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Living through lives of others

by Charlie Huenemann

M. C. Escher, Eight Heads (1922)

Observations are laden with theories, or so we are told, and theories are laden with cultures. There’s a good reason for thinking this. Theories, after all, spring out from people’s heads. But people’s heads grow within languages and cultures, along with whatever biological constraints lay at the foundations of our being. So anything coming out of our heads is going to bear the imprint of those complex systems. When you speak, a culture is speaking through you, with your own distinctive garnish.

This plausible observation, however, exists in tension with one of the guiding principles our culture speaks through us. That guiding principle is methodological individualism, or the basic strategy of understanding the big stuff by understanding the little stuff. Society is just people, we observe, and languages are just how these people say what they say. So if we understand the people, we will understand the larger cultures and languages they compose en masse. Better yet, understand the individual brains of these individual people; for certainly anything they do will be issuing from what is inside their heads. Better yet still, understand neurons and their local neighborhoods, for certainly the brain is not doing anything more than they are doing. Keep at it, and pretty soon you’ll just be paying attention only to what the quantum physicists say. And at that point you’re a goner, for sure.

We live in an epoch of nominalism: a general distrust of any explanation that proceeds from the big stuff downward. All causality is a local exchange between concrete individuals; larger patterns result from these, just as in not a wholly unrelated way economies exist through the exchanges of rationally self-interested individuals. Our culture is formed around the crucial notion that all social facts rest on the consent of individuals disposing of their individual liberties as their own reasons see fit. As Nietzsche once recognized, as scientists we generously extend these republican ideals to nature as a whole, interpreting it as a state teeming with wayward individuals governed by stern and inviolable laws. What is done in the large is only as real as what is done in the small.

But we just might be oversimplifying things a tad. Read more »

Monday Poem

Pattern Language

strolling through town with Plato
we take the sidewalk one step at a time;
shards of its exposed aggregate form archipelagos,
and overhead, Jesus in a cloud, or is it Lao Tzu
explaining Is without a word

clefts in the bark of trees we pass
define Appalachian humps. we saw Scranton
strewn along a grey gully on the lichen side
of the fat trunk of a sugar maple when we glanced

a net of angst chokes a birch in the side yard
of a small house, but it’s just Bittersweet
being a garrote —its hot orange berries
are incendiary cherries, its network of vines
untamed thought

a wall of desiccated siding, so in need of paint
its south face (some of it is dust, some parched
raised grain) is the surface of Mars:
what’s left of its spent red pigment
is the feel of utter space and rust

hairline cracks in river ice in the dam pond
are rifts of splintered glass silvered on one side
full of mere reflections falling to the sea

a crow measures distance between
gutter pebbles with her beak
aligning as if she were a smart array of atoms
laying out the footings of a house or universe;
patterns in her brain must be the forms she seeks

.Jim Culleny, 1/2/17

“Responsible” AI

by Fabio Tollon

What do we mean when we talk about “responsibility”? We say things like “he is a responsible parent”, “she is responsible for the safety of the passengers”, “they are responsible for the financial crisis”, and in each case the concept of “responsibility” seems to be tracking different meanings. In the first sense it seems to track virtue, in the second sense moral obligation, and in the third accountability. My goal in this article is not to go through each and every kind of responsibility, but rather to show that there are at least two important senses of the concept that we need to take seriously when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI). Importantly, it will be shown that there is an intimate link between these two types of responsibility, and it is essential that researchers and practitioners keep this mind.

Recent work in moral philosophy has been concerned with issues of responsibility as they relate to the development, use, and impact of artificially intelligent systems. Oxford University Press recently published their first ever Handbook of Ethics of AI, which is devoted to tackling current ethical problems raised by AI and hopes to mitigate future harms by advancing appropriate mechanisms of governance for these systems. The book is wide-ranging (featuring over 40 unique chapters), insightful, and deeply disturbing. From gender bias in hiring, racial bias in creditworthiness and facial recognition software, and sexual bias in identifying a person’s sexual orientation, we are awash with cases of AI systematically enhancing rather than reducing structural inequality.

But how exactly should (can?) we go about operationalizing an ethics of AI in a way that ensures desirable social outcomes? And how can we hold those causally involved parties accountable, when the very nature of AI seems to make a mockery of the usual sense of control we deem appropriate in our ascriptions of moral responsibility? These are the two sense of responsibility I want to focus on here: how can we deploy AI responsibly, and how can we hold those responsible when things go wrong. Read more »

What can systems thinking contribute to political philosophy?

by Callum Watts

At the 100th anniversary of John Rawls’ birth back in February, some of the most generous op-eds, whilst celebrating the brilliance of his thought, lamented the torpor of his impact. ‘Rawls studies’ are by no means the totality of political philosophy, but they are one of its most significant strands, and his approach has been dominant for the past 50 years. I’m an admirer of political philosophy, having happily spent much time and energy studying it, specifically looking at theories of deliberative democracy, an area with important connections to Rawls’ thought. That political philosophy does not have much to say that is of direct practical concern does not bother me, the sense that it is not just uninfluential, but is disconnected from the reality of the present moment does though.

