Ludwig Wittgenstein Codes a Search Engine

by Joseph Shieber

January 1 was Public Domain Day. One of the pleasures of the day is stumbling upon hidden gems as the collective wisdom of the internet – yes, there still is such a phenomenon, if one knows where to look! – unearths them.

That’s how I came upon this passage from Wittgenstein’s Blue Book – a passage that I must have read previously many times, but one that hadn’t struck me until seeing it out of context like this, in Berfrois under the heading, “Ludwig Wittgenstein arranges books”:

Imagine we had to arrange the books of a library. When we begin the books lie higgledy-piggledy on the floor. Now there would be many ways of sorting them and putting them in their places. One would be to take the books one by one and put each on the shelf in its right place. On the other hand we might take up several books from the floor and put them in a row on a shelf, merely in order to indicate that these books ought to go together in this order. In the course of arranging the library this whole row of books will have to change its place. But it would be wrong to say that therefore putting them together on a shelf was no step towards the final result. In this case, in fact, it is pretty obvious that having put together books which belong together was a definite achievement, even though the whole row of them had to be shifted. But some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved.—The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. E.g., to see that when we have put two books together in their right order we have not thereby put them in their final places.

The immediate point of the passage is that, if you set about to arrange a disordered collection of books, it is very unlikely that you would search first through all of the books, until you found the book that occupies the first position on the first row of the first shelf, place it at its location, and then go back to the piles and find the book that occupies the second position on the first row of the first shelf, place it next to the first book, and so on.

Rather, what you would likely do, even if you began initially with the first position on the first row of the first shelf, would be to put books that belong together in a row on one of the shelves – somewhere in the middle, say – knowing that, although the books will remain together, they will likely wind up together somewhere else in the overall arrangement of bookshelves. Read more »



America’s slow motion slide toward a political crisis

by Emrys Westacott

On the anniversary of the attempt by Donald Trump and some of his supporters to subvert the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden denounced those who “place a dagger at the throat of democracy.” To which one can only say: About bloody time! The threat posed by Trump and the Republican party to America’s democratic institutions–highly imperfect though they are–is so obvious that anyone who has a bully pulpit should be pounding out a warning at every opportunity.
Regarding the current situation, one can identify three main issues:

  • The historical and legal roots of the problem
  • The nature and causes of the current crisis
  • The best strategies available to protect and, ideally, extend, existing democratic norms.

On each of these, whole books could be and have been written.

The roots of the problem

The existing political system is seriously flawed in many ways. The method of electing a president through the electoral college means that the will of the majority can be overridden (as it was in 2016 when Hilary Clinton received 3 million more votes than Donald Trump). It also means that only a few swing states receive any attention from presidential candidates. In the majority of states, where the presidential vote is a foregone conclusion, voters know that their vote won’t be added to the grand total.

Ironically, the electoral college was established because the founding fathers didn’t trust the good sense of the people. They feared the prospect of tyranny emerging in just the way Plato describes in the Republic: a demagogue arises who, by misinforming and misleading the people, hoodwinks them into electing him to office, whereupon he proceeds to entrench himself in power. Read more »

Replace Waiters With QR Codes

by Thomas R. Wells

A large number of jobs exist not because they create economic value but because they make business sense given the institutions we have – customer expectations, bureaucratic regulations, and so on. They do not solve a real problem but a fake problem created by inefficient institutions. They therefore do not make our society better off but rather they represent a great cost to society – of many people’s time being expended on something fundamentally pointless instead of something worthwhile. One way of spotting such anti-jobs is to compare staffing in the same industry across different countries. US supermarkets employ people just to greet customers and bag groceries, for example, which would seem a ridiculous waste of time in most of the world. In Japan one can find people standing in front of road construction waving a flag (they are replaced with mechanical manikins on nights and weekends).

Another way to spot anti-jobs is to to observe the effects of Covid restrictions and look for areas where removing workers or tasks made no impact on performance, or even improved it. Take waiters. In America there are around 2 million people doing this job (1.4% of all employment). The experience of Covid lockdowns shows that much of what waiters do can be done better by pasting a QR code to tables for customers to scan to visit the menu webpage and order and pay directly. Having learned this, it would be ridiculous to go back to employing people to waste their time and their customers’ by doing such fundamentally needless work. We still need some waiters to bring the food and drink we ordered (for now), but we don’t need nearly as many because we don’t need to employ people to ask us what we want and then tell someone else to make it. Read more »

Historical memory 4 – Manifestations of Historical Memory in Spain

by Dick Edelstein

In this last of four essays on historical memory, I consider some of the guises under which this topic arises in Spain, the conflicts that exist between the need to remember and the need to forget, and those that crop up when different groups appeal to the right to remember. I previously discussed the issue of public access to archival data on Spanish Civil War casualties and victims. For two decades Spain has been on the leading edge of a wave of concern over historical memory: how social groups and nations construct and identify with particular narratives about historical periods or events.

