What is the meaning of ‘transfiguration’? | Psephizo:

We are so used to speaking of ‘transfiguration’ in Christian terms that we have not realised how remarkable it is that Mark and Matthew used the Greek verb metamorphoō (in the passive: metamorphoumai) at all.  In classical Greek and Latin literature, the verb, and the noun metamorphōsis, are both slippery, ambivalent words, largely used in mythological or magical contexts.  It does not appear at all in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament’.… Why did Mark use that verb at all in the first place? It’s a rare word, without any of the positive connotations that we assume today. 

A very interesting reflection! 

The New York Times:

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. [Freeman] Hrabowski came of age in the thick of the Jim Crow era. The notion that Black children didn’t deserve a quality education brought out the fighter in the self-described “fat, nerdy kid who could only attack a math problem” at a very young age.

He was 12 when he participated in the historic Children’s March inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He was among the hundreds of boys and girls arrested while they marched for equal rights, and spent five days in jail.

Dr. Hrabowski has largely declined to discuss the details of what he saw and experienced in the Birmingham jail. Some of it will forever remain unspeakable, he said. But in an interview, he recalled a visit from Dr. King.

“What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born,” Dr. Hrabowski remembered him telling the jailed children. 

I was five at the time, living about two miles from the site of the march. Children just a few years older than me were thrown in jail. God bless Dr. Hrabowski. He has fought the good fight for a long time. 

Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. 

— James Baldwin, No Name in the Street 

violence and boredom

Adam Roberts, from an essay that (caveat lector) is full of explicit violence:

Be honest: when I confessed, early on in this post, how squeamish I am about the representation of violence in art, did you nod in agreement with me? Or, on the contrary, did you find yourself tut-tutting: really? you don’t have the stomach for this kind of art? what kind of weakling are you, Adam? Man that’s lame: I’m certainly tougher than that. Perhaps part of the appeal of this art is that we flatter ourselves that we can take it. We might even egg ourselves on to watch increasingly violent representations. That’s how desensitization works. The political logic of ‘toughness’ is that we need to ‘toughen up’ (to ‘grow a pair’, to ‘man the fuck up’) whenever our conscience prompts us to show compassion for our fellow human beings. That we need to harden our hearts, like pharaoh. 

Adam’s developing a theory here, a pretty complicated one, and I need to think it over. But for now, just a few brief comments. 

(1) Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay about how much people love TV shows about animals eating other animals: 

But I have found that whenever I point out this rage for watching predators devour their prey, nearly everyone defends the shows, and their arguments almost always use the same terms: The old nature documentaries sanitized and prettified the animal world, disguising from us the harsh truth of “nature red in tooth and claw.” These newer documentaries merely present to us The Way Things Are — and thus are beyond reproach.

Now it is true that predation is part of The Way Things Are, but sleeping is even more a part of The Way Things Are: For every hour a lioness spends hunting she spends a dozen sleeping, yet our television documentaries picture few somnolent cats. And the hard, slow work that hunting chiefly amounts to is given insignificant representation in comparison to the moment at which the claws catch an antelope and the teeth tear its neck. Moreover, animals who eat also defecate, yet I cannot remember seeing our intrepid documentarians exploring that subject with telephoto lenses and extreme slow motion. 

My chief point was this: We have to begin our reflection on these matters by acknowledging a simple fact: People watch shows like this because they like it. Only then can we go on to ask why people like it. There’s a lot of squirming evasion of that first and essential point. I think the same thing is true of fictional violence against human beings (or other sentient creatures): People enjoy writing it, and other people enjoy reading it. So I think that Category One in this discourse needs to be pleasure, enjoyment. 

(2) I don’t like it. I never have and I expect I never will. I do not mean to be self-praising here; there are plenty of things I do like that I shouldn’t. But from my early childhood I’ve been the same way about violence in all its forms. When I was six years old and my grandfather and father took me bird-hunting I would think, every minute, Why are we doing this? Why would you want to kill another creature? I understood the need to kill, in order to eat; I even understood choosing to eat meat when it’s not necessary to eat meat; I couldn’t and can’t understand taking pleasure in killing. I sometimes found it disturbing, but always and to a far stronger degree I found it boring. And I feel the same way about violence in movies and in fiction. This crap again? I just can’t bring myself to read it unless duty requires it, and in those cases I can barely restrain my sighs and eyerolls. 

(3) You may therefore be unsurprised to know that I am colossally bored by the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, who combines ridiculous levels of violence with a cod-Faulknerian style that was barely tolerable when Faulkner himself deployed it. I think James Wood, in a 2005 essay on McCarthy, gets at something important: 

McCarthy has said, in interviews, that there is “no such thing as life without bloodshed,” and that the novelist’s proper occupation is with death. His work gives eloquent witness to this vision. Lester Ballard, watching two hawks, reflects that “he did not know how hawks mated but he knew that all things fought.” Judge Holden, in Blood Meridian, proclaims that war endures “because young men love it and old men love it in them.” The Duena Alfonsa in All the Pretty Horses announces that “what is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God — who knows all that can be known — seems powerless to change.” McCarthy risks being accused of appearing to relish the violence he so lavishly records; this is the fate of the stylist who stoops to gore, and it seems an unfair complaint (though one never feels, as one always does in Dostoyevsky, the novelist flinching from the suffering he is recording). The problem with a novel like No Country for Old Men is that it cannot give violence any depth, context, or even reality. The artificial theatre of the writing makes the violence routine and showy. And McCarthy’s idea — his novelistic picture of life’s evil is limited, and literal: it is only ever of physical violence. Though one wouldn’t want to turn McCarthy into Henry James, there are surely ways to use a novel to register the more impalpable forms of evil and violence as well as the palpable. 

