How America Fractured Into 4 Parts

George Packer in The Atlantic:

Nations, like individuals, tell stories in order to understand what they are, where they come from, and what they want to be. National narratives, like personal ones, are prone to sentimentality, grievance, pride, shame, self-blindness. There is never just one—they compete and constantly change. The most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires. Americans know by now that democracy depends on a baseline of shared reality—when facts become fungible, we’re lost. But just as no one can live a happy and productive life in nonstop self-criticism, nations require more than facts—they need stories that convey a moral identity. The long gaze in the mirror has to end in self-respect or it will swallow us up.

Tracing the evolution of these narratives can tell you something about a nation’s possibilities for change. Through much of the 20th century, the two political parties had clear identities and told distinct stories. The Republicans spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake. Republicans emphasized individual enterprise, and Democrats emphasized social solidarity, eventually including Black people and abandoning the party’s commitment to Jim Crow. But, unlike today, the two parties were arguing over the same recognizable country. This arrangement held until the late ’60s—still within living memory.

More here.


Why A.I. Should Be Afraid of Us

Alan Burdick in The New York Times:

In a recent study, Dr. Deroy and her neuroscientist colleagues set out to understand why that is. The researchers paired human subjects with unseen partners, sometimes human and sometimes A.I.; each pair then played one in an array of classic economic games — Trust, Prisoner’s Dilemma, Chicken and Stag Hunt, as well as one they created called Reciprocity — designed to gauge and reward cooperativeness.

Our lack of reciprocity toward A.I. is commonly assumed to reflect a lack of trust. It’s hyper-rational and unfeeling, after all, surely just out for itself, unlikely to cooperate, so why should we? Dr. Deroy and her colleagues reached a different and perhaps less comforting conclusion. Their study found that people were less likely to cooperate with a bot even when the bot was keen to cooperate. It’s not that we don’t trust the bot, it’s that we do: The bot is guaranteed benevolent, a capital-S sucker, so we exploit it. That conclusion was borne out by reports afterward from the study’s participants. “Not only did they tend to not reciprocate the cooperative intentions of the artificial agents,” Dr. Deroy said, “but when they basically betrayed the trust of the bot, they didn’t report guilt, whereas with humans they did.” She added, “You can just ignore the bot and there is no feeling that you have broken any mutual obligation.”

This could have real-world implications. When we think about A.I., we tend to think about the Alexas and Siris of our future world, with whom we might form some sort of faux-intimate relationship. But most of our interactions will be one-time, often wordless encounters. Imagine driving on the highway, and a car wants to merge in front of you. If you notice that the car is driverless, you’ll be far less likely to let it in. And if the A.I. doesn’t account for your bad behavior, an accident could ensue.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Poignant Moment, listening to “Lakes” played by
the Pat Metheny Group. Sunset Beach, Summer,
1984

The song comes over me like a wheatfield. my face
…… brushed by golden stalks

My spirit moves forth like a blind one and when
……things touch me…I see them

How could I know there was so much tenderness
……hidden in things, in my flesh?

How could I know the love of white paint for
……the porch of the house where it clings
……and flakes? How could I know my daughter
……would come back?

How could I know about the air of the inquiring,
……efficient blood, returning to its cells?

I see the love of the pale blue wind for our clothes,
……blown out from the line,

The wind loves our house, whistling through tiny
……cracks, blowing steadily toward us.

There is something in me that listens and stirs.
……Everything flows, grasping. Everything is
……a kind of attachment, a music; time aching
……through us.

It is too much to feel. I put down my pad. Even
……breathing is a kind of ceaseless music.

I see we cannot rest, ever. We seek for love.
……continually, carried along like dust, swept
……across lakes. How did I ever come to be
……here, to know these people, to love them?

Our need for love exceeds us, reaching ahead,
……dark hair blowing like a torch in the halls
……of the old castle. It goes ahead, looking
……for signs, listening, searching.

