Saturday, April 20, 2019

On the importance of description (in science)

Friday, April 12, 2019


What happens to the human body in space?

Carl Zimmer, "Scott Kelly Spent a Year in Orbit. His Body Is Not Quite the Same." The NYtimes, April 11, 2019.

Scott Kelly spent 340 days on the International Space station while his twin brother, Mark, stayed on the ground. "He drew blood from his arms. He saved his urine. He played computer games to test his memory and reaction speed. He measured the shape of his eyes." And his brother did the same. A comparison of the data indicates a large number of differences between then two:
On Thursday, just over three years after Mr. Kelly, 55, returned to Earth, NASA researchers reported that his body experienced a vast number of changes while in orbit. DNA mutated in some of his cells. His immune system produced a host of new signals. His microbiome gained new species of bacteria

Many of these biological changes seemed harmless, disappearing after he returned to Earth. But others — including genetic mutations and, after his return, declines in cognitive test scores — did not correct themselves, provoking concern among scientists.

Some considered the risks manageable, while others wondered whether it would ever be safe for astronauts to take long journeys to Mars or beyond. Final answers will depend on studies of still more astronauts. [...]

By many measures, the scientists eventually found, Mr. Kelly changed about as much as astronauts who stayed on the space station for only six months. Eventually the pace of biological change slowed, suggesting that perhaps the human body reaches a new equilibrium in space.

But Mr. Kelly’s body was also altered in some surprising ways.

Dr. Bailey studied special sections of his DNA called telomeres, which sit at the end of chromosomes, protecting them from deterioration.

As people age, their telomeres tend to get shorter. Stress — such as radiation or pollution — may hasten aging by fraying telomeres even faster than usual.

Strangely, the average length of Mr. Kelly’s telomeres increased in space, rather than decreasing, as if his cells were becoming more youthful.

Regular exercise and a healthy diet might be part of the reason. But going to space also might have awakened a quiet population of stem cells in Mr. Kelly’s body, Dr. Bailey said. [...]

The strange lengthening of Mr. Kelly’s telomeres disappeared after less than 48 hours on Earth. In fact, Dr. Bailey and her colleagues started finding many cells with telomeres that were shorter than before Mr. Kelly went to space. [...]

These two lingering changes — in Mr. Kelly’s cognition and DNA — left a number of experts concerned about the risks of a trip to Mars, which could take a year.
Obviously, there's much that we do not know.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Tyler Cowen is not in despair over Brexit – "I don’t yet see that anything has fallen off the rails."

I must have read two hundred tweets about how dysfunctional the British government is, or what a bad leader Teresa May has been. Really? That has yet to be demonstrated. I’ve all along been “vote Remain,” but I also recognize Remain works only if British membership in the EU has a certain amount of internal legitimacy.

What might a process of testing that legitimacy look like? Long, extended confusion, lots of back and forth, indecisiveness, and inability to form a durable majority for any other option, perhaps?

Right now the chances of Remain seem to be rising, or perhaps some version of Norway plus, and those are among the better options. I am hardly distraught, noting that I genuinely do not have a strong sense of what will happen next. I am pleased to see that not one of the eight (was it eight?) versions of Brexit could command a majority.

Is it really so tragic and terrible to have all this — whatever comes to pass — revealed only at the last moment? Isn’t that often how optimal search looks? Isn’t it how the “to Remainers all-holy EU” so often does its business? Alternatively, how smooth, open, and transparent did the American constitutional convention actually run?

I’m not predicting triumph or victory here, only that I don’t yet see that anything has fallen off the rails. Nor is the British pound being hammered in the markets. Nor do I know many (any?) people who could have done much better than Teresa May.

But now is the time to pay more attention again, these are the proverbial last five minutes of the basketball game…

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Randomness and determinism in dynamical systems

Friday, March 22, 2019

Armstrong, early jazz and barbershop harmony

Steve Provizer reviews Vic Hobson, Creating the Jazz Solo: Louis Armstrong and Barbershop Harmony, University Press of Mississippi.
Armstrong and several of the other musicians explicitly say that this was the technique that instrumental bands would also use to learn new material. The part being taken by a given instrument was dictated by the range in which it played: tuba or string bass doing the bass, the baritone part being carried by trombone and the two tenor parts by trumpet and clarinet.

[...] When I listen to early Armstrong music, or read transcriptions, I tend to filter my reactions through received wisdom about why particular notes were played. That is, I accept the primacy of the blues scale and the traditional presupposition that a “European” system of harmony was, in some way, guiding the musician through a solo. [...]

As simply as I can put it: There were techniques of what is called voice-leading that are applied in barbershop harmony. These are the rules that determine what the next note can be, bearing in mind all the other notes in the chord that have to be taken into consideration. I assume that these techniques were predicated on some combination of what sounded good in that era and what was feasible for someone to sing. In a number of cases, this meant choosing notes that would not be correct in a standard harmonic sense. Such notes might be “out of” the chord as then understood and/or create dissonances that were supposed to be avoided. “Snakes,” “swipes,” “funnel harmony” are some of the terms used to denote the moves that a voice could or would make.

Hobson does close analyses of Armstrong solos in “Copenhagen,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Potato Head Blues” and other tunes in order to show the reader that many of the choices Armstrong makes are rooted in his considerable background in barbershop singing. He comes up with ample quotes from Armstrong to back up the idea that he was not playing the chord, per se, but how the chord sounded to him and what that sound led him to play, as filtered through his long experience with close harmony singing. I had, in fact, often wondered about certain note choices that Armstrong made in his solos and this explanation helped clarify some of these choices for me.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Religion evolves after large-scale societies do

From a summary article at The Conversation:
We analysed data on 414 societies from 30 world regions, using 51 measures of social complexity and four measures of supernatural enforcement of moral norms to get to the bottom of the matter. New research we’ve just published in the journal Nature reveals that moralising gods come later than many people thought, well after the sharpest rises in social complexity in world history. In other words, gods who care about whether we are good or bad did not drive the initial rise of civilisations – but came later. [...]

Our statistical analysis showed that beliefs in supernatural punishment tend to appear only when societies make the transition from simple to complex, around the time when the overall population exceed about a million individuals.

We are now looking to other factors that may have driven the rise of the first large civilisation. For example, Seshat data suggests that daily or weekly collective rituals – the equivalent of today’s Sunday services or Friday prayers – appear early in the rise of social complexity and we’re looking further at their impact.

Primate mind-reading

Monday, March 18, 2019

What do we know about the possibility of human survival on a Mars mission? Alas, not much.