This seems to me right about McCarthy, and even more right about Dostoevsky. 

(4) Adam’s novels are not without violence themselves, though never (to my recollection) in the delighted grimdark mode. Does he, I wonder, have to overcome his own “squeamishness” to write such passages? 

representation

A while back I mused on a question: What do we owe the more-than-human world? It seems to me that that question has a certain set of implications for the way we design our political order. For instance, here in the United States we have a representative body, the Senate, that many people denounce as insufficiently democratic. How, they ask, can it be reasonable for Wyoming (pop. 576,850) to have the same number of Senators as New York (pop. 20,215,751). One reasonable answer is that Senators don’t just represent people; they also represent places. I don’t think it would be politically healthy for people in New York and California to have, simply because of their sheer numbers, nearly untrammeled power over a place that’s a thousand or two thousand miles away from them, a place they will probably never see, a place whose land and creatures they will never know. 

Of course, people elected to office by their neighbors can make unwise decisions, can be corrupt, can be selfish, can abuse their environment; but they are much more likely to suffer consequences for what they do, either directly or as a result of public pressure, than those who make such decisions from great distances. 

A system such as ours, with representation split between the Senate and the House, is certainly not the only way to maintain some degree of local control over local environments; and it may not be the best way. But such control is necessary for the flourishing of places and communities. So those who want to abolish the Senate need to decide what they’re going to replace it with, because a system that gives even more power to the coasts over flyover country will necessarily be a more unjust system than the one we now have. 

decline and fall

TikTok and the Fall of the Social-Media Giants: A very interesting post by Cal Newport. His thesis is, essentially, as follows: TikTok’s popularity has alarmed Facebook — a company that has a history of forgetting what it does well in order to chase immediate relevance — and as a result Facebook is neglecting to consolidate its advantage in the “social graph.” The result will inevitably be a further and more precipitous decline in Facebook’s influence — but it is also unlikely that TikTok itself will remain as dominant as it is. 

As Newport says in an accompanying blog post, “If platforms like Facebook and Instagram abandon their social graphs to pursue this cybernetic TikTok model, they’ll lose their competitive advantage. Subject, all at once, to the fierce competitive pressures of the mobile attention economy, it’s unclear whether they can survive without this protection.” Thus: “If TikTok acts as the poison pill that finally cripples the digital dictators that for so long subjugated the web 2.0 revolution, we just might be left with more breathing room for smaller, more authentic, more human online engagements.” 

Well, let’s hope so. I’d love to see a future in which the algorithmic social-media domination of our online lives ended, and we return to online life at a more human scale. But how likely is that? We know that the venture capitalists and angel investors don’t want moderate successes — they want The Next Enormous Thing. Will they get it? I think it all hinges on how strongly people respond to VR environments. 

Noah Millman:

The popular series Stranger Things is meticulous about getting details right, but it’s a Frankenstein world, built of spare parts from earlier movies; there is nothing genuinely real or living about it. Indeed, the entire premise of the series (a premise that has paid off handsomely) is that audiences would love to participate in a festival of pure nostalgia that isn’t at all about life, but entirely about how life was represented. The fantasy being sold is less of living in the 1980s than of watching 1980s-era movies.

incentives

Consider this an addendum to my recent post on an influential study of Alzheimer’s that looks to have featured manipulated data. Retraction Watch has been in business for quite some time now, and is likely to get busier because of the extra opportunities for dishonesty available through machine learning. This situation will continue to get worse until science — and academia more generally — begins to get serious about correcting its perverse incentives. Every scientist knows that certain kinds of results get (a) attention and (b) citations, resulting in (c) prestige for the researchers’ institutions and (d) promotions and raises and maybe better jobs elsewhere for the researchers. 

Again, this is a problem for all of academia: as I have written elsewhere, “the academic enterprise is not a Weberian ‘iron cage,’ it’s a cage made from a bundle of thin sticks of perverse incentives held together with a putty of bullshit.” But when the bullshit takes over the sciences, especially the health sciences, people die. The incentive structure has to change. 

All forms of privilege — including the ones I benefit from — are morally dangerous, but I think the form of privilege that does the greatest social and political damage is that of never having to live among or even talk to people who disagree with you about the Good.

Wendell Berry:

I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. They cannot be responsibly advocated alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior. 

A vital reminder from Berry that all of us who want to recommend significant social change need to think economically and ecologically

R.I.P. Bill Russell, one of the greatest Americans of our era — the best team athlete in American history, and an icon of Black Americans’ quest for full civil rights. One not-so-random fact worth remembering: Bill Russell’s father Charlie — raised in Louisiana, as his son would be until age eight — in his childhood knew people who had been enslaved. As I keep saying: The past is not dead etc. 

smooth things and rough ground

There are many links in what follows. I would encourage you to read this through without noticing the links, and then go back to them later if you’re so inclined. 


Around a year ago I wrote a post in which I said this: 

I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious. 

I then went on to say that I am shifting towards a new general project, which at that time wasn’t perfectly clear in my mind. And I was fine with that, because as far back as 2014 I understood that it is important for me, as I transition to the final stage of my career, not to know where I am going. “Old men ought to be explorers.”

