Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB

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Another (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.


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Why Spinoza Still Matters
Steven Nadler, Aeon, 28 April 2016

At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

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Global Migration? Actually the World is Staying at Home
Guido Mingels, Spiegel Online, 17 May 2016

The largest global migrant flows take place within individual world regions, not across continents. This is evidenced by the thickest arrows in the chart, which point from Africa to Africa, from the Middle East to the Middle East, and from East Asia to East Asia. The arrows represent the migrations of hundreds of thousands of people from places like India to Dubai or from Syria to Lebanon.

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– Significantly more Europeans migrate within Europe than Africans to Europe.

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– A much larger number of people migrate within the Middle East than from the Middle East to Europe.

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– Europe’s share of the total migration volume has declined.

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– Migration paths do not lead primarily from very poor to very rich countries, but rather adhere to a graduated model. ‘People move to countries where the economy is somewhat stronger than in their native country’, says Sander. She means from Bangladesh to India or from Zimbabwe to South Africa, for example.

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– East and Southeast Asia are developing from typical source regions into target regions of international migration.

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– What has changed in the long retrospective view is the general direction of migration: from North-South to South-North and now, increasingly, to South-South. In earlier centuries, it was the Europeans who emigrated or colonized other parts of the world, which is just another form of migration.

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– But the most surprising result of Abel’s calculations is that overall global migration has been on the decline in the last five years.

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Rights vs Duties
Samuel Moyn, Boston Review, 16 May 2016

Today, however, liberal emphasis on duties is a distant memory at every scale. Political theory lost track of the concept in the second half of the twentieth century. Even communitarianism, with its concern for interdependence, does not carry the mantle; duty-oriented liberals understood social interdependence as the setting for personal freedoms, not a substitute for them. And these liberal theorists sometimes demanded responsibility not in local settings alone – as communitarians do – but at a global scale. In the public sphere, duties are similarly absent. Neither liberals in their domestic projects, nor the Universal Declaration and subsequent international movements, have successfully offered powerful public visions of social interdependence, collective agency, or planetary responsibility.

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Genes are Overrated
Nathaniel Comfort, The Atlantic, June 2016

The antidote to such Whig history is a Darwinian approach. Darwin’s great insight was that while species do change, they do not progress toward a predetermined goal: Organisms adapt to local conditions, using the tools available at the time. So too with science. What counts as an interesting or soluble scientific problem varies with time and place; today’s truth is tomorrow’s null hypothesis—and next year’s error.

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This approach lets us see that DNA was not the ‘underdog of all molecules’. Its structure was considered anything but ‘comically plain’. Nobel Prizes were awarded three times for elucidating aspects of it: in 1910 (Albrecht Kossel), 1957 (Alexander Todd), and 1962 (Watson, Crick, and Wilkins). There’s no evidence that Phoebus Levene – Kossel’s student – called it a ‘stupid molecule’, as Mukherjee claims. Max Delbrück did, in the mid-1940s, after Oswald Avery and colleagues had shown it to be the molecule of heredity in pneumococcus. Delbrück, Watson’s most important mentor, used such blunt skepticism to spur scientific rigor among his followers. The ‘stupid molecule’ remark, then, is best understood as prologue to the solution of the double helix in 1953, rather than as an obstacle to its having been solved sooner.

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Before Watson and Crick described the gene as a sequence of DNA, visualized as a succession of letters—like a line of computer code—terms such as information would have been nonsensical. Genes had been imagined as beads strung along the chromosomes. They didn’t ‘encode’ anything; they simply carried traits. The term gene wasn’t coined until 1909. Before the turn of the 20th century, Mendel’s elemente were not thought of as physical things. They were mere abstractions. Saying that Darwin lacked the concept of information is like pointing out that T rex lacked an iPhone.

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Restoring the World’s Oldest Library
Karen Eng, ideas.ted, 1 May 2016

The al-Qarawiyyin Library was created by a woman, challenging commonly held assumptions about the contribution of women in Muslim civilization. The al-Qarawiyyin, which includes a mosque, library, and university, was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, the daughter of a rich immigrant from al-Qayrawan (Tunisia today). Well educated and devout, she vowed to spend her entire inheritance on building a mosque and knowledge center for her community. According to UNESCO, the result is the oldest operational educational institution in the world, with a high-profile role call of alumni. Mystic poet and philosopher Ibn Al-‘Arabi studied there in the 12th century, historian and economist Ibn Khaldun attended in the 14th century, while in medieval times, Al-Qarawiyyin played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans.