Mohamed Kashkoush, Slow Down, Space X, The Scientist, Mar. 15, 2019.
For starters, NASA does not know why or to what extent spaceflight increases the incidence and complicates the management of disease, including bacterial infections, osteoporosis, renal stone formation, psychiatric disorders, ocular and vestibular disturbances, immunosuppression, muscular degeneration, and radiation carcinogenesis. Importantly, the HRR predicts that these questions will largely remain pending through 2030.

Another limitation is NASA’s lack of experience and clinical-grade data concerning the effects of prolonged spaceflight on human health, leaving astronauts perilously susceptible to unknown unknowns. For example, the longest consecutive time spent in outer space by an American is only 342 days. Even under the best-case travel scenario, which occurs every 26 months on orbital alignment, expected travel times to Mars approach one year. Not only can SpaceX make no safety guarantees beyond the 342-day mark, it also cannot empirically draw any conclusions beyond 248,655 miles from Earth (the distance record set when Apollo 13 travelled to the far side of the moon).

Compared to founder and CEO Elon Musk’s statements declaring that living on Mars is “the relatively easier part” of the endeavor, it appears that NASA and SpaceX are not on the same page when it comes to the dangers of long-term spaceflight. Given these dangers, SpaceX’s apparent lack of attention to these matters seems strange to say the least. How can we send people to Mars with such an unknown medical prognosis? In my opinion, the silence signals that all talk from SpaceX about interplanetary colonization in the near future is merely marketing hype.
Addendum: Weightlessness causes problems for vision.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


Friday, March 15, 2019

Born to groove

Is commerce corrupting graffiti and street art?

Christine MacDonald, Street Art Used To Be the Voice of the People. Now It’s the Voice of Advertisers. In These Times. March 11, 2019.
Increasingly, however, corporations have laid claim to public art in ways critics say make muralists accomplices to gentrification and consumerism. Wynwood, an upscale development in a downtrodden neighborhood of Miami, is perhaps the most infamous case of developers using murals to “artwash” a community, as art in service of gentrification is called. Goldman Properties bought up blocks of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated homes, then commissioned graffiti artists to create large-scale murals to beautify the neighborhood.

The resulting outdoor mural park, Wynwood Walls, became the centerpiece of the new upscale neighborhood that Goldman Properties carved out of the Puerto Rican enclave locals once called Little San Juan

To tourists, art lovers and those moving into the expensive new homes, the late Tony Goldman, Wynwood’s developer, was a public art visionary. But sociologist Marcos Feldman labels him “a professional neighborhood gentrifier” in the short documentary “Right to Wynwood,” which looks at how the development displaced longtime residents. Filmmakers Camila Álvarez and Natalie Edgar told WLRN public radio that, as artists, they like the vibrancy of the new Wynwood. But, Álvarez said, the murals felt “kind of artificial because a business model was brought and gentrification was planned. It was developer-led, instead of being artist-led.”

Commercial interests have funded the rise of internationally known street artists like Shepard Fairey, author of the Obama Hope posters, along with a Levi’s clothing collection and wall art built around Fairey’s “Obey” trademark. Sometimes the murals don’t include overt commercial messages but help a brand “get their name out there in the subculture,” Man One, a graffiti artist in Los Angeles, told the TV station KCET. His mural, “Elephunktl,” a stylized elephant wearing a feathered headdress on a storefront in Lincoln Heights, Calif., was paid for by Red Bull, for instance. While the mural does not include a direct Red Bull reference, the brand has received plenty of publicity for its video showing Man One’s artistic process.

The ads work because they don’t look like ads, says Francesca Romana Puggelli, who teaches a course on advertising psychology at the University of Southern California. Consumers, particularly younger people resistant to traditional advertising, “don’t think ‘what does this mural want from me?’” she says. “They just see art.”
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Theory and Plato’s Mistake

This is an old post, from December 2012, but the subject's been on my mind recently, so I'm boosting it to the top of the queue. (3.11.19)
I believe it was Richard Rorty who remarked that post-structuralist and post-modern etc. literary theory has assumed the synthesizing role in the American academy that had traditionally been taken by philosophy. The literary critics are the ones who discourse on all of life and society, especially those speaking in the name of Theory, informing us on matters of justice and injustice and pointing the way to emancipation.

In the course of so-doing it sometimes seems to me that critics are flirting with Plato’s mistake. As Plato himself did not make that mistake the name has a bit of irony about it. Rather, Plato warned against this mistake.

The mistake is to discourse on the world through a copy, the literary text, of a copy, the phenomenal world, of reality, the Ideal Forms. Except, alas, in the world of contemporary literary criticism, there are and were no Forms to prop the whole thing up.

As for Theory, there was a time when literary critics called on philosophy to theorize about literature itself (aesthetics, even poetics) and about literary criticism. On the latter, think of Murray Krieger, Theory of Criticism (1976), E.D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (1967), or John Ellis, The Theory of Literary Criticism (1974). During my student years, undergraduate and graduate (1965-1978) I watched the meaning of the phrase “literary theory” shift from designating theory of literature or of criticism to designating a theory of the world employed in determining the meaning of literary texts. It is though the conceptual apparatus of the time couldn’t simultaneously sustain distinctions between the world, a theory of the world, the literary text, and a theory about the text. So theory about the text was simply dropped.

The result: Plato’s problem. The text was taken, by default, as a mirror of the world, albeit a distorting mirror with a dirtied surface. The mirror didn’t work very well, but it’s all we’ve got. And the critic took it on himself, or herself, to limn the truth about the world by reading the signs appearing in the mirror.

Now what?

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A biography of Osamu Tezuka

Brad Hawley, The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Must-Read for Manga Fans, Fantasy Literature, March 9, 2019. A review of:
The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Manga and Anime by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions and translated into English by Frederik L. Schodt. Stone Bridge Press, 2016.
Tezuka was a workaholic:
He was such a workaholic that he rarely left his office, where he often slept and usually ate his meals. Towards the end of his life, he even had multiple desks set up in his office with different ongoing projects on each desk: He would move from desk to desk throughout the day keeping multiple projects going simultaneously, often sleeping as little as three hours a night. He lived 60 years, and in this time period, his complete works became the largest publication of a single author’s output of all time.
And was known as "the god of manga":
Tezuka is Walt Disney, Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Alan Moore rolled into one plus more. He artistically had impact greater than even what they accomplished all together. Like Walt Disney, Tezuka created loveable characters and cutting-edge animated films and T.V. shows that were for all-ages. Like Stan Lee, he created a universe of characters for all ages, many of them aimed at young men. Like Will Eisner, he paved the way for what sequential art could do and be, and like Eisner, he wrote intelligently about the art form. Like Alan Moore, but unlike Stan Lee and Walt Disney, Tezuka was far more mature, experimental, intellectual, and philosophical in many of his works, much of them coming from later in his life. When Tezuka is referred to as the “God of Manga” in Japan, they are calling him the God of animation and sequential art worldwide. And it is a fact that there is no other single creator of sequential art and animation worldwide who has had a bigger impact than he has. When people talk about the influence of anime on art and culture in the United States, they are talking about Tezuka’s influence. And that’s just a small example of his impact, years after he died.

