Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 44

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In the last two decades I have been to China many times, mostly for lectures and conferences primarily in Beijing and Shanghai. Of course, compared to what I saw in my first visit in 1989, China has undergone a dramatic economic transformation. The most dazzling of commonly visible changes are in infrastructure, highways, skyscrapers, bullet trains, airports, etc. There are parts of Shanghai now, say the eye-catchingly rich Pudong district, where once coming out of my hotel for a moment I was confused if I was really anywhere near the Shanghai city I had seen before. My academic colleagues tell me that the pay scales in top universities are now almost the same as in America, in order to attract top talent back to China. Chinese airports and high-speed trains are certainly more advanced than the ones you see in most American cities. My Chinese students in Berkeley have often told me that in application of digital technology in daily life (particularly in retail trade and local transportation and communication) they are struck by how backward the US is compared to China.

I remember going to a conference in Beijing at the turn of this century, along with several other international economists which included Thomas Piketty (now of rock star-like fame for his work on inequality). We arrived at Peking University the day before. In the afternoon Thomas and his then wife, Nancy, went out for a walk in the streets holding between them the hands of their 3 little daughters. All the Chinese pedestrians stopped and were gawking at the extremely unusual sight of a family with 3 children in a country then with one-child policy. Read more »

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Ramez Naam on how to beat Putin, solve climate change, and build the future

Noah Smith in Noahpinion:

When I want to know what the future is going to be like, I go ask Ramez Naam. Over the years, his spyglass has seemed to peer just a little farther into the future than other people’s.

My favorite example: In 2011 he wrote a guest post for Scientific American entitled “Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore’s law apply to solar cells?” that alerted the world to the startling, consistent, and seemingly unstoppable cost declines for solar energy. This came at a time when almost everyone in public discourse still thought of solar as an unworkably expensive pipe dream. But Ramez (or “Mez”, to his friends) was right. Over the next decade, his prediction became conventional wisdom, not just for solar but for batteries as well. The resulting explosion in solar installation and electric vehicles has utterly changed scientists’ outlook for climate change — catastrophe may still strike, but the most apocalyptic scenarios now look distinctly unlikely. This isn’t Mez’ doing, of course, but he saw it before others did.

Why is Mez so good at predicting the future of technology?

More here.

Computer Scientists Prove That Certain Problems Are Truly Hard

Mordechai Rorvig in Quanta:

Last summer, three researchers took a small step toward answering one of the most important questions in theoretical computer science. To paraphrase Avi Wigderson of the Institute for Advanced Study, that question asks something simple but profound: Can we solve all the problems we hope to solve?

More precisely, computer scientists want to know whether all the problems we hope to solve can be solved efficiently, in a reasonable amount of time — before the end of the universe, say. If not, they are simply far too difficult.

Many problems seem to be this hard, but we won’t know for certain until we can mathematically prove their difficulty. And in a paper from last year, a trio of computer scientists showed that a broad category of problems are indeed too difficult to be solved efficiently, thereby providing one of the best examples yet of what the field has been seeking.

More here.

Are NFTs really art? A critic weighs in

Philippa Snow in The Guardian:

The upside of many NFTs having a uniform visual style is that, theoretically, as many of the medium’s biggest fans will stress, there is something inherently democratic about their design and their acquisition. If not every NFT creator makes the kind of money Bored Ape Yacht Club makes, they still have a fairly equal opportunity to share their work. Searching OpenSea for pieces is still easier by far than buying physical work from a gallery or an auction, and the only barrier to entry is a working knowledge of cryptocurrency. Buyers and artists who grew up on the internet of the 00s, meanwhile, may experience deja vu when given the opportunity to customise what is effectively an avatar, harking back to online cartoons like Blingees or Dollz Mania. When a rash of articles appeared in 2021 suggesting NFTs might be the Beanie Babies of the 2020s, the comparison was meant to be an insult; still, it is hard to overestimate the power of nostalgia when it comes to millennials on the web.

More here.

The Master of the Nuclear War Machine

Gerald Early in The Common Reader:

During his lifetime, there was a long line of people who thought Admiral Hyman Rickover was an insufferable son of a bitch, a contemptible ass, an overbearing, opinionated, power-hungry menace. Biographer Marc Wortman called him, “obstinate, egotistical, and abrasive…” (119)

Many in the upper echelons of the Navy command felt intense hatred for the Father of the Nuclear Navy, as he was called. They had endured his disdain for their authority, his “rebellion against the Navy’s chain of command, protocols, and culture.” (119) So did some corporate leaders who were tongue-lashed and bullied by Rickover’s insistence that they meet his deadlines on their contracts. Rickover felt that defense contractors were hustlers bloating themselves at the taxpayers’ trough and would sic his team of micro-managers on them to fulfill the terms of their contracts.

More here.