Following Franco’s death, the main Spanish political parties negotiated the Pacto del Olvido, an agreement that was formalized in the Ley de Amnistía, which freed political prisoners but also protected those who had committed crimes during the Civil War and the subsequent Francoist regime. In 2007, the Ley de Memoria Histórica provided a new legal framework for investigating the human rights violations that fell under the amnesty and for identifying individuals buried in unmarked mass graves. Some conservatives considered that this legislation violated the spirit of the earlier pact.

The governing Spanish Socialist Party is now providing funding for the activities covered by the Ley de Memoria Histórica, which had been blocked since 2011 by the right-wing Partido Popular. The government is also drafting a more ambitious act to deal with the legacy of the Civil War and the dictatorship. Its objectives include funding the exhumation and DNA identification of casualties and victims, investigating past crimes, and educating children about the Civil War. Read more »

Year in Review

by Derek Neal

It’s the time of year end lists: Best Movies of 2021, Best TV Shows, Best Fiction. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many movies that came out this past year, haven’t streamed many TV shows, haven’t read many books. I’m not saying I haven’t seen any movies, or watched any shows, or read any books—I have—just not many that were released this year, 2021. But really, outside of reviewers and critics, has anyone? The phenomenon of year end lists seems to me to be much more of a marketing and business endeavor than one based on actual artistic merit. And how can one keep up? There’s simply too much stuff out there, and I’ll never have the time to read and watch everything I’d like. The number of unread books on my shelf is rising, and I keep buying more. I don’t have much to say about this year, 2021, but a more interesting question to ask would be, “What’s the best of your 2021?” Not what was made this year, but what you discovered this year.

For me, I went on a New York mob movie kick—Carlito’s Way, Donnie Brasco, King of New York—that splintered out into other films like Jackie Brown, American Psycho, and L.A. Confidential. I read, mainly, books I picked up at used bookstores and used books sales on front lawns. I’ve found that the best way to alleviate an everincreasing stack of books is not to make a list or plan but to walk into a store, or sale, and buy a book in a serendipitous fashion—maybe it’s an author you’ve been meaning to read but have never gotten around to, maybe the cover is interesting, or maybe you read the first page and are hooked. This works for me, as I can buy the book and read it right away. The trouble is buying just one book. Read more »

The Real Seagull – on Scientific Colonization of the Vernacular

by N. Gabriel Martin

Photo by Peter F. Wolf

What did my friend mean when he told me that there was no such thing as a seagull? He didn’t mean that the aggressive bird that had stolen my chips didn’t exist, nor did he mean that it was something else, not a seagull. He meant that “seagull” isn’t the right word.

He went on to explain that there is no particular species called a seagull. What stole my chips on Brighton beach was a herring gull, which is different from the glaucous-winged gull I’d seen going after fries in Vancouver and the silver gulls that harass picknickers in Sydney.

Okay, fine. But he had no right to correct me. It was a seagull after all. Calling it a herring gull or even Larus argentatus would be no more or less correct than calling it what I’d called it. It wouldn’t even be any more precise.

He was insisting on a distinction that may well be significant for scientific purposes, but which may have obscured the perfectly true things I want to talk about when I talk about nuisance seabirds. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 26

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

At ISI we were assigned statistical assistants who’d take our large data analysis jobs to the IBM computer at the Planning Commission, but for relatively small jobs they’d do the calculations themselves by furiously rotating the handles of the small Facit mechanical calculator they each had, you could literally hear the noise of ‘data crunching’. This was before electronic desk calculators came to Indian institutions. I remember buying a small Texas Instruments calculator in a short trip abroad and was quite impressed by its capacity; and I told TN that I did not need to learn the operation of Facit machines, which I saw him cranking all the time. (This reminds me of a British economist, Ivor Pearce, who told me that just before the War he used to work for an accounting firm where they had not yet heard of log tables; he said he finished the whole day’s work in just an hour by using the log table and read books in his office the rest of the time). Of course, I am told today our tiny laptops/smartphones contain computing capacity million times larger than the biggest IBM machines in India at that time.

