Pakistan needs a plan

Noah Smith at Noahpinion:

Pakistan is a vast country of 231.4 million people. It’s one of only nine countries in the world with nuclear weapons. It’s located in South Asia, which is now one of the world’s most dynamic and fast-growing regions. It has generally favorable relationships with both the United States and China. It has a long coastline in a generally peaceful region of the ocean. It has plenty of talented people, as evidenced by the fact that Pakistani Americans, on average, out-earn almost all other ethnic groups in the U.S.

And yet despite these natural advantages, Pakistan is one of the world’s biggest economic basket cases. It’s a poor country, and its income is growing only very slowly; it has now been passed up by India and Bangladesh, despite starting out significantly richer…

More here.

Frontier AI ethics

Seth Lazar in Aeon:

Much of the attention being paid to generative AI systems has focused on how they replicate the pathologies of already widely deployed AI systems, arguing that they centralise power and wealth, ignore copyright protections, depend on exploitative labour practices, and use excessive resources. Other critics highlight how they foreshadow vastly more powerful future systems that might threaten humanity’s survival. The first group says there is nothing new here; the other looks through the present to a perhaps distant horizon.

I want instead to pay attention to what makes these particular systems distinctive: both their remarkable scientific achievement, and the most likely and consequential ways in which they will change society over the next five to 10 years.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Wind and Water and Stone

 —for Roger Caillois

The water hollowed the stone,
the wind dispersed the water,
the stone stopped the wind.
Water and wind and stone.

The wind sculpted the stone,
the stone is a cup of water,
the water runs off and is wind.
Stone and wind and water.

The wind sings in its turnings,
the water murmurs as it goes,
the motionless stone is quiet.
Wind and water and stone.

One is the other, and is neither:
among their empty names
they pass and disappear,
water and stone and wind.

by Oactavio Paz
The Collected Poems 1957-1987
Carcanet Press Limited, 1988

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The Campaign to Abolish UNRWA

Peter Beinart in Jewish Currents:

THE UNITED NATIONS RELIEF AND WORKS AGENCY (UNRWA), which has provided education, health care, and other essential services to Palestinian refugees since 1949, could soon disappear. In recent weeks, the United States and at least 18 other countries have suspended aid to the agency, which operates in the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, serving more than five million people. The House and Senate are both considering legislation to prevent the US—which is UNRWA’s largest donor—from ever resuming that funding. UNRWA officials have said that if funding is not restored, the organization will likely halt operations as early as the end of this month.

The current effort to abolish UNRWA dates from late January, when Israel alleged that 12 of the agency’s staff members took part in the October 7th massacre, and that roughly 1200 employees—10% of UNRWA’s workforce in Gaza—have ties to Hamas or other militant groups. But Israel and its supporters in the US have been seeking to undermine the agency for at least a decade. In 2018, when leaked emails revealed that then-President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was attempting to “disrupt UNRWA” because the agency “perpetuates a status quo” and “is corrupt, inefficient and doesn’t help peace,” a number of mainstream Jewish groups praised Kushner’s efforts. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations declared that UNRWA “is not the answer” to Palestinians’ humanitarian needs. (The Trump administration later cut off US aid to UNRWA; Joe Biden restored the funding soon after entering office.) In 2021, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, urged that “this UN agency for so-called ‘refugees’ should not exist in its current format.”

More here.

Rafah May Prove the Most Dire Moment in Israel’s War on Gaza

Sarah Burch in Jacobin:

On Sunday, while one hundred million Americans were watching the kickoff of the Super Bowl, Israel took the opportunity to unleash the next stage in its genocide of Palestinians. Air strikes over Rafah killed at least sixty-seven Palestinians, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered soldiers to prepare for a ground entry into the city.

Rafah, on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, is the last refuge for nearly 1.5 million Palestinians displaced by the ongoing Israeli genocide.

Since Israeli bombs began decimating Northern Gaza in October, Palestinians have been told to evacuate to the south. Rafah is as far south as anyone can go. With a ground invasion imminent, the Israeli government is calling for the population to “evacuate” — even though they have nowhere to evacuate to.

An Israeli invasion of Rafah would be the most dangerous stage of the genocide yet, causing death on a scale unseen even in these four months of sheer brutality.