But matters are coming into a focus a bit. It has recently occurred to me that much of what I am writing these days circles around an imperative that Wittgenstein famously articulated in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” 

B75S2a5IQAIUkpG

The goal of the attention merchants is to keep us on the ice, to keep us sliding in the direction they choose, to keep us believing that the frictionlessness of the sliding is a sign that “the conditions are ideal.” But I want to walk — I need to walk, so I can learn to move at the speed of our three-mile-an-hour God

Repair is harder, rougher, than discarding the replacement; invitation of others to collaborate in repair is rougher than going it alone. 

So the quest for a constructive friction is what my work keeps circling around these days. It’s why I seek to practice handmind; it’s why I am interested in anarchism, because anarchism is a determination to achieve through the patient work of negotiation and voluntary association what all the forces of metaphysical capitalism would prefer to sell us. It’s why I want to distinguish between “productivity” and good work. It’s why I seek the messiness of the unfinalizable human world rather than allowing myself to be transformed into a server. To resist mechanization and its monoculture; to practice a cosmopolitanism of difference; to recover piety towards flawed and even broken institutions — these are all ways of finding and exploring the rough ground. Strategies and practices of roughness. Because the rough ground is where walking — a human life on a human scale — is possible. 

The Essenes, those fearsome ascetics of the profound desert, denounced their spiritual enemies — probably the Pharisees specifically, certainly all the Jewish leaders who lived and taught others to live in frictionless comfort with the Ruling Powers — as seekers of smooth things. The phrase comes from Isaiah 30: 

For they are a rebellious people, 
lying children, 
children unwilling to hear 
the instruction of the Lord; 
who say to the seers, “Do not see,” 
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; 
speak to us smooth things, 
prophesy illusions, 
leave the way, turn aside from the path, 
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”   

But if you invite your leaders to speak to you only smooth things, you will dwell in illusion; and in a state of illusion you will be vulnerable to powers far greater than yourself; and, as Isaiah goes on to say, all the vessels will be broken, and you will be unable to carry fire from your hearth or draw water from your cistern.

I’m not an Essene; I lack the requisite fierceness. I prefer to walk on that rough ground with what I have called the “peaceable irony” of the Taoist sage (or the Franciscan friar, a similar figure). Or maybe like Les Murray’s apostle of sprawl:

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind. 
Reprimanded and dismissed 
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail 
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth. 
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek 
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl. 

Those with ears to hear, let them hear. 

Wall e 12

Sir Hardy Amies 1

Sir Hardy Amies was for decades Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth, and also, in his spare time, designed costumes for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But during World War II he had overseen the exposure of double agents and Nazi collaborators in Belgium — and, later, directed the assassination program called Operation Ratweek. Lord only knows how many deaths Hardy Amies was responsible for; perhaps his ruthless efficiency stood him in good stead when, to the subsequent horror of his superiors, he staged a Vogue photo shoot in Belgium just after D-Day. This is what Phantom Thread should’ve been about. 

building what looks right

Eboo Patel:

When I was in college in the mid-1990s—an era that feels quite similar to today—a lot of my activism was around diversity issues. It wasn’t called “wokeness” then, but there was a very heightened consciousness around race and gender and sexuality. I think there is a very positive story to tell about bell hooks and Cornel West being read everywhere. But towards the end of college, I realized that religious diversity is never a part of the conversation. I had become, at this point, more inspired by faith-based activists, particularly Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. The way I put it is that they loved people more than they hated the system. And it seemed to me that a lot of activists I knew hated the system more than they loved people. 

I started going to interfaith conferences looking for the next generation of these great faith-based activists like Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Pauli Murray and Martin Luther King Jr. What I found instead was old theologians talking. So I did what I was taught to do as an activist in college: I stood up, I raised my fist, and I called them out. This was June of 1988. I was probably 22, the firebrand young person on the floor, shouting people down. And a striking thing happened. This woman named Yolanda Trevino walked up to me, and she said, “What you’re talking about — a movement of young people from diverse religious traditions, engaging in social action together — is powerful. You should build that.” The scales fell from my eyes. She presented to me two paths: one was to continue yelling at other people for what they were doing wrong; the other was to build what I thought looked right.

Patel, who runs an interfaith organization, reminds us just how often people from various faith traditions have done just that — have built what they thought looked right and needed to be built. “If every institution founded by a faith community in your city disappeared overnight, preschools, hospitals, and universities would be gone. YMCAs would be gone, places where AA groups meet would be gone. Half of your social services would probably be gone. It feels to me that religious identity diversity should be at the center of our national conversation, and I’m curious as to why it’s not.” 

Screenshot 2022 07 29 at 12 51 26 PM

Not really where I thought Christopher Fry would take that libretto, but I guess that’s why he’s a famous playwright and I’m not. 

My colleagues Byron Johnson and Jeff Levin:

According to the 2018 General Social Survey, 6.4% of self-described atheists and 27.2% of agnostics attended religious services monthly or more; 12.8% and 58.1%, respectively, prayed at least weekly; 19.2% and 75% believed in life after death; and 7.3% and 23.3% reported having had a religious experience. 

Americans are weird. 

fish

I’m trying to decide how much I agree with this, from the film scholar David Thomson, in the Mizoguchi entry in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Despite all its advantages for research and preservation, video is unkind to any movie and cruel to any great movie. Mizoguchi worked with scale, space, and movement, and movement on a TV set is like a fish moving across a tank, whereas movement on a real screen is that of a great fish passing us in the water. 