I hope I have emphasized enough how important to the world Tezuka is as an artist, and therefore, how much a biography worthy of him is needed. The Osamu Tezuka Story is that biography, and most appropriately, it is told in manga format by a man who worked with Tezuka for many years. Therefore, the style is very much in the Tezuka tradition. Toshio Ban has captured visually the fast-paced life of an artist, an artist who was followed around by editors waiting for their pages. In his younger years, Tezuka would hide out in different hotels trying to get work done without interruption from the many editors waiting for work from him, but he took on so many assignments, he could barely keep up with his deadlines. This biography captures the frantic life of a young artist who matured without giving up on his commitments right up until the end of his life, when he left multiple works incomplete, most sadly his life-long work The Phoenix, though multiple stand-alone volumes of this series were completed.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Our Rage for Order and Coherence

A quickie, just to get it out there so I can see it (from January 2015).


I have long believed that a need for order, coherence, patterns, is intrinsic to being human. I suppose I can date this belief to the mid-1970s when I read William Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception (1973). Under the topic of reorganization (more conventionally, learning) Powers talked of intrinsic reference levels for the (proper) construction of control systems (which I’ve recently recounted in Cultural Beings, the Ontology of Culture, and a Return to Books and Blues). Hays and I included Powers’ notion in our paper, Principles and Structures of Natural Intelligence (1988), and I associated it with Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow in Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (1996).

That’s what’s behind ‘beauty’ or whatever it is that works of art are said to have, and for elegance in scientific theory and mathematical proof. And it is, I believe, behind cultural evolution. We must make order of the world; that is the ‘other side’ of anxiety.

But where’d it come from? In our paper on natural intelligence Hays and I associated the need for coherence with the process of reorganization (following Powers) and we linked that to the emergence of vertebrates. That makes it very old indeed. What seems to have happened with humankind is that this rage for order has been set free from merely biological imperatives, has been set from from the tyranny of the present, so that it now ranges over the whole of space and time.

How’d that happen? And when? There is the emergence of human language. That sets cognition free of the present by allowing us to index the past, and thus recall it, and allows us to index the cognitive system itself, thus creating a need to order that index (ontology).

But there is also death (see Cultural Beings Evolving in the Mesh). It is one thing to mourn one’s fellows, as animals do. It is another think to know that you will, at some point, die. How is it that we came to know that? What are the cognitive presuppositions of such knowledge?

Explicit grave sites along with grave goods appear in the human record about 100,000 years ago. I take that as evidence that people have come to know that they will die. It may be the dead that are buried, but it is done for the benefit of the living. It is a way of keeping the living whole.

Somewhere in the nexus of language and death, that is where we’ll find our rage for order. That is what drives us.

Addendum: The order, to be meaningful, must be collective. Language can exist only in a group. Burial rites are meaningful only to a group. This sets up a peculiar dialectic in which “cultural beings” are utterly dependent on the people who participate in them even as the participants are dependent on those same cultural beings. It is through those cultural beings that the individuals experience the order and coherence that is so important to them.
And the sharing of experience is itself a source of pleasure. When experience alone grief, for example, is merely grief. Sharing it transforms it, not into pleasure in any direct sense of the world, but into something that is fulfilling. It’s the sharing that works the transformation. That’s why sad music can make us feel good; that’s why tragedy can be so powerful, so cathartic.


* * * * *

Photographs are of the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetary and were taken in March 2009.

Free range kids in New Zealand, and lessons from the Māori

From March 2015, a glimpse at a different world.
Daniel Davies, blogger at Crooked Timber, is going around the world with his family for a year (he made a bit of money in investment banking). They've just spent a couple of months in New Zealand.
Part of the whole purpose of bringing the children round the world – god knows, it wasn’t the sheer joy of home-schooling – was to let them see that different ways of doing things are possible, and the way that children live in New Zealand really contrasted with how things were in London.

The kids have much more independence, and a much more outdoor lifestyle. When there isn’t so much traffic on the roads and there’s more empty space, they can play in it. My ten-year-old nephew was able to go out alone into the bush to look after his father’s possum traps (it’s considered civically responsible to take care of a few traps in the local bush, because possums and rats eat kiwi eggs). After school, kids would arrange to meet up, parent’s absent, and “jump off the wharf”. (Jumping off things is actually the national sport, as far as I can tell – it doesn’t get as much TV coverage as rugby, but has many more participants. In the course of a fifteen minute lift I gave to a hitch-hiker who had missed his bus back home from one of the higher local wharves, I was given a pretty comprehensive run down of all the tall objects with bodies of water beneath them in the surrounding district. There’s a sign on the bridge over the Whakatane River saying “Do not jump off this bridge”, but I don’t know why they bothered).

On enrolling our five-year old at her infants’ school we were pretty much immediately handed a piece of paper with details of the two-day camp that the tots would be going on. It’s a totally different world.
He also has some observations about the Māori:
How does a basically tribal society adapt to a modern industrial lifestyle? That, in my view, is a really important question for the world at the moment, as it’s the key to the Afghanistan conflict, among other things. The Pashtun tribes who make life so difficult for any and all occupiers of that territory are not stupid, and they are aware of what happened to the Khoi-San, the Native Americans, the Aborigines, and more or less any tribal society that has ever adopted any position other than one of strictly “no compromise, no retreat, nothing except trade in firearms and textiles” with respect to the modern world. Economic development in that region is more or less impossible if it has to be attempted in the context of a society which is basically the largest surviving tribal society in existence and wants to stay that way. For that reason, if no other, I think it’s a good idea for the rest of us to look at New Zealand and see if there’s anything to learn.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Urban boonducks

Turn-taking in mouse vocalization

Carl Zimmer, These Mice sing to One Another – Politely, NYTimes, Feb 28, 2019.