And then the wind catches it suddenly and lifts it,
……swift and beautiful, carries it far out over
……the lakes—sail without a boat, banner,
……of our incorrigible longings.

by Lou Lipsitz
from
Seeking the Hook
Signal Books, 1997

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Changing Composition of Support for Left and Right Parties

by Pranab Bardhan

Some decades back the typical voting pattern in many democracies used to be that the rich and upper middle classes used to vote in general for right-leaning parties, while the relatively poor voted for left-leaning parties. But in recent decades this pattern has been shifting: many of the professional or more educated voters in some of those countries are increasingly going for left or green parties, while many of the poor working-class voters are turning to right-wing parties, sometimes led by populist demagogues. Thomas Piketty and his associates in a new paper issued by the World Inequality Lab have provided data to show that for 21 western democracies the more educated voters have over the years become more left supporters than the less-educated voters. Piketty has described this elite division between high-education and high-income people colorfully as that between the Brahmin Left and the Merchant (the corresponding Indian caste term would have been ‘bania’) Right. He does not go much into explaining this pattern but it is clear that as education expands (measured by average years of schooling of the adult population) the left or center-left parties now can have a viable base even in the relatively rich or upper middle classes. Education often makes one appreciate more liberal values, which may sometimes outweigh their worries about higher taxes that the left parties may inflict.

But this still leaves unexplained why the less-educated poor are leaning right. Of course the shocks of job losses due to global integration and automation have hurt them (particularly as low education makes it more difficult to adjust to changes in market demand and technology), but why are they turning right instead of turning toward far-left parties which are often anti-globalization and in favor of more social protection for working classes? I’d suggest that this is for two major reasons. The first has to do with economic policy, and the second predominantly cultural. Read more »

Between Golem and God: The Future of AI

by Ali Minai

Among all the fascinating mythical creatures that populate the folklore of various cultures, one that stands out is the golem – an artificial, half-formed human-like creature that comes to us from Jewish folklore. Though the idea goes back much further, the most famous golem is the one said to have been created and brought to life by the great Rabbi Loew of Prague in the 16th century. Stories of various other golems have also come down through history, each with its own peculiarities. Most of them, however, share some common themes. First, the golem is created to perform some specific function. For example, the golem of Prague was created to protect the Jews of the city from pogroms. Second, the golem is capable of purposive behavior, but in a limited way. And third, the golem is activated by a human master by tagging it with a word (or words), and can be deactivated by removing or changing the word.

The golem has made many appearances in literature – especially in science fiction and fantasy – and its linkage with artificial intelligence is implicit in many of these instances. Though the golem is often portrayed as not particularly intelligent, the analogy with AI is clear in that the golem can act autonomously. More pertinent here, though, is another aspect of the golem’s behavior: Obedience. The golem has no purposes of its own, and is obedient to the desires of its master – though, interestingly, golems do rebel in some stories, which makes the analogy with AI even more apt.

The End of AI

The present time is seen by many as the golden age of AI, despite the fact that other “golden ages” have come and gone up in smoke in the past. The thinking is that this time AI has truly arrived because it is more grounded and has infiltrated down to the very core of modern human life. No aspect of life today – from medicine and finance to education and entertainment – remains unaffected in some fundamental way by AI. It is built into cars, cameras, and refrigerators. It analyzes investment portfolios and consumer preferences. It recognizes faces for security and for logging into digital devices. It lies at the core of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and many of the other technology and consumer giants that shape our lives. In these last fourteen months of the COVID pandemic, tools enabled by AI have been used extensively in data analysis, clinical practice, and pharmaceutical innovation. Indeed, so pervasive has AI become that, in many cases, it is not even noticed. We take it for granted that things in our lives – phones, watches, cameras, cars, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and even homes – will be “smart”. Increasingly, we expect things to understand what we are saying, and in the near future, we may expect them to understand our thoughts as well. The time is also at hand when more and more of the complicated things we do, from driving to writing legal briefs, will be left to AI. In a real sense, we humans are outsourcing our minds and bodies to algorithms. No wonder some very smart people are worried that AI may make slaves of us all, while others seem to be relishing the prospect of merging with smarter machines to become gods. Read more »