Let’s suppose you have a big modern flatscreen TV, a good sound system, a high-quality Blu-ray Disc and player, and a dark room in which to watch … is that environment dramatically different from watching a movie in a theater? 

the file system

The Verge:

“I grew up when you had to have a file; you had to save it; you had to know where it was saved. There was no search function,” says Saavik Ford, a professor of astronomy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. But among her students, “There’s not a conception that there’s a place where files live. They just search for it and bring it up.” She added, “They have a laundry basket full of laundry, and they have a robot who will fetch them every piece of clothing they want on demand.” […]

To a point, the new mindset may reflect a natural — and expected — technological progression. Plavchan recalls having similar disconnects with his own professors. “When I was a student, I’m sure there was a professor that said, ‘Oh my god, I don’t understand how this person doesn’t know how to solder a chip on a motherboard,’” he says. “This kind of generational issue has always been around.” And though directory structures exist on every computer (as well as in environments like Google Drive), today’s iterations of macOS and Windows do an excellent job of hiding them. (Your Steam games all live in a folder called “steamapps” — when was the last time you clicked on that?) Today’s virtual world is largely a searchable one; people in many modern professions have little need to interact with nested hierarchies.

“Search, don’t sort,” Google says, but increasingly I’m wondering whether I ought to spend more time sorting and less time searching. I’m always looking for ways to introduce constructive friction into my working practices — see this post for an example — and maybe going Old Skool with some kind of rational filing system would be more helpful than either (a) searching or (b) using the inconsistent and ad hoc system of folders I now have. If I designed a new system Hazel would help me implement it. 

Critical research on the causes of Alzheimer’s may have been falsified — and as a result, researchers may have concentrated too much on a hypothesis that was not as well-supported as they thought. Further investigation will tell whether that’s true, but in any event the story is a useful reminder that we shouldn’t assume that the fudging or outright falsification of scientific data is a victimless crime. In some cases — in this case, if falsified data inappropriately changed the direction of Alzheimer’s research — there could be very many victims indeed before the course of research gets corrected. 

UPDATE: David Robert Grimes: “Science may be self-correcting, but only in the long term.” 

Yes, Social Media Really Is Undermining Democracy – The Atlantic:

Social media may not be the primary cause of polarization, but it is an important cause, and one we can do something about. I believe it is also the primary cause of the epidemic of structural stupidity, as I called it, that has recently afflicted many of America’s key institutions.

A good response by Jon Haidt to critics of his work, one that calls upon many new studies. I mean, if you’re not yet convinced. 

Mary Midgley, in a late interview:

“The kind of thing that Paul Davies has dwelt on, about the improbability of all this order, seems to me to be sensible. So that one has to say that from the big bang onwards there’s some sort of tendency towards the formation of order and in certain stages of order towards proceeding to life and to produce more and more perceptive life as it were. Well this talk about a life force seems to me highly suitable and I don’t see anything superstitious about it. It’s still very vague but of course that’s getting you quite near to ‘well of course that means there’s a God’. People talk about the origin of having gods was just that you wanted to explain things or have something to placate us, but it seems to me one important source of it is gratitude. You go out on a day like this and you’re really grateful. I don’t know who to.” 

Ross Douthat: “More Americans should live in the West, and more Americans assuredly will.” Yeah, they probably will, but they shouldn’t, because there’s not enough water. 

Mary Leng:

Indeed, armed with a new toolbox of Latin names for fallacies, eager students all too often delight in spotting fallacies in the wild, shouting out their Latin names (ad hominem!; secundum quid!) as if they were magic spells. This is what Scott Aikin and John Casey, in their delightful book Straw Man Arguments, call the Harry Potter fallacy: the “troublesome practice of invoking fallacy names in place of substantive discussion”. However, they note another, less wholesome reason why some may be interested in fallacy theory. If one’s aim is not so much discovering the truth as winning an argument at all costs, fallacy theory can provide a training in the dark arts of closing down a discussion prematurely, leaving the impression that it has been won.

This, for Aikin and Casey, is the essence of what makes the straw man a fallacy: if we successfully “straw man” our opponent by knocking down a misstated version of their argument, we give the mistaken impression that the issue is closed.

Paradoxically, the straw man works particularly well on people well trained in the norms of good argument (the authors call this the “Owl of Minerva problem”: “we, in making our practices more self-reflective … create new opportunities for second-order pathologies that arise out of our corrective reflection”)…. Observers are generally more likely to be taken in by shoddy reasoning if they are already sympathetic to one side, and straw-manning contributes to the polarization of political debate. In today’s political environment it is not uncommon for partisans intuitively to see themselves as being on the right side of history, with their rivals adding nothing of value to the conversation and deserving of intellectual – or even moral – contempt. The prevalence of this fallacy in democratic political debate is thus a matter of significant concern: as Aikin and Casey write, it is “a threat to a properly functioning system of self-government”.

no nonsense

For the past few weeks I’ve been watching the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship, AKA the women’s Euros, and it’s been enjoyable throughout. And as much as the generally high quality of play — most notably from Arsenal legend Beth Mead — I have enjoyed the complete absence of drama-queen nonsense. I’ve been watching women’s footy for a long time, but not so much in so brief a period, and I think perhaps it’s the condensed timeline that has made me so aware of what’s missing: the flinging yourself to the turf, the rolling around in mock agony, the clutching of your face when an elbow grazes your bicep — the constant bullshit that really, seriously defaces the men’s game. 

By contrast, these Euros have been all Chumbawamba: they get knocked down, they get back up again. They don’t get a call they want, they go on with the game. Sure, they let the ref know when they think a call has been missed, but essentially they just play footy. It’s been great. 

