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An anti-slavery medallion by Josiah Wedgwood 


Wedgwood seems to have thrown himself behind the cause of abolition out of genuine conviction. The medallion presented a marketing opportunity of sorts, but he manufactured it in large numbers at his own cost and ran the risk of alienating wealthy customers who opposed abolition. At the same time, as Hunt acknowledges, Wedgwood’s business was inextricable from the socioeconomic structures that sustained the slave trade. He depended on secure colonial shipping routes and sold extensively to the American colonies: Boston and Kingston were the perfect place to offload wares that had passed the peak of fashion back in Britain. Closer to home, many of his British customers derived their fortunes, one way or another, from colonial trade, including the trade in human beings. This trade helped to fuel the boom in domestic consumption that allowed Wedgwood to dream of selling high-quality artistic tableware to a growing middle-class market. Colonial commodities such as coffee, tea and sugar, with their accompanying social rituals, provided the raison d’être for many of Wedgwood’s most successful products.

a year of new avenues

A year of new avenues: a fantastic post by Robin Sloan, just fizzing with ideas. Here are the ones dancing in my head like a vision of sugarplums: 

  1. “It’s plain that neither the big tech companies nor the startup financiers are going to produce the tools we need for the next decade. Almost by definition, any experiment that’s truly pathbreaking and provocative is too weird and tiny for them to suffer. They are trapped in their stupendous scale; lucky us.” 
  2. “Publishing on the internet is a solved problem; finding each other on the internet, in a way that’s healthy and sustainable … that’s the piece that has never quite fallen into place.” 
  3. “Back in the 2000s, a lot of blogs were about blogs, about blogging. If that sounds exhaustingly meta, well, yes — but it’s also SUPER generative. When the thing can describe itself, when it becomes the best tool to talk about itself, some internal flywheel gets spinning, and interesting things start to happen.”  
  4. “This isn’t a time for ‘products’, or product launches. It’s not a time to toil in secret for a year and then reveal what you’d made with a shiny landing page. Rather, I believe it’s a time to explain as you go.”  
  5. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t create a Mastodon account, or that you can’t have fun, percolating conversations there. I’m just saying that it doesn’t represent a sufficiently interesting experiment, because it accepts too much as settled.” 

In Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, he acknowledges that he was wrong to say, as he was perhaps the first to do, that to the social media platforms you are not the customer but the product. Rather, he now argues, the company’s stock is the product; you are the unpaid labor that increases the value of that product.

When I read crypto-bro stories like this one I always think of Yeats: “The rhetorician would deceive his neighbor, / The sentimentalist himself.”

1947 10


Leon Shamroy, writing in American Cinematographer in 1947:

Not too far off is the “electronic camera.” A compact, lightweight box no larger than a Kodak Brownie, it will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film stocks. A single lens system will adjust to any focal length by the operator merely turning a knob, and will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses to today. Cranes and dollies weighing tons will be replaced by lightweight perambulators. The camera will be linked to the film recorder by coaxial cable or radio. The actual recording of the scene on film will take place at a remote station, under ideal conditions. Instead of waiting for a day —or days, in the case of shooting with color — electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.

It is not too difficult to predict the effect of such advancements on the production of motion pictures. Economically, it will mean savings in time and money. Since the photographic results will be known immediately, it will be unnecessary to tie up actors and stages for long periods of time. The size and sensitivity of this new camera will make photography possible under ordinary lighting conditions. Shooting pictures on distant locations will be simplified. generators, lighting units, and other heavy equipment will be eliminated, thus doing away with costly transportation.

This post by Victor Mair on the staggering variation in translations of the Daodejing points to something that has been worrying me. I want to go father with my investigations into Daoism — see the relevant tag at the bottom of this post — but I keep running into differences in the various translations that are this extreme or even more so. I’m starting to think that I’m either going to have to abandon my Daoist inquiries … or learn Chinese. The latter being a very daunting thought, especially at my age. (If I’m going to pursue any language with an alphabet other than my own, it probably should be Greek — which I know a bit of — or Hebrew — which I don’t really know at all.) 

and then?

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Illustration by my buddy Austin Kleon


As I mentioned in earlier posts, Noah Smith wants to outsource much of the process of writing, and Derek Thompson wants to outsource his research. In other news, Marina Koren is bothered by the slowness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and her partner wants to watch the movie at 2X speed. Perhaps he also participates in the TikTok practice of listening to songs at double-speed

My question about all this is: And then? You rush through the writing, the researching, the watching, the listening, you’re done with it, you get it behind you — and what is in front of you? Well, death, for one thing. For the main thing. 

But in the more immediate future: you’re zipping through all these experiences in order to do what, exactly? Listen to another song at double-speed? Produce a bullet-point outline of another post that AI can finish for you? 

The whole attitude seems to be: Let me get through this thing I don’t especially enjoy so I can do another thing just like it, which I won’t enjoy either. This is precisely what Paul Virilio means when he talks about living at a “frenetic standstill” and what Hartmut Rosa means when he talks about “social acceleration.” 

I say: If you’re trying to get through your work as quickly as you can, then maybe you should see if you can find a different line of work. And if you’re trying to get through your leisure-time reading and watching and listening as quickly as you can, then you definitely do not understand the meaning of leisure and should do a thorough rethink. And in both cases maybe it would be useful to read Mark Helprin on “The Acceleration of Tranquility.” 

Megan McArdle, arguing that trying to use social media’s moderators to crack down on misinformation isn’t a good idea:

For one thing, moderators aren’t good at determining what constitutes actual misinformation. A lot of the dangerous nonsense about covid that circulated on social media came from the same public health experts social media companies were using as arbiters.

It was public health experts who initially told us masks don’t work, an assertion they knew to be false. It was public health experts who insisted, without good evidence, that covid wasn’t airborne. And many public health experts helped support prolonged school closures that have been proven to undermine learning.

That is not to say that public health experts are the moral or intellectual equivalent of quacks peddling balderdash about vaccine side effects. The public health community eventually recognized its most egregious errors, while the quacks doubled down. But free and open debate on social media assisted that process of course correction, and cracking down on what the experts then deemed false information would actually have slowed the pace of adjustment.

two quotations on slow reading

The Guardian:

But there is power in reading slowly, something the Chinese-American author Yiyun Li tells her creative writing students at Princeton University. “They say, ‘I can read 100 pages an hour’,” she says. “But I say, ‘I don’t want you to read 100 pages an hour. I want you to read three pages an hour’.”

