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.

I invented Gilead. The supreme court is making it real

Margaret Atwood in The Atlantic:

In the early years of the 1980s, I was fooling around with a novel that explored a future in which the United States had become disunited. Part of it had turned into a theocratic dictatorship based on 17th-century New England Puritan religious tenets and jurisprudence. I set this novel in and around Harvard University—an institution that in the 1980s was renowned for its liberalism, but that had begun three centuries earlier chiefly as a training college for Puritan clergy.

In the fictional theocracy of Gilead, women had very few rights, as in 17th-century New England. The Bible was cherry-picked, with the cherries being interpreted literally. Based on the reproductive arrangements in Genesis—specifically, those of the family of Jacob—the wives of high-ranking patriarchs could have female slaves, or “handmaids,” and those wives could tell their husbands to have children by the handmaids and then claim the children as theirs.

Although I eventually completed this novel and called it The Handmaid’s Tale, I stopped writing it several times, because I considered it too far-fetched. Silly me. Theocratic dictatorships do not lie only in the distant past: There are a number of them on the planet today. What is to prevent the United States from becoming one of them?

More here.

Friday, May 13, 2022

How Apple, Google, and Microsoft will kill passwords and phishing in one stroke

Dan Goodin at Ars Technica:

For more than a decade, we’ve been promised that a world without passwords is just around the corner, and yet year after year, this security nirvana proves out of reach. Now, for the first time, a workable form of passwordless authentication is about to become available to the masses in the form of a standard adopted by Apple, Google, and Microsoft that allows for cross-platform and cross-service passkeys.

Password-killing schemes pushed in the past suffered from a host of problems. A key shortcoming was the lack of a viable recovery mechanism when someone lost control of phone numbers or physical tokens and phones tied to an account. Another limitation was that most solutions ultimately failed to be, in fact, truly passwordless. Instead, they gave users options to log in with a face scan or fingerprint, but these systems ultimately fell back on a password, and that meant that phishing, password reuse, and forgotten passcodes—all the reasons we hated passwords to begin with—didn’t go away.

What’s different this time is that Apple, Google, and Microsoft all seem to be on board with the same well-defined solution.

More here.

The Mysterious Disappearance of a Revolutionary Mathematician

Rivka Galchen in The New Yorker:

While living in an internment camp in Vichy France, Alexander Grothendieck was tutored in mathematics by another prisoner, a girl named Maria. Maria taught Grothendieck, who was twelve, the definition of a circle: all the points that are equidistant from a given point. The definition impressed him with “its simplicity and clarity,” he wrote years later. The property of perfect rotundity had until then appeared to him to be “mysterious beyond words.”

Grothendieck became a revered mathematician. His work involved finding the right vantage point—from there, solutions to problems would follow easily. He rewrote definitions, even of things as basic as a point; his reframings uncovered connections between seemingly unrelated realms of math. He spoke of his mathematical work as the building of houses, contrasting it with that of mathematicians who make improvements on an inherited house or construct a piece of furniture. Colin McLarty, a logician and philosopher of math at Case Western Reserve, told me, “Lots of people today live in Grothendieck’s house, unaware that it’s Grothendieck’s house.” The M.I.T. mathematician Michael Artin, who worked with Grothendieck in the early sixties, laughed when I asked him about Grothendieck’s contributions. “Well, everything changed in the field,” he said. “He came, and it was like night and day. It was a revolution.”

When Grothendieck was forty-two years old, he abruptly left the field of mathematics.

More here.

Roe Is as Good as Dead, It Was Never Enough Anyway

Rachel Rebouché in the Boston Review:

Though the 1973 decision in Roe established a constitutionally protected right to abortion, it never guaranteed abortion access. The Supreme Court held only that state criminal laws banning abortion were an infringement of the constitutional right to privacy. Patients, in consultation with their physicians, could elect to have an abortion for any reason during the first trimester of pregnancy. In the second trimester states could regulate abortions in order to protect the pregnant person’s health or the dignity of potential life, but after the second trimester, a state was permitted to ban abortion unless terminating the pregnancy was necessary to preserve the patient’s life or health. This trimester system was abandoned in 1992, when the Court held that states could restrict abortion before viability—around twenty-four weeks of gestation—so long as the regulation did not place a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.” The Court’s decision to reject Roe’s trimester framework nevertheless claimed to preserve “the essential holding of Roe.”