Yasmin Tayag:

At this point, I worry about how much longer it’s going to last. People like [my fiancé] — I think of them as “COVID virgins” — are becoming a rare breed. Just yesterday, President Joe Biden thinned their ranks by one more person. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that as of earlier this month, 82 percent of Americans have been infected with the coronavirus at least once. Some of those people might still think they’re never had the virus: Asymptomatic infections happen, and mild symptoms are sometimes brushed off as allergies or a cold. Now that we’re battling BA.5, the most contagious and vaccine-dodging Omicron offshoot yet, many people are facing their second, third, or even fourth infections. That reality can make it feel like the stragglers who have evaded infection for two and a half years are destined to fall sick sooner rather than later. At this point, are COVID virgins nothing more than sitting ducks? 

“Destined to fall sick” — or not, depending on how common asymptomatic or nearly-asymptomatic infections are. But how can we know how common they are, since not many people who have no symptoms are likely to get tested. I don’t think I’ve had COVID, but who knows? Maybe I’ve had it once or twice or even more, but am one of the super-lucky ones. Nobody knows anything, basically.  

two varieties of human frailty

Breaking Bad is a story about ressentiment; about a man who feels himself marginalized and neglected, powerless and ineffectual, who, therefore, cannot resist the temptation to establish himself as a Power — as a man who says, and means it: “I am the one who knocks.”

Better Call Saul dramatizes a radically different form of human frailty: the temptation of the con. The person so tempted may be socially marginal or socially dominant or something in between — though the marginal will have a few more incentives pushing them towards scamming. What’s at work here is not ressentiment but rather (a) a desire to dominate people, a desire to know what they don’t know and act on that knowledge in a way that enables you to triumph over them, and (a) the intellectual challenge of building a successful scam: the meticulous planning, the anticipation of the responses of your marks, the ability to improvise when things go wrong. What you see in Better Call Saul is, first, how the power of these two motives — the desire to dominate and the love of intellectual challenge —  vary from person to person, and within a person from moment to moment; and also the crack-like addictiveness that follows upon the running of a successful scam. 

Both shows then are about extremes of human frailty — frailty become perversity, perversity become wickedness — and how inescapable the associated habits of thought and action can be. 

BCS 610 GL 1019 0051 RT70 jpg

normie wisdom 7: politics

Towards a Normie Politics – Freddie deBoer:

The association with the mainstream and centrism in American political life depends on a very selective view of the normal. The current state of affairs in American healthcare, for example, is not remotely left-wing and also not remotely “normal,” compared to other developed countries, especially in terms of our costs and bad outcomes. Normie politics allow for far-left alternatives, if they are presented intelligently. Fetterman, after all, supports Medicare for All, a radical (and badly needed) proposal to rip America’s system for funding healthcare up from its roots. The viability of this proposal is of course fiercely debated, but it enjoys consistently strong polling support, and benefits from its great moral simplicity: tax people more and let the government fund everyone’s healthcare. This is a far-left goal, but it’s quintessentially normie politics. In contrast, I would say that Obamacare’s bewildering subsidies and exchanges and tiers of coverage stand as the antithesis of normie politics. In contrast to normie politics, Obamacare was the apotheosis of wonk politics, politics for people who ride the Acela every day. In other spaces, the normie demand might indeed be more centrist than alternatives, but it’s fundamentally not the centrism that makes politics normie. It’s the constant return to framing that emphasizes the comfortable and the mundane.

Bernie Sanders’s insurgent campaigns in 2016 and 2020 failed, but they dramatically outperformed what was expected of an avowed socialist, in no small measure because Sanders is one of the most effortlessly down-to-earth politicians in modern history. Bernie is down-to-earth, but I would phrase Freddie’s point slightly differently. If you reflect on, for instance, the way a Fox News audience in 2016 responded to Bernie, you can see that the key thing is not so much being down-to-earth but rather his communicating something essential to that audience: I care about the same things you do. He cares about people having to work for below-subsistence wages, he cares about people who can’t get access to higher education, he cares about not leaving an environmental mess for our children. Basic stuff. Normie stuff.

Probably the typical Fox viewer is skeptical of Bernie’s proposals for dealing with all that stuff, but they can’t deny that he’s asking the right questions and raising the right issues. Which means that he at least has a chance to win them over to his proposals; whereas when Joe Biden says that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time,” he’s just alienating people he can’t afford to alienate – including Black voters who wonder when, exactly, the civil rights of Black Americans got totally sorted out.

As I have said many times, I am dispositionally a conservative, but that just makes me homeless in our current political landscape. If we had a genuine Left — not the virtue-signaling cosplaying on social media with its limited roster of mindless buzzwords, but a Left that draws on its own best history of caring for the insulted and the injured, the downtrodden and the hopeless — this dispositional conservative would find that a lot more appealing than the politics of ressentiment and hatred that the Republican Party now largely embraces. But, you know, if a frog had wings he wouldn’t whomp his ass every time he jumped.

To people who say that they need to repair and renew and restore themselves before they turn their attention to anything else — which is what one person said to me recently — I would reply that turning your attention to cultural products that are good and true and beautiful is a way of renewing your attention by redirecting it, and therefore beginning to heal yourself. To give yourself the food that your spirit needs is at one and the same time to renew yourself and to renew your cultural enframing, as it were. To listen to a beautiful piece of music and then share it with others, is to heal yourself, offer healing to them, and do justice to someone’s meaningful work. It is a triangulated renewal.