It was once believed that monkeys and apes were not able to exert voluntary cortical control over their vocalizations; that was the case when I published my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil, in 2001. We've since learned that's not true. Now, it seems, (some) mice also have cortical control over vocalization.
Alston’s singing mice sometimes belt out a song when they’re alone, but they’re especially vocal when other mice are around. Males sing as a way to fight over territory with other males, and both males and females sing to one another during courtship.

Working with Steven M. Phelps, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Long set up a home for the mice in his lab to study their brains.

“They’re kind of divas,” he said. “They need exercise equipment in their cages and specialized diets. But they thrive here.”

One day, Andrew M. Matheson, one of Dr. Long’s graduate students, noticed something odd about two male mice in neighboring cages. Instead of singing over each other, they sounded like they were having a conversation.

Dr. Long and his colleagues eventually discovered that Mr. Matheson’s hunch was correct. The singing mice never overlapped: Each mouse would wait for the other to stop, and then start up within a fraction of a second. [...]

So the researchers began probing the brains of the mice, searching for the neurons that led them to be “polite” raconteurs.

In one experiment, the researchers cooled down patches of mouse brain by a few degrees, slowing the neurons. One patch in the mouse cortex is essential for controlling their singing, the scientists found. If this section is cooled, the mouse sings extended songs, adding on extra notes.

The researchers also injected nerve-blocking drugs into this brain patch and then played a recording of another male. Drugged males often failed to sing back. And when they did, they were slow to begin, taking seconds to start their own song.

Dr. Long thinks this region of the mouse cortex is crucial to the mice’s special communication. “We think of it as a conductor,” he said. “It allows the animals to sing in this turn-taking way.”
How long is that fraction of a second?

It's this turn-taking that's interesting. Human turn-taking is precisely timed and implies that the interlocutors are synchronized to a common pulse. Is that the case for these Alston’s singing mice? 

I once emailed the late Walter Freeman about human turn-taking. I was interested in how quickly one turn followed upon another, on the order of 10s of milliseconds. I was curious about the conduction speed in the nervous system, which is much slower than electrical signals in wires. Was it slow enough that instant turn-taking was possible only if one's vocalization was initiated before the interlocutor had stopped talking? That is, you can't take the cessation of speech as a cue for initiating your reply. The reply has to be initiated a fraction earlier. Freeman replied that, yes, that's how it would have to be.

Human brains and vocal apparatus are larger than those of mice (think, e.g., of breath control) and so conduction times are longer. But perhaps those mice are still subject to the same limitation.

Onna-Bugeisha: Japanese women warriors

Christobel Hastings, How Onna-Bugeisha, Feudal Japan's Women Samurai, Were Erased From History, Broadly, Sept. 24, 2018.
Throughout history, most Japanese women were subject to rigid social expectations of marriage, domesticity, and motherhood, but there also existed women warriors like Takeko who were known to be to be every bit as strong, capable, and courageous as their male counterparts. They belonged to the bushi class, a noble class of feudal Japanese warriors, and helped settle new lands, defend their territory, and even had a legal right to supervise lands as jito (stewards). They were exceptionally skilled in combat; trained in the use of the Kaiken dagger, the naginata, the polearm sword, and the art of tantōjutsu knife fighting. Centuries before the rise of the samurai class in the 12th century, these women would fight in times of war to protect their homes, families, and deep sense of honor.

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868—a new era of imperial rule that stood for modernization, industrialization, and Westernization—the Samurai class who had once bravely protected the nation fell from power, and the legacy of the equally fearsome onna-bugeisha faded from view. Meanwhile, Westerners rewrote the history of Japanese warring culture, overlooking the heroic quests of the onna-bugeisha and elevating, instead, exaggerated representations of swaggering male Samurai and subservient Japanese women, clad in kimono and tightly-bound obi. Indeed, historian Stephen Turnbull regards “the exploits of female warriors as the greatest untold story in samurai history.” [...]

Particularly interesting about Gozen: She was one of the few women warriors who engaged in offensive battle, known as onna-musha, rather than the defensive fighting more common among traditional onna-bugeisha. In 1184, she led 300 samurai into a fierce battle against 2,000 opposing Tiara clan warriors, and during the Battle of Awazu later that same year, she slayed several adversaries before decapitating the Musashi clan’s leader and presenting his head to her master, General Kiso Yoshinaka. Gozen’s reputation was so high, it’s said Yoshinaka considered her the first true general of Japan.

Despite minimal written historical record, recent archeological evidence suggests that Gozen may not have been a rarity. The excavation of three head-mounds has uncovered a significant female involvement in battle, throwing the exclusion of onna-bugeisha from the history books into greater relief. For instance, DNA tests on 105 bodies excavated from the Battle of Senbon Matsubaru between Takeda Katsuyori and Hojo Ujinao in 1580 revealed that 35 of them were women. According to Turnbull, the details on the excavation confirm that women warriors were almost certainly present on the battlefield.

Could this be part of the deep background for the strong women and girls who are so important in contemporary manga and anime?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Nocturnal geometry

What happens with the cloud cover burns off? [Temperature goes WAY up?]

Natalie Wolchover, A World Without Clouds, Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019. Until quite recently the weather models used to predict the climate evolution were unable to take proper account of cloud cover (because they didn't have sufficient resolution):
Clouds currently cover about two-thirds of the planet at any moment. But computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control.

For decades, rough calculations have suggested that cloud loss could significantly impact climate, but this concern remained speculative until the last few years, when observations and simulations of clouds improved to the point where researchers could amass convincing evidence.

Now, new findings reported today in the journal Nature Geoscience make the case that the effects of cloud loss are dramatic enough to explain ancient warming episodes like the PETM [Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum] — and to precipitate future disaster. Climate physicists at the California Institute of Technology performed a state-of-the-art simulation of stratocumulus clouds, the low-lying, blankety kind that have by far the largest cooling effect on the planet. The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million — a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.

Once clouds go away, the simulated climate “goes over a cliff,” said Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A leading authority on atmospheric physics, Emanuel called the new findings “very plausible,” though, as he noted, scientists must now make an effort to independently replicate the work.

To imagine 12 degrees of warming, think of crocodiles swimming in the Arctic and of the scorched, mostly lifeless equatorial regions during the PETM. If carbon emissions aren’t curbed quickly enough and the tipping point is breached, “that would be truly devastating climate change,” said Caltech’s Tapio Schneider, who performed the new simulation with Colleen Kaul and Kyle Pressel.

Cultural forms don't die so much as they dimish and decay

Oleg Sobchuk, The (slow) dying of cultural forms, Medium, Feb 26, 2019.