Although I’ve been out of academia for 5 years or so, my work in large organisations focussed on change programmes and innovation has meant that deep questions about how people work together, and how we understand the purpose and ontology of collective action, have never really left my mind. When you are trying to encourage and inspire new behaviours in organisations of hundreds of thousands of people, it’s almost impossible not to ask about the fundamentals. Specialists in this field have elaborate theoretical apparatuses of varying rigour explaining different models of change, different accounts of human motivation, and ultimately, normative accounts of what is desirable. Even though much of this has developed in the business literature, it cannot help but stray into the broader social realm as the outsized impact of businesses that are often more powerful than states become impossible to ignore. One particular area of interest is in the idea of systems thinking. Read more »

The Individual vs. Public Health

by Mindy Clegg

By now over 100,000,000 Americans have received the Covid-19 vaccine and we seem on track to double that by the end of President Biden’s hundredth day. Efforts to reach herd immunity continue apace with many states opening up access to more groups in recent weeks. It’s a hopeful feeling, seeing more people receiving this promise of a return to normality. But some dark clouds are obscuring this (global) goal of herd immunity. We might see yet another surge before we’re done, both here and in other countries. Many of the states struggling to get their populations vaccinated have begun to roll back various mandates for distancing, masking, and capacity limits in businesses. There is still a vocal minority who continue to insist that masking and distancing are useless “health theater”, a direct threat to our civil liberties, that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu, and will refuse getting the vaccine as it’s “their body” (ignoring how their actions impact others in their communities).

This vaccine hesitancy—which despite the media narrative that it’s prevalent among Black Americans is really now a problem among white Republicans—can easily disrupt our goal of herd immunity and draw out the liminal state many of us have been living through. This hesitancy stems from a longer history of initially pro-health, anti-corporate movements that have been twisted and weaponized. As a result, the people who have been historically hurt the most by our government and other institutions are now suffering the most. Their pro-life rhetoric only extends to theoretical life, not to actual humans already alive and in need of support and protection via widespread vaccinations. Here I argue that skepticism of government and even corporations has become weaponized to a dangerous degree, even when it comes to settled science such as vaccinations. Read more »

Poetry in Translation


after Iqbal

Unveil your face
A star is witness

Stop flickering

How long will you beg like Moses on the mountain?
Fan the flame within you

Create a new Mecca with every speck of your embers
Rid yourself of idolatry

Observe the limits in this temple
Even if you want to boast

First create the confidence of Alexander
Then lust after the splendor of Darius


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

Fungible Chimaera Anyone? It’s Really Cheap

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Nyan cat
Nyan Cat. Click here for the oddly mesmerising experience, without spending $587,000.

When you think you’ve heard all the nonsense or hype about the digital noise that is drowning out real life around us, along comes someone who spends $69 million to buy a piece of digital miasma. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” That’s a lot of money or a lot of foolishness, or both. Miasma is a noxious atmosphere once thought to rise from swamps or putrid matter and cause disease. It’s not too strong a word for what oozes from the Internet swamp of lies, hate, hype and fraud that seems to be responsible for an alarming array of new social, economic, and mental afflictions. Why would anyone pay such a price for some digital art file (a collection of ones and zeros?) Was it April 1? Even more strange, one of the art world’s most renowned dealers, Christie’s, engineered the sale. Everyday: The First 5,000 Days is a collage of 5,000 small random images put together by Beeple, a graphic artist from Wisconsin. It exists only as an image file which one assumes could be infinitely copied and shared – because it’s digital. There are millions of copies of Mona Lisa online but nobody would think of trying to sell one for the price of Leonardo’s original.

But wait, you eager digital merchants, there’s more, much more. In February, an endlessly looping digital cartoon cat chanting “nyananyana” sold for $587,000. Yes, compared to the Everyday image, that was cheap, a bargain. So what’s going on? Trying to explain any new digital fad leads a curious enquirer to the edge of a rabbit warren of vague definitions and unfamiliar words. These digital art pieces, like Everyday and the Nyan cat cartoon, are known as non-fungible tokens. They are unique because they are generated on a blockchain and bought and sold on Ethereum. You see where we’re going with this or, more likely, you don’t, so let’s back up a bit. Read more »


by Mary Hrovat

I don’t think I saw an actual daffodil until I was 19, although I had admired the many varieties I saw pictured in bulb catalogs and even—I hesitate to admit this—written haiku about daffodils (at 14, in an English class). When my first husband and I drove through Independence, Missouri, early in our marriage, I saw my first daffodils, a large clump tossing their heads in a sunshiny breeze. Wordsworth flashed upon my inner ear, and as I remember it, I recited “And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils!” (If I did in fact say that, I’m sure I added the gratuitous exclamation point.) My husband, who was driving, gently asked me to return my attention to the map (I was navigating).