Sunday Poem

From Poem VI

Cruising back from 7-11
esta mañana
in my ’56 Chevy truckita,
beat up and rankled
farm tuck,
clanking between rows
of new shiny cars—

……………… “Hey fella! Trees need pruning
……………… and the grass needs trimming!”
A man yelled down to me
from his 3rd-story balcony.

……………… “sorry, I’m not the gardener,”
……………… I yelled up to him.

Funny how in the valley
an old truck symbolizes prestige
and in the Heights, poverty.

Worth is determined in the Valley
by age and durability,
and in the Heights, by newness
and impression.

In the Valley,
the atmosphere is soft and worn,
things are shared and passed down.
In the Heights,
the air is blistered with the glaze
of new cars and new homes.

How many days of my life
have I spent fixing up
rusty broken things,
charging up old batteries,
wiring pieces of odds and ends together!
Ah, those lovely bricks
and sticks I found in fields
and took home with me
to make flower boxes!
The old cars I’ve worked on
endlessly giving them tune-ups,
changing tires, tracing
electrical shorts,
cursing when I’ve been stranded
between Laguna pueblo and Burque.
It’s the process of making-do,
of the life I’ve lived between
breakdowns and breakups, that has made life
worth living.

I could not bear a life
with everything perfect.

by Jimmy Santiago Baca
Paper Dance- 55 Latino Poets
Persea Books, 1995

How Fame Fed on Edna St. Vincent Millay

Maggie Doherty in The New Yorker:

It was at a party in Greenwich Village, in the spring of 1920, that the critic Edmund Wilson first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay in the flesh. Wilson, a well-bred graduate of Princeton, was a fan of the twenty-eight-year-old poet’s work—he’d taken to reciting one of her sonnets in the shower—but he was, in her physical presence, overcome. Years later, Wilson described the evening: “She was one of those women whose features are not perfect and who in their moments of dimness may not seem even pretty, but who, excited by the blood or the spirit, become almost supernaturally beautiful.” He remained in love with her for years, even after she’d refused his offer of marriage. It was as if he were enchanted, caught under the “spell” that she cast on “all ages and both sexes.”

This enchantress is the Millay whom many came to know. She was a siren, a seductress, a candle burning with a “lovely light” before being unceremoniously snuffed out. (Millay died at fifty-eight, of a heart attack, after falling down the stairs in her home.) Her appeal was legendary, as was her voice, which the poet Louis Untermeyer described as “the sound of the ax on fresh wood.” In her youth, she loved widely and shamelessly, and she was adored by a generation of young women for the verses she wrote about her transient attachments. Today, she is often remembered as the “poet-girl” of the Roaring Twenties, traipsing from bed to bed in downtown Manhattan, if she is remembered at all.

More here.

The Rich Are Not Who We Think They Are. And Happiness Is Not What We Think It Is, Either

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in The New York Times:

We now know who is rich in America. And it’s not who you might have guessed. A groundbreaking 2019 study by four economists, “Capitalists in the Twenty-First Century,” analyzed de-identified data of the complete universe of American taxpayers to determine who dominated the top 0.1 percent of earners. The study didn’t tell us about the small number of well-known tech and shopping billionaires but instead about the more than 140,000 Americans who earn more than $1.58 million per year. The researchers found that the typical rich American is, in their words, the owner of a “regional business,” such as an “auto dealer” or a “beverage distributor.”

…The most important happiness study, in my opinion, is the Mappiness project, founded by the British economists Susana Mourato and George MacKerron. The researchers pinged tens of thousands of people on their smartphones and asked them simple questions: Who are they with? What are they doing? How happy are they? From this, they built a sample of more than three million data points, orders of magnitude more than previous studies on happiness. So what do three million happiness data points tell us?

More here.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

‘Bittersweet’ by Susan Cain

Nicci Gerrard at The Guardian:

Now then, on a scale of 0 to 10: do you seek out beauty in your everyday life? Do you know what CS Lewis meant when he described joy as a “sharp, wonderful stab of longing”? Do you react intensely to music or art or nature? Are you moved by old photographs? Do you experience happiness and sadness simultaneously?

If your answer is emphatically yes to these and similar questions in Susan Cain’s Bittersweet Quiz (I came to a jarring halt at the one about being perceived as an “old soul”), then you will score highly and qualify as a “true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet”. You are not sanguine (robust, forward-leaning, ambitious, combat-ready, tough), but bittersweet – and to be bittersweet means to be sensitive, creative and spiritual, with a “tendency to states of longing, poignancy and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world”.

more here.

John Waters’s First Novel

Molly Young at the NYT:

What you get from John Waters is crotch punching, exploding televisions, geysers of blood, deviants, wackos and reprobates. You get phrases like “ridiculous genital display” and “penis probation”; scatology, tickle fetishes and satanic babies. You get teeming panoramas of freaks in thrall to their own depravity. (Another painter comes to mind: Hieronymus Bosch.)