That’s the speed Li is happy to read at, even if she is re-reading a familiar text. “People often say they devoured a book in one sitting. But I want to savour a book, which means I give myself just 10 pages a day of any book.” On an average day, Li … reads 10 different books, spending half an hour on each title.

At that pace it can take Li up to three weeks to finish a novel. “When you spend two to three weeks with a book, you live in that world,” she says. “I think reading slowly is such an important skill. Nobody has ever talked about it, or taught me that. I’m a very patient reader. Even if it’s a very compelling book. I don’t want to rush from the beginning to the end.”

Me, from The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

Consider a story by one of the great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty (1914–2002). It’s called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate an alien society’s educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting moment for the Iowans — they interview a girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly announces that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute. (As Stanislas Dehaene explains, that’s pretty close to our maximum speed.)

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. “They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth,” one of the adults says. “We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

I like my job

Derek Thompson:

“These language models enable the automation of certain tasks that we’ve historically considered part of the creative process,” Olson told me. I couldn’t help but agree. Writing is less than half of my job; most of my work is reading and deciding what’s important enough for me to put in a paragraph. If I could train an AI to read as I do, and to determine significance as I do, I’d be essentially building a second mind for myself.

So Derek Thompson wants to oursource his research, and, as we saw yesterday, Noah Smith wants to outsource his writing. Is this boredom or frustration with the basic elements of their work universal among journalists these days?

I hope I’m not the only one, but just for the record: I like researching, and I like writing. I like the hard work of making my prose more clear and vivid. I like overcoming my ignorance. I like synthesizing the disparate things I read and then trying to present that synthesis to my readers. I like it all.

UPDATE: As I was walking this morning I suddenly understood the most fundamental thing that’s wrong with the way Smith and Thompson think about these matters: Smith assumes that at the outset of a writing project he already knows what he wants to say and just has to get it said; Thompson assumes at the outset of a writing project that he understands what he needs to know and just has to find a way to know it. But for me writing isn’t anything like that. For me writing is discovery, discovering what I need to say — which often is something I had no intention of saying when I set out. And some of the most important research I have ever done has been serendipitous: I have been looking for one thing and instead (or in addition) found something quite different, something I didn’t know I needed but, it turns out, is essential to me.

words: bashed

Noah Smith and “roon”:

It’s important to realize exactly why the innovations of the past didn’t result in the kind of mass obsolescence that people feared at the time.

The reason was that instead of replacing people entirely, those technologies simply replaced some of the tasks they did. If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a metalworker in the 1700s, a large part of your job consisted of using hand tools to manually bash metal into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of machine tools, metalworkers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more metal with a machine.

Note the planted axioms here — the governing assumptions that the authors may not even know they’re making:

  1. That metalwork is neither an art nor a craft in which humans might take satisfaction but is simply a matter of “bashing” metal;
  2. That it’s better to direct machines to bash than to do one’s own bashing, because working with metal is drudgery but overseeing machines isn’t;
  3. That more metal-bashing is better than less metal-bashing.

I have, shall we say, some doubts about all those axioms. But let’s move on.

Consider the following, produced in the year 2322:

If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a writer in the 2000s, a large part of your job consisted of using keyboards to manually bash characters into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of AI, writers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more characters with a machine.

What a utopian dream! No one has to write any more — no one has to think of what to say, to struggle for the best words in the best order, to strive to persuade or entertain. You just say, “Hey Siri, write me an essay on why there’s no reason to fear that AI will replace humans.”

Wait — I was being sardonic there but it turns out that that’s what Smith and roon really think:

Take op-ed writers, for instance – an example that’s obviously important to Noah. Much of the task of nonfiction writing involves coming up with new ways to phrase sentences, rather than figuring out what the content of a sentence should be. AI-based word processors will automate this boring part of writing – you’ll just type what you want to say, and the AI will phrase it in a way that makes it sound comprehensible, fresh, and non-repetitive. Of course, the AI may make mistakes, or use phrasing that doesn’t quite fit a human writer’s preferred style, but this just means the human writer will go back and edit what the AI writes.

In fact, Noah imagines that at some point, his workflow will look like this: First, he’ll think about what he wants to say, and type out a list of bullet points. His AI word processor will then turn each of these bullet points into a sentence or paragraph, written in a facsimile of Noah’s traditional writing style.

Behold: an image of the future of writing produced by a writer who quite obviously doesn’t like to write.

What seems to be missing here is the question of why the people who now pay Noah Smith to write wouldn’t just cut out the middleman, i.e., Noah Smith. Maybe that’s the future of Substack: AI drawing on a large corpus of hand-bashed text so that instead of paying Freddie deBoer to write I can just say, “Hey Substack, write me an essay on professional wrestling in the style of Freddie deBoer.” After all, people who write for Substack have limited time, limited energy, limited imagination, but AI won’t have any of those limits. It can bash infinitely more words.

I think Smith and roon don’t consider that possibility because they have another planted axiom, one that can be extracted from this line in their essay: our AI future “doesn’t mean humans will have to give up the practice of individual creativity; we’ll just do it for fun instead of for money.” But we will only do that if we have time and energy to do it, which we will have only have if we’re not busting our asses to make a living. Thus the final planted axiom: AI and human beings will flourish together in a post-scarcity world, like that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.


For some reason I haven’t thought about this passage in years, though it is one of the most glorious things I know:

God made Sun and Moon to distinguish seasons, and day, and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons: But God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quetidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe to morrow, but to day if you will heare his voice, to day he will heare you. If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.

That’s John Donne’s glorious sermon for Christmas Day 1624, wonderfuly explicated by Joe Mangina here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes out fighting for freedom of speech:

We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then, faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.

To anyone who thinks, “Well, some people who have said terrible things, deserve it,” no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is. Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity. […] 

Literature deeply matters and I believe literature is in peril because of social censure. If nothing changes, the next generation will read us and wonder, how did they manage to stop being human? How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?