After indiscriminately flattening Gaza and pushing Palestinians toward famine, now the Israeli military is seeking to remove the Palestinians from Gaza permanently, whether by displacement, disease, hunger, or execution.

More here.

Is the State Here to Stay?

Jonathan S. Blake in Boston Review:

In early 2022, the Economist decried “governments’ widespread new fondness for interventionism.” The state was “becoming bossier” and “more meddlesome,” it complained. In fact, the state’s punitive arm was plenty active in the United States and the United Kingdom during the decades that neoliberalism shredded public investment and public goods, to say nothing of the foreign interventions of these states over this period. But on the economic front, at least, the Economist was right: state spending and regulation are back after years of retrenchment.

In the United States, the federal government has recently spent $5 trillion under two presidents to act against public health and economic threats, and the Biden administration is boastfully pursuing “industrial policy” to remedy problems created by four decades of deference to the private sector, especially around climate. Add to this a more aggressive approach to antitrust enforcement and regulation in general, and the administrative and development elements of today’s American state looks very different than they did in 1990 or even 2010. This new statism is a direct response to the rise of China as well as a rejection of the anemic policies rolled out to combat the 2008 financial crisis. Many left-of-center officials and policy intellectuals have concluded that both national security and the preservation of democracy against populist threats require more vigorous government control over markets.

More here.

How Quickly Do Large Language Models Learn Unexpected Skills?

Stephen Ornes in Quanta:

Two years ago, in a project called the Beyond the Imitation Game benchmark, or BIG-bench, 450 researchers compiled a list of 204 tasks designed to test the capabilities of large language models, which power chatbots like ChatGPT. On most tasks, performance improved predictably and smoothly as the models scaled up — the larger the model, the better it got. But with other tasks, the jump in ability wasn’t smooth. The performance remained near zero for a while, then performance jumped. Other studies found similar leaps in ability.

The authors described this as “breakthrough” behavior; other researchers have likened it to a phase transition in physics, like when liquid water freezes into ice. In a paper published in August 2022, researchers noted that these behaviors are not only surprising but unpredictable, and that they should inform the evolving conversations around AI safety, potential and risk. They called the abilities “emergent,” a word that describes collective behaviors that only appear once a system reaches a high level of complexity.

But things may not be so simple. A new paper by a trio of researchers at Stanford University posits that the sudden appearance of these abilities is just a consequence of the way researchers measure the LLM’s performance. The abilities, they argue, are neither unpredictable nor sudden.

More here.

Reporting From The Land Of Auschwitz

Joe Moshenska at The Guardian:

József Debreczeni’s memoir of the Nazi death camps, translated into English from Hungarian for the first time, frequently echoes Edgar’s claim. After being moved from “the capital of the Great Land of Auschwitz” to one of the networks of sub-camps, Eule, he discovers that he is to be moved again: “Surely I couldn’t end up in a place much worse, I thought – and how tragically wrong I was.” By the end of his remarkable set of observational writings, the word “worse” has lost all meaning; comparing the depths of human experiences of depravity and suffering feels obscene in itself. Is typhoid worse than starvation? Is being crushed to death while mining a subterranean tunnel worse than wasting away in a pool of one’s own filth?

Debreczeni, an eminent journalist, thwarts any such comparisons by allowing the events that unfold to hover before the reader in the astonishing equipoise of his prose.

more here.

Filming ‘Virginia Woolf,’ the Battles Weren’t Just Onscreen

Alexandra Jacobs at the New York Times:

What a document dump!

The most delicious parts of “Cocktails With George and Martha,” Philip Gefter’s unapologetically obsessive new book about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — the dark ’n’ stormy, oft-revived 1962 Broadway hit by Edward Albee that became a moneymaking movie and an eternal marriage meme — are diary excerpts from the screenwriter Ernest Lehman. (Gefter calls the diary “unpublished,” but at least some of it surfaced in the turn-of-the-millennium magazine Talk, now hard to find.)

That Lehman is no longer a household name, if he ever was, is one of showbiz history’s many injustices. Before the thankless task of condensing Albee’s three-hour play for the big screen (on top of producing), he wrote the scripts for “North by Northwest” (1959), arguably Hitchcock’s greatest, and with some help, “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957).

more here.