I delight in the names of cultivated daffodils (Silver Chimes, Falconet, Sorbet, Pink Parasol…), but for a very long time I didn’t understand the differences between daffodils, jonquils, and narcissi. Over the years I’ve become confused on a slightly higher level.

Narcissus is the name of a genus in the family Amaryllidaceae. This genus occurs naturally primarily in the Mediterranean region but is cultivated widely in other parts of the world, and some naturalized populations have escaped cultivation and thrived on their own. The word narcissus, with a lowercase n, can be used as a common name to describe members of this species. Read more »

Not Wanted On The Voyage

by Mike O’Brien

Thirteen months of living under the spectre of plague has me looking for some means of escape. Mental escape, of course. Physically, I’m still stuck at home, abiding by various lockdown measures, awaiting with weary disdain my province’s next randomized adjustments to its infection-control scheme. Trapped below decks on a ship piloted by imbeciles, who believe that the sea respects economic imperatives and rewards prior restraint. It could be worse, of course. But that’s cold comfort as I anticipate the months of uncertainty between today and whenever I’m vaccinated.

My usual escape is to dive into curious corners of science and theory, learning odd bits of information about nature, or mechanics, or, if I’m feeling very adventurous, some dumbed-down version of maths. A recent dive led me into the world of astrobiology, a field rife with the kind of barely-tethered speculation that philosophers like myself thrive in. There are all kinds of empirical and technical questions, like what kinds of life used to exist on Earth when its chemistry was wildly different, and what kinds of chemical precursors are required to produce the elements necessary to terrestrial life. There are also more abstract questions about the probability of life’s emergence, and the probability that other advanced species exist given our inability to detect them. Even more removed from concrete facts are the ethical questions of what ought to be done and what does it all mean, and these are the easiest to write about without doing expensive experiments or troublesome equations, so I’m doing that. Read more »

Monday Photo

There is a very unintuitive method of protecting fruit trees from a late spring frost (which can be deadly for fruit crops) on a day when temperatures fall far below freezing in the early morning: the trees with their blossoms and buds are sprayed (from a sprinkler system) with water which keeps freezing on them and protects the plants underneath from getting too cold by giving up the latent heat of phase change as it freezes.  One must keep the water spray on as long as the air temperature is below freezing. More information about this method is here.

You can see how dramatically beautiful the apple orchards look in this photo I took in the town of Vahrn, South Tyrol, last week. Imagine row upon row of these crystalline dwarf apple trees shining in the sun.

Is there any hope for Esperanto?

by Peter Wells

In 1887 Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish ophthalmologist and amateur linguist, published in Warsaw a small volume entitled Unua Libro. Its aim was to introduce his newly invented language, in which ‘Unua Libro’ means ‘First Book.’ Zamenhof used the pseudonym ‘Doktor Esperanto’ and the language took its name from this word, which means ‘one who hopes.’ The picture shows Zamenhof (front row) at the First International Esperanto Congress in Boulogne in 1905.

From all available accounts, it is difficult to fault ‘Dr Hopeful’ in terms of intellectual attainment or character. Zamenhof was a native of the city of Białystok, now in Poland, then under Russian rule. Of Jewish ancestry, he is reliably reported to have had the following languages in varying degrees: Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, German, French, Belarusian, German, Latin, Greek, Aramaic, English, Lithuanian, Italian and Volapuk (another invented language of the same period). Born in an area bedevilled by conflicts between people of different cultures and languages, and filled with an idealistic desire for peace and harmony, Zamenhof seems to have viewed his efforts as a practical contribution towards fulfilling that aim. Internationalism was in the air. Esperanto belongs to the group of forward-looking international movements that came into prominence at the end of the 19th century, such as the International Telegraphic Union, the Universal Postal Union, the Red Cross and the aforementioned Volapuk. Read more »


by Joan Harvey

The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world. —Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Violence

When a young gunman murdered ten people at a supermarket in Boulder, a place I’d been in the week before the shooting, I was reading the letters of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt. McCarthy and Arendt lived through terrible times, the worst being the Holocaust and then Vietnam; McCarthy lost both her parents to the Spanish Flu. In their letters I was struck by some parallels to our time: a friend and I had discussed, in letters, whether to stay or leave the country if Trump was reelected; McCarthy and Arendt did the same about Johnson and the escalating war in Vietnam; our fears of Trump echoed theirs of Nixon (though I’m not sure they could have imagined the disaster of the Trump presidency). But when the shooting took place, I realized that while both of them had lived through far worse atrocities than most Americans living today, neither Arendt nor McCarthy lived through these random mass shootings of children and civilians on American soil. There have always been random killings and serial killers, but not this massive meaningless mowing down of strangers.