FYI, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea tells you what happens when you banish your shadow. 

political football

Brian Phillips

It seems safe to say that beneath this admiration, there is still, for many Americans, a lurking sense of Iran as a geopolitical nemesis. The crypto-racist provocations of old Bush-era “Axis of Evil” rhetoric still have a residual influence on many people, as does the grainy mental afterimage of Ayatollah Khomeini ranting about the U.S. as the “Great Satan” in the 1980s.

I don’t even remember the last time I disagreed with Brian about soccer, but then, this really isn’t a point about soccer. My guess is that “many Americans” do not think of Iran as a nemesis, indeed do not think of Iran at all. I would estimate that the percentage of Americans who have any view of Iran at all is approximately .1%, and yes, I know how to use decimal points in percentages. Moreover, I don’t think that percentage is any higher among footy fans. People in this country don’t remember anything that happened before the election of Donald Trump, and very little of what happened before Covid. 

On a totally different subject: I did not at all expect the USMNT to get through to the knockout rounds, so I am very pleasantly surprised. They look extremely solid defensively and have an absolutely dynamic midfield, but I don’t know where the goals are going to come from — especially if Pulisic’s “pelvic contusion” (ouch) keeps him out of the Netherlands match on Saturday. 

comparative study of real and fictional corbies

Carol Rumens:

There’s a human narrator, but s/he bows out after three lines. Of the two crows, one has a single, though essential, line: “Where sall we gang and dine today?” The other, having reconnoitred the scene already and worked out the feeding strategy, replies in vivid, uncompromising detail. Anthropomorphism of this kind can be justified on the grounds that the invented bird-talk reflects real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation. 

Really? That’s how the poem can be justified — by objective analysis of “real, observable bird behaviour regarding food, territory and judicious co-operation”? If the behavior of these poetic corbies should prove inconsistent with the most up-to-date ornithological findings, would we have to toss the poem in the dustbin? 

It’s very hard not to laugh at this: Twitter-addicted journalists decamping for Mastodon only to resume, immediately, their familiar habits of bullying, shaming, proclaiming their victimhood, and Trying to Get Management To Take Their Side. As I have said: “Which way I fly is Hellsite; myself am Hellsite….” 

Real Presence in Sex and Sacrament

Jessica Martin:

I am not sure that we meant to place the holy eucharist inside the temple to the marketplace gods; but we did. We put it there for consumption (along with a lot of the Church’s other highly marketised ‘missional’ activity).  Perhaps by doing it we have become subversives on the marketplace gods’ territory. Or perhaps we are the subverted. The internet is a strange platform upon which to choose to place the ritual that reverses all other greeds.

It might be the boldest thing we could do – placing communion in the heart of all commodification. Or it could be the silliest choice, the most foolhardy. Are we blaspheming? Or are we, urgently hungry, sick of gobbling shadows, filling ourselves with the bread of the Presence? 

This is a remarkable essay by Jessica Martin, meditation on what happens when two vital experiences — sex and Eucharist — are made virtual. Can there be a Real Presence in a medium predicated on absence? 

medical discourse

A follow-up on one element of this post: It would be uncharitable and just plain wrong to conclude that doctors and other health-care professionals lack compassion and want to make you suffer. Nevertheless, what Ivan Illich wrote in Medical Nemesis (1975) was true then and is true now: “Modern medicine is a negation of health. It isn’t organised to serve human health, but only itself, as an institution.” The system works by purposes that the workers within the system may not share — but they are compelled to serve those purposes anyway. 

I think the first thing to understand about the American health-care system is this: some people lose money from illness, and some people make money from illness. Some people pay, and some people get paid. This doesn’t mean that the people who get paid are motivated solely or even primarily by money, though some of them surely are; this doesn’t mean that those who pay always resent having to pay, though some of them surely do. What it means is that there is on this one significant point an opposition of interests between the two parties; and that opposition manifests itself in a thousand ways. You see it when sick people don’t go to the doctor because they don’t want to, or can’t, pay for the services that would be rendered there; you see it when doctors advocate for unnecessary procedures that line their pockets, or prescribe drugs because they have a lucrative relationship with particular drug companies; you see it when money-making procedures are deemed necessary while the poor get dramatically sub-par health care or none at all. 

Again: I don’t think there are many doctors who consciously make medical decisions based on their lust for money. But I do think there are a great many doctors who go along with the incentives established by the system, without thinking about it too much or at all, because on some level they know that thinking about it could well lead to their losing money.

And this opposition of interests cannot be eliminated; in the current system — where profit is God even for supposedly nonprofit hospital systems — it cannot even be diminished.  

But our discourse about medicine and health care is radically skewed towards the doctors and other health-care professionals. The voices of the patients — those who suffer, and those who pay — are rarely heard. This is the importance of books like Ross Douthat’s The Deep Places — and there ought to be a lot more of them. It’s not that we don’t have books and essays by people who have been abused or abandoned by the medical system — there are plenty of them — but they get tragically little attention, largely, I think, because journalists think of themselves as belonging to the same “Professional” category as doctors and don’t want to be class traitors. 

It’s good to have books by doctors who see the evils of the system and fight back against it — people like Oliver Sacks, about whom I have an essay coming out soon from The New Atlantis, and Victoria Sweet — but we really do need to hear more from patients, and especially patients the system doesn’t serve. Because the incentive structures of American health care ensure that, without major changes, things will get worse before they get better.

This is a cause worth fighting for, but it will be hard to get enough people on board if we don’t hear more from those most affected.  

lies, yours and mine

Staying for the Truth | The Hedgehog Review:

Bacon … thinks it is good, very good indeed, to be “well fortified by doctrines of the wise” and thereby to be protected from the storms of lies that toss many people about so violently. It is indeed gratifying, Bacon says, paraphrasing Lucretius, to be “standing upon the vantage ground of truth,” because up there “the air is always clear and serene.” But, he adds, the pleasure one feels is appropriate “so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.” If you have been able to discover something that is true, then you should have compassion for those who are laboring under the spell of falsehood. And if instead of pitying them, you mock and belittle them, then you will become swollen with pride — and then, when the lies that comfort you come around, you will be unable to resist them. 

That’s me. Let me add to the argument I make there a corollary thesis: In any given community, there will be a profound divide between those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones told by our enemies and those who believe that the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves

hiding your hand

I don’t know who Noah Kulwin is — someone, I don’t remember whom, linked to this post, which among other things talks about the assassination of JFK. If this sounds like I’m picking on poor Mr. Kulwin, my apologies; I really don’t mean to. I just want to illustrate a point. 