The statistical assistants at ISI were literally called ‘computers’ (I was a bit taken aback when on the first day a man came to see me and said “I am your computer, sir”). One day when I was chatting with this human ‘computer’, he said some years back he had worked with a foreign professor who was rather short-tempered and used to scream at him for the slightest delay or lapse. (It so happened that I knew this professor). I said he should have protested if the professor was unnecessarily rude. He gave me a sneaky smile and said that he and other ‘computers’ had taken their ‘revenge’ on that guy. When I asked how, he said they used to mess up his calculations without the professor knowing about it. I was aghast (and also made a mental note not to trust his data analysis of that period). This was an example of what Jim Scott, the political scientist, has called ‘weapons of the weak’ in his eponymous book; many decades earlier the famous Czech novel ‘Good Soldier Švejk’ had satirical accounts of passive-subversive resistance of military authorities by the soldier. Read more »

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Against Shock

Sam Kahn at 3:AM Magazine:

The presumption is that art must shock—that the violation of taboo is what gives art its charge; and that, actually, shock and the overturning of societal norms is art’s highest purpose.

Art-as-subversion runs very deep, of course. If in Greco-Roman art it’s sometimes hard to catch the subversive notes, art was considered insidious enough that Plato, within a chapter of designing his ideal state in The Republic, was discarding whole poetic genres and musical scales for being too politically dangerous. But somewhere in the 19th century the notion develops that a work of art can be most effective when it’s ugly, when it deeply mirrors certain social realities and presents them in such a way that the audience is spurred to immediate action. Napoleon praised The Marriage of Figaro for instigating the French Revolution and Lincoln credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with the Civil War.

More here.

Why Do We Need Sleep? A History

James Goodwin in Literary Hub:

In 1963, as the Beach Boys were playing on the radio and Christmas was approaching, two California schoolboys threw a coin. They were deciding who would be the guinea pig in a school science project they had designed—to beat the world record for staying awake. The lucky “winner” was Randy Gardner, a 16-year-old from San Diego. When the experiment was over, he had stayed awake for eleven days and twenty five minutes. It yielded some fundamentally important observations, fortunately recorded by William Dement, one of America’s few sleep researchers at the time. Nearly forty years later, Gardner still holds the world record—which is unlikely to be broken, as the Guinness World Records will no longer accept entries. Why? It is much too dangerous for the brain.

There is no more intractable health problem in modern life than sleeplessness. Insomnia, difficulty sleeping and sleep disorders are all prevalent in today’s world. It is as if we are all in some ghastly sleep deprivation experiment. Shift work, long commuting hours, caffeine, stress, social life, travel, technology and, as we get older, age-related changes all influence our sleeping habits.

More here.

A World of Mounting Disarray

Richard Haass in Project Syndicate:

My book, A World in Disarraywas published five years ago this month. The book’s thesis was that the Cold War’s end did not usher in an era of greater stability, security, and peace, as many expected. Instead, what emerged was a world in which conflict was much more prevalent than cooperation.

Some criticized the book at the time as being unduly negative and pessimistic. In retrospect, the book could have been criticized for its relative optimism. The world is a messier place than it was five years ago – and most trends are heading in the wrong direction.

At the global level, the gap between challenges and responses is large and growing. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inadequacies of international health machinery. We are entering the third year of the pandemic, but still do not know its origins, thanks to Chinese stonewalling.

More here.

Desire is shaped by social assumptions and prejudices, Amia Srinivasan argues in “The Right to Sex”, So what does one do about it?

Katha Pollitt in Dissent:

The Right to Sex has to have the cleverest title on the women’s studies shelf since Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It’s bold and provocative, even a little shocking: “OK,” it seems to say, “so they’re crazy, misogynistic, and dangerous—but are those incels on to something?”

Maybe just a little, Amia Srinivasan suggests in the essay collection’s title piece. When Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014, he left behind a 107,000-word manuscript arguing that beautiful blond girls rejected him because he was half-Asian (not because, as Srinivasan notes, he was “a creep”), and therefore those girls deserved to die. To incels—young, “involuntarily celibate” men who rage against women for not wanting to date them—Rodger is a hero. From this rather alarming starting point, Srinivasan develops a fascinating challenge to rethink the commonplace view of sexual attraction as fixed and not open to critique. There’s a tension, she writes, in current feminism, which rails against fatphobia but also forbids interrogating women about their desires: “The important thing now, it is broadly thought, is to take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos—and even that she doesn’t just enjoy those things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis—then we are required, many feminists think, to trust her.” But, as she points out, women’s desires (as well as men’s) are shaped by social assumptions and prejudices—about race, ethnicity, weight, height, gender presentation, disability, and so on.

