinds to apply. And we like unusual voices and varied viewpoints. So please send us something. What have you got to lose? Click on “Read more” below…


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My words have meaning, your parrot’s do not, Wittgenstein explains

Stephen Law in Psyche:

These squiggles have a meaning. So do spoken words, road signs, mathematical equations and signal flags. Meaning is something with which we’re intimately familiar – so familiar that, for the most part, we barely register or think about it at all. And yet, once we do begin to reflect on meaning, it can quickly begin to seem bizarre and even magical. How can a few marks on a sheet of paper reach out across time to refer to a person long dead? How can a mere sound in the air instantaneously pick out a galaxy light-years away? What gives words these extraordinary powers? The answer, of course, is that we do. But how?

A slogan often associated with the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is ‘meaning is use’. Here’s what Wittgenstein actually says:

For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.

In order to appreciate the philosophical significance of this remark, let’s begin by looking at one of the key things that Wittgenstein is warning us against.

Suppose I say: ‘It’s hot today.’ So does a parrot. Saying the words is a process; for example, it can be done quickly or slowly.

However, unlike the parrot, I don’t just say something: I mean something. This might suggest that, when it comes to my use of language, two processes take place. But where does this second process – that of meaning something – occur?

More here.

In more than 80 U.S. locations, the failure of an aging dam could flood a major toxic waste site

James Dinneen and Alexander Kennedy in Undark:

While the dramatic breach of the Edenville Dam captured national headlines, an Undark investigation has identified 81 other dams in 24 states, that, if they were to fail, could flood a major toxic waste site and potentially spread contaminated material into surrounding communities.

In interviews with dam safety, environmental, and emergency officials, Undark also found that, as in Michigan, the risks these dams pose to toxic waste sites are largely unrecognized by any agency, leaving communities across the country vulnerable to the same kind of low-probability, but high-consequence disaster that played out in Midland.

More here.

A Global Incentive to Reduce Emissions

Raghuram G. Rajan in Project Syndicate:

Economists generally agree that the way to reduce GHG emissions is to tax them. But such taxes almost certainly will cause disruptive economic changes in the short run, which is why discussions of imposing them tend to run quickly into free-rider or fairness problems.

For example, industrialized countries such as the US are concerned that while they work hard to reduce emissions, developing countries will keep pumping them out with abandon. But at the same time, developing countries like Uganda point out that there is profound inequity in asking a country that emitted just 0.13 tons of carbon dioxide per capita in 2017 to bear the same burden as the US or Saudi Arabia, with their respective per capita emissions of 16 and 17.5 tons.

The least costly way to reduce global emissions would be to give every country similar incentives. While India should not keep building more dirty coal plants as it grows, Europe should be closing down the plants it already has. But each country will want to reduce emissions in its own way – some through taxation, others through regulation. The question, then, is how to balance national-level priorities with global needs so that we can save the one world we have.

More here.


Consumed – a sister’s story

Fiona Sturges in The Guardian:

Arifa Akbar’s memoir begins with the death of her sister from a mysterious illness. Before she died in 2016, aged 45, Fauzia had already been rushed to hospital twice, the cause of her symptoms unknown. She had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and night sweats. Her face began to swell and her lungs became inflamed, but still doctors were clueless. Later, as her speech started to slur and her behaviour became erratic, she was put in an induced coma and subsequently had a brain haemorrhage. Eventually there was a diagnosis: she had died of tuberculosis.

Akbar was left with questions, among them: why hadn’t Fauzia been diagnosed earlier? How, in 2016, does a person contract TB? Her sister’s death also prompted a broader reflection on her life and the ways she had been failed by others. Along with telling the story of a sibling, Consumed is also a candid dissection of family with its complex bonds and rifts, and an acute portrait of grief and mental illness. “Life brought Fauzia pain,” Akbar writes.

The eldest sibling, Fauzia was born in Pakistan shortly after her father had left for the UK to find work and start a new life. She didn’t meet him until she was one, when she and her mother first joined him in London. The child instinctively shrank from this man who was, to her, a stranger, which he took as a personal slight. Throughout her childhood, he subjected her to sustained abuse, reprimanding and taunting her, pulling her hair and often refusing to eat at the same table as her. He made no secret of the fact that her younger sister, Arifa, was the preferred daughter; his emotional cruelties towards Fauzia were, notes Akbar, “so insistent, every day and unrelenting, that they became normalised in our home”.