In the post Kulwin quotes Don DeLillo’s comments on the Zapruder film. Here’s the key part: 

The Zapruder film is a home movie that runs about eighteen seconds and could probably fuel college courses in a dozen subjects from history to physics. And every new generation of technical experts gets to take a crack at the Zapruder film. The film represents all the hopefulness we invest in technology. A new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis — not only of Zapruder but of other key footage and still photographs — will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

For the rest of his post Kulwin speaks of “DeLillo’s faith in technology” and wants to argue with it. But of course — as anyone would know after reading even a smidgen of his fiction — DeLillo doesn’t have any faith in technology. Kulwin has misunderstood the last sentence of the quote above. He thinks DeLillo is making a claim, but in fact the novelist is narrating a perspective

You can tell this is so by looking at the previous sentence, in which DeLillo speaks in broadly cultural terms of “all the hopefulness we invest in technology.” By “we” he doesn’t mean himself and his interviewer; he means Americans in general. And the sentence that follows — the one that Kulwin misunderstands — is not a statement of his own views, but a kind of expansion of or commentary on that hope. DeLillo is not saying that he believes that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened; he’s saying that the hope Americans invest in technology makes us — collectively, as a society — believe that a new enhancement technique or a new computer analysis will finally tell us precisely what happened. 

As I’ve said many times before — e.g. here — I don’t think my students today are any worse than my students from years or even decades ago. But I believe that students today need more explanation of how writers think, how fictional narrative works. They have grown up in a media environment in which, as far as I can see, language is almost exclusively used for three purposes: to praise cultural friends, to condemn or mock cultural enemies, and to declare the Truth. The idea that language might be used to explore a way of seeing the world without judging that way — without issuing a 👍 or a 👎 — is pretty foreign to most of them, especially since most of the literature they’ve been assigned in school is either intrinsically didactic or is taught to them didactically. 

This leads fairly regularly to misreadings of the type that Kulwin commits. Again, I know nothing about Kulwin, so I’m not trying to account for his error — only to note that it’s a very common kind of error these days. We live in a moment too polemical and defensive for undidactic art to flourish; most people, it seems, suspect any artwork that doesn’t declare its principles unambiguously. 

Some years ago Mandy Patinkin described the lunch meeting at which Rob Reiner recruited him to play in The Princess Bride. He recalled that 

He said to me, ‘The way I want everybody to play this is as though you have a hand of cards, and I want all of us to almost show the hand to the audience, but we never really show it. That’s how I want it to happen.’ So, he collected a bunch of people who would play cards that way. 

I think that’s actually a pretty good explanation for why The Princess Bride is such a brilliant movie, but whether it is or not, it’s a great way to describe what the greatest stories always do. You get a peek at the cards maybe, but not enough to be sure about the whole hand. You have to guess; you have to think; you have to ask difficult questions like “How might I behave if I had a great hand? A lousy one?” You have to imagine. All the great artists and writers do. 

Barney Ronay:

Qatar is not, when you look more widely, some kind of rogue state peopled by a different kind of human being. In fact, the best way to look at it is perhaps as a very literal-minded and efficient expression of the forces at work across every other modern state. Qatar just does it wilder, harder and without apology. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of supremely wealthy overlords, of the surveillance state, of an underclass of workers, of increasingly repressive laws, of the global carbon addiction. Do any of these sound familiar? In many ways Qatar is like your furiously able and efficient younger colleague; who has essentially looked at this, learnt the mannerisms, and said, yeah, we can do that.

Sam Harris on Whether Religion Really Does Make Everything Worse:

Sam Harris: The God of Abraham is explicit in the Bible and in the Quran that the document you’re reading is the Word of God, and that it is not of human manufacture. And it’s just obvious that that can’t be. You look at the books, and there’s just no way they’re the product of omniscience. They betray their merely human origins on every page…. 

Only worth noting for one point: Sam Harris has been writing against religion for a couple of decades now, and still has only the vaguest idea of what any particular religion believes. When he started out, he had no idea what the Christian understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is and how radically it differs from the Muslim view, and he has no idea now. You would think that after all these years of polemic he would’ve learned something just by accident, but he’s done a remarkable job of making his ignorance invincible. Just shows what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. 

What We Owe Our Fellow Animals | Martha C. Nussbaum | The New York Review of Books:

Behind these biases lies a more general failing, which the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls “anthropodenial”: the denial that we are animals of a certain type (the anthropoid type), and the tendency to imagine ourselves, instead, as pure spirits, “barely connected to biology.” This mistaken way of thinking has a long history in most human cultures; it remains stubbornly lodged in people’s psyches even when they think they are examining the evidence fairly. Anthropodenial has led, until recently, to a reluctance to credit research findings that show that animals use tools, solve problems, communicate through complex systems, interact socially with intricate forms of organization, and even have emotions such as fear, grief, and envy. (This is a bait-and-switch: emotions have long been denigrated on the grounds that they are not pure spirit, and yet humans also want to claim a monopoly on what they despise.) 

The same idea — that we are “barely connected to biology” — underlies the idea that one can be born into “the wrong body.” 

ark head

Venkatesh Rao:

One mental model for this condition is what I call ark head, as in Noah’s Ark. We’ve given up on the prospect of actually solving or managing most of the snowballing global problems and crises we’re hurtling towards. Or even meaningfully comprehending the gestalt. We’ve accepted that some large fraction of those problems will go unsolved and unmanaged, and result in a drastic but unevenly distributed reduction in quality of life for most of humanity over the next few decades. We’ve concluded that the rational response is to restrict our concerns to a small subset of local reality — an ark — and compete for a shrinking set of resources with others doing the same. We’re content to find and inhabit just one zone of positivity, large enough for ourselves and some friends. We cross our fingers and hope our little ark is outside the fallout radius of the next unmanaged crisis, whether it is a nuclear attack, aliens landing, a big hurricane, or (here in California), a big wildfire or earthquake. […] 

… it’s gotten significantly harder to care about the state of the world at large. A decade of culture warring and developing a mild-to-medium hatred for at least 2/3 of humanity will do that to you. General misanthropy is not a state conducive to productive thinking about global problems. Why should you care about the state of the world beyond your ark? It’s mostly full of all those other assholes, who are the wrong kind of deranged and insane. At least you and I, in this ark, are the right kind of deranged and insane. It’s worth saving ourselves from the flood, but those other guys can look out for themselves.