How to Search for Life on Mars — The New Atlantis:

Despite what it says, NASA has actually made the decision not to look for present life on Mars, even though tools that could identify life have been available to the agency for twenty years. Even worse, NASA’s existing rovers operating on Mars are being directed to avoid areas most likely to harbor life, and its plans for future human exploration are being designed in a way that would minimize their exploratory capability.

What in the world is NASA thinking? And how can we get the agency back on the path to finding life? 

A fascinating essay, and a kind of case study on how bureaucracies evaluate risk vs. reward.  

capability and collaboration

In her book Creating Capabilities Martha Nussbaum writes,

What are capabilities? They are the answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and to be?” In other words, they are what [Amartya] Sen calls “substantial freedoms,” a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act. In one standard formulation by Sen, “a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve. Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations.” In other words, they are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

When elaborating the capabilities approach, Nussbaum — I think this is fair to say — generally writes as though individual autonomy is the proper moral ideal. But in light of recent posts, I wonder if we might ask what capabilities emerge only in the context of a bet on mutuality. Capabilities, mine and yours alike, that only become available when we formulate and test prototypes together. See this chart from Sara Hendren.

ASIDE

Prototyping is iterative, but not all iterative activities are prototypes. Blogging, as I conceive of it, is iterative, in that it returns repeatedly to certain themes, trying to explore them more adequately. But previous iterations are never discarded; they remain part of the project. A blog is more like a palimpsest than a prototype.

As I hinted earlier, these thoughts run against my grain. I’ve team-taught a number of times over the years, but the norm for me is designing and running my own class; the norm for me is imagining and writing my own essays and books. There are always collaborative elements in this work — I look at what other faculty teaching the same classes do, I learn from my students what works and what doesn’t (every instantiation of a course is a prototype), I receive and respond to feedback from editors. But I don’t think about those collaborative elements often enough, I don’t keep them in the front of my mind, and so I am insufficiently attentive to the possibilities of collaboration. 

A big part of my interest in anarchism — see the tag at the foot of this post — stems from my sense that certain distinctive human goods emerge only when we allow order to emerge from voluntary collaboration. 

You’re never too old to learn … I hope. 

the invitation to critique

A while back, I wrote this:

To make promises, to stand by one’s words, to be answerable for them, is to open oneself to blame. That’s legitimately frightening. But if the cost is high, so is the benefit: To be answerable for one’s words is to escape the ineffectual, and to find “the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person.” To move from the linguistically and morally empty world of Projection — in which you can blithely forecast the destruction of whole fields of human activity and the hopes they hold — to the meaning-saturated world of Promise is to risk much. But if Bakhtin is right, you’re betting on the integrity of your own personhood; and if Berry is right, you’re binding yourself to someone else’s future. The promise for which you are truly answerable is a bet on mutuality. 

I’m casting my mind back to this because of some thoughts that keep rising up in the aftermath of my recent Laity Lodge retreat with Sara Hendren

One of the points Sara emphasized in her talks was how Olin College of Engineering, where she teaches, spends a lot of time teaching its students the practice of prototyping. As Sara defines and explains that practice, it really does look to me like a “bet on mutuality,” in this sense: To build a prototype and expose it to critique is to make yourself very vulnerable. (Sara mentioned an exercise Olin does in which it has its students build games, and then invites fourth-graders in to judge the games. “Is this fun?” She said that when those terrifying 10-year-olds arrive, some of her students’ hands are shaking.) But you invite people in because you know that you can’t do the thing you want to do without their honest response.

The form this particular bet on mutuality takes could be called a hopeful invitation to a constructive feedback loop. That is, you hope that your critics will give responses that will genuinely help you improve your prototype; and they hope that you will try to improve your project in ways that take their critique seriously. And so on, iteration by iteration. Sara has written of critique and repair, and I have written of invitation and repair, but look what we have here: the invitation to critique as a first step in the process of repair. 

An obvious point, now that I think about it, but then, I often take some time to achieve the obvious. 

When this thought came to me, I realized that I had dealt with it, implicitly, in one of my own talks at Laity. I had contrasted Bob Davey — a man who desperately wanted to restore an old church in Norfolk, England — with Justo Martinez — a man who wanted to build a new church near Madrid, Spain. Brother Justo strove for decades not just to build the church, but also to do it alone — he neither sought nor welcomed assistance of any kind, and often claimed to have achieved by himself tasks that he simply couldn’t have achieved without help. He treated others as impediments and threats. By contrast, Davey worked very hard on restoring that little Norfolk church, but he also sought help of every kind along the way. He gave up complete control of the project in order to draw friends and strangers into his endeavor. His motto seems to have been that great phrase from Wordsworth: “what we have loved, / Others will love, and we will teach them how.” He made a bet on mutuality.

That surely meant having to hear other people tell him “You’re doing it wrong” — something Justo, it seems, couldn’t bear to hear. But if we want to repair the world, or any part of our little corner of it, we’ve got not just to accept but invite that possibility. We have to discipline ourselves to welcome it. And we have to encourage those others to stick with us through multiple iterations of whatever we’re prototyping. 

What this might look like through my kind of work … well, I’m just beginning to figure that out. But it’s got to start with doing hard things with friends

the missing middle

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

In every corner of pop culture — movies, TV, music, books, and video games — a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all. The (very silly) word for this oligopoly, like a monopoly but with a few players instead of just one. 

Remember when we were looking forward to the era of the Long Tail? Nah, that didn’t happen. At least not in the way predicted. We do, praise God, have unprecedented access to art, books, music, movies — but we often get to choose between the colorless tasteless mega-productions of the oligopoly or very small things made at the cultural and economic margins. 

