The long history of digital currencies

Finn Brunton in Cabinet:

The history of digital cash consists of scientific discoveries from the 1970s, hardware from the 1980s, and networks from the 1990s, shaped by theories from the previous three centuries and beliefs about the next ten thousand years. It speaks ancient ideas with a modern twang, as we might when we say “quid pro quo” or “shibboleth”: the sovereign right to issue money, the debasement of coinage, the symbolic stamp that transfers the rights to value from me to thee. Digital cash has the hovering, unsettled realness (not reality) of all money, a matter of life and death that is also symbolic tokens, rules of a game, scraps of cotton blend and polymer, entries in a database, promises made and broken, gestures of affection and trust. The long history we are discussing here is at its heart the history of a debate about knowledge, an epistemological argument conducted through technologies.

It is a debate broadly familiar to anyone who has taken an interest in the nature of money, or even looked idly at a banknote for a bit: how do I know that money is real? I want to phrase the question in this somewhat awkward way to capture how it can be reasonably answered. We can ask it at the level of a particular token of money—how do I know this money is real?—with the feel and texture of a note, the security threads, watermarks, and ultraviolet inks. We can ask it at the level of some type or variety of money, perhaps expressed as a preference for one currency as more “solid” than another, for instance, or for cash over credit, or gold over both: how do I know this kind of money is real? Finally, we can ask it at the level of money as such—what is money that it has value for us, and how do we know that value? How do I know that money is real?

More here.

Do Lockdowns Work? Only If You Lock the Borders Down, Too

Noah Carl in Quillette:

For almost a year, the central policy debate in most Western countries has been whether—and for how long—to impose lockdowns. Advocates of stringent lockdowns argue that measures such as stay-at-home orders and forced closures of businesses are necessary to save lives and prevent health-care systems from being overwhelmed. So-called “lockdown sceptics,” on the other hand, argue either that such measures are ineffective, or that their benefits are outweighed by the associated social and economic costs; and that a focussed protection strategy is preferable. (The term “lockdown,” as I am using it, does not encompass all non-pharmaceutical interventions. In particular, I am excluding non-onerous, common-sense measures like asking symptomatic individuals to self-isolate, encouraging vulnerable people to work from home, and restricting large indoor gatherings.)

The evidence suggests that lockdowns have been effective, but only when they were combined with strict border controls.

More here.

Yeats Now: Echoing Into Life

Declan Kiberd at The Dublin Review of Books:

Yeats saw so deeply into the contours of his age that the shape of the future became somewhat discernible. He understood that those who merely reflect the nostra of their times soon go out of fashion (“like an old song”), but that those who oppose the spirit of their age often capture its central energies and come to know it from within. In doing as much, they may imagine the sort of future world to which a dreamer will awaken (“In dreams begin responsibility”).

Hence the exactitude of the title Yeats Now. He may be a poet for all time, but his wisdom is surely needed in our time. Eliot said that he was one of those who had such insights into the modern age that it could not be understood without them. Having early become a master, Yeats managed to remain forever the contemporary, to such a degree that it becomes hard for us to judge just how much of our minds he invented. Hence our strangely ambiguous response to his quotability. Some “resisting” readers might prefer if they felt less indebted.

more here.

Tove Ditlevsen’s Art of Estrangement

Hilton Als at The New Yorker:

Don’t think yourself odd if, after reading the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s romantic, spiritually macabre, and ultimately devastating collection of memoirs, “The Copenhagen Trilogy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), you spend hours, if not days, in a reverie of alienation. It’s because the author, who died by her own hand in 1976, when she was fifty-eight, makes profound and exciting art out of estrangement. Like a number of dispassionate, poetic modernists—the writers Jean Rhys and Octavia Butler, say, or the visual artists Alice Neel and Diane Arbus—Ditlevsen was marked, wounded, by her own sharp intelligence. Her world—the world she describes in “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “Dependency,” the three short books that make up the trilogy—was cash poor, emotionally mean, and misogynist. The sun must have shone sometimes in Denmark before and during the Second World War, but the atmosphere in “The Copenhagen Trilogy” is damp, dark, and flowerless.

more here.