I think this is largely true, but I think some other things as well — primarily that any such retreat-to-the-ark is an inevitable response to the inflexible limits of our Dunbar’s Number minds. 

“That’s perhaps the way out — keep trying to tell stories beyond ark-scale until one succeeds in expanding your horizons again.” Nope. We don’t need our horizons expanded, we need our attention narrowed and focused. 

Another book to read:

Gal Beckerman, too, is interested in political talk. His new book, The Quiet Before, is essentially a history of conversation, beginning in seventeenth-century France and ending in modern-day Cairo, Charlottesville, Miami, and Minneapolis. Beckerman concentrates not on the revolutionary moment, though — the capture of the Bastille, say, or Fidel Castro’s triumphant arrival in Havana — but on the antecedents of transformative political change. “The incubation of radical new ideas,” he writes, “is a very distinct process with certain conditions: a tight space, lots of heat, passionate whispering, and a degree of freedom to work toward a common, focused aim.”

The conversations that he documents occur not just in person — indeed, rarely in person — but through letters, petitions, newspapers, manifestos, samizdat journals, and feminist zines. And they take place, these days, on social media. Whether this constitutes a continuation of the radical tradition or its negation is a — perhaps the — crucial question that Beckerman explores. We know of the Twitter ranters, Facebook trolls, and Instagram influencers, but where are the passionate whisperers of today?

Rules: A short study of what we live by by Lorraine Daston | Book review

All history is, it would seem, the history of regulative struggles. After surveying two thousand years of western civilization, and reconstructing battles between manic regulators and recalcitrant regulatees in fields ranging from monasticism through cookery to astronomy and military tactics, Daston is able to discern a few long-term trends. In the beginning, she finds, rules tended to be “thick”, in the sense of being replete with examples, observations and exceptions; but with the passage of time they have grown thinner and thinner and are now approaching the extreme etiolation of the absolute algorithm. At the same time rules that used to be flexible have become more and more rigid, and the specificity of old-world regulations has been replaced by universality, or rather – as Daston surmises – by the pretence or illusion of it. Behind all of these changes she notices a larger one, in which rules have followed a “rough historical arc” that leads from an ancient world of “high variability, instability and unpredictability” to a modern one in which we all tend to assume, without much justification, that “the future can be reliably extrapolated from the past, standardisation ensures uniformity, and averages can be trusted”.

This is fascinating. I don’t know what to do with it, except read the book, but it’s fascinating. 

the media ecology of college writing

Richard Gibson:

Practically speaking, GPT-3 and the like demand that educators reconsider the writing process in fundamental ways. Symons entertains the possibility of returning to handwriting; other commentators have suggested collecting drafts at multiple stages and perhaps tweaking the assignment between drafts. Educators are now administering the Turing test in reverse: What are questions that only humans can answer well? What kinds of thinking does writing make possible for us? 

In 1987, Flusser worried that AI would outstrip human writers, assuming responsibility even for the recording of history. The current crop of AIs pose no such threat, since they are not autonomous understandings but dynamic reflections of human-built textual culture. Their danger lies instead in short-circuiting the development of human writers, at least if educators fail to adapt to our new media ecology in which the medium can compose humdrum messages on demand. 

My dear friend Rick is precisely correct. Some years ago, when I noted the dramatic increase in professors’ use of services like Turnitin, it seemed obvious to me that students and teachers in the humanities — or rather, students and teachers as puppets of a parasitical online ecosystem of “educational services” — were entering a kind of arms race, and one that could never have a winner. I also saw that the entire arms race was made possible by the overwhelming dominance of one particular assignment: the research paper. And then I asked a question: What if I stopped assigning research papers? 

After all, my goal is not to make my students better writers of research papers. My goal is to help them grow more skilled and more confident as readers, writers, and reasoners. (My proximate goal, anyway; I have deeper aspirations for the enriching of their humanity, but those are better described as hopes than as goals.) If the dominance of this one genre is actually impeding my pedagogical purposes, then wouldn’t it be wise for me to look for other kinds of assignment that could enhance my students’ reading, writing, and reasoning without getting us all sucked into that arms race? 

I’ve been giving unusual writing assignments my whole career, but not in all my classes. When I taught literary theory I always had my students write dialogues, in each one ventriloquizing two major theorists; in some classes I’ve had students build websites; in others I’ve had them prepare critical editions of texts, with introductions and annotations. But until fairly recently I felt an obligation to teach the good old research paper in at least some classes. Around 2016, I think, I ceased to feel that obligation. I haven’t assigned a research paper since, and I don’t expect ever to assign another one. 

Pretty soon, I think, my entire profession will need to go through a process of reconsideration similar to the one I’ve already been through. 

China wants to change, or break, a world order set by others | The Economist:

Nor does Mr Xi accept that the second world war created a mandate to draw up a liberal order. A China/EU summit in April was clarifying. The European Council president, Charles Michel, explained why Europe’s dark past, notably the Holocaust, obliged its leaders to call out rights abuses, from China to Ukraine. According to a readout shared with EU governments, Mr Xi retorted that the Chinese have even stronger memories of suffering at the hands of colonial powers. He cited treaties forcing China to open markets and cede territory in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and racist bylaws banning Chinese people and dogs from parks in European-run enclaves. Mr Xi recalled the massacre of civilians at Nanjing by Japanese invaders in 1937. Such aggression left the Chinese with strong feelings about human rights, he said, and about foreigners who employ double standards to criticise other countries. 

Hard to deny that they have a point. Hard also to deny that they’re trying to make way for permanent tyranny. 

Many developing countries see nothing magic about the year 1945, and have limited nostalgia for a time when the West dominated rulemaking. China is ready to offer them alternatives. Seven decades ago, at founding meetings of the un, Soviet-bloc delegates sought an order that deferred to states and promoted collective rather than individual rights, opposing everything from free speech to the concept of seeking political asylum. In the late 1940s communist countries were outvoted. China now seeks to reopen those old arguments about how to balance sovereignty with individual freedoms. This time, the liberal order is on the defensive. 