Hyperbole is this writer’s native tongue. A man doesn’t get aroused; sexual adrenaline surges through his loins “like a tsunami wave ripping through a small Japanese village.” A woman doesn’t give birth; she endures a “saga of labor lunacy.” Waters writes toward the funny bone and the gag reflex. He is not at the mercy of political correctness or good taste or spelling conventions. Like any true weirdo, he seems to consider himself normal. When you read a book like this, you’re wandering into a maze of anarchy that is fully legible only to its creator.

more here.

I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight. Losing It Didn’t Mean Winning.

Sam Anderson in the New York Times:

There were a few bad moments, over the course of a few bad months, that led me to download the weight-loss app. These will probably sound trivial to anyone who is not me, and of course they are trivial — but we are talking about bodies here, and about my body in particular, and one of the defining features of having a body is that it is a fire hose of tiny humiliations blasting you constantly in the face, never allowing you to look away, even when you most want to.

One bad moment happened in Los Angeles. I had flown out, during a lull in the pandemic, to visit my great friend Alan, a friend so close he is basically a reflection of my own soul — and as Alan and I wrapped each other in a big hug of ecstatic reunion, he suddenly reached down to my waist and playfully pinched my love handles, probed them in the way a fishmonger might assess a large hunk of priceless tuna, and he said: “What happened here? Did you eat my friend Sam?” I chuckled, but in a complicated key.

Like many Americans, I put on serious weight during the pandemic. How much? No idea. It had been years since I’d stepped on a scale. We were suffering a worldwide supertrauma, and my approach to calamities has always been extremely simple: I snack. Do you know the saying “Don’t fill up on chips?” That saying is about me. I am the guy who fills up on chips.

More here.

Gary’s Inferno

Ryan Ruby in The New Left Review’s Sidecar:

The sovereignty of the ‘average American’ is outbid by economic elites as a matter of course, not excluding those supposedly divisive issues (e.g., abortion, gun control, single-payer healthcare) on which there is in fact bipartisan consensus in the electorate, but that does not mean he has become depoliticized as a result. On the contrary, he is more politically engaged than ever before – only his political activities consist in impotently watching cable news, posting about it on social media, arguing with family and friends during the holidays, decking out his lawn and bookshelf with totemic merch and PayPaling donations to whatever politician or cause has most recently shoved its cup into his diminished span of attention. Yes, he sometimes goes to rallies, protests, city council meetings, or even the ballot box, but these activities, whatever he may believe, have become ends in themselves. ‘Politics is downstream from culture’, one of the more astute ghouls recently uncorked in America liked to say, and it is true that the country’s myriad cultural pathologies give its politics their particularly rancid flavour. But the real takeaway from the Princeton study is that, in the daily experience of the average American, politics is culture, culture is politics, and – with one class of exceptions – never the twain shall meet.

Best known for his tenure as the sharp-tongued, hard-to-impress art critic at the Village Voice during the last gasp of the counterculture, Gary Indiana’s insight into this state of affairs is that insofar as the US has become a ‘televised democracy’, it may, like any other aesthetic phenomenon, be reviewed.

More here.

Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism

Patrick J. Deneen over at his substack The Postliberal Order (photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame):

Mid-century conservatism arose as a defensive response to an advancing liberalism. It began as an effort to defend liberalism, the “good” liberalism constructed in mid-century and attributed to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, a politics based upon as an avoidance of any idea of the Good in politics and economics. This stance attracted widespread support and donations, leading to the creation of countless institutions that were devoted to the protection of “good liberalism.” It was a defensive crouch conservatism, occupying the ground that was, until fairly recently, occupied by their opponents.

Consider the positions that the mainstream of American conservatism spends a great deal of its time and treasure defending today:

    1. Religious liberty
    2. “Limited” government
    3. The inviolability of private institutions (e.g., corporations)
    4. Academic Freedom
    5. Constitutional “Originalism”
    6. Free Markets
    7. Free speech and “expression”

Each of these positions was a creation of early modern liberalism, designed to overthrow a predominantly Aristotelian/Thomistic worldview. Each of these liberal features represent an aspect of what Alasdair MacIntyre has called “the privatization of the good.” Each was designed as a battering ram to demolish any prospect for a social, political, and economic order that – while never perfect – nevertheless understood that society must be ordered toward the end of advancing the telos of human beings.

More here. Also, find here Ezra Klein’s interview with Deneen.