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Rethinking Knowledge in the Internet Age
David Weinberger, Los Angeles Review of Books,
2 May 2016

There is endless evidence to support pessimistic or optimistic views, for both are true. This is the greatest time to be a curious person who wants to learn, and it is the greatest time to be a complete idiot. The net is revealing both the power of our traditional ways of knowing and the fact that traditional knowing has always been a product of flawed humans going wrong and going right together. Knowledge cannot liberate itself from this. Ultimately, knowledge’s only hope is for more and better humanity.

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The Empty Brain
Robert Epstein, Aeon, 18 May 2016

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

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But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge.

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Do writers’ photographs show a side of their character not revealed in their books?
William Dalrymple, Guardian, 14 May 2016

Sometimes, with luck, a photograph can reveal a quite different side to a writer’s character and vision to the one revealed in their texts. Chatwin was a writer of breathtaking prose. Its crystal-cool clarity and bleak, chiselled beauty was as startling as a Verey light and as precise as a surgeon’s knife, sentences worked and reworked, polished and polished again, as he patiently cut them down to their essence.

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Yet Chatwin’s photography was far more immediate and feline than his writing: his best images are those that capture the fleeting moment. They were grabbed on the hoof, on his Leica, often without forethought or planning, and the best of them have the sudden, instant perfection of a cat’s flawless all-four-paws landing. His images also have a wonderfully reciprocal relationship with the modernist painters that he loved: the tin shacks of Mali turned in an instant into beautiful formalist compositions, squares of pure colour with echoes of Léger and Kandinsky.

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You must remember this
Samuel Moyn, The New Republic, 4 May 2016

Arguably the best response to this situation is to recommend not more sweet forgetting, but more politically effective memory than our age of victimhood has known. After the dead are dead, their memory matters for the sake of our campaigns for justice: to inspire them in the first place or to give them strength. That memory serves conservatives and nationalists does not mean their progressive and cosmopolitan opponents should relinquish the field of struggle. But perhaps they will need to learn to focus less on the crimes of the past and more on the unfulfilled hopes of our ancestors for a just world – hopes of which our age of memory all too frequently loses track in its very effort to honor their deaths.

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Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.
Galen Strawson, New York Times, 16 May 2016

Every day, it seems, some verifiably intelligent person tells us that we don’t know what consciousness is. The nature of consciousness, they say, is an awesome mystery. It’s the ultimate hard problem. The current Wikipedia entry is typical: Consciousness ‘is the most mysterious aspect of our lives’; philosophers ‘have struggled to comprehend the nature of consciousness’.

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I find this odd because we know exactly what consciousness is — where by “consciousness” I mean what most people mean in this debate: experience of any kind whatever. It’s the most familiar thing there is, whether it’s experience of emotion, pain, understanding what someone is saying, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting or feeling. It is in fact the only thing in the universe whose ultimate intrinsic nature we can claim to know. It is utterly unmysterious.

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The nature of physical stuff, by contrast, is deeply mysterious, and physics grows stranger by the hour. (Richard Feynman’s remark about quantum theory — ‘I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics’ — seems as true as ever.) Or rather, more carefully: The nature of physical stuff is mysterious except insofar as consciousness is itself a form of physical stuff.

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The City that India Forgot
Sandeep Roy, Kindle, 2 May 2016

The problem cities like Kolkata face in trying to resurrect a glorious past is that the only way they know to do it is through the idea of heritage. That means the house where someone famous was born. Or a Governor-General’s mansion. But they become sites for nostalgia, not urban renewal.

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Kolkata is luckier than some of other knowledge capitals. Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Beirut, Tehran all great cities, have borne the brunt of war and strife. It is surely better to be eaten by termites and silverfish than bombed. But that is small comfort to a city that made it to the bottom of a Times of India survey of India’s best mega cities

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Entanglement Made Simple
Frank Wilczek, Quanta Magazine, 26 April 2016

Daniel Greenberger, Michael Horne and Anton Zeillinger discovered another brilliantly illuminating example of quantum entanglement. It involves three of our q-ons, prepared in a special, entangled state (the GHZ state). We distribute the three q-ons to three distant experimenters. Each experimenter chooses, independently and at random, whether to measure shape or color, and records the result. The experiment gets repeated many times, always with the three q-ons starting out in the GHZ state.

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Each experimenter, separately, finds maximally random results. When she measures a q-on’s shape, she is equally likely to find a square or a circle; when she measures its color, red or blue are equally likely. So far, so mundane.

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But later, when the experimenters come together and compare their measurements, a bit of analysis reveals a stunning result. Let us call square shapes and red colors ‘good’, and circular shapes and blue colors ‘evil’. The experimenters discover that whenever two of them chose to measure shape but the third measured color, they found that exactly 0 or 2 results were ‘evil’ (that is, circular or blue). But when all three chose to measure color, they found that exactly 1 or 3 measurements were evil. That is what quantum mechanics predicts, and that is what is observed.

