Readings: Issue #15

Jan 25 2020

In Quanta, Jordana Cepelewicz explores the ethical issues raised by “cerebral organoids”—brainlike structures, complete with active neurons, that are grown from human stem cells and used in research. The consensus within the field is that these blobs aren’t conscious, though I don’t understand how you can rule out some degree of sentience. In any event, their “developmental age” is likened to that of a second-trimester fetus, and as researchers build more and more complex versions of them, that age will rise.   

In a New York Times excerpt from Ezra Klein’s new book Why We’re Polarized, Klein looks at the asymmetrical nature of America’s political polarization, exploring the implications of the fact that over the past 50 years the Democratic Party has gotten more diverse while the Republican Party has gotten more homogeneous. 

The latest issue of California Sunday magazine devotes multiple articles to facial recognition technology: how it works, how it’s been used in the past, how police are using it now, how Hong Kong protestors circumvent it, and more... 

In Lion’s Roar, Mirabai Bush recalls visits with her friend Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher and author of the classic Be Here Now, who died in December. This excerpt from her 2018 book Walking Each Other Home focuses on their discussions about how to handle fear, including fear of death

In The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn explains how neoconservatives, discredited after the disastrous Iraq War, have regained influence in Washington notwithstanding President Trump’s professed aversion to military intervention. The recent assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani “revealed that the neocon military-intellectual complex is very much still intact, with the ability to spring back to life from a state of suspended animation in an instant.”

In the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Taylor Plimpton notes the vibrance of political activism about immigration, gun control, and climate change and asks, “Why, when it comes to war, are we so strangely silent?” The answers he comes up with make sense, but I’d add another one: There’s a failure to fully appreciate how much our current state of endless war impedes solutions to other problems we care about, especially global problems such as climate change.

In the Baffler, George Scialabba writes about Wendell Berry, the ecologically minded writer and, in some sense, spiritual leader. Scialabba compares Berry to other “anti-modernists” and winds up appreciative of Berry’s work but in some ways skeptical. Berry is a Christian, whereas Scialabba believes that “our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren.” Scialabba grants that anyone who “shares Berry’s Christian beliefs” should naturally “adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient—if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply—then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.”

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Readings: Issue #14

Jan 18 2020

In the New York Times, Kashmir Hill writes about a “groundbreaking facial recognition app” that could “end your ability to walk down the street anonymously.” The flip side: It could also mean that you could walk down the street wearing augmented reality glasses that would show you the name of everyone you saw.

In trying to figure out why the death of Roger Scruton, a philosopher I’d barely heard of, occasioned so many online laments from conservatives (especially those with Burkean and nationalist leanings), I was led to an interview of him published last year in the New Statesman. As the New York Times obituary explains, the interview was originally published in condensed form and got Scruton into a lot of trouble after a New Statesman editor said on social media that it contained “outrageous remarks” about things such as Islamophobia and George Soros. You can judge Scruton for yourself by reading the full, unedited version of the interview that the New Statesman later published.

In the Nation, climate-change activist Bill McKibben uses the epidemic of wildfires that has afflicted Australia as a teaching moment.

In Mother Jones, Tim Murphy writes that, if you want to understand the impeachment of Donald Trump, it helps to understand the many parallels between it and the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson—which, Murphy says, has been greatly misunderstood. If you’re not up for a deep historical dive, you can read Vox’s answers to nine basic questions about the impeachment, starting with a really basic one: “1) What is a Senate impeachment trial?”

An interactive feature in the Washington Post asks you 20 multiple-choice policy questions, then tells you which Democratic presidential candidates you’re most closely aligned with and shows you a handy chart depicting the candidates’ positions on the 20 policies you opined on.  

In Aeon, historian Andreas Sommer laments “the overzealous pathologisation of spiritual sightings and ghostly visions.” Sommer says that, leaving aside whether “weird experiences” are valid guides to reality, people often benefit from them. One study found that nearly half of widows and widowers reported encounters with their dead spouses, and 69 percent of those found the encounters helpful, whereas only 6 percent found them unsettling. 

On bloggingheads.tv (and on The Wright Show podcast), I discussed and debated the assassination of Suleimani and its aftermath with my Iran-hawk friend Eli Lake. I kept my composure most of the time. And speaking of me and Iran: In May I wrote in Wired about Trump’s unprecedented designation of a governmental entity—Iran’s Revolutionary Guard—as a terrorist organization, and how abjectly and expansively Facebook had accommodated this designation. This issue is newly relevant—both because the assassination was justified by some on grounds that Suleimani was a member of a terrorist group, and because post-assassination expressions of support for Suleimani have been censored by Facebook’s Instagram.   