How to make rational mammals

by Charlie Huenemann

Suppose you are Father God, or Mother Nature, or Mother God, or Father Nature — doesn’t matter — and you want to raise up a crop of mammals who can reason well about what’s true. At first you think, “No problem! I’ll just ex nihilo some up in a jiffy!” but then you remember that you have resolved to build everything through the painstaking process of evolution by natural selection, which requires small random shifts over time, with every step toward your target resulting in some sort of reproductive advantage for the mammal in question. Okay; this is going to be hard.

Given what you know about reasoning and truth, the mammal is going to have to have access to some way of abstractly representing the world to itself, or language. That in turn will require a community of language users; and that will require a community of beings who fare better through cooperation. This immediately raises the problem of how to evolve beings who are both selfish and social. Selfishness requires cheating whenever you can get away with it, but sociability requires trustworthiness. Striking a workable balance between selfishness and sociability is tricky, but not impossible, as anyone who has worked in corporate knows.

As if that tension isn’t hard enough: if what you want in the end are mammals who can reason well about what’s true, that raises even more problems. Reasoning well about what is true profiteth a mammal little. It does not reliably help a mammal in its selfish strivings, since it is often better for the mammal to believe all sorts of falsehoods that give it undue confidence (hope), or steer it clear of dangers (superstition), or hate its competitors (envy and jealousy). Nor does reasoning well about what is true help the mammal in terms of sociability, since a mammal is often more sociable by being stubbornly loyal to its clan (tribalism), or by taking on risks or burdens on behalf of the group (altruism), or caring for those who offer it no advantage (selfless love). Selfishness, sociability, and rationality: pick two, but you can’t have all three. Read more »

Humans On The Moon

by Mary Hrovat

Photograph of full moonI’ve always loved the name Sinus Iridum (Bay of Rainbows), which describes a beautiful semicircular dark feature on the face of the Moon. Browsing a lunar map reveals other names equally beautiful or evocative: Sinus Concordiae (Bay of Harmony) and Sinus Aestuum (Seething Bay), for example. Other lunar plains with watery names include Mare Anguis (Serpent Sea), Palus Somni (Marsh of Sleep), and Mare Imbrium (Sea of Showers). Montes Harbinger is a group of mountains in Mare Imbrium; when they’re lit by the rising sun, they herald the approach of sunrise to Aristarchus crater.

Alexander von Humboldt, who is remembered in place names all over Earth, is also recognized on the Moon. Mare Humboldtianum lies on the divide between the near and far sides of the Moon; in the 1830s, Johann Heinrich von Mädler named this lunar sea for Humboldt because it extends from the known into the unknown.

The Moon has a lake for every season (literally—Lacus Autumni and so on) and lakes for many moods: lakes of happiness, fear, dreams, hatred, and hope; also the lake of forgetfulness (who doesn’t sometimes want to take a swim there?), the lake of time, the lake of solitude.

We’ve cast a net of words over the Moon for as long as we’ve had words. Before we could see individual features in any detail, the enigmatic markings on the Moon provided a Rorschach test of sorts, a space onto which we projected our imagination. To me, the man in the Moon has always meant the sort-of face that you can see on the Moon (and its many stylized representations), but the traditional stories about the man in the Moon in Western culture often involve punishment or banishment. Read more »

Under an Inland Sea

by Mark Harvey

Cleveland Ranch, Nevada 1944

Mormons and Indians of the old west don’t have a nice history. In 1865, just as the Civil War ended, Ute Indians and Mormons began their own version of a seven-year war near Manti, Utah, over land, grass, cattle, and survival. It was called The Black Hawk War, named after a particularly capable Ute warrior. When the war finally ended, some 75 Mormons and several hundred Indians had been killed. The Indians put up a ferocious fight, but ultimately the Mormons prevailed and settled vast parts of Utah and Nevada.

