Science and magic

by Charlie Huenemann

I think it is fair to say that we usually see science and magic as opposed to one another. In science we make bold hypotheses, subject them to rigorous testing against experience, and tentatively accept whatever survives the testing as true – pending future revisions and challenges, of course. But in magic we just believe what we want to be true, and then we demonstrate irrational exuberance when our beliefs are borne out by experience, and in other cases we explain away the falsifications in one way or another. Science means letting what nature does shape what we believe, while magic means framing our interpretations of experience so that we can keep on believing what feels groovy.

But this belief – that we can clearly distinguish between magic and science – turns out itself to be an instance of framing our interpretations so as to allow us to keep on believing something that makes us feel good. In other words, the relation between magic and science is far more complicated, and magic is not so easily brushed aside.

“Science”, as we use the term, is a relative newcomer on the scene. “Scientia”, meaning expert knowledge, is Latin, but using it or its cognates to refer to a special method of acquiring knowledge – especially one that involves microscopes, telescopes, and test tubes – is a much later innovation. What has always been around, ever since we started jabbering, has been an interest in understanding how nature works, usually conjoined with our practical interest in prediction and control. Call that interest “natural knowledge”. Read more »

Dante: Still Bringing Hope From Hell

by Thomas O’Dwyer

At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.
How hard it is to say what that wood was, a wilderness savage, brute, harsh, and wild.
Only to think of it renews my fear. 

Dante presenting the Divine Comedy to Florence by Domenico di Michelino.
Dante presenting the Divine Comedy to Florence by Domenico di Michelino.

The opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy are as well know to every Italian as “To be or not to be” is to an English speaker. We can only speculate on how many people outside Italy are familiar with the entire poem’s content or context. But none can dispute the depth to which Dante, like Shakespeare, has penetrated not only his native culture but that of the world for centuries. Both did civilisation an immeasurable service by elevating former dialects spoken by their native peoples to the same dignity and power as formal “superior” languages spoken by Europe’s literate elites, such as Latin and Greek.

Dante died 700 years ago this year in 1321 and, pandemic or no pandemic (a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost), Italy will again be celebrating the memory of its great genius. He defines its national soul the same way Shakespeare does for England and Miguel de Cervantes for Spain. Events are planned throughout Florence, Ravenna and close to 100 other towns and villages connected to “il Sommo Poeta,” the Supreme Poet. Born in Florence, Dante died in Ravenna just one year after completing his masterpiece. The Divine Comedy, one of the greatest works of world literature, has 14,233 lines split into three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It traces a pilgrim’s journey in the afterlife through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Read more »

Poetry in Translation


after Iqbal

Her seduction keeps him fluid as mercury
Has she taught him the rules of passion?

Restless, he finds comfort yearning
Is she his eternal flame?

Is he a lover of ancient beauty?
She, small Sinai; he, small Moses

His search for illumination —
An insect longing for light


By Rafiq Kathwari. His new collection of poems, My Mother’s Scribe, is available here and here and here.

Turtles All The Way Down

by Mike O’Brien

I don’t always make great decisions, but swearing off political commentary two months ago was a really, really good one.


As I stated two columns ago, I’ve been wanting to write more about ecological ethics, and more specifically about ethical obligations across species. Last month I laid out my criticisms of animal rights. In summary, rights discourse is a language game, and humans are the only animals on Earth who can play it. Not to say that we can’t articulate a case for treating animals well using a language of rights; this is indeed the most effective path to legal protection at the moment. But we say something nonsensical when we articulate that case, which may or may not matter in the grand scheme of things.