The Economist is doing great work on China these days. Their podcast series about Xi Jinping, The Prince, was outstanding — a kind of survey of recent Chinese history through the story of one man. And their new newsletter on China, Drum Tower, which is accompanied by a podcast, promises to be excellent also. 

Michelle Nijhuis:

Speakers of Luganda, the most common indigenous language in Uganda, don’t have a word for “depression.” They use the terms yo’kwekyawa and okwekubazida, which roughly translate as “self-loathing” and “self-pity” and describe two distinct conditions; the former, which can include thoughts of suicide, is considered more severe. In Zimbabwe in the 1990s, researchers learned that the local Shona language had one word for everyday sadness (suwa) and another for a persistent, ruminative state that fit the clinical description of depression. This term, kufungisisa, which literally translates to “thinking too much,” unlocked communication between practitioners and patients.

In the early 2000s the Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda recognized that his rural patients, many of whom were severely stressed by poverty and the multifold impacts of the HIV epidemic, were dying from a lack of mental health care. He recruited a corps of rural community members, predominantly grandmothers, and trained them to conduct informal therapy sessions with their neighbors on open-air “friendship benches.” In clinical trials, the grandmothers and their benches proved to be so successful in relieving the most incapacitating symptoms of depression that the approach has since spread to Kenya, Botswana, the Caribbean, New York City, and elsewhere.

a change of attention

After the killing of George Floyd, my first response — after sympathy for poor Floyd, I hope — was to think that the protesters were overreacting to an event that, while tragic, was not nearly as common as they were saying. (No, there’s no “Black genocide” in America.) But then I started noticing the response of many white conservatives: an opposite exaggeration, in their case of the dangers of protests; a noticeable lack of sympathy for the victims of police violence, and a tendency to blame those victims; and in general a disinclination to see racial prejudice as a meaningful element of American culture.

I wrote a few posts about all this, including one about the difference between acute and chronic suffering.

Similarly, when the whole controversy over Critical Race Theory blew up, my first reaction was dismay at the ways that “activists” were using shoddy scholarship, or wholly bogus pseudo-scholarship, to implement a radical political agenda for America’s schools. But then, again, the white conservative pushback was both uncharitable and extreme, and seemed determined to treat any reckoning with America’s history of slavery and racism as “CRT” and therefore to be banished. Increasingly, white conservatives took up the view that explicit declarations of hatred for people of a certain color is the only kind of racism there is.

This struck me as just as historically as blinkered and uninformed as, I dunno, maybe the views of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So, me being me, I started thinking about the past, listening to the voices of our ancestors — in this case mainly recent ones, which in my view is okay, because they always have a strong gravitational pull, and anyway people think that anything that they haven’t thought about in the past 72 hours is ancient history and therefore irrelevant. Ralph Ellison is as much a mystery to them as Homer.

But I’ve been reading Ralph Ellison — a lot of Ralph Ellison, letters and essays; and that led me to Murray’s dear friend Albert Murray, whose curious and wonderful body of work I’m seriously into. (After all, Murray is my fellow native of Alabama.) There’s a tradition of thought and expression here that seems deeply relevant to the current scene, capable of illuminating much that otherwise remains dark for us.

I posted a couple of passages relevant to all this stuff in a recent newsletter, and fifty or sixty people immediately unsubscribed. Okay, well, I guess that’s not really what my newsletter is about, so fair enough. But heads up: Here at the old blog you’ll be hearing more about some of the leading Black intellectuals of the past half-century or more. Because they’re fascinating in themselves — and they tend to illuminate our own weird moment.

So my thanks to white conservatives for leading me into this fertile field of reading and thinking. I owe you, guys.


An accu­rate def­i­n­i­tion of “influencer” is: a vir­tu­oso of a par­tic­u­lar inter­net platform; some­one who has learned to use its mech­a­nisms to achieve their own objectives, rather than the other way around.

An accu­rate def­i­n­i­tion of an inter­net “creator” would have to be: someone whose income is deter­mined by a platform’s algorithms.

That’s Robin Sloan, with a very good distinction. I’m not either of those things, so I wonder what I am? Maybe just a writer. 

From a lovely profile of Will Arbery by Chloé Cooper Jones:

One of the first stories Arbery ever told me was how, even as a child, he longed to protect [his sister] Julia’s nuanced way of speaking. When he was away at camp, and then later, as a young adult in college, he would receive letters and emails from Julia and could tell when they had been edited, her language standardized by someone else. But Arbery loved the particular cadence, rhythms and arrangements of her sentences and did not want them changed.

In the program note for “Corsicana,” Arbery says that he wrote the play thinking about the dances Julia makes up, the songs she sings in private, the art she makes that belongs only to her. “I’ve been thinking about the way Julia sings ‘O Holy Night,’ making everyone shut up and listen and watch her, and then getting too nervous to start. So we all have to sing it together, trudging through the notes until we reach the time-to-shine part — ‘fall on your knees, oh hear the angels’ voices’ — and that’s when her voice rises unmistakably above all of ours, and she finishes the song, and suddenly there’s a new thing in the air above our heads and we all get quiet.” 

I have some thoughts on Arbery’s play “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” in this essay

Matthew Loftus:

The Church universal also has a set of overlapping responsibilities, but how these responsibilities are translated into the work of individual churches is a tension of its own. Local churches are first obligated to their own members, to preach, worship, disciple, and administer the sacraments. Adding anything beyond this to any individual church is tying on a burden too great to bear. Yet the Body of Christ spread across the world is also responsible for sending messengers of the Gospel to places that have not yet heard it, meeting the needs of the poor (local and distant), and advocating for justice in whatever society they find themselves in. (I would draw primarily from Isaiah 58 as the source of the lattermost impetus.) The Body of Christ also has an obligation to be in communication with itself such that the hand can know if the eye is suffering and then do something about it.

This task might seem impossible, but the power of the Holy Spirit among God’s people allows us to order ourselves according to the moral obligations we have to one another and to the world. We seek in prayer to know which people in need we ought to be in proximity to, and we obey accordingly as we embark on whichever road to Jericho we are called to. Some may physically remain wherever they are; others may move across town, across the country, or across the world. The wealth of believers, once yielded to the direction of the Holy Spirit, also has centripetal and centrifugal forces acting upon it but should in general go to where there is the greatest need and the least knowledge of the Gospel. 