American officials belatedly disclosed that Iran’s retaliation for the Suleimani assassination—missile strikes on a base in Iraq—had in fact, contrary to earlier statements, caused American casualties. Some took this to mean that we came within a hair’s breadth of war, since a fatality would likely have brought American retaliation. But there’s reason to think it was more like three or four breadths. All the casualties seem to have consisted of either psychological trauma or “burst concussions,” which could have been suffered some distance from where the missiles hit. So my reading of the Iranian assault remains unchanged: Iran leaked word of the strikes so the troops could take shelter (though the US claims it got advance notice without help from Iran), and then hit its targets precisely. The idea was to avoid casualties, thus stopping the cycle of violence, while demonstrating that Iranian ballistic missiles, unlike the cruder missiles fired by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, have pinpoint accuracy and so could kill large numbers of Americans in the future. In this scenario, Americans may yet be killed to avenge Soleimani’s death, but if so this will be done by proxies, or at least without Iranian fingerprints, so as to reduce the chances of America’s bombing Iran in retaliation. 

Readings: Issue #13

Jan 04 2020

In 2013, in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins profiled the then-obscure Iranian military commander Qassim Suleimani, who was killed this week by American drone strikes.

In Foreign Affairs, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin assess America’s “40-year obsession with Iran”—and the misconceptions about Iran that sustain it. (There’s a paywall, but you can circumvent it via free registration.)

Apparently distraction was a problem for people even before there were entire Silicon Valley companies devoted to fostering it. Medieval monks complained about distraction (and information overload), according to historian Jamie Kreiner. In Aeon she shares some of their strategies for combatting it. (Warning: One of them is renunciation.) 

In a Buzzfeed piece called “Twitter and Facebook’s Race To The Bottom,” Alex Kantrowitz recounts the past decade’s evolution of the two social media platforms—an evolution that, as you may have surmised, he doesn’t wholly approve of. He focuses on how the addition of new features made the two platforms more toxic. I wouldn’t call this a balanced assessment (surely Twitter’s addition of the quote-tweet wasn’t all bad!), but it nicely underscores the recurring problem of innovation’s unanticipated downsides. Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Sarah J. Jackson has a few kind words about Twitter, which she says has brought previously unheard voices into influential conversations. 

In Vox, Dylan Matthews lists his 12 favorite academic studies of the past decade. Some are encouraging (one finds that increased spending on public schools actually helps), but not all. 

In the New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof closed out last year by making the case that, “in the long arc of human history, 2019 was the best year ever.” Um, OK.   

Reporting from Tokyo, Rosalind Adams of Buzzfeed assesses Aibo, a line of robotic dogs that use facial recognition and AI to “shift their personality over time based on their interactions with people they spend time with. Soon, they become much more than a store-bought toy.”

Readings, Issue #12

Dec 21 2019

At the conservative never-Trump site The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last offers four reasons Republican politicians will never abandon Trump. And he means never; even after Trump leaves the White House he can use his Twitter following to punish politicians who defy him. Trump, writes Last, “owns the GOP in a way that is unprecedented in the modern era.”

In the first of a multi-part series, the New York Times vividly shows how vulnerable your cell phone makes you to invasions of privacy. The invaders aren’t telecom companies or the government but rather “location data companies” whose software resides in smart phone apps you’ve authorized to know your location—and who can sell your data to anyone who wants it. Though the software doesn’t know your identity—and most commercial users of the data don’t care about your identity, so long as they can, say, show you an ad for Acme Coffee the moment you walk past an Acme Coffee Shop—your identity can be inferred from your daily patterns of movement. 

Tweet of the week comes from @DanMKervick: “We’ve reached a point in world history where a genuinely international political party makes abundant sense. It should focus on peace, disarmament, environmental preservation, and shared global prosperity.” Sign me up.

Turkey, according to a piece in the New Scientist, wins the award for first country to build and deploy drones armed with machine guns. An accompanying promotional video shows the drone in action in a setting that looks authentically warlike—without committing the marketing blunder of showing people on the ground getting killed. 

In Tricycle, Sumi Loundon Kim explains how parents can introduce their kids to a nighttime ritual of lovingkindness (metta) meditation. It can be done more formally or less formally—while seated near a Buddhist altar or while snuggled in bed. I suspect this ritual might provide some of the psychological benefits that, as I dimly recall, my nighttime prayer provided when I was a boy. 