More here.

Our Little Life Is Rounded with Possibility

Chiara Marletto in Nautilus:

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics—yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explanations. They are facts not about what is—“the actual”—but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the actual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sitting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true—and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Factory of Tears

And once again according to the annual report
the highest productivity results were achieved
by the Factory of Tears.

While the Department of Transportation was breaking heels
while the Department of Heart Affairs
was beating hysterically
the Factory of Tears was working night shifts
setting new records even on holidays.

While the Food Refinery Station
was trying to digest another catastrophe
the Factory of Tears adopted a new economically advantageous
technology of recycling the wastes of past –
memories mostly.

The pictures of the employees of the year
were placed on the Wall of Tears.

I’m a recipient of workers’ comp from the heroic Factory of Tears.
I have calluses on my eyes.
I have compound fractures on my cheeks.
I receive my wages with the product I manufacture.
And I’m happy with what I have.

by Valzhyna Mort
Factory of Tears
publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2008
translation from original Belarusian: 2008, Valzhyna Mort, Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright

Original Belarusian at “Read More” Read more »

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie review

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty in The Guardian:

The inspiration for Midnight’s Children came to Salman Rushdie on a backpacking trip around India. It was 1974, and he had just received an advance of £700 for his debut novel, Grimus. But he still saw himself as an apprentice novelist who worked part-time for an ad agency in London. He stretched out his advance over four months of travel, roughing it in 15-hour bus rides and humble hostelries, reacquainting himself with the country he had known as a child. The homecoming made him reconsider a minor character in an old story: a snot-nosed Bombay boy, Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of India’s independence, whose destiny aggressively mirrored the timeline of major events in the subcontinent. The new novel would tell the story not of a life, but a nation.

Rushdie has previously written here and there about his rookie years, and he writes about them again in his new collection of essays, Languages of Truth. He prefaces the story this time with a memory of having lunch with the American writer Eudora Welty in London, one year after Midnight’s Children won the Booker prize. During the meal, Rushdie ended up asking Welty about William Faulkner. How did she perceive the Nobel laureate, who had lived out his life in Mississippi like Welty? Did she think of him as one of the writers closest to her? Welty’s response was caustic: “I’m from Jackson,” she said. “He is from Oxford. It’s miles away.”

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Simon DeDeo on How Explanations Work and Why They Sometimes Fail

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

You observe a phenomenon, and come up with an explanation for it. That’s true for scientists, but also for literally every person. (Why won’t my car start? I bet it’s out of gas.) But there are literally an infinite number of possible explanations for every phenomenon we observe. How do we invent ones we think are promising, and then decide between them once invented? Simon DeDeo (in collaboration with Zachary Wojtowicz) has proposed a way to connect explanatory values (“simplicity,” “fitting the data,” etc) to specific mathematical expressions in Bayesian reasoning. We talk about what makes explanations good, and how they can get out of control, leading to conspiracy theories or general crackpottery, from QAnon to flat earthers.

More here.

The Many Questions of Reparations

Phillip Meylan in The Factual:

To mark 100 years since the Tulsa Massacre, President Biden recently visited Tulsa and decried the day’s tragic events. Beginning on May 31, 1921, groups of white men, reacting to a claim that a Black man attacked a white woman (later revealed to be false), began shooting Black residents and burning down businesses on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. This led to some 300 deaths and the leveling of what had been the richest Black neighborhood in the U.S. Now, a century later, the area still shows scars, both from the massacre and from subsequent policies that frustrated the revitalization of the area.

The event has once more brought the question of reparations for Black Americans — both for slavery and for discriminatory policies long after abolition — to the forefront of public discussion, with many anticipating movement under the Biden administration to, at the very least, form a commission to formally study the situation and make recommendations. The question of whether reparations should be made, and how to make them, are both complex and contested. The idea remains fairly unpopular with Americans — 53% of Democrats support the idea, while just 6% of Republicans do; likewise, around three-quarters of Black respondents support reparations, compared to just 15% of white respondents.

More here.