Saturday Poem


Don’t fool yourself: you don’t know anything
about birds. So you’ve seen a documentary,
skimmed a book, can tell robins from chickadees.
You’ve stared across canyons, been pushed off a fence,
can guess what soaring is—falling in reverse—
but have you ever looked at a pelican?
Their beauty’s folded awkwardness, red
lidless eyes, mouths baggy as inflatable pants.
Their webbed feet push the brakes mid-air,
like cartoon ducks’. No cormorants,
no sleek-arrow hunters, they wheel above the surf
and drop like a stack of twenty pancakes,
gulp at foam and fish, then struggle to
take off again. Drying out on shore, they
wonder what they’ve done to deserve
such graceful wings.
You should wish to be so brainless,
inefficient, beautiful. You drove past
them once, on your way to catch a plane.
Flying alone, no longer among them,
you’ve returned to knowing nothing
about birds, or who you are. Just eyeing
other people, wondering what you’ve done
to deserve this life. Your only one.

by Derek Webster
from  Mockingbird
Véhicule Press, 2015

Where Western and Indian philosophy meet

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad in IAI:

We find similar ideas of a transcendent ego in both Kant and the Upanishads. We find a rejection of free will in Schopenhauer and Ramana Maharshi. What should we make of this overlap between Western and Indian philosophy? Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad argues both became gripped by the same question.

Ricky Williamson: What do you think are the key differences and similarities between Western and Indian philosophy?

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad: I don’t think that there is actually a global answer to the question of differences between what are, broadly speaking, historically constructed traditions. While we might intuitively think we recognise what Western philosophy is or what Indian philosophy is, in practice it’s more complicated.

A particularly potent example of the difficulty is the question of whether Arabic philosophy counts as Western philosophy. We know that the whole Aristotelian tradition was lost to the Latin-writing European philosophical tradition and was preserved by the Arabs and in Arabic. It only returned to the European tradition in the Renaissance, which launched a whole series of rediscoveries of Greek materials. Some people have therefore argued that Arabic philosophy is part of Western philosophy. But others would point out that within Islamic thought, as it was articulated in Arabic, Persian or Turkish, there was such a thing as Falsafah, which was a particular branch of philosophy and which was integrated into questions that were doctrinally based on Islamic revelation. So, they would conclude, of course what we might call Arabic philosophy is nothing like Western philosophy.

More here.

Groundbreaking African American Artists Who Shaped History

From My Modern Met:

Brooklyn-based artist Bisa Butler creates contemporary quilts that are life-sized historical portraits of Black people whose stories may have been forgotten or completely overlooked in history. Each colorful picture utilizes fabric like a painter would pigment to produce regal representations of each person. Butler learned how to sew by watching her mother and grandmother. When she first began creating her quilt art, she depicted her family. Now, she scours public databases for photographs that inspire her.

“My community has been marginalized for hundreds of years,” she writes in her artist statement. “While we have been right beside our white counterparts experiencing and creating history, our contributions and perspectives have been ignored, unrecorded, and lost. It is only a few years ago that it was acknowledged that the White House was built by slaves. Right there in the seat of power of our country African Americans were creating and contributing while their names were lost to history.

“My subjects are African Americans from ordinary walks of life who may have sat for a formal family portrait or may have been documented by a passing photographer,” Butler explains. “Like the builders of the White House, they have no names or captions to tell us who they were.”

More here. (Note: In honor of Black History Month, at least one post will be devoted to its 2024  theme of “African Americans and the Arts” throughout the month of February)

Friday, February 16, 2024

The Lost Story of New York’s Most Powerful Black Woman

Brent Staples in The New York Times:

Elizabeth Amelia Gloucester appeared in the census for the final time on June 8, 1880. The census enumerators who crisscrossed Brooklyn Heights were no doubt surprised to find a wealthy Black woman presiding over Remsen House, the grand boarding hotel not far from Brooklyn City Hall that served the white professional classes. Ms. Gloucester was a pillar of the Black elites who had prospered during the decades before the Civil War, when nine-tenths of African Americans were still enslaved. Remsen House was the jewel of the real estate portfolio she had established when she was a struggling young shopkeeper in bare-knuckled Lower Manhattan. By the spring of 1880, she was an aging Heights eminence, running her empire from the Remsen House residence she shared with her husband and children.