The set-up:
Several years ago, sipping coffee at the sunny campus of Stanford, J.D. Porter, from the Literary Lab, and I were discussing cultural evolution. I tried to persuade J.D. that thinking of cultural items as “species”, which evolve, mutate, and get extinct, is a useful metaphor — or even more than just a metaphor. But J.D. was skeptical. Cultural items, he said — for example, poems — rarely die. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet around 1591, and yet, this play is still alive and kicking: maybe even more alive than during the times of Shakespeare. So how can we speak of “cultural selection” and “evolution” if cultural “species” — at least some of them — refuse to die?
Then we have some evidence and discussion leading to a distinction:
In biology, death is a qualitative change: there is a huge difference between a living and a dead organism. But in culture… death is quantitative. So: cultural death isn’t like crossing a border, it rather resembles a slow process of collapsing. And some cultural forms (or, according to Kelly, most of them) never fully collapse: they simply become infinitely closer to death, without ever reaching that final destination point. Shakespeare, as a cultural character, having reached his peak popularity almost a century ago, is slowly decaying from our cultural memory (Figure 3). Yes, his plays aren’t dead, but they are in the process of dying — for sure.

The slow dying of cultural forms… It may be worth studying further.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Some purple flowers

Goodwill runs the world's 2nd largest MOOC

In 2018, more than 31 million people took virtual courses offered through GCFGlobal – a Goodwill Community Foundation initiative – and their online portal, offered in English, Spanish and Portuguese. This is an astounding number that would rank it just behind Coursera’s reported 37 million registered users in 2018 and more than both Udacity (10 million) and edX (18 million) combined. Goodwill, with very little fanfare, is already the 2nd biggest MOOC in the world, running neck-and-neck with Coursera – a fast-charging, venture-backed company that has raised over $210 million. And there’s good reason to believe it could quickly surpass all MOOCs in total users. Why? It’s simple. Goodwill got the premise right. And that premise is all about jobs. It’s providing the education and skills that help move people from unemployed to employed, from a low-paying job to a higher-paying one, from a bad or average job to a good job.

Gallup’s World Poll data is clear on what the whole world wants most: a good job. People around the world highly value health, safety and family – but they see a good job as key to accomplishing these things. Demand for this tangible asset is sky-high: there are some 1.8 billion people in the world who want a good job and don’t have one. The Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey reports that the top reason U.S. adults value higher education is to get a good job. Certainly, people value education for other reasons – including an interest in lifelong learning, intellectual interests and personal development – but these reasons are far down the list compared to their motivation to improve their standing in today’s job market. This is where Goodwill separates itself from the others.

In looking at the courses and topics offered at, you can quickly understand why it is such a highly utilized resource. It ranges from reading, math and understanding money and personal finance to computer, email and Internet basics to digital skills and mastering widely-used tools such as Microsoft Office and QuickBooks. Goodwill’s MOOC offerings serve as an extension of their robust job training and placement efforts on the ground where they serve 2.1 million people through face-to-face offerings including job placement services, career coaches and even rehabilitation programs for those recovering from physical injuries. Goodwill understands that the world of work now requires a commitment to lifelong learning.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. One of my all time favorites.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This happened when I was living in upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.


The Craft

However, before getting to the magic, you need to understand a little about the craft. Few physical tasks are easier than getting a sound from a bell by hitting it with a stick. But that doesn’t mean that you can play your bell in a mood of casual somnambulance. No, you must be sensitive to small details, for nuance matters.

Generally you hold the bell in your left hand and the stick in your right—if you are right-handed. When you hit the bell with a stick the stick will bounce back. You need to learn to work with the rebound, not against it. If you hold the stick too firmly your grip will damp out the rebound and you will thereby waste the energy the bell has imparted to the stick. Rather, you want to hold the stick lightly and learn simply to redirect the stick’s energy back to the bell. You want to “cooperate” with the stick and the bell rather than “dominate” them.

Further, you need to attend to just where you hit the bell. The sound of a bell is complex and varies depending on just where you hit it. Thus, by hitting a bell in different places you can get several distinctly different sounds from a single bell. The different sounds you get from the bell will blend with other bell sounds in different ways. You have to be conscious of these blending possibilities when playing your bell.

By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the elastic properties of stick and bell you become one with the bell. By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the way your bell tones blend with other bell tones you become one with the group. While thus “becoming one with” has a mystical aura about it, you need to understand that this mystical aura is grounded in the subtleties of physical technique.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Four pilars of the community

Moby Dick, the Oil Industry, and America

That’s right, Moby Dick, the 19th century novel by Herman Melville, one of the great novels. Of course we’re beyond it, it was published in 1851. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used for lubrication, and, above all, lighting. Though whaling began to die out a decade after Moby Dick was published—oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859—it was big business when Moby Dick was published, and America’s whaling fleet was the largest in the world.

Rather than continuing on with my own observations, however, I thought I give you a Martian interpretation of the book. Well, not real Martians, a fictional ones, a pair invented by Margaret Atwood and plopped into a New York Times op-ed in April, 2012:
“‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”
Seems about right.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The broom returns

Structural inequality in the Wikimedia universe

Jinhyuk Yun, Sang Hoon Lee & Hawoong Jeong, Early onset of structural inequality in the formation of collaborative knowledge in all Wikimedia projects, Nature Human Behaviour, volume 3, pages 155–163 (2019)
Abstract: The Wikimedia project, including Wikipedia, is one of the largest communal data sets and has served as a representative medium to convey collective knowledge in the twenty-first century. Researchers have believed that the analysis of these collaborative digital data sets provides a unique window into the processes of collaborative knowledge formation; yet, in reality, most previous studies have usually focused on its narrow subsets. Here, by analysing all 863 Wikimedia projects (various types and in different languages), we find evidence for a universal growth pattern in communal data formation. We observe that inequality arises early in the development of Wikimedia projects and stabilizes at high levels. To understand the mechanism behind the observed structural inequality, we develop an agent-based model that considers the characteristics of the editors and successfully reproduces the empirical results. Our findings from the Wikimedia projects data, along with other types of collaboration data, such as patents and academic papers, show that a small number of editors have a disproportionately large influence on the formation of collective knowledge. This analysis offers insights into how various collaboration environments can be sustained in the future.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

First Man, a remark or two on how it achieves its effects

I saw First Man last fall when it came out. Last night I saw it again, on a large TV. I find it impressive, still. As I argued last year, the film reaches for a sense of the sacred. It’s not an action-adventure film, though there is adventure in it, and action too. It’s more contemplative.

How does it work? That’s what my few remarks are about.