For my next trick, I’d like to take on ethical naturalism, and similar presuppositions about where morality comes from. Ethical naturalism is basically the idea that moral rightness and wrongness is a natural fact, and can be discovered by observing natural facts. Read more »

Towards Responsible Research and Innovation

by Fabio Tollon

In the media it is relatively easy to find examples of new technologies that are going “revolutionize” this or that industry. Self-driving cars will change the way we travel and mitigate climate change, genetic engineering will allow for designer babies and prevent disease, superintelligent AI will turn the earth into an intergalactic human zoo. As a reader, you might be forgiven for being in a constant state of bewilderment as to why we do not currently live in a communist utopia (or why we are not already in cages). We are incessantly badgered with lists of innovative technologies that are going to uproot the way we live, and the narrative behind these innovations is overwhelmingly positive (call this a “pro-innovation bias”). What is often missing in such “debates”, however, is a critical voice. There is a sense in which we treat “innovation” as a good in itself, but it is important that we innovate responsibly. Or so I will argue. Read more »

Whatever Happened to the Neanderthals?

by Carol A Westbrook

It is 42,000 years ago, somewhere in central Europe. A human hunter treks through the forest, dressed in furs. He is carrying a large pack. Alongside him is his mate, a short, blond Neanderthal woman, and their son, about 8 years old, with features of both.

They reach their destination, a Neanderthal dwelling adjacent to the winder cave.

A man walks out, pleased to see his daughter and her mate, along with their son.

“Greetings and welcome, he said.

“Greetings back to you,” the human says. “I have brought some gifts.”

He presents the two saber-tooth tiger pelts and the large teeth to the Neanderthal man. The man reciprocates by giving him some well-crafted flint tools, a spear tip and a scraper.

“Today, I will show my grandson how to chip flint.”The H. sapiens thanks him. He is anxious to bring this expertise to his tribe. The Neanderthal flints were the finest in the area.

His wife goes off to help her mother cook the food. The Neanderthal man said to the homo sapiens man,

“I’m so glad you took my daughter to mate. It is getting hard to find any of my tribe, and few sons of an age to mate. We have grown scarce as a people.”

He replies,”Thank you, old father. Your daughter is a good wife, she is kind and hard-working and will bear me many children.” Read more »

Make Love, not War

by Peter Wells

Let me recommend a New Year resolution, in case you don’t have one yet: Be nicer to people you disagree with.

I’ve been moved to make this recommendation by my recent reading of The Guardian, a British centre-left newspaper. It has disappointed me.

This is sad, for I agree with the general tenor of The Guardian’s views, oscillating, as I do, between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. What is more, The Guardian has allowed me to read its columns free of charge. But increasingly I note that in its attempts to express its views more forcibly, it has begun to resort to vilification. Read more »

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Why it’s time to stop pursuing happiness

David Robson in The Guardian:

Over the past 10 years, numerous studies have shown that our obsession with happiness and high personal confidence may be making us less content with our lives, and less effective at reaching our actual goals. Indeed, we may often be happier when we stop focusing on happiness altogether.

Let’s first consider the counterintuitive ways that the conscious pursuit of happiness can influence our mood, starting with a study by Iris Mauss at the University of California, Berkeley. The participants were first asked to rate how much they agreed with a series of statements such as: “I value things in life only to the extent that they influence my personal happiness” and “I am concerned about my happiness even when I feel happy”. The people who scored highly should have been seizing each day for its last drop of joy, yet Mauss found they tended to be less satisfied with their everyday lives, and were more likely to have depressive symptoms even in times of relatively low stress.

Various factors may have caused that link, of course, but a second study suggested a strong causal connection.

More here.

Spider Legs Build Webs without the Brain’s Help

Rachel Nuwer in Scientific American:

Spider legs seem to have minds of their own. According to findings published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, each leg functions as a semi-independent “computer,” with sensors that read the immediate environment and trigger movements accordingly. This autonomy helps the arachnids quickly spin perfect webs with minimal brain use. The study authors simulated surprisingly simple rules to govern this complex behavior—which could eventually be applied to robotics.

More here.

How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler

Glenn Greenwald in his Substack Newsletter:

Critics of Silicon Valley censorship for years heard the same refrain: tech platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter are private corporations and can host or ban whoever they want. If you don’t like what they are doing, the solution is not to complain or to regulate them. Instead, go create your own social media platform that operates the way you think it should.

The founders of Parler heard that suggestion and tried. In August, 2018, they created a social media platform similar to Twitter but which promised far greater privacy protections, including a refusal to aggregate user data in order to monetize them to advertisers or algorithmically evaluate their interests in order to promote content or products to them. They also promised far greater free speech rights, rejecting the increasingly repressive content policing of Silicon Valley giants.