A long, complex essay, incisive and provocative. Every thoughtful Christian should read it. I hope to comment more fully later. 

Barney Ronay:

It feels like a theme park. There’s always been this ridiculous corporate circus, but generally it intersects with a real sense of joy, and you monetise the joy. Here, there’s no joy, just monetising. You feel that this is a place that should in no world be staging this, until you realise: the World Cup is not a festival of football, it’s a travelling city state, a TV show sold to people who can pay the most money. You want a World Cup? This is what a World Cup is.


Dale Ahlquist:

While the Distributist movement gained a much larger following than most historians have acknowledged, and is even experiencing something of a revival these days, it has suffered from being dismissed. Conservatives (and capitalists) accuse Distributism of being too socialist, an enemy of free trade. Liberals (and socialists) accuse it of being too capitalist, an enemy of regulation and the public interest. But more often it is dismissed without a fair hearing – not only by established economists and academics but by most everyone else as well – simply because of its unfortunate name: Distributism. No one knows what it means, and usually people think it means something else. It is understandably conflated with redistribution, which means taking money from a wealthier segment of the citizenry and redistributing it to a less wealthy segment. Sort of like Robin Hood. Or taxation. Yet while the early Distributists recognized that some redistribution of land, wealth, and power would obviously be necessary to achieve their ends, redistribution was never their end goal nor what made their vision compelling to so many.

It is for this reason that the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton recently renamed Distributism. Now, I wish to make it clear that we don’t have any special control over the word “Distributism.” People can keep using the old word if they want. But we introduced a new word because the old word was … well, it was no good!

The new word we came up with is “Localism.” 

I see why they did this, but (a) “localism” is already a term used in other contexts and (b) at least “Distributism” captured the fact that the movement is not just cultural but also a project of political economy. 

Distributism/Localism, like anarcho-syndicalism and several other kinds of anarchism — which I am very much interested in — all think that our social and cultural problems cannot be fixed unless we can wrest economic control from Bosses and put it in the hands of local people. They are all subsidiarist movements, and these are all to some degree rooted in Catholic social teaching, so you would think that people who call themselves conservatives would at least be interested. Not so much, not any more. 

Interview with Yiyun Li:

Just as you were starting Tolstoy Together, you wrote in The New York Review’s pandemic journal: “Twice during the most difficult periods of my life, I could do little but read [War and Peace]. There were days when I would hand-copy passages from it just to keep my brain and hands in movement.” What did you appreciate about the experience?

My understanding, from my own experience, is that agitation does much harm to our minds. It is a most time-conscious state — every minute is devastatingly long when one’s perception of time becomes disoriented. I hand-copied passages from War and Peace during two difficult times of my life, several years apart: when I was suicidally depressed, and after I lost a child to suicide. The activity was a defiance against that harmful timelessness: here time does pass from one line to the next.

Lately, I’ve been hand-copying Moby-Dick first thing in the morning, before coffee, to carve out a space for my brain and my hands, to have a definite frame of time. I suppose I do that as others practice yoga or meditation.

Ayana Mathis:

When I first conceived of this essay, I imagined it would be purely literary. Then, the presidential election arrived with all of its turmoil. I suddenly cared very little about aesthetics and the nuances of figurative language. I was at a loss until I remembered that much of Baldwin’s writing came to exist during moments of American crisis: the civil rights movement and its aftermath, the decimation of the Black Power movement, the rise of Reaganomics, the devastating AIDS epidemic. Baldwin was forged in the crucible of an America perpetually teetering on the edge of self-destruction, unwilling to heed the warnings of those who understood the immensity of the peril. The result of that heedlessness, as we’ve seen in these pandemic months, is quite literally death. It occurred to me, then, that John’s experience, and Baldwin’s novel as a whole, is an act of bearing witness to the bitter realities of his life as a young man — and to the Black church as a place of existential and spiritual nourishment, even as it was parochial and unyielding.

Perhaps Baldwin left the church because he knew he would not have survived its stifling rigors, and had little desire to try. Certainly the exacting and capricious God of his upbringing — these characteristics that, not coincidentally, also describe Gabriel Grimes — was anathema to him. And yet in his 1962 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin wrote of his vexing childhood religion: “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.”

Mastodonic thoughts

After a brief period on Mastodon: It’s exactly like Twitter. People have taken all their Twitter habits — lecturing, hectoring, making demands, sneering, mocking, belittling, preening, self-congratulating — and transferred them unchanged to a new platform. No one, it appears, learned anything from what even they called the “hellsite.”

Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hellsite; myself am Hellsite;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hellsite I suffer seems a Heaven.
O, then, at last relent! Is there no place
Left for wisdom, none for kindness left?
None left but by deletion….

Account deleted.

UPDATE 2022-11-22: It occurs to me that when Mastodon decided to implement its version of the retweet (they call it the “boost”) its fate as Undead Twitter was sealed. If you could blame only one thing for the ruination of Twitter, it should be the RT. The RT is a frictionless way to spread whatever arouses users emotionally, and what arouses users emotionally is almost always something deceitful and/or malicious. The RT is the death of charity, the death of peace, the death of truth. And therefore for me the death of Mastodon.

Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon, by Sasha Frere-Jones:

I developed a new way of thinking about how we listen to music, together or alone. My alliterative schema for the various listening environments, designed to be annoyingly mnemonic, is corner, club, cathedral, and cocoon. The corner (as in street corner) is where people take priority over sound, and this model encompasses both a block party using a multi-speaker sound system on the street and the digital commons of web radio stations and streaming platforms like Mixcloud and SoundCloud. One of my favorite web radio stations, LYL Radio, was established by Lucas Bouissou, who stated his view firmly: “About audio quality, honestly, I don’t give a shit.” LYL Radio is very much the corner, in every sense.

The cathedral is an environment built by the audiophile, where reflection is the norm. You don’t have to be alone, but if there are a bunch of listeners together, you’re not talking to one another. You listen, and only listen. One arrives here with a certain amount of time and money, introducing an exclusive element, which I don’t love, but if I imagine a house of worship with its doors flung wide open, I am less uneasy, because the resources are oriented toward establishing a common good.