As shocking as this event was, especially coming so close to the previous week’s mass killing in Atlanta, what has been less noticed are the many mass shootings (defined as four or more shot or killed, not including the shooter) in the United States every day. As of this date, April 10, 2021, there have been 135 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2021 and we’re just at the beginning of April. More mass shootings than days in the year so far. At least 31 more mass shootings since the one in Boulder. Read more »

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Catherine Menon: ‘Pure mathematics and writing come out of the same creative space’

Ursula Kenny in The Guardian:

Catherine Menon was born in Perth, Western Australia, where her British mother and Malaysian father met. She lectures in robotics and has a PhD in pure mathematics as well as an MA in creative writing. Fragile Monsters, her first novel, is set in rural Malaysia and unpicks a family’s story from 1920 to the present day. At its centre are Mary, “sharp tongued and ferocious”, and her visiting granddaughter, Durga, who tussle over the demons and dark memories that distort their past and warp the present. Hilary Mantel has described Menon’s writing as “supple, artful, skilful storytelling” and she has won awards for her short stories. She is married to a fellow mathematician and lives in north London.

Why did you want to write about Malaysia?
The idea came from the stories my father used to tell me about when he was young – appropriately sanitised. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I even realised that Kuala Lipis [where his family lived] was the head of Japanese activities in Pahang [state]. During the second world war it was very much under Japanese control. It was at the centre of things like food rationing; the children’s education was wildly interrupted and when it was resumed it was all in Japanese. So all sorts of upheavals that I really only came to understand when I started researching.

More here.

Hyper-accurate GPS positioning is rolling out worldwide

Ling Xin in the MIT Technology Review:

A massive landslide—the worst in decades—struck Du Fangming’s home in south China’s Hunan province on July 6. “My house collapsed. My goats were swept away by the mud,” he told Chinese media outlets shortly after the catastrophe. Fortunately, though, he was safe—one of 33 villagers who had been evacuated thanks to early warnings enabled by advanced positioning technologies that can provide more accurate readings than ever before.

Powered by China’s newly completed global navigation satellite system, BeiDou (“the Big Dipper”), and its ground-based stations, position sensors can detect subtle changes in the land’s surface in landslide-prone regions across China. Movement over a few meters can be spotted in real time, while post-processing accuracy can reach the millimeter level.

That means a shift in the dirt about the size of the tip of a sharp pencil can be spotted from more than 21,000 kilometers above. Twelve days before the landslide, Du’s village received an orange alert citing data anomalies, which pointed to accelerating surface sliding following days of heavy rain.

More here.

The Rwanda Myth

Tom Zoellner in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

In the view of most historians, the original sin of Rwanda came from the colonial policy of making artificial ethnic distinctions through a caste-like system. Belgian administrators deemed those who were taller and herded cattle, the Tutsis, to be smarter than the Hutu, who were generally shorter and raised crops. So one group got all the privileges of helping the Belgians extract coffee and animal hides and were treated as sub-royals, while their countrymen were deemed slow and stupid. The story was fixed; the Goods and Bads had been preselected, and the inevitable resentments would explode in the 1994 genocide.

Today Rwanda is held up as a shining example of African progress, with a kitchen-clean capital, a booming economy, and a firm lid on internal violence. But in her explosive and devastatingly convincing new book, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, Michela Wrong contends that this is a result of the original sin coming home to roost once more. Western journalists and governments have selected their good guy in dictator Paul Kagame while ignoring his appalling human rights abuses, targeted assassinations, exported violence, and offenses against the rule of law that would be condemned anyplace else.

More here.

Sunday Poem

My Body Holds Stones

My body
of a tragic
Indian warrior
into sunset
at trail’s end
swallowed by
two centuries.
I’m still trying
to unknot
his silhouette.

My body
of Indian women
by wolves
at their feet,
x’s on
their eyes,
while sand gathers
over their
lost earring.
Voices echo—
I am my sister
in a canyon
while thunder sleeps

My body
a stone monument
to large small pox blankets.
Jagged winds wail
the color yellow
on the prairies
that lay themselves down
in the dying rays of the sun.

Read more »