Being Lolita – memoir of an illicit relationship

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian:

Teenagers are so vulnerable. Like ripe peaches, they’re too easily bruised. But Alisson Wood was more defenceless than most. At 17, she had already undergone ECT in an effort to treat her depression; beneath her clothes, her arms bore the marks of self-harm. If her American high school was a place to be endured – the other girls, in their locker-room sententiousness, had decided she was a “psycho” – home was hardly a refuge. Her parents, who would soon divorce, were more preoccupied with their own troubles than with those of their exhausting, Sylvia Plath-loving daughter.

Was this why the teacher chose her? Or was it simply that having been assigned to give her extra support, Mr North had an excuse for favouring Wood above other students? Either way, she was an easy target. At their first meeting, she took in his hair, which was too long, and his clothes, which were from Abercrombie & Fitch, as if he were a teenager, too, and felt stunned: “like an animal across a meadow”. Soon, she was meeting him every night at a diner in the next town. It was there that he gave her a copy of Lolita, his favourite novel. “This book is lust, yearning, and occupational hazards,” read his inscription, which I guess is one way of putting it.

More here.

Why Black Marxism, Why Now?

Robin Kelley in Boston Review:

The inspiration to bring out a new edition of Cedric Robinson’s classic, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, came from the estimated 26 million people who took to the streets during the spring and summer of 2020 to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who lost their lives to the police. During this time, the world bore witness to the Black radical tradition in motion, driving what was arguably the most dynamic mass rebellion against state-sanctioned violence and racial capitalism we have seen in North America since the 1960s—maybe the 1860s. The boldest activists demanded that we abolish police and prisons and shift the resources funding police and prisons to housing, universal healthcare, living-wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. These new abolitionists are not interested in making capitalism fairer, safer, and less racist—they know this is impossible. They want to bring an end to “racial capitalism.”

The state’s reaction to these protests has also brought us to the precipice of fascism. The organized protests in the streets and places of public assembly, on campuses, inside prisons, in state houses and courtrooms and police stations, portended the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past several years, the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations warned the country that we were headed for a fascist state if we did not end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of Black and brown people. They issued these warnings before Trump’s election. As the protests waned and COVID-19 entered a second, deadlier wave, the fascist threat grew right before our eyes. We’ve seen armed white militias gun down protesters; Trump and his acolytes attempt to hold on to power despite losing the presidential election; the federal government deploy armed force to suppress dissent, round up and deport undocumented workers, and intimidate the public; and, most recently the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by members of the alt-right, racists, Neo-Nazis, and assorted fascist gangs whose ranks included off-duty cops, active military members, and veterans. The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Wednesday Poem

For Just One Moment

I was not there
when Charlie Parker started playing between the notes
I could not be there
when Billie Holiday pondered the fruit of southern trees
I was unable to sit at a table
when Miles Davis gave birth to the Cool
but the musicians aren’t the only ones who sing
and I am here with you
to hear my heart start beating
for just one moment

~by Nikki Giovanni
from Blues for all the Changes
William Morrow & Compny 1999

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Groundhog Daze: On living the same day over and over

B. D. McClay in The Hedgehog Review:

Lately, I’ve found myself wondering if the time spent in lockdown is going to be memorable or if it’s just going to be one long blur of days spent more or less the same way—waking up, staring, trying to work, forgetting to do things, drinking, sleeping. Even the initial flood of pieces about the lockdown experience has mostly dried up, replaced by tweets in which people confess not to know how to get through the sameness of each predictable tomorrow. There’s nothing to say about nothing. Furthermore, no one wants to read about it. No one even wants to write about it (though here I am anyway).