Given this history, current proposals to “codify” Roe could mean one of two things. On the one hand, it could mean establishing abortion as a statutory right to privacy, which is a basis of Supreme Court decisions that appeal to the Fourteenth Amendment. It could also mean creating a statutory framework for abortion rights tethered to fetal viability. Both approaches—even if politically successful—could make subsequent federal legislation out of touch and out of date. Instead of seeking to codify Roe, we ought to enact policies that strengthen the infrastructure for delivering abortion services.

More here.

Language lesson: A professor learns the power of praise

Sabith Khan in The Christian Science Monitor:

I am a university professor. I make my living teaching and doing research at a liberal arts school in Southern California. Last year, I took a brave step: I decided to become a student and signed up for online Arabic classes. I joined an online language course offered by a company based in Cairo. Full disclosure: This was my third attempt at learning Arabic over the past 10 years. Arabic is a notoriously hard language, given its expansive vocabulary. A Moroccan feminist scholar told me once that there are 50 words for “love” in Arabic – a fascinating and intimidating fact. My earlier attempts at mastering synonyms had proved her right.

Salaam,” I said, greeting my online instructor in the little Arabic I knew. “I am Sabith. Nice to meet you.” “Ahlan, ya Sabith” (“Hello, O Sabith”), replied my new teacher, and thus began our journey as student and teacher. He was Cairo-based and about my own age. We would meet a few times a month to practice conversation and go over grammar. I’d do the assigned reading in the textbook, as well as some writing, and we’d discuss the chapter in our Zoom calls. During our conversation practice, he also shared details of his life, including his struggle to care for two young children and older parents in the midst of a pandemic.

More here.

Friday Poem

The Kitchen Gods

Carnage in the lot: blood freckled the chopping block—
The hen’s death is timeless, frantic.
Its numbskull lopped, one wing still drags
The pointless circle of a broken clock,
But the veins fades in my grandmother’s arm on the ax.
The old ways fade and do not come back.
The sealed aspirin does not remember the willow.
The supermarket does not remember the barnyard.
The hounds of memory come leaping and yapping.
One morning is too large for the inside of the mouth.
My grandmother’s life was a long time
Toiling between Blake’s root and lightning
Yahweh and the girlish renaissance Christ
That plugged the flue in her kitchen wall.
Early her match flamed across the carcass.
Her hand, fresh from the piano, plunged
The void bowel and set the breadcrumb heart.
The stove’s eye reddened. The day’s great spirit rose
From pies and casseroles. That was the house —
Reroofed, retiled, modernized, and rented out,
It will not glide up and lock among the stars.
The tenants will not find the pantry fully stocked
Or the brass boat where she kept the matches dry.
I find her stone and rue our last useless
Divisive arguments over the divinity of Christ.
Only where the religion goes on without a god
And the sandwich is wolfed down without blessing,
I think of us bowing at the table there:
The grand patriarch of the family holding forth
In staunch prayer, and the potato pie I worshipped.
The sweeter the pie, the shorter the prayer.

by Rodney Jones
Transparent Gestures
Houghton Mifflin, 1989

The First Picture of the Black Hole at the Milky Way’s Heart

Seth Fletcher in Scientific American:

The mystery at the heart of the Milky Way has finally been solved. This morning, at simultaneous press conferences around the world, the astronomers of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) revealed the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It’s not the first picture of a black hole this collaboration has given us—that was the iconic image of M87*, which they revealed on April 10, 2019. But it’s the one they wanted most. Sagittarius A* is our own private supermassive black hole, the still point around which our galaxy revolves.

Scientists have long thought that a supermassive black hole hidden deep in the chaotic central region of our galaxy was the only possible explanation for the bizarre things that happen there—such as giant stars slingshotting around an invisible something in space at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Yet they’ve been hesitant to say that outright. For example, when astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez shared a portion of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on Sagittarius A*, their citation specified that they were awarded for “the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy,” not the revelation of a “black hole.” The time for that sort of caution has expired.

More here.

Pity Literary Biographers

Morten Høi Jensen at Liberties:

The genre is as old, almost, as the modern novel, and shares its subversive nature. If Don Quixote, among many other things, brought fiction down from the chivalric heights to the pedestrian grounds, so literary biography served as a tonic to the genre of biography as a whole, which has always tended toward the exemplary. James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, considered by many to be the first modern literary biography, details its subject’s appetite for drink, his shabby clothes, his disgusting eating habits. Johnson himself thought it the “business of the biographer to…lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life.”