The film opens on Neil Armstrong, the protagonist, in a test flight of an airplane. While we do have some shots of the plane from the outside and at a distance, most of the shots are of the planes cockpit, either from Armstrong’s point-of-view has he looks about the cockpit, often at his hands activating controls, or through the window at the sky. There’s trouble, the image vibrates, a reflection of the plane’s motions. We hear voices (I think). We know Armstrong’s going to pull out of it because, well, after all, he did go to the moon and that’s not yet happened. There’s a strong sense of being enclosed, being trapped, of being at the edge of desperation.

No sense of wide open spaces, no wild blue yonder.

And then it’s over. Armstrong lands the plane, gets out, and the film moves to a different register.

Now we see Armstrong and his wife dealing with Karen’s cancer (his young daughter) – I assume it was cancer, perhaps we’re told, but there’s radiation treatment. We see Neil playing with Karen; we see her playing. And then we hear the sound of a winching lowering a small casket into a grave; we see Armstrong, his wife, and so at the funeral.

And then it’s over. The film moves to a different register. We see Armstrong at work, in his office. His boss offers him time off, which he declines. He wants/needs to work. He scans his desktop, see a NASA newsletter with a story about the Gemini program. He decides to apply.

Was that decision a response to, a way of coping with, his daughter’s death? Who knows – and the scope of that question is strictly within the film itself and has nothing to do with the real Neil Armstrong, though, of course, this is a biopic about him. Armstrong doesn’t say that he’s applying to Gemini because his daughter has died. He says nothing at all about why he applied. He just does.

But the film creates a connection by virtue of its narrative strategy. First we see a dicey test flight. And then we cut to Karen’s illness. No causal connection is asserted or implied there, nor would I think that anyone infers cause. All we have is sequence, juxtaposition.

That’s all we have. Which is the point. Within the imaginative space that is First Man, that’s what we’ve got. Two things: a test flight, a death in the family. And then a third: Armstrong applies to Gemini.

Let’s skip over most of the film. What’s the last thing we see Armstrong do on the moon? He drops Karen’s identity bracelet into a crater. That action asserts a connection between his daughter’s death and his decision to enter the astronaut program. And that connection is how this film asserts the sacred quality of walking on the moon. The next shot has him safely back on earth. And then he’s in quarantine, where he meets his wife. They cannot touch, directly, but they touch the window separating them in the same spot. No talk.

And the film ends.

I skipped a lot, but I don’t intend to fill that in, not here, though I’m inclined to think that there is value in describing what happens all the way through, scene by scene, perhaps even shot by shot. But this is not the place to attempt that.

To a first approximation we see the juxtaposition of Armstrong’s professional life as an astronaut and his private life as husband and father, of (now) two sons. These narrative strands move in parallel.

And they collide just before Armstrong is to go to the moon. He’s packing his bags and hopes to slip out of the house without talking to his sons. His wife won’t allow this. She knows that he might not return, as does he, and wants him to acknowledge that to his sons. He talks with them and acknowledges that, yes, he might not return.

But he does return, after he’s left his daughter’s identity bracelet on the moon. Does he tell anyone about that? Who knows? But likely not.

And that’s how Chazelle, the director, creates a sense of the sacred – where I’m using Chazelle as a figure for the collective entity that created this film. Just why that creates the effect that it does, that’s worth thinking about. But not here, not now.

* * * * *

My other posts on First Man:

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Will in the Nervous System, and Its Consequences

This is a passage that didn’t make the cut for Beethoven’s Anvil. It’s about the will, its footprint in the nervous system, and what that means about our relationship to our nervous system. Notice that peculiar locution, which implies that we are something other than the nervous system that thinks us. We are and we aren’t, aren’t we?
Willfulness is a subjective experience and, accordingly, psychology and neuroscience have banned talk of will and volition for most of this century. However, such language is embedded in neuroscientific terminology, a fact noted by Bernard Baars. The division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the viscera is called the autonomic nervous system, indicating its capacity to operate autonomously, one cannot will one’s heart rate to go up or down, or will that digestion cease or commence. At the same time, talk of voluntary actions is routine. The neural pathways for voluntary action, which tend to be those that control the skeletal muscles, are separate from the autonomic nervous system.

However, we must note that this distinction is made from the point of view of the actor and not from that of an external observer. That is to say, the distinction is subjective. It is true that neural systems indicated by Baars are physically distinct, a matter visible to numerous investigators. What is peculiar is that one of these systems is thought of as being voluntary while the other is involuntary. Whether or not an action is voluntary is something one can ascertain only by asking the actor. One can’t ask such questions of rats, cats, and monkeys and expect meaningful answers. Does this mean that animals do not have wills?

This distinction that seems so obvious on a phenomenal level, is not quite so obvious when one begins looking for the relevant neural structures. For one thing, given appropriate feedback, autonomic functions can be subject to voluntary control. Thus, in one experiment, it proved easy for subjects to raise or lower their blood pressure when given a flashing light to indicate success. On the other hand the motor system does not divide neatly into voluntary and involuntary divisions, though it does seem that voluntary actions do seem to be those that are mediated by frontal cortex. For these reasons we need to be cautious when talking about what we can and cannot will. With that in mind, let us continue on, thinking strictly in terms of subjective experience.

Disobedient Organs

The dance between that which we can will and that which we cannot is, of course, both ancient and basic. As an example, us consider a brief passage by one of the greatest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, whose career straddled the third and fourth centuries. In his master work, The City of God, Augustine observes:
There are, then, many kinds of lusts for this or that, but when the word is used by itself without specification it suggests to most people the lust for sexual excitement. Such lust does not merely invade the whole body and outward members; it takes such complete and passionate possession of the whole man, both physically and emotionally, that what results is the keenest of all pleasures on the level of sensation; and, at the crisis of excitement, it practically paralyzes all power of deliberate thought.

This is so true that it creates a problem for every lover of wisdom and holy joys...Any such person would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion. He could wish that, just as all his other members obey his reason in the performance of their appointed tasks, so the organs of parenthood, too, might function in obedience to the orders of will and not be excited by the ardors of lust.
What Augustine is asserting of sexuality is in fact true for emotion and motivation in general. Tenderness, anger and thirst are no more subject to will than is sexual desire.

However, one can attempt to manipulate one’s emotional and motivational state through indirect means. That is why we have pornography, romance novels, and military music. Those things can be apprehended at will and they may well produce the desired effect. But they may not. Even if they do we might get stuck with more of an effect than we wanted. Such indirect manipulations are not always reliable.