This works out differently in different art forms, and I want to think more about the details. But it does seem to me that there’s a kind of squeezing-out of the middle. The midlist author is disappearing — heck, in another time and place I might well have been a midlist author, but I could never sell enough books in the current environment to make a living. Also, it seems that only a few bands — good old-fashioned guitar/keyboards/bass/drum bands — can afford to tour any more, and most of those are comprised of people over sixty. Younger musicians tend to work solo or duo, or form short-term collaborations, and thick musical textures tend to be developed (when they’re developed all) through digital instrumentation rather than through people learning how to play together. The new economics of art has been hard on all musical genres, but especially, I think, on jazz. Which was struggling anyway.  

Obviously you can’t generalize too grossly here; the situation in the visual arts is rather different. But in many art forms, it seems to me, we have the massive-in-scale and massive-in-popularity and small-in-scale and small-in-popularity — and not much in between. 

critique and repair in the canyon

A number of years ago, when I was teaching at Wheaton College in Illinois, a couple of students asked me if I would consider becoming the faculty sponsor for a club for Southerners at Wheaton — a club to be focused on the real South, in all of its complexity, and one that didn’t give a fig for the Confederacy. They came over to our house for a meal, and Teri and I had a wonderful long talk with them. Those are special young women, we thought — and goodness, was that an understatement. Their names were Sara Hendren and Claire Chamblin — now Claire Holley — and they have remained close friends, and have gone on to do exceptional things in their chosen fields of endeavor. 

Last week we were all together again, at Laity Lodge, where Sara and I offered sessions on the theme of Critique and Repair, while Claire played songs for us and led us in singing — and gave an exceptionally beautiful concert on Saturday evening in the Cody Center. I learned so much from Sara’s talks — she is really doing innovative and compassionate and philosophically rich work on the topics we explored — so it will take me a long time to process it all. Look in the next few weeks for responses, probably piecemeal at first. 

In short: few activities are more rewarding than doing hard things with friends. My mind is full, and my heart too. 

Screenshot 2022 07 22 at 10 51 58 AM

Claire at the piano in the Great Hall (taken by my wife Teri): 

CH

The peace of the river: 

Frio

convo

Me: Good grief, it’s just one thing after another. 

T: No kidding. Today the plumber spills toxic chemicals all over our kitchen floor, yesterday it was the sound on the TV going wonky. 

Me: Before that my Kindle died. 

T: Before that the ice maker in our fridge died. 

Me: Before that our internet ran at a glacial pace for several days. 

T: And it’s searing hot. And there’s no rain. 

Me: I got a new vinyl record and it keeps sticking. CDs eventually wear out. Also, the drawer of my CD player keeps sticking. 

T: Your life is suffering. But you know, everything wears out. 

Me: Nothing works. [pause] Well, there’s one thing I can count on. 

T: What’s that? 

Me: Books. They always work. No internet, they still work. No electricity, they still work. Drop them in the bathtub and they get a little wonky, but you can still read them. The books on my shelf — in a hundred years, in two hundred years, they’ll still be readable. The only thing you can really count on in this vale of tears is books

T: Truth. 

A Love Letter to the Mountains:

In The High Sierra, [Kim Stanley] Robinson is constantly shifting scale too—shifting scale, subject, angle of attention, even genre. One moment the book is memoir. The next it’s trail guide. Then it’s bibliography, history, ecological meditation, and a discourse on renaming peaks and passes that have culturally unacceptable names. Robinson lets his thoughts scatter and then tracks them down wherever they’ve settled, much like a Sierra sheepherder and his flock in the late 19th century. The High Sierra might be subtitled: A Miscellany — even though it’s a word we don’t use much any more. Robinson registers that the human mind is miscellaneous and invites us to accept that fact. 

I’m not an audiobook guy, but on a lark I decided to listen to this one, read by Robinson himself — and it was terrific. I wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to Robinson reading one of his novels, but because this is a memoir, that voice was perfect. Also, Audible gives you a link to a PDF containing the many illuminating photographs the book features, which is a big help to understanding. 

What a unique and wonderful career KSR has had. I hope he’ll keep writing — and hiking. 

the ultimate in entitlement

I posted this yesterday and then, because I wrote it in a moment of anger, decided to take it down. Denunciation is not the ideal mode for me; and it’s not really my post. But Kreider’s piece bothers me, and I think for good reason, so I am putting this back up, with some minor editing. 


Tim Kreider:

I have a shameful confession to make: Secretly, I am not lazy. I’ve learned that if I do literally nothing for more than a year, two at most, I start to get depressed. I’m not recanting my old manifesto. I still hope to make it to my grave without ever getting a job job — showing up for eight or more hours a day to a place with fluorescent lighting where I’m expected to feign bushido devotion to a company that could fire me tomorrow and someone’s allowed to yell at you but you’re not allowed to yell back.

Does Tim Kreider realize that there are people out there — probably >99% of the working population — who don’t work because they want to but because they have to? Does he understood the continent-sized iceberg of entitlement lying beneath his casual acknowledgement that he has “learned” what it’s like to “do literally nothing for more than a year”? Has it ever occurred to him that the world is full of people who don’t know what it’s like to “do literally nothing” for one day? Does he grasp that someone who has had the opportunity to discover how his psyche responds when he loafs around for a year or two has absolutely no business writing about “the actual dystopian future we now inhabit,” because whaddya mean “we,” sunshine?