At the same time, however indistinct my memories may be, what’s going on is very much something. It seems likely that before the vaccine has been widely administered we will cross 500,000 American dead. Lockdown life is bad, but for people in my position—employed, childless, and able to work from home—about as good as it can be. I don’t have to risk my health to work. I don’t have children whose online classes I have to manage. I am not in an “at risk” category. From this comparatively sheltered position, lockdown is mostly about living the same day over and over as the background noise of the news grows slowly worse and promises of financial assistance from the government remain confusing and constantly changing.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Robert Sapolsky on Why We Behave the Way We Do

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

A common argument against free will is that human behavior is not freely chosen, but rather determined by a number of factors. So what are those factors, anyway? There’s no one better equipped to answer this question than Robert Sapolsky, a leading psychoneurobiologist who has studied human behavior from a variety of angles. In this conversation we follow the path Sapolsky sets out in his bestselling book Behave, where he examines the influences on our behavior from a variety of timescales, from the very short (signals from the amygdala) to the quite ancient (genetic factors tracing back tens of thousands of years and more). It’s a dizzying tour that helps us understand the complexity of human action.

More here.

Existing models of U.S. politics are wrong: here’s how the system really works

Thomas Oatley and Mark Blyth in Foreign Policy:

In 2020, President Donald Trump received more votes, almost 75 million, than any sitting president in U.S. history. And yet he lost the popular vote to Joe Biden, who received more votes than any presidential candidate in U.S. history—full stop. The 2020 election will thus go down in history as one in which Americans were both remarkably mobilized and sharply divided.

To date, the election postmortem focused on the role of the pandemic and its associated economic collapse, the long-standing divides uncovered by the Black Lives Matter protests, the appeal within a segment of the electorate of Trump’s personal brand, and an overestimate in the polls of Biden’s lead.

But such issues miss the forest by obsessing about some (important) trees. In particular, the discussion pays almost no attention to the more profound changes in the U.S. economy’s structure that have both produced Trump and will continue to make Trumpism part of the fabric of U.S. politics for years to come. It’s time to recognize that Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of our discomfort. And to understand that, we need to clear out the broader theoretical models that shape how we think about politics.

More here.

The skin microbiome

Michael Eisenstein in Nature:

In contrast to the gut, which offers a near-ideal habitat for the growth of fermentative bacteria, the skin is an inhospitable expanse. Much of the epidermal layer that protects humans from the elements is dry, salty, acidic and nutrient-poor. The exceptions are the oases around lipid-rich hair follicles. Despite this adversity, a diverse and physiologically important array of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea make their home on the skin. Typically, a person has around 1,000 species of bacteria on their skin. And, as might be expected from such a large area — roughly two square metres for an average adult — the skin offers a variety of distinct ecosystems, which create conditions that favour different subsets of organisms.

The skin microbiome is seeded at birth. The first microbial colonists help to train the immune system to tolerate commensal organisms (which have a neutral or beneficial impact on their host) while remaining alert to pathogens. These microbial communities continue to grow and diversify until puberty, when hormonal and developmental changes help to sculpt the final composition that is carried throughout adulthood. Over the past decade, researchers have uncovered evidence of extensive communication between bacteria, skin cells and immune cells. These interactions help to reinforce and repair the barrier formed by the skin, bolster the body’s defences against infection and tamp down excess inflammation.

More here.

Henry Darger’s Book Of Weather Reports

Lytle Shaw at Cabinet Magazine:

From December 31, 1957 until December 31, 1967, the artist and writer Henry Darger (1892–1973) kept a series of six ring-binder notebooks with almost daily entries on the weather in his native Chicago. On the outside cover of the first book, Darger describes the project, with encyclopedic enthusiasm, as a “book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer.”

Though generally short, the entries abound in peculiarities. Darger is concerned, for instance, as much with periods of continuous temperature as with shifts—“3 to 7 am 57” (10/21/1958). Often up at 3am taking readings, Darger’s descriptive vocabulary also tends toward the moral and anthropomorphic: terms like “unsettled” and “threatening” are as common as “cool” or “hot.”

more here.