Seductive Sounds

Given Augustine’s abhorrence of anything that threatens the “power of deliberate thought” the following passage from his Confessions is interesting:
But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music...I must allow it a position of some honour in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung...But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of the senses, which often leads it astray.
When he asserts that the singing stirs his mind he is, of course, acknowledging that there is something going on beyond will and reason, something that he finds potentially dangerous. While he would like to deal with the words alone he cannot bring himself entirely to forgo the stirrings of music. He is ambivalent, and ambivalence that stems from the fact that music is a willed activity that can easily stir the passions, thus producing results beyond the will and perhaps even capable of superseding the will.

And one of those passions that seems peculiarly responsive to music is sexual passion. One wills the music and before you know it, the music is willing those “other members” to dance. When they dance, there goes the will.

It’s paper / rock / scissors round and round.

It’s also Shakespeare 129.

It’s us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Ferry and destination

Oral transmission of folksongs

Daniel Shanahan, Joshua Albrecht, Examining the Effect of Oral Transmission on Folksongs, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 36 No. 3, February 2019; (pp. 273-288) DOI: 10.1525/mp.2019.36.3.273
Abstract: Sociolinguists frequently examine the nature of gradual, internal shifts in languages and dialects over time, arguing for both cognitive and cultural factors, as well as those that might be somehow internal to the language itself. Similarly, musicologists have often argued that musical genres and even specific songs can be examined through gradual diachronic shifts, which seem to be especially accelerated in traditions that rely on oral transmission. For example, Spitzer (1994) examined the stemma of “Oh! Susanna” and noticed that it tended to become more pentatonicized at cadence points by dropping scale degree seven, and suggested that this might be true with folk songs in general. To test this, we employed both experimental and corpus-based paradigms. The experimental approach attempted to simulate oral transmission in a compressed timeframe by involving singers who heard and replicated short musical excerpts, and then would teach a colleague, who in turn passed it on to another participant. Similarly, we conducted a corpus analysis that examined the prevalence of descending stepwise endings in styles of music primarily transmitted orally compared with those transmitted primarily through notation. The experimental results suggest that cadence points in Western folk music are more likely to lose scale degree seven through the act of oral transmission, and the corpus study suggests that, although stylistic constraints play a large role in folk music, there might also be a relationship between transmission and physical affordances.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Chinese and U.S. economies, Brexit

Yngve Slyngstad is CEO of Norway's sovereign wealth fund, the worlds largest at $1 trillion. Jonas O Bergman and Sree Vidya Bhaktavatsalam of Bloomberg Markets interviewed him on a wide range of topics pertaining to the fund. Here are some remarks on the relationship between China and the U.S.:
BM: The other risk is obviously what’s going on with the trade disputes with the U.S. You have said that you see a potential risk of two global supply chains emerging from this dispute. Who do you think would be the biggest losers or winners from a disruption of the system that we’ve had?

YS: Currently, the Chinese economy and the U.S. economy are very intertwined. It is hard to see how it can be unwound, which I think is a very positive thing in the bigger scheme of things. But if even on a smaller scale companies start to diversify their production—which already is happening—and that is combined with the move toward more automation, that will mean quite a lot of new investments for all of the companies. Which, of course, will affect their profitability. It’s not necessarily easy to see what is the short-term and the long-term effect of all those things.

BM: What are you anticipating?

YS: In November I had a trip to China to look into the specific issue with regards to the production chain. We visited companies such as Foxconn and many other semiconductor producers. There’s a division of labor between the U.S. and China and benefits from the global production chain in key components that I think will lead, more or less by economic logic and necessity, to a mutually beneficial relationship between those two large economies. The thought of disintegration to regional production chains I think is less likely.

From our perspective, as a long-term-oriented fund, the big driver of the economy and of our investment results is development in technology more than political decisions. Most of the people in the market will now typically say the biggest risks will be trade disputes between China and the U.S., the status of the EU and Brexit, and the fiscal strength of some of the countries. But in a longer-term perspective, I don’t think any of those risks are high on our agenda.
On Brexit:
BM: You have large investments in the U.K., so how concerned are you about the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit deadline at the end of March?

YS: We should have expected two years ago that the peak of this uncertainty would be in March 2019. The longer perspective in our view is still that we are invested in the U.K. with a long-term horizon. How much we will invest will not be changed depending on the result of this development. If we look past this—10, 20, 30 years—the U.K. will be an important economy in Europe, and it will remain in Europe. We expect business on that timeline to develop positively no matter the outcome.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Is Lake Erie a juridical person? The voters will decide.

The failing health of Lake Erie, the world’s 11th largest lake, is at the heart of one of the most unusual questions to appear on an American ballot: Should a body of water be given rights normally associated with those granted to a person?

Voters in Toledo, Ohio, will be asked this month to decide whether Lake Erie, which supports the economies of four states, one Canadian province and the cities of Toledo, Cleveland and Buffalo, has the legal right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

The peculiar ballot question comes amid a string of environmental calamities at the lake — poisonous algal blooms in summer, runoff containing fertilizer and animal manure, and a constant threat from invasive fish. But this special election is not merely symbolic. It is legal strategy: If the lake gets legal rights, the theory goes, people can sue polluters on its behalf.

The proposed Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of a growing number of efforts to carve out legal status for elements of nature, including rivers, forests, mountains and even wild rice. The efforts, which began decades ago but have gathered momentum in recent years, seek to show that existing laws are insufficient to protect nature against environmental harm. Under current law, lakes and deserts do not have legal standing, so people cannot sue on their behalf. [...]

Tamaqua Borough, Pa., in the center of the state’s historic coal-mining region, was the first place in the nation to approve a rights-of-nature ordinance in 2006 after it banned companies from dumping dredged minerals and sewage sludge into open pit mines.

The bill approved by the borough council included language that said corporations could not “interfere with the existence and flourishing of natural communities or ecosystems, or to cause damage” to them within the township.

Four years later, Pittsburgh approved a rights-of-nature ordinance that prohibited fracking in city limits.

Santa Monica, Calif., has since passed an ordinance that requires the city to “recognize the rights of people, natural communities and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish.”

And earlier this year, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota announced that it had granted wild rice its own legal rights, including “the right to pure water.”
Shades of object-oriented ontology (OOO)!

Red white and green

Climate change, from panic to politics

David Wallace-Wells, Time to Panic, NYTimes, 16 Feb 2019.
The number of “good news” scientific papers that I’ve encountered in that time I could probably count on my two hands. The “bad news” papers number probably in the thousands — each day seeming to bring a new, distressing revision to our understanding of the environmental trauma already unfolding.

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself. [...]

We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species. We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception.