The club is halfway between these two points, presenting a certain level of audio quality, but not at the expense of interaction. If there is an emphasis in the club, it is about people connecting through music. The cocoon, meanwhile, is where most people find music now, through earbuds and headphones, locked into the cycle of wage labor or exercise. 

Emphases mine. I like this taxonomy. I am very much a cathedral guy, though without either the budget or the inclination to be an audiophile. (As Free-Jones says later in his excellent essay, “An obsession with the quality of recordings is, on some level, antithetical to the spirit of mindful listening.“) Let’s say that my preferred environment isn’t a cathedral but rather a mere chapel


It is noteworthy, and not in a good way, that an essay by Wendell Berry called “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” — written in response to the 1911 Gulf War — is relevant to the divisions that now exist among Americans. Two passages in particular stood out to me. The first:  

Peaceableness toward enemies is an idea that will, of course, continue to be denounced as impractical. It has been too little tried by individuals, much less by nations. It will not readily or easily serve those who are greedy for power. It cannot be effectively used for bad ends. It could not be used as the basis of an empire. It does not afford opportunities for profit. It involves danger to practitioners. It requires sacrifice. And yet it seems to me that it is practical, for it offers the only escape from the logic of retribution. It is the only way by which we can cease to look to war for peace. 

Notice how in all these ways peaceableness escapes the abuses inherent in hatred, which always is used for bad ends, always does offer opportunities for profit, etc. 

The second should be read with the thought that there are non-physical forms of violence: 

Peaceableness is not the amity that exists between people who agree, nor is it the exhaustion or jubilation that follows war. It is not passive. It is the ability to act to resolve conflict without violence. If it is not a practical and a practicable method, it is nothing. As a practicable method, it reduces helplessness in the face of conflict. In the face of conflict, the peaceable person may find several solutions, the violent person only one.

These passages should be read in conjunction with a poem Berry wrote around that time, called “Enemies.” 

a right bollocking

Well, this is surely Adam’s best post title ever, but the post is really fascinating also. A key passage: 

But let’s go back to this magic clod. What’s going on here? Pindar’s word is βῶλαξ (bōlax), a poetic form of the word βῶλος (bōlos) — a term still in use in English today, of course (though a bolus is more likely nowadays to refer to a lump of chewed food, than a lump of soil). In Homer the word ἐριβῶλαξ [Odyssey 13.235 and often in the Iliad] means ‘bountiful land’, literally ‘large-clod-place’, and in Theocritus [17:80] βῶλαξ is used to describe the abundant soils of the Nile. The connection, clearly, is with fertility. Pindar describes the magic clod as ἄφθιτον Λιβύας σπέρμα (afthiton Libyas sperma), ‘the indestructible sperm of Libya’, and the word βῶλος is etymologically linked to βολβός, ‘bulb’, which is to say: seed. This makes sense, I suppose. Egypt is dry and barren except where the Nile brings its fertile mud. Cyrene, Herodotus [4:158] tells us, has rain where the rest of Libya has none. Thira’s soil is enriched by its volcanic ash. Good for growing. 

Reflecting on the myth that underlies Pindar’s poem, Adam notes that in that tale “the βῶλαξ comes from a divine source — the clod of God — and that’s what makes it so powerful, so consequential.” When I read that I was immediately certain that βῶλαξ or βῶλος had to be the word used in the Septuagint for the earth from which Adam — Adam our common progenitor, not Adam the novelist — was formed (Genesis 2:7). I fairly ran to my reference books, and … nope. My certainty was misplaced. The only place in the whole Bible where βῶλαξ is used is Job 7:5: “My flesh is clothed with worms and clods of dust; My skin is broken, and become loathsome.” The Septuagint renders the Genesis passage as χοῦν (dust) from γῆς (earth). 

Oh well. I record this because one should acknowledge one’s strikeouts as well as one’s home runs. 


Effective altruism is an admirable movement, and I hope it spreads. But one of my chief concerns about the movement is how obsessively focused it is on financial matters. The question seems always to be “Where should I put my money?” This is not surprising, since the movement is so closely associated with wealthy engineers, and more specifically with Silicon Valley, where “scaling up” is often treated as a necessity. The EA emphasis is always on measurable goods, and on “maximizing utility,” with maximization primarily defined as “numbers of people helped.” If that’s how you orient yourself, then of course you end up with longtermism, because the future gives you the requisite scale. EA is thus the most perfect distillation yet of metaphysical capitalism

So: Imagine a person who is both chronically ill and desperately lonely.

An EAer committed to longtermism would be on principle opposed to paying for the medical treatment of one person living now: that doesn’t scale and therefore doesn’t maximize utility. (I don’t think any effective altruist would disagree with this; the movement places a premium on eschewing sentimentality.) 

The matter of loneliness is more interesting. It would probably be invisible to the EAer because nothing about loneliness or human connection is easily measurable, nor obviously addressable with money. (Not that people haven’t tried.) The ill and lonely person, if given a choice, might prefer illness within a loving community to rude good health in continued isolation; but that’s not something that the EAer can readily factor in. 

But EAers need to think about this. Perhaps their monetary gifts can contribute to a future world in which disease is unknown and lifespans are dramatically extended; but what if those magnificently healthy people are miserable? What if they despise their long lives? It is certainly true that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water” — but have the loveless ones lived well?

What would EA look like if it asked not just about physical well-being but about the human need to love and be loved? For one thing, it would be less tempted by the abstractions and airy speculations of longtermism; for another, it would have to reckon with the limited power of money to address human ills. It would call into question its commitment to what Dickens, in Bleak House, called “telescopic philanthropy.” It would have to consider the possibility that the best way to ensure human flourishing in the future would be to strengthen our bonds with one another today. 

This alternate-world EA might even take as its model someone I have mentioned in an earlier post, a character from that same novel, Esther Summerson. Esther is trying to avoid being recruited by Mrs. Pardiggle, a Victorian predecessor of EA perhaps, who has a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” and wants Esther to do the same.  

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

P.S. Maybe, given the clear correlation between religious commitment and happiness, even in the absence of robust physical health, the best thing the altruist who wants to be truly effective could do is support religious institutions. Making them stronger today would help them to be stronger in the future, so even the longtermist could sign on to such a project. Yay utilitarianism!