Tuesday Poem


.. 1.
.. alcohol
27 years

.. I’m

& don’t
know how
to not be

in love
my one

.. 2.
on blue
lips of winter

a whisper
of smoke

.. 3.
I can’t pray
by the ocean
too sacred

& these
.. carved
are like islands
& I’m split

Read more »

Anna Torma’s Hand-Sewn Dreams

Lauren Moya Ford at Hyperallergic:

Angels, devils, dragons, and monsters are just a few of the unruly creatures that maraud across Anna Torma’s delightfully chaotic textiles. The Hungarian-Canadian artist’s multicolored, swirling scenes are filled with semi-clothed human-animal crossovers tangled together in curious acts of sex and mischief. Inspired by fairy tales, children’s drawings, Hungarian folklore, and medieval legends, Torma’s playful, hand-sewn worlds present an especially engrossing escape from the bleakness of everyday pandemic life.

Permanent Danger, the artist’s major solo show at the Textile Museum of Canada, showcases works from the last two decades of Torma’s 40-year career. The exhibition takes its title from a wall-sized 2017 tapestry covered with meticulously stitched, fire-breathing beasts.

more here.

These 5 books by Black women are must-reads this month – and any month

Candace McDuffie in The Christian Science Monitor:

Black feminist thought has become crucial to how we navigate the social, economic, and political currents in America. To understand the consequences of pervasive racist narratives that seep into mainstream media – as well as into public policy and legislation – we must first examine how these narratives affect one of this country’s most vulnerable populations: Black women.

Too often, the societal contributions of Black women are erased, undervalued, or credited to others. We are forced to be our own biggest advocates and we are compelled to fight for the opportunity to express our truths, all while educating folks who are ignorant of our realities. Black women were expunged from the suffrage movement and overlooked during the civil rights movement. Naturally, written works are a direct and succinct way to write ourselves back into history. These five classic literary works serve as manifestoes by Black women when it comes to articulating our unique experience. They are also must-reads, especially during Black History Month.

“Ain’t I a Woman” by bell hooks

This 1981 book by feminist icon bell hooks is named after a famous speech given by Sojourner Truth at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. It examines the complicated nature of Black womanhood, especially as it pertains to the legacy of slavery, fetishization of Black women’s bodies, and sexism as it related to the Black nationalism movement. A strong and sobering read, “Ain’t I a Woman” grapples with a disturbing history that has always worked to degrade Black women.

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Monday, February 15, 2021

Tech philosophers explain the bigger issues with digital platforms, and some ways forward

by Filippo Santoni de Sio[1], along with Marianna Capasso, Rockwell F. Clancy, Matthew Dennis, Juan Manuel Durán, Georgy Ishmaev, Olya Kudina, Jonne Maas, Lavinia Marin, Giorgia Pozzi, Martin Sand, Jeroen van den Hoven, Herman Veluwenkamp[2]

Abstract: This article, written by the Digital Philosophy Group of TU Delft is inspired by the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. It is not a review of the show, but rather uses it as a lead to a wide-ranging philosophical piece on the ethics of digital technologies. The underlying idea is that the documentary fails to give an impression of how deep the ethical and social problems of our digital societies in the 21st century actually are; and it does not do sufficient justice to the existing approaches to rethinking digital technologies. The article is written, we hope, in an accessible and captivating style. In the first part (“the problems”), we explain some major issues with digital technologies: why massive data collection is not only a problem for privacy but also for democracy (“nothing to hide, a lot to lose”); what kind of knowledge AI produces (“what does the Big Brother really know”) and is it okay to use this knowledge in sensitive social domains (“the risks of artificial judgement”), why we cannot cultivate digital well-being individually (“with a little help from my friends”), and how digital tech may make persons less responsible and create a “digital Nuremberg”. In the second part (“The way forward”) we outline some of the existing philosophical approaches to rethinking digital technologies: design for values, comprehensive engineering, meaningful human control, new engineering education, and a global digital culture. Read more »