So it’s not always easy to bring Mormons and Native Americans to the same side of a fight, but the city of Las Vegas managed to do so when it made an aggressive water grab on ranch lands and sacred grounds to its north a few years ago. With the explosive growth of the city, drought, and a limited water supply from the Colorado River, the town’s elders went looking for precious groundwater hundreds of miles to the north. What entailed was a thirty-year quest that involved big money, lots of lawyers, questionable science, wildlife biology, and sacred Indian grounds. When the Las Vegas water authority began that quest, little did they know they’d meet the wrath and fast war footing of Mormons and Indians. Ultimately the plan failed.

Las Vegas was once a tiny town in a vast desert where there lived but a few farmers and their families. The town wasn’t always short of water, primarily because at its beginning there were far fewer people and the valley where it sits had productive artesian wells. The very name, Las Vegas, means “The Meadows” in Spanish and was coined by a Spanish trading party in 1829 as it traveled to Los Angeles on the Old Spanish Trail. The party actually stopped there for water. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans lived in the area beginning over ten thousand years ago. Read more »

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

by Mike O’Brien

A very bad man once said that essence of politics is constituted by the distinction between friends and enemies, with enemies being the more important of the two. A very silly man later turned that around and articulated a politics of friendship. But let’s not indulge silliness.

The sense of enmity imagined by the very bad man was carefully distinguished from other kinds of opposition. It was not the rivalry of contestants trying to win a competition bounded by rules. It was not the opprobrium of judging some other to be morally unworthy. It was not the animosity bred by personal or parochial vendetta.

Pure enmity, which frames an opposition of properly Political character, consists in this: that in order for one’s enemy to create the world they desire, they must preclude the creation of the world which one desires oneself. And vice-versa. One may even like one’s enemy on a personal level, and attribute no moral fault or ill will to them. One may imagine that one’s enemy has no idea that they are an enemy. No matter. If, in realizing her ends, Alice (or the Republic of Alice) is likely to deny Bob (or the Commonwealth of Bob) the possibility of realizing his ends, they are politically oriented towards each other as enemies.

It need not be quite that dire. Many conflicts of interest and disputes can be resolved, or mitigated by some compromise. That is the stuff of much small “p” politics, the transactional and procedural grind of jockeying and brokering. It is infused with a logic of procedure and careerist ambition, and often some good faith attempts at governance. But such “normal” politics, the grist of political gabfests, is not a matter of existential or transcendental importance, despite histrionic appeals to the rubes about how some fiscal tweak will precipitate the end of civilization.

But some matters really don’t admit of compromise, at least between those people who take them to be the issue of their Political existence. Read more »

Poetry in Translation

Kasheer

Saleem morukh
Salaam morukh
Habeeb morukh
Heshaam morukh

Ye shahar morukh
Ye ghaam morukh
Kasheer hund
Subh o shaam morukh

Kashmir

They killed Saleem
They killed Salaam
They killed Habeeb
They killed Heshaam

They killed this city
That town they killed —
All of Kashmir’s blood
They spilled

***

By Abdur Rehman Rahi (b. 1926), a Kashmiri poet and critic. He was awarded the Indian Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961. Translated from the original Kashmiri by Rafiq Kathwari.

Can Technology Undermine Character?

by Fabio Tollon

What is “character”? In general, we might say that the character of something is what distinguishes it from other things. Sedimentary rocks have a certain “character” that distinguishes them from igneous rocks, for example. Rocks, however, do not have personality (so far as I can tell). Human beings have personality, and it is thought that there is some connection between personality and character, but my interest does not lie in how exactly this relation works, as here I will be concerned with character specifically. To that end, we might specify that character is a collection of properties that distinguishes one individual person from another. When we say “she is wise” we are saying something about her personality, but we are also judging her character: we are, in effect, claiming that we admire her, due to some feature of her character. There could be myriad reasons for this. Perhaps she takes a keen interest in the world around her, has well-formed beliefs, reads many books, etc. In the case where she indeed displays the virtues associated with being wise, we would say that our assessment of her character is fitting, that is, such an assessment correctly identifies the kinds of things she stands for and values. The question I want to consider is whether the value laden nature of technology undermines our ability to make such character assessments. Read more »