Census workers were accustomed to listing women as the heads of households in which husbands had died. The decision to grant Ms. Gloucester this same designation — even though the Rev. James Gloucester was very much alive and present — reflected a rare recognition that she was the author of the family’s wealth and master of its financial destiny. This represented a victory for a woman who had come of age during a time when husbands subsumed their wives and their assets.

More here. (Note: In honor of Black History Month, at least one post will be devoted to its 2024  theme of “African Americans and the Arts” throughout the month of February)

The Rise of Consumer Crypto

Steve Kaczynski and Scott Duke Kominers in Project Syndicate:

Since its inception with the launch of Bitcoin in 2008, blockchain technology has gone through numerous cycles of public attention. Over time, growing interest and investment in the best-known cryptocurrencies has led to greater acceptance, as highlighted by the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of a spot Bitcoin ETF (exchange-traded fund) in January. While blockchains and their associated “crypto” assets have yet to be adopted by a truly broad base of consumers, that is starting to change, owing to a shift in how these technologies are being used.

Contrary to what mainstream media coverage often suggests, for many people, the value of these innovations lies not so much in cryptocurrencies as in blockchain-based digital goods such as virtual sneakersgaming assets, and membership passes – all managed by way of non-fungible tokens. As we explain in our new book, The Everything Token, NFTs – often misunderstood and even derided – are a general and flexible solution for establishing and tracking ownership across all manner of digital assets.

More here.

The Atlantic Ocean is headed for a tipping point

René van Westen, Henk A. Dijkstra, and Michael Kliphuis in The Conversation:

Instruments deployed in the ocean starting in 2004 show that the Atlantic Ocean circulation has observably slowed over the past two decades, possibly to its weakest state in almost a millennium. Studies also suggest that the circulation has reached a dangerous tipping point in the past that sent it into a precipitous, unstoppable decline, and that it could hit that tipping point again as the planet warms and glaciers and ice sheets melt.

In a new study using the latest generation of Earth’s climate models, we simulated the flow of fresh water until the ocean circulation reached that tipping point.

The results showed that the circulation could fully shut down within a century of hitting the tipping point, and that it’s headed in that direction. If that happened, average temperatures would drop by several degrees in North America, parts of Asia and Europe, and people would see severe and cascading consequences around the world.

We also discovered a physics-based early warning signal that can alert the world when the Atlantic Ocean circulation is nearing its tipping point.

More here.

A thousand years of solitude

Warren Cornwall in Science:

THE CANARY ISLANDS—More than 1000 years ago, a young man stood on the northern shore of the island now known as El Hierro. Across the wave-swept Atlantic Ocean, he could see the silhouettes of other islands, a volcanic peak on one soaring toward the clouds only 90 kilometers away. Yet, for him, those islands were as unreachable as the Moon.

His body betrayed the rigors of life on his arid volcanic outcrop. His molars were worn almost to the gums from grinding fibrous wild fern roots. His ancestors here had farmed wheat, but he and his contemporaries grew only barley and raised livestock such as goats. His genes held evidence that his parents were closely related, like many of the roughly 1000 people on the island, who had not mingled with outsiders for centuries. Also like many of his fellow islanders, he bore signs of an old head injury, likely sustained in a fight.

“This population faced a lot of challenges,” says archaeologist Jonathan Santana of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC). “Survival on this island was a challenge every day.”

More here.

The Many Lives of George Eliot

Francesca Wade at The Nation:

In an anonymously published essay, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” George Eliot set out her objections to “mind-and-millinery” novels: those books featuring dazzling heroines—eloquent, accomplished, almost godly—who set off into the world solely in pursuit of an amiable husband. Castigating the genre for its “drivelling” narratives, clichéd characters, and hackneyed morals, Eliot argued that novels that posit marriage as a woman’s ultimate aim and achievement only “confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of women.” In her own writing, Eliot set out not just to rehash the “marriage plot” but to expose and dissect it: Her sweeping novels show her utterly human characters grappling with the harsh disparities between societal expectations of married life and their own, often painful experiences of it.

As Clare Carlisle shows in her fascinating new biography, The Marriage Question, Eliot chose to make her life, as well as her fiction, outside the conventions of the marriage plot.

more here.