The sum total of these biases is what makes climate change something the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” — a conceptual fact so large and complex that it can never be properly comprehended. In his book “Worst-Case Scenarios,” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein wrote that in general, we have a problem considering unlikely but potential risks, which we run from either into complacency or paranoia. His solution is a wonky one: We should all be more rigorous in our cost-benefit analysis.

That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing is one of its many paradoxes. That climate change touches so many of our cognitive biases is a mark of just how big it is and how much about human life it touches, which is to say, nearly everything. [...]

But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.

Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. Conscientiously flying less is a lot easier if there’s more high-speed rail around. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study, that would make an enormous difference.

That is what is meant when politics is called a “moral multiplier.” It is also an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. We don’t ask people who pay taxes to support a social safety net to also demonstrate that commitment through philanthropic action, and similarly we shouldn’t ask anyone — and certainly not everyone — to manage his or her own carbon footprint before we even really try to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions.

That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.

Gay priests in America

Elizabeth Dias, ‘It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage.’ Gay Catholic Priests Speak Out, NYTimes, February 17, 2019:
Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men likely make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest is gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight, and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”

Two dozen gay priests and seminarians from 13 states shared intimate details of their lives in the Catholic closet with The New York Times over the past two months. They were interviewed in their churches before Mass, from art museums on the weekend, in their apartments decorated with rainbow neon lights, and between classes at seminary. Some agreed to be photographed if their identities were concealed.

Almost all of them required strict confidentiality to speak without fear of retribution from their bishops or superiors. A few had been expressly forbidden to come out or even to speak about homosexuality. Most are in active ministry, and could lose more than their jobs if they are outed. The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The rise of the black market in North Korea

Travis Jeppesen, Shopping in Pyongyang, and Other Adventures in North Korean Capitalism, NYTimes Magazine, 14 Feb 2019.
Jangmadang! Jangmadang!” I echoed playfully. My minders ceased their laughter and looked down at the ground. They had forgotten for a moment that I was a language student; jangmadang was one word I was not supposed to know.

Usually translated as “market grounds,” jangmadang is the word for the unofficial markets that emerged during the Arduous March, which is the regime’s official name for the famine that blighted the country throughout the middle and late 1990s. These were illegal markets, to begin with, that sprang up as a result of the collapse of the public food-distribution system that all North Koreans had previously relied on for their monthly rations. During the later years of Kim Jong-il’s reign, the government began to grudgingly accept their existence and took steps toward regulating them: charging rent for stalls, controlling prices and monitoring what goods were for sale. Under Kim Jong-un, the restrictions against this form of private enterprise have been all but lifted, and jangmadang has transcended the cramped market stalls of its birth to refer to the vast array of legal, illegal and semi-legal markets that exist for all sorts of goods in North Korea. Among recent defectors and expat residents, it is said that now, as long as you have money, you can buy anything you want in North Korea. But since the government still hasn’t figured out a way of publicly reconciling with this nascent form of capitalism, it was considered taboo to discuss the jangmadang with foreigners.

Which is a shame, because the rise of the jangmadang is arguably the most significant milestone in North Korea’s recent history. It lies at the root of all the country’s economic development over the past few years. They might not be permitted to speak about it with outsiders, but North Koreans are no longer shy about flaunting their consumption habits, as anyone who has witnessed the displays on the streets of Pyongyang in recent years can attest. Montblanc watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Burberry couture hardly fit the stereotype of a half-starved populace completely cut off from the outside world. And while extreme poverty continues to afflict large swaths of the population, North Korean society no longer conforms to a simplistic picture of haves and have-nots, but is home to an increasingly diverse and complex array of socioeconomic classes. While the presence of a rising upper middle class is most apparent in Pyongyang, a nouveau riche strata has been observed in other parts of the country, such as the port city of Chongjin and in many places along the border with China, where licit and illicit trade continues to flourish. [...]

Today there are more than 400 sanctioned markets in the country, representing about 600,000 vendors. After the currency reform wiped out the wealth and savings of a number of merchants, the preferred currencies in business became the United States dollar and the Chinese renminbi. According to one survey, some 90 percent of all household expenditures are said to take place in these markets; they are so pervasive that people speak of a Jangmadang Generation that grew up knowing nothing else. Under Kim Jong-un, market activities have not only been tolerated; they have slowly crept into the official sector, as I witnessed firsthand in my visits to the country.

How the Chinese Communist Party is using digital tech to promulgate ideology

David Bandurski, The Dawn of the Little Red Phone, China Media Project, Feb 15, 2019:
How can, and how will, the Party leverage digital technology to re-program propaganda in the 21st century?

Already this year we have witnessed one product that provides at least part of the answer, a prime example of how the Party can leverage digital media products to reshape the whole process of ideological control in ways that are far more personal, and far more effective, than anything we have witnessed in the reform era. As the People’s Daily reported on January 15: “On New Year’s Day, many Party members and cadres found to their delight that ‘Xi Study Strong Nation,’ an authoritative and content-rich platform especially for theoretical study, had formally been launched,” the official People’s Daily reported on January 15.

Skirting past this questionable assertion about the delight Party members have derived from this new app, what exactly are we talking about here?

Available at the website, the “Xi Study Strong Nation” app is tool by means of which, once installed, the Party can assert its ideological and intellectual authority over Party members and employees of Party-run institutions, including schools and media. Beyond making Party messages passively available, as Party newspapers and state controlled media have done for decades, the app commands engagement, by which users can earn “Xi Study Points” (学习积分). Once engagement with the app is enforced by administrative demands that it be installed and used, something that is already happening, the messages of the Party become inescapable. [...]

The platform has been designed with a built-in “Xi Study Points” system (学习积分系统) that allows users to accumulate points on the basis of habitual use of the platform, from reading and viewing of content to the posting of comments and other forms of engagement. It has been widely promoted by local governments and ministries and departments across China, and there have also been reports that some work units have ordered employees to attain specified point levels, with disciplinary measures to be imposed for those who fail to comply. [...]

Consider how the “Xi Study Strong Nation” point system is engineered and you realise that the advancement of the platform is about the real and measurable engagement, and thereby domination, of the individual within the broader Party-led system.

The app defines several periods of activity as “lively intervals,” or huoyue shiduan (活跃时段), during which users engaging with the platform can earn double points — 0.2 for each article or video, 2 points for a full 30 minutes of use, and so on. The intervals are Monday through Friday from 8:30 PM to 10 PM, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM, and 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM. The system, then, incentivises Party members, once home from the office and done with family dinner, to spend golden hours of otherwise discretionary personal time engaging with “Xi Jinping Thought.”
H/t Tyler Cowen.