Hit Songs in the Radiation Room

by Philip Graham

It’s the middle of July, 2020, the middle of a heat wave in the middle of the pandemic, and my first day in the radiation room. I stand in socks and starchy hospital gown before the Star Trek-ish linear accelerator, waiting for the technicians to fit me on the machine’s bed-like tray for best positioning. But in my mind I’m standing four years ago in the kitchen of my new home in Rhode Island, where beside me a cable company worker tapped in a phone number for advice about how to maneuver spotty Internet service into a happy ending. While he waited for his boss to call back, he mentioned, with a hint of wonder in his voice, “Y’know, this is my first day on the job after four months.”

“Oh,” I replied, startled by this sudden personal offering. “Were you injured?”

“Yeah, my foot. So bad that the doctors said I might not walk on it again.”

“But here you are,” I observed. Then I asked the question he clearly wanted to answer. “How’d you get better?”

“Well, I read that a cat’s purr vibrates at just the right hertz cycles per second to be a healing vibration.”

This was news to me. Wondering if this fellow was simply a feline obsessive, I tested that theory by asking, “Hmm, how many cats do you own?”

“None! I don’t like cats much. So I thought, maybe there’s another way. If the vibrations of a cat’s purring can heal you, why not the vibrations of music? I set up stereo speakers on either side of my foot, and sat there all day, day after day.”

“It really worked?”

He grinned. “Here I am.” Read more »

Heard It On The Grape Vine

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow. [Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]

On second thoughts, Omar, forget the loaf and thou. Just leave the flask.

King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin
King Ashurnasirpal II drinking wine. Palace of Nimrud relief, Iraq, 879 BC. Photo: Pergamon Museum Berlin

“You can trust me with your life, My King.”
“But not with my wine, obviously. Give it back.”
[The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner]

The 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: “Of all things known to mortals, wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming the passions of mankind, being common fuel to them all.” Emerging statistics from the recent pandemic suggest plenty of exciting and inflaming has been going on around the globe. Times of trouble now play out to a background of popping corks, as do times of celebration. Not that this is new, far from it. In the ninth century BC, King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria threw a mighty wine-drenched party to celebrate the foundation of his new capital city, Nimrud. In Mesopotamia and Assyria, the everyday drink was beer, a beverage whose origins lurk in the dawn of human history.

“What was most impressive and most significant was the Assyrian king’s choice of drink,” Tom Standage wrote in his bestselling A History of the World in Six Glasses. “Despite his Mesopotamian heritage, Ashurnasirpal did not give pride of place at his feast to the Mesopotamians’ usual beverage. Carved stone reliefs at the palace do not show him sipping beer through a straw; instead, he is elegantly balancing a shallow bowl, probably gold, on the tips of the fingers of his right hand so that it is level with his face. This bowl contained wine.” Records of the feast in carved cuneiform tablets report the king served equal quantities of beer and wine to his thousands of guests. But it was the wine that displayed his wealth and the extent of his power — some of the wines came from remote regions of Ashurnasirpal’s empire. Wine was in fashion, but it was still mainly the drink of the elites, being too expensive and probably not to the taste of the beer-drinking masses. But wine was not new and its origins remain almost as obscure as those of beer. Read more »

Black Trans Lives Matter – Free Ashley Diamond

by Mindy Clegg

Ashley Diamond from around 2016

Just a note that some might find the material in my post this month upsetting and triggering, as it deals with forms of abuse.