Humans didn’t invent non-zero-sum games. Natural selection was forging win-win outcomes long before people showed up and articulated the underlying logic. The Hawaiian bobtail squid, for example, houses and feeds bacteria that, in return, camouflage the squid at night by emitting a light that’s similar to the moonlight filtering through the water. As Quanta magazine’s Laura Poppick reports, scientists have now mapped the bobtail squid’s genome and are using that data to flesh out the evolution of this symbiosis. Even if you’re not a genome enthusiast, you should consider checking out the beautiful pictures of bobtail squids.

Readings: Issue #11

Dec 14 2019

In Aeon, the philosopher Nicolas Bommarito sings the praises of modesty and explains why, historically, many philosophers haven’t been big fans of it. Bommarito’s conception of modesty seems in some ways eccentric; he says that truly modest people don’t really care how they stack up against other people. (I’ve always tried to be modest, but if that kind of indifference is a prerequisite, I give up.) But at least one of Bommarito’s claims is unarguable: Modesty, he says, “is something you can’t really brag about.”

This week the Washington Post published and assessed a trove of government documents that are to the Afghanistan War what the Pentagon Papers were to the Vietnam War: a look into government findings and deliberations that reveal much more internal doubt about the prospects for success than was officially acknowledged.

In the Post’s Outlook section, Stephen Wertheim and Samuel Moyn of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft explain how the disregard of both domestic and international law has led war—invasions, occupations, drone strikes, special forces raids, etc.—to become a post–Cold War constant for America.  

Elon Musk drew a certain amount of ridicule for this tweet. But I actually found it interesting. I’d never before thought about using one interpretation of quantum physics—that subatomic reality doesn’t assume definite form until it’s observed—to buttress the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. (And hey, at least he didn’t call anyone a pedophile.) 

Have you ever noticed that different trains' whistles have different pitches? Turns out they’re so different that you could, by creating a video mashup of different trains whistling, play Pachelbel’s Canon.

Readings: Issue #10

Dec 07 2019

On the CBC, a psychiatrist at McGill University discusses a drug that apparently can help cure heartbreak. Recalling a “romantic betrayal event” while under its influence, he says, reduces the emotional power of the memory thereafter. Oddly—or maybe not so oddly—the drug is already in wide use as a way of lowering blood pressure. 

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes the case that the famously far-left Bernie Sanders could have broader appeal—both in the Democratic primaries and in a general election—than is generally appreciated. Sanders polls better among non-Bernie-Bro Democratic demographics than you’d expect, says Douthat. And his leftism is so focused on economic issues that he seems less threatening than many Democrats to conservatives who emphasize abortion and other social issues. Sanders could be “the liberal [candidate] most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.”

In a piece in The Cut called “My Wife’s Enemies Are Now My Enemies, Too,” Josh Gondelman offers himself as a case study in the tribalizing potential of marriage.

In Psychology Today, Susan Lanzoni recaps the semantic evolution of the word empathy—which a century ago, when it first appeared in English, meant “nearly the opposite of what it means now.” It meant “projecting one’s own imagined feelings and movements into objects”—seeing sharp, angular contours as ferocious, say, or seeing soft curves as calm. Lanzoni hopes reflecting on the word’s etymology will rekindle this “aesthetic empathy,” which she says can deepen appreciation of “our inherent connection to a world beyond ourselves.” Such reflection could also remind us that when we exercise empathy in the most common modern sense—feel the feelings someone else is feeling—we are, strictly speaking, engaging in an act of projection; we can’t know exactly what it’s like to be someone else, even if it’s often worth trying. 

And speaking of empathy: On the Wright Show I talked to psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy, about when empathy is and isn’t a good guide to moral conduct

In Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria questions the “new consensus” which holds that “China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it.”

In Vice, Caroline Haskins, looks at how Amazon has “been quietly building a privatized surveillance network throughout the United States.” She’s not talking about Amazon’s Alexa, but rather about Ring, the security camera that lets people remotely see who’s at the door—or for that matter who’s walking along the sidewalk or what cars are driving by. Neighbors can form sharing networks that give each of them broad surveillance powers, and arrangements with local police can let them in on the action. Needless to say, there are pros and cons.

Forty-three years after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith do several deep dives into The Intercept’s “comprehensive dataset on everyone sentenced to die in active death penalty jurisdictions since 1976.” One conclusion: “Capital punishment remains as ‘arbitrary and capricious’ as ever.”