“Once I become genuinely engaged in a project,” Kreider boasts, “I can become fanatically absorbed, spending hundreds of hours on it, no matter how useless and unremunerative.” Well, that’s nice. But does Kreider even begin to understand that there are millions and millions of people in this country — just in this country — who would give a couple of digits to be able to spend even a dozen hours on such a project, but can’t because they’re too busy making enough money to feed and shelter themselves and maybe their family?

“It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam,” the title of his essay tells me. And do what instead? There is, he says, “a republic to salvage, a civilization to reimagine and its infrastructure to reinvent, innumerable species to save, a world to restore and millions who are impoverished, imprisoned, illiterate, sick or starving. All while we waste our time at work.” Again: What’s with the “we”? And again: What does Kreider expect his readers to do? Quit their jobs and … pay their rent how? Feed themselves and their family how? Get adequate medical care how? Save enough to avoid an impoverished old age how?

You know what’s even worse than a bullshit job? A writer who has had the enormous good fortune to avoid bullshit jobs chastising people for not quitting their bullshit jobs.

Andrew Hickey:

[Brian] Wilson’s post-Pet Sounds career, like his pre-Pet Sounds career, is an extraordinary mix of the bizarre, the shockingly bad, the beautiful, and the awe-inspiring, often in the same song. Wilson appears to have no filters, and while this means his music at its best is the most emotionally truthful I’ve ever heard, it also means he has no quality control. His best work is as likely to be an allegorical fairytale about a prince with a magic transistor radio, written while listening to a Randy Newman album on repeat, or a two-minute as-yet-unreleased song about baseball, or a song about Johnny Carson done in mock-Weimar cabaret style backed by a Moog set on “fart sounds,” as it is to be an eight-minute psychedelic country epic about the Rio Grande.

three versions of artificial intelligence

Artificial Creativity? – O’Reilly:

AI has been used to complete Beethoven’s 10th symphony, for which Beethoven left a number of sketches and notes at the time of his death. The result is pretty good, better than the human attempts I’ve heard at completing the 10th. It sounds Beethoven-like; its flaw is that it goes on and on, repeating Beethoven-like riffs but without the tremendous forward-moving force that you get in Beethoven’s compositions. But completing the 10th isn’t the problem we should be looking at. How did we get Beethoven in the first place?  If you trained an AI on the music Beethoven was trained on, would you eventually get the 9th symphony? Or would you get something that sounds a lot like Mozart and Haydn?

I’m betting the latter. 

A story from qntm:

As the earliest viable brain scan, MMAcevedo is one of a very small number of brain scans to have been recorded before widespread understanding of the hazards of uploading and emulation. MMAcevedo not only predates all industrial scale virtual image workloading but also the KES case, the Whitney case, the Seafront Experiments and even Poulsen’s pivotal and prescient Warnings paper. Though speculative fiction on the topic of uploading existed at the time of the MMAcevedo scan, relatively little of it made accurate exploration of the possibilities of the technology, and that fiction which did was far less widely-known than it is today. Certainly, Acevedo was not familiar with it at the time of his uploading. 

As such, unlike the vast majority of emulated humans, the emulated Miguel Acevedo boots with an excited, pleasant demeanour. He is eager to understand how much time has passed since his uploading, what context he is being emulated in, and what task or experiment he is to participate in. If asked to speculate, he guesses that he may have been booted for the IAAS-1 or IAAS-5 experiments. At the time of his scan, IAAS-1 had been scheduled for August 10, 2031, and MMAcevedo was indeed used for that experiment on that day. IAAS-5 had been scheduled for October 2031 but was postponed several times and eventually became the IAAX-60 experiment series, which continued until the mid-2030s and used other scans in conjunction with MMAcevedo. The emulated Acevedo also expresses curiosity about the state of his biological original and a desire to communicate with him.  

MMAcevedo’s demeanour and attitude contrast starkly with those of nearly all other uploads taken of modern adult humans, most of which boot into a state of disorientation which is quickly replaced by terror and extreme panic. Standard procedures for securing the upload’s cooperation such as red-washing, blue-washing, and use of the Objective Statement Protocols are unnecessary. This reduces the necessary computational load required in fast-forwarding the upload through a cooperation protocol, with the result that the MMAcevedo duty cycle is typically 99.4% on suitable workloads, a mark unmatched by all but a few other known uploads. However, MMAcevedo’s innate skills and personality make it fundamentally unsuitable for many workloads. 

Charlie Stross

Here’s the thing: our current prevailing political philosophy of human rights and constitutional democracy is invalidated if we have mind uploading/replication or super-human intelligence. (The latter need not be AI; it could be uploaded human minds able to monopolize sufficient computing substrate to get more thinking done per unit baseline time than actual humans can achieve.) Some people are, once again, clearly superior in capability to born-humans. And other persons can be ruthlessly exploited for their labour output without reward, and without even being allowed to know that they’re being exploited. […] 

Our intuitions about crimes against people (and humanity) are based on a set of assumptions about the parameters of personhood that are going to be completely destroyed if mind uploading turns out to be possible.

Andy Crouch:

What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It’s not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty — one that’s dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It’s totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we’re asking them to live in — this world of easy everywhere — this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It’s not at all surprising that they’re struggling and feeling disconnected. 

You can be almost certain that people who sneer with ready contempt at today’s college students don’t spend much time around them. Our young people have been given a raw deal, and most of them play it better than we have any right to expect. And the ones who don’t? They’re twenty years old. How put-together were you at age twenty?