In 2012, Ashley Diamond, convicted of burglary after her then boyfriend convinced her to pawn a stolen saw, arrived in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) to begin serving a ten-year term. Unlike other women, Diamond was taken to a men’s penitentiary, where she suffered several years of violence, sexual assault, crass indifference to her plight, and lack of adequate medical care. After smuggling out a video, the Southern Poverty Law Center worked with Diamond to file a lawsuit against the GDC and to get her paroled and to receive compensation for the abuse she suffered.

After struggling to make ends meet and deal with the trauma she experienced, Diamond managed to get treatment in Florida, a technical violation of her parole. As of now, Ashley Diamond is right back where she started—in prison, suffering horrific abuse, and pleading for just treatment from the GDC. But why did this happen? How could this obvious ongoing human rights violation continue in full view of the public? This is primarily happening because when Ashley tells us who she is, some refuse to believe her. She’s a Black trans woman from a small-town, of a working class background. In other words, Ashley’s race, gender identity, and class led some to view her as less worthy of equity and safety. Read more »

Sunday, June 6, 2021

HR Managers of the Human Soul

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

In a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, Central Committee secretary Andreï Zhdanov reminded those assembled of Comrade Stalin’s recent declaration that, in the Soviet Union, writers are now “the engineers of the human soul”.

What obligations does this appellation entail? Most importantly, Zhdanov says, reality must be depicted “neither ‘scholastically’ nor lifelessly, nor simply as ‘objective reality’, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.”

Literature in this vein “is a fundamentally optimistic literature, since it is the literature of the rising proletarian class, today the only progressive and advanced class. Our Soviet literature is strong because it serves a new cause — the cause of socialist construction.” Literature from the bourgeois imperialist nations, by contrast —excluding that small number of Western authors who had thrown in their lot with the global proletariat, a handful of whom were in attendance at the All-Union Congress— is, Zhdanov thinks, “a riot of mysticism, religious mania and pornography… characteristic of the decline and decay of bourgeois culture. The ‘celebrities’ of that bourgeois literature which has sold its pen to capital are today thieves, detectives, prostitutes, pimps and gangsters.”

More here.

A new mathematical proof establishes the boundary at which a shape becomes so corrugated, it can be crushed

Mordechai Rorvig in Quanta:

In the 1950s, four decades before he won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory and his story inspired the book and film “A Beautiful Mind,” the mathematician John Nash proved one of the most remarkable results in all of geometry. Among other features, it implied that you could crumple a sphere down to a ball of any size without ever creasing it. He made this possible by inventing a new type of geometric object called an “embedding,” which situates a shape inside a larger space — not unlike fitting a two-dimensional poster into a three-dimensional tube.

There are lots of ways of embedding a shape. Some preserve the shape’s natural form — like rolling the poster into a cylinder — while others crease or tear it to make it fit in different ways.

Nash’s technique unexpectedly involved adding twists to all of a shape’s curves, making its structure springy and its surface ruffled. He proved that if you added infinitely many such twists, you could crumple the sphere down to a tiny ball. The result shocked mathematicians who previously had thought that crisp folds were required to crumple the sphere in this way.

Since then, mathematicians have sought to gain a precise understanding of the limits of Nash’s pioneering techniques.

More here.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett Team Up for $1 Billion Next-Gen Nuclear Reactor

Fabienne Lang in Interesting Engineering:

On June 2 ,Bill Gates’ advanced nuclear reactor company TerraPower, and Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp announced that they’ve chosen Wyoming as the state to launch their Natrium advanced nuclear reactor project.

Small, modular advanced nuclear reactors run on different fuels than traditional reactors, and the hope is that they will help lower carbon emissions all while supporting intermittent power sources like wind and solar, ultimately helping to curb climate change, reported Reuters.

As Chris Levesque, president and CEO of TerraPower, said “The Natrium technology was designed to solve a challenge utilities face as they work to enhance grid reliability and stability while meeting decarbonization and emissions-reduction goals.”

The precise site of the Natrium reactor demonstration plant has yet to be decided, but the team expects to have found a site by the end of the year.

More here.