Readings: Issue #9

Nov 23 2019
In The Washington Post, Molly Roberts entertainingly offers explanations of why Pete Buttigieg hasn’t caught on among young voters. (I was reminded while reading this of what the great Mike Kinsley wrote about Al Gore in the late 1980s, when Gore was around Buttigieg’s age: He’s “an old person’s idea of a young person.”)     

Countless undergraduates have been taught that America’s exceptionalist zeal—its seeming compulsion to remake other nations in its image, sometimes via war—dates back to the Puritans. The Puritans are said to have injected a sense of divine ordination “into the distinctive cultural DNA of imperially expansive America,” as historian Daniel T. Rodgers puts it. Rodgers puts it that way in a book that questions this standard story by closely analyzing what is taken as the source text of Puritanical American exceptionalism: a sermon in which John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, invoked this biblical passage: “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid.” In the Nation, historian Andrew Delbanco reviews Rodgers’s book, As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon.

In Gzero, Gabrielle Debinski pithily summarizes views on foreign policy expressed by Democratic presidential candidates in this week’s debate—which devoted more time to foreign policy than past debates (which is to say: some time). 

In an Aeon piece alluringly titled “What is to be done about the problem of creepy men?” law professor Heidi Matthews actually asks what is to be done with our intuitions about what is and isn’t “creepy,” particularly in the #MeToo era. She recommends not letting those intuitions substitute for careful analysis, since they can be tools of “shunning and social ostracism” and have been used against, for example, the mentally ill and homosexuals. Matthews also notes that the “creepiness” reaction is related to the emotion of disgust—which, as it happens, was the subject of a long 2016 piece in Aeon, by Kathleen McAuliffe, that also offered reasons for caution about letting our feelings serve as moral guides.

In The Federalist, Trump supporter Mollie Hemingway gives her account of “How Republicans won phase one of the impeachment.”

A New York Times Magazine piece by Kevin Roose documents the demise of the free internet and the growth of the paid internet—which offers, for example, a “news therapy” app called Sift that, for $3.33 per month, promises to help you “stay informed about contentious topics while reducing anxiety and stress.” Most surprising stat: the average American spent more than $1,300 on digital media last year.

In the New Republic, Udi Greenberg reviews the new book Reimagining Judeo-Christian America, by K. Healan Gaston of Harvard Divinity School. When the term “Judeo-Christian” came into currency in the 1940s, it served as a vehicle of social inclusion, identifying Jews with an American moral and spiritual heritage long thought of as Christian. But the term can be used for exclusion—as when Steven Bannon champions the struggle of the “Judeo-Christian West” against Islam. Gaston, Greenberg writes, argues that the term has been used that way more often than you might guess—and has sometimes even been used at the expense of Jews, as a way to “legitimize larger claims about Christian supremacy.” 

On bloggingheads.tv—and on The Wright Show audio podcast—I argue with my closest Trump-supporting friend, Mickey Kaus, about impeachment and other things, including Trump’s Iran policy.

Readings: Issue #8

Nov 16 2019

 On CNN’s website, journalist Daniel Dale, who has relentlessly chronicled the president’s untruths during this presidency, lists “45 ways Trump has been dishonest about Ukraine and impeachment.”  

The Wall Street Journal this week published the results of its big investigation into how Google has “increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged.” Google “made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay, contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action.” Also, Google “boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com and Facebook.” (Remember the neediest!) Google also fiddles with the “auto-complete” algorithm to reduce the chances that people will stumble onto such inflammatory subjects as immigration and abortion.

In the Columbia Journalism Review, sociologist Musa al-Gharbi vividly depicts how good Trump is at getting his favorite thing: attention. Al-Gharbi divides the number of mentions each recent president has gotten in the New York Times by the total number of words published by the Times (to correct for the growth in the latter during the online age) and gets this graph: 

In Aeon, philosopher Catherine Wilson sings the praises of Epicureanism as a guiding philosophy and argues that it’s well suited to the modern world. As a lifestyle, Epicureanism is less self-indulgent than the current usage of the term might suggest, though less austere than Stoicism, which is now undergoing something of a revival, and on which Wilson throws a bit of shade.

In Dissent, Nicolaus Mills reviews a biography of Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall Plan and Secretary of State under Truman, and suggests that Marshall’s “pragmatic engagement” would be an improvement on America’s foreign policy of recent decades.