More here.

Shapes and Shadows That Can Only Be Seen from Above

Jessica Stewart in My Modern Met:

Brothers JP and Mike Andrews were astonished the first time they sent their drone into the air. These initial flights revealed a world hidden in the skies, one that turned the seemingly mundane perspective at ground level into a thing of beauty when viewed from above. Inspired by what they saw, the brothers set out to travel the world and “to show how weird and wonderful the world can look from above.” With this, Abstract Aerial Art was born.

More here.

Sunday Poem


In the worst hour of the worst season
…. of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
….He was walking—they were both walking—north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
….He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
….Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
….Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
….The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
….There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
….There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
….Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
….And in which darkness it can best be proved.

by Eavan Boland 
New Collected Poems by Eavan Boland
W.W. Norton

How I Learned to Live in a Tangle of Joy and Pain

Rebekah Taussig in Time Magazine:

It was a night in mid-April that I fell asleep to the phrase this is too hard pinging through my brain, and they were the first words to cross my mind when I opened my eyes the next morning. I texted my sisters: “Remember the easy days when it was JUST a baby and cancer???” I pulled myself out of bed, plopped heavily into my wheelchair and stared in the mirror with my fingers splayed across my growing belly. That day we had to decide if my partner Micah would start a second round of chemotherapy treatments that would weaken his ability to fight against this new virus if he caught it, or forgo the treatment and change his odds against cancer. Our baby would arrive in a few weeks.

That spring, as my feet and belly swelled, my classes of high school students pivoted to virtual learning. I scrapped the original plans and assigned personal essays. “Let’s bear witness to the here and now,” I said. “One day, we might even read these essays to our grandchildren.” I wrote alongside them as we journaled every day, paying attention to the details—snippets of dialogue caught at the dinner tables we were now sitting around, the exact flavor of the cinnamon rolls we finally had time to bake, our bodies’ reactions to sitting in front of screens for eight-plus hours a day. Tiny flashes of human experience in the midst of a global pandemic.

As soon as we started drafting our notes into essays, though, the plump, specific moments we’d documented flattened under the task of shaping them, and I noticed many of us pulling in one of two directions. There were the essays that skimmed the surface of loss—I’m bored; I miss soccer practice; when will this be over? And there were the essays of relentless positivity—I’m finally getting to spend more time with my family; I’m learning to be grateful for what I have; I’ve had time to make so many cool crafts. The angsty drafts didn’t reach complete catharsis, the uplifting versions didn’t quite offer hope, and all of us struggled to stay present with our words.

I was no exception. As soon as I tried to weave meaning from the tidbits I’d been gathering, I watched my words splinter on the page.

More here.

Leader: The Big Tech reckoning

From New Statesman:

After Donald Trump lost the US presidency last year, he retained the consolation prize of his Twitter account. Commentators debated how Mr Trump would seek to profit from the 88 million followers he had accumulated: a new TV career or another presidential bid? Yet on 8 January, he lost his cherished platform after he was permanently suspended by Twitter because of “the risk of further incitement of violence”. Two days earlier a rabble of Trump fanatics, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists had stormed the US Capitol, resulting in five deaths. In a video posted on Twitter, Mr Trump told the mob, “We love you” and later tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide victory is so viciously & unceremoniously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long.”

Twitter’s intervention was praised by some commentators but the timing was convenient: Mr Trump had only 11 days left in office when he was suspended. The social media site, which profited for years from the president’s incendiary tweets, thus minimised the risk of retaliatory action.

Mr Trump’s suspension raises more profound questions. By barring the president, Twitter acted as a publisher, making an editorial judgement about the content hosted on its platform. Yet it is precisely this status that the social media firms have long eschewed. Under Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act, they are unaccountable for the content that is published on their platforms. Though they have a duty to remove any posts that violate federal criminal laws, they cannot be sued for libel and are not regulated in the manner of publishers. That is surely wrong.

More here.

Saturday, January 16, 2021