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So: Is the quantity of evil even or odd? Both possibilities are realized, with certainty, in different sorts of measurements. We are forced to reject the question. It makes no sense to speak of the quantity of evil in our system, independent of how it is measured. Indeed, it leads to contradictions.

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The GHZ effect is, in the physicist Sidney Coleman’s words, ‘quantum mechanics in your face’. It demolishes a deeply embedded prejudice, rooted in everyday experience, that physical systems have definite properties, independent of whether those properties are measured. For if they did, then the balance between good and evil would be unaffected by measurement choices. Once internalized, the message of the GHZ effect is unforgettable and mind-expanding.

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An Enlightenment for Grownups
Susan Neiman, spiked review, March 2016

Left and right critiques of the Enlightenment have differed in tone, but their images of the Enlightenment are remarkably similar, and similarly distorted. Postwar German thinkers were the most explosive. The cosmopolitan refugee Theodor Adorno could not have been more different from the pontificating village Nazi Martin Heidegger. Though they loathed each other profoundly, and disagreed about everything else, both claimed that fascism was the result of the Enlightenment. In short, if you seek to unite contemporary thinkers across nearly every spectrum, you’d do well to invoke the spectre of the Enlightenment monster: a beast filled with icy contempt for the instincts and driven by a blind, dumb optimism or a totalitarian lust for domination. The monster is relentlessly cheerful, stupendously gullible, and inevitably naive. If not quite the mad scientist in the cellar, the Enlightenment is the sorcerer‘s apprentice, a callow fool who releases forces that overpower us all.

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How Stuff Works
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 3 May 2016

The basic ingredients of the Standard Model are easy to list, though understanding their properties is more difficult.

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First there are the matter fields: three pairs of quark fields and three pairs of lepton fields. They are called ‘matter fields’ because their particles form the stuff the visible Universe is made of.

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Besides these fields, there are fields associated with the forces of Nature, which dictate how lumps of matter interact. These fields can be associated with classical ‘force fields’ such as the electromagnetic field – though, unfortunately, they are nothing like Star Trek’s force fields that act like walls. But these are quantum fields, which means they can sustain wave-like oscillations that we call particles. There is a photon field for the electromagnetic force, a gluon field for the strong nuclear force, and the inelegantly named W and Z fields for the weak nuclear force. (Gravity, the fourth fundamental force of Nature, should have a quantum field and a related particle called a graviton, but the techniques of quantum field theory run into problems when applied to gravity, so this force is left out of the Standard Model. That is a whole other story.) Finally, there is one additional field, called the Higgs field, which is necessary for the whole edifice to hang together.

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A Prophetic Vision of Haiti’s Past
Slavoj Zizek, Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 April 2016

But there is another tension, which exploded in an exemplary way in the Haitian Revolution, the one between Black liberation and universal emancipation whose poles are the ‘universalist’ Toussaint and Dessalines, the agent of the massacre of all non-Blacks in Haiti. Among the best pages in Glick’s book are those where he directly addresses this issue. If I understand him correctly, his line of thought resembles the position exemplified by Malcolm X. While in prison, the young Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam, and, after his parole in 1952, he engaged in its struggle, advocating Black supremacy and the separation of white and Black Americans. For him, ‘integration’ was a fake attempt of the Black to become like the white. However, in 1964, he rejected the Nation of Islam and, while continuing to emphasize Black self-determination and self-defense, he distanced himself from every form of racism, advocating emancipatory universality. As a consequence of this ‘betrayal’, he was killed by three Nation of Islam members in February 1965.

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Holy wars
James G Chappel, Boston Review, 25 April 2016

To ask such questions is to begin to recognize that secularism is not simply the victory of relativism or progressivism over the forces of religion – it is the very imagination of such a thing called religion, linked with the conjuring of, for instance, Christianity and Islam as entities that somehow bind wildly disparate practices and projects across time and space. Think for a moment about the incredible variety of practices and social relations that are classified as ‘religious’ from terrorism to Sunday School to electoral politics. It is not clear what these have in common, if anything, and it is even more unclear how they might be distinguished from, say, a national anthem or a mall Santa.

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The idea that some essence of religion exists across different societies and can be analytically distinguished is only about three centuries old. Crafted primarily by European missionaries and imperialists confronted with a challenging and opaque world, its legacy does not inspire confidence, and there is no particular reason to remain beholden to it. The deconstruction of the category might seem like an academic parlor game, but in fact the stakes are high. The invocation of religion as an explanatory variable and a bump in the night has become commonplace, and it legitimates a powerful, often-unquestioned worldview.