More here.

Space 2022: To the moon – and beyond

The Editorial Board in The Christian Science Monitor:

Those venturing into space in 2022 have the moon in their eyes. Not that ferrying all sorts of people into orbit and suborbit will be abandoned. 2021 saw not only astronauts and scientists but also several tourists sent skyward for unmatched views of the big, blue marble that is Earth. They were young and old, women and men, various nationalities – even William Shatner, never a real spaceship captain but who played one on TV.

Why the moon? Haven’t humans been there already? The truth is it’s an important steppingstone.

“Because the goal is Mars,” Bill Nelson, former U.S. senator and NASA’s new administrator, told The Guardian. “What we can do on the moon is learn how to exist and survive in that hostile environment and only be three or four days away from Earth before we venture out and are months and months from Earth.”

In 2022 Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea will join the United States in sending uncrewed missions to the lunar surface or into orbit around it. The Japanese lander will contain a rover built in the United Arab Emirates. China has big ambitions in space too, but right now they’re centered closer to Earth. An orbiting Chinese space station, Tiangong, may be finished and become fully operational this year, according to a U.S. intelligence report. With so much new activity planned in orbital space, by both governments and private enterprise, a need grows to update the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to maintain cooperation. A United Nations resolution passed last November calls for a working group to research new agreements. It will meet twice in 2022.

More here.

“A Hero” Makes a Mockery of the Heroic

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:

The hero of “A Hero,” the new film from Asghar Farhadi, is a sign painter and calligrapher named Rahim (Amir Jadidi). As the story begins, he leaves prison and is driven up the wall. To be precise, up a cliff of pale rock, rich in elaborate carvings, northeast of the Iranian city of Shiraz. The cliff is the home of a necropolis, Naqsh-e Rostam, and Rahim finds it covered in scaffolding; climbing high, he greets his brother-in-law, the rotund and genial Hossein (Alireza Jahandideh), who is working at the site. The wind whistles gently around them, and Hossein brews tea, close to the tomb of Xerxes the Great, a Persian king who died almost two and a half thousand years ago. Rahim, by contrast, is on a furlough for two days, after which—not unlike Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.” (1982)—he must return to prison. Observing the scene, you feel dizzy at the doubleness of time. It expands and contracts, either stretching far into the distance or slamming shut.

Something else, however, makes you no less uneasy, and that is Rahim’s smile. It looks friendly and generous, but it’s also weirdly weak, and it can fade like breath off a mirror. This is clever casting on Farhadi’s part; we warm to Rahim’s crestfallen charm, and instinctively feel him to be down on his luck, yet we don’t entirely trust him, and the film proceeds to back our initial hunch. What led to his incarceration was an unpaid debt. His creditor, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), is grave, dour, and disinclined to forgive, despite being related to Rahim by marriage. (Just to thicken the mood, Bahram is a dead ringer for the Mandy Patinkin character, Saul, in “Homeland.”) “I was fooled once by his hangdog look, that’s enough,” Bahram says of Rahim, and we can’t help wondering, Could the dog be fooling us as well?

Anyone who has seen Farhadi’s earlier films, such as “About Elly” (2009) and “A Separation” (2011), will know how cunningly he doles out information, piece by piece. Thus, in the new movie, we gradually realize that Rahim has an ex-wife; that she will soon be married to someone else; that, while he’s been locked up, his sister Mali (Maryam Shahdaei) has been caring for his son, a shy kid with a stutter; that Farkhondeh (Sahar Goldust), a young woman beloved of Rahim, is the boy’s speech therapist; and so on. These things are true, but they are hard to cling to, because they are bundled up with things that are not necessarily true—secrets and lies, in which Rahim is all too quick to acquiesce. And the bundling only gets worse.

More here.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Adam Shatz with Alain Gresh

Over at the podcast Myself With Others:

Alain Gresh, a French journalist, was the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and is now the director of Orient XXI, an online journal about Middle East affairs. Gresh’s writing on Israel-Palestine and on the battles over Islam and secularism have made him one of the most important voices on the left in France. Born in Cairo in 1948, Gresh learned in his late 20s that a man he knew in Paris as a family friend, the Egyptian-Jewish revolutionary exile Henri Curiel, was his biological father. In 1978, Curiel was assassinated in his apartment building – a crime that remains unresolved to this day. In our conversation, Gresh talked to me about his trajectory as a radical commentator on the Middle East, his upbringing in Egypt on the eve of decolonization, his relationship to Curiel, and his ongoing search for the truth about Curiel’s murder.

More here.