But what can the daily life of a person whose main occupation consists of sitting at home tell us? A writer’s life, truthfully told, would be unremittingly, unbelievably boring. (At least those writers who have the historical privilege of a secure and peaceful life.) It would be a catalog of all the possible ways of describing everyday banalities: scratching one’s head, gazing out the window, tapping an impatient finger against a desk.

more here.

Makoto Fujimura And The Art of New Creation

Matthew J. Milliner at Marginalia Review:

If, in 1979, Rosalind Krauss famously said, “we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence,” today many of us find it indescribably embarrassing not to.

It is hard to identify a single turning point. Maybe it was when the Visual Commentary on Scripture was launched from London’s Tate Modern in 2018. Maybe it was when Thomas Crow published No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (2017). Perhaps it was the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim (2018-19). Or was it the way that the fresh embrace of African American art finally opened the drawbridge for religion like never before? Maybe it was just that major art historical treatments of modern and contemporary art that re-incorporate religion were finally penned, whether Jeffrey Kosky’s Arts of Wonder (2012), Charlene Spretnak’s The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art (2014)or Anderson and Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (2016). Maybe it was S. Brent Plate’s 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books article, “Reports of the Death of Religious Art Have Been Greatly Exaggerated.” Or was it the 2019 launch of Bridge Projects in the heart of Los Angeles, a gallery created to facilitate such conversations?

more here.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Thursday Poem

The health of a garden
is reason’s burden.
….. —J.C. Ransome

The Health of a Garden

Thinking of the first garden so confidently
laid out to greet the newly created.
English Country? French formal> Some plan
to separate it from wilderness.

The old puritan had our fore-beings
weeding and pruning – the garden not
permanently perfect, then, not imperishable
like a plastic ficus – but changing

and the change needed attention.
When Eve thought the rhododendron
would look better over there, the worm
Free Will entered the orchard

and the free fall to after apple-picking,
and the great harvest, history.

by Nils Peterson
from All the Marvelous Stuff
Caesura Editions, 2019

Neurocompositional computing: From the Central Paradox of Cognition to a new generation of AI systems

A paper by Paul Smolensky, R. Thomas McCoy, Roland Fernandez, Matthew Goldrick, and Jianfeng Gao:

What explains the dramatic progress from 20th-century to 21st-century AI, and how can the remaining limitations of current AI be overcome? The widely accepted narrative attributes this progress to massive increases in the quantity of computational and data resources available to support statistical learning in deep artificial neural networks. We show that an additional crucial factor is the development of a new type of computation. Neurocompositional computing (Smolensky et al., 2022) adopts two principles that must be simultaneously respected to enable human-level cognition: the principles of Compositionality and Continuity. These have seemed irreconcilable until the recent mathematical discovery that compositionality can be realized not only through discrete methods of symbolic computing, but also through novel forms of continuous neural computing. The revolutionary recent progress in AI has resulted from the use of limited forms of neurocompositional computing. New, deeper forms of neurocompositional computing create AI systems that are more robust, accurate,
and comprehensible.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Judea Pearl on Cause and Effect

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

To say that event A causes event B is to not only make a claim about our actual world, but about other possible worlds — in worlds where A didn’t happen but everything else was the same, B would not have happened. This leads to an obvious difficulty if we want to infer causes from sets of data — we generally only have data about the actual world. Happily, there are ways around this difficulty, and the study of causal relations is of central importance in modern social science and artificial intelligence research. Judea Pearl has been the leader of the “causal revolution,” and we talk about what that means and what questions remain unanswered.

More here.

Sri Lanka is the first domino to fall in the face of a global debt crisis

Larry Elliott in The Guardian:

The departure of Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, follows weeks of protest and a deepening crisis. There is no bankruptcy system for states but if there was then the south Asian country – down to its last $50m (£40m) of reserves – would be first in line to use it.

A team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this week started work with officials in Colombo over a bailout that will include a tough package of reforms as well as financial support. But as the IMF and its sister organisation, the World Bank, know full well, this is about more than the mismanagement of an individual country. They fear Sri Lanka is the canary in the coalmine.

Across the world, low- and middle-income countries are struggling with a three-pronged crisis: the pandemic, the rising cost of their debt, and the increase in food and fuel prices caused by Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

More here.