Breakfast with the Panthers

Suzanne Cope in Aeon:

Starting in 1969, and for several years afterwards, in church basements and community centre kitchens in cities and towns around the United States, thousands of kids sat around a table every school day morning, eating hot breakfast served by the young adults of the Black Panther Party. At each seat there was a plate and utensil setting, a cup and a napkin. The children learned to use their fork and knife properly, eating eggs and grits and bacon and toast, washed down by juice or milk or hot chocolate – whatever local businesses had donated that week.

The Panthers – most of them in their late teens and early 20s, and about two-thirds of them women – had arrived at these community kitchens before dawn to prepare this hot meal for the children, serving them and then checking homework, and giving PE (political education) lessons.

‘Who invented the traffic light?’ a Panther would call out.

‘A Black man!’ the children responded.

They also learned that eating a filling breakfast was a right, and that a full belly helped them pay attention in school. The children – most but not all of whom were Black and Hispanic – were taught about Black and Hispanic inventors and artists and leaders, the stories that were (and still are) so often left out of mainstream histories. For many children, this was the first time they learned that a Black or other person of colour could be an engineer or a scientist or an artist.

More here.

Saturday Poem

(GDP)— It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. – Robert Kennedy, 3.18.1968

Gross Domestic Product

Surely it is sick with all its counting. Sick, too,
of selling the numbers which mean nothing
until they do. It counts the distance from the top

of the flagpole to the middle and how long it takes
to raise our symbols up. It counts wild blazes
in Western states. It counts the placed, the displaced,

the length of a grey blanket raining ash in its wake.
It counts the monuments but has forgotten the graves.
The most hateful among us, the poisoned water supply,

the garbage island measured by its relative size to a state—
who could stand to know so much as the brain we create?
Who else could count the gold in the bank or how little

trickles out to towns that need it most?  Our gracious host
assures us they have counted every vote and the winner
will be announced after a short commercial break.

Also—the chef would like to know how you liked your steak.
If you got sick put your name on the list and we will call
your name shortly. Please hold. Your patience has been noted

and scored on a scale from complacent to irate. You didn’t win,
but then again, most people don’t and we’ve got the numbers
to prove it. Move along, nothing to see here says he

who needs to believe he saw nothing, would omit
all wonder from the official record. Nay, it won’t
count those who found a wolf’s teeth flashing

at the edge of the woods and the field of lavender
behind it all, odorous and possible. It can’t count
the nautilus hearts beating for what ought to have happened,

who imagine pressing on through the heat and the smog to
a more perfect future, that tense in which to read the new world.

by Bobby Bolt
from The
Echotheo Review

What kind of financial asset is Bitcoin?

Noah Smith over at his Substack Noahpinion:

A lot of interesting things have been happening in crypto-world recently, mostly bad for crypto investors but interesting from a financial perspective. The whole asset class has fallen a lot recently, so that now all of crypto combined is estimated to be worth about $1.3 trillion, down from maybe $2 trillion a month ago.

I’m going to write about things like stablecoins in a bit, and also about the possible effects of future crypto crashes on the real economy (this one shouldn’t be particularly dangerous, given the modest size of the paper wealth destruction, the lack of connection with the banking system, and the lack of debt backed by crypto assets.) But for today I want to talk about Bitcoin itself — the granddaddy of the cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin hasn’t fared as badly as some others, but it is down by more than half from its peak:

So lots of people will be wondering whether now is a good time to get into Bitcoin, or whether it’s doomed and they should stay away.

More here.

Trends are dead

Terry Nguyen in Vox:

One of the recent trends on TikTok is an aesthetic called “night luxe.” It embodies the kind of performative opulence one usually encounters at New Year’s Eve parties: champagne, disco balls, bedazzled accessories, and golden sparkles. “Night luxe” doesn’t actually mean anything. It isn’t a reaction to wellness culture, nor is it proof that partying is “in” again (has partying ever been “out”?). It’s just one of many aesthetic designations for which the internet has contrived a buzzy, meaningless portmanteau. Rest assured that night luxe will likely have faded into irrelevance by the time this article is published, only for another meme-ified aesthetic (i.e., coastal grandmother) to be crowned the next viral “trend.”

The tendency to register and categorize things, whether it be one’s identity, body type, or aesthetic preferences, is a natural part of online life. People have a penchant for naming elusive digital phenomena, but TikTok has only accelerated the use of cutesy aesthetic nomenclature. Anything that’s vaguely popular online must be defined or decoded — and ultimately, reduced to a bundle of marketable vibes with a kitschy label.

Last month, Harper’s Bazaar fashion news director Rachel Tashjian declared that “we’re living through a mass psychosis expressing itself through trend reporting.” There is, I would argue, as much reporting as there is trend manufacturing. No one is sure exactly what a trend is anymore or if it’s just an unfounded observation gone viral. The distinction doesn’t seem to matter, since TikTok — and the consumer market — demands novelty. It creates ripe conditions for a garbage-filled hellscape where everything and anything has the potential to be a trend.

More here.