The New York Times reports that, with President Evo Morales having been forced out of office by the military amid protests against him, many of Bolivia’s indigenous people worry that gains they enjoyed in recent years are imperiled. Morales, the first indigenous president in the country’s history, was replaced by a woman of European descent who initially appointed an all-European cabinet and has in the past called indigenous religious rituals “satanic.”

On the Israeli website 972, Menachem Klein explains how the unusual dynamics of this week’s conflict in Gaza reflect important changes in the relationship among Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

In New York Magazine, Ed Kilgore argues that impeachment could be a “calamity” for Democratic presidential candidates who are in the Senate (Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker, Harris, Bennet). Attending impeachment hearings—which would be in session six days per week—could keep them off the campaign trail for six weeks or more during the critical early phase of the primaries.

Readings: Issue #7

Nov 09 2019
In Aeon, Dutch psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen argues that the tendency to build conspiracy theories is rooted in our genes, and had survival value in the social environment in which human evolution took place. 

On Stratfor Worldview, journalist Charles Glass writes that Turkish President Erdogan’s intervention in Syria—which started with the arming of proxies and now features Turkish troops in Syria—is turning into Turkey’s forever war. Glass writes, “When President Barack Obama considered the covert operation to train and equip Syrian rebels in 2013, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, he said to his aides, ‘Tell me how this ends.’ As Turkey is discovering, it doesn't.”

A ProPublica piece by Yeganeh Torbati shows how Vice President Mike Pence has been steering foreign aid to Christian groups and away from non-Christian groups that had been designated for aid by career USAID officials.

In Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman riffs on the empathy study that I riff on above—the one which found that empathy exacerbates political polarization. Scott has a pretty consistently different perspective from mine—his glass is half full and mine is half empty—so his take on things is often a good complement to mine. (But trust me: the glass is half empty.)

In the wake of the recent implosion of the edgy sports website Deadspin, Phillip Maciak, writing in The Week, offers a requiem for "the good internet"—websites that emerged from the blogosphere a decade ago, created a home for sharp and sometimes strange writing, and then met the fate of all things mortal.

Tweet of the week: After former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed this week to enter a Democratic presidential primary, GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini tweeted a graph that would seem to spell Bloomberg doom. It arrays 2016 voters along two dimensions—their position on economic issues and on social/identity issues. And the lower-right quadrant of the graph, where Bloomberg would seem to belong (being progressive on social issues but not so much on economic issues), is pretty much devoid of voters. (For elaboration on the meaning of “social/identity,” see this interesting 2017 analysis by Lee Drutman, who created the graph that Ruffini tweeted.)

This week, after a black cat entertainingly intruded on Monday Night Football, the Atlantic promptly trotted out a photo spread of animals that have shown up, uninvited, at sporting events. It’s entertaining, and it includes the requisite alligator-on-a-golf course shot, but I personally prefer the video of a professional golfer manually expelling an alligator from the course—to say nothing of the video montage of 10 great golf course animal encounters, which features killer bees

Readings: Issue #6

Oct 26 2019
Writing in the New Yorker, Christine Smallwood reports that astrology is undergoing a boom, including among millennials who profess to be scientifically oriented. A 2017 Pew poll found that nearly 30 percent of Americans “believe” in astrology, and lots more are thought to dabble in it. 

The New York Times and Associated Press reported this week on two different examples of bridge-building across intra-Abrahamic fault lines, and the moral of the story was the same in both: nothing brings people together like shared adversity. In Lebanon, Christians of various sects and Muslims of various sects have joined in protesting economic conditions and government corruption. “The politicians told us that we hate each other, but we don’t,” one young protestor told Times reporter Vivian Yee. AP reports on Jews and Muslims who are uniting to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, which often emanate from the same far-right ideological milieu. A nonprofit called Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which started as a meeting of six Jewish women and six Muslim women in a New Jersey home, now has 170 North American chapters.

Over the past 18 months the number of Hillary Clinton voters who say the US has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria has risen sharply, while the number of Donald Trump voters who say that has dropped, the Huffington Post reports. So these voters are well positioned to, respectively, blame Trump and not blame Trump for Syrian mayhem

On meaningoflife.tv (and on The Wright Show audio podcast) I had a fun conversation with my old friend John Horgan, the famously cranky—I mean, skeptical—science writer. We talked about “scientism”—that is, an exaggerated sense of the scope of science’s authority—and took advantage of the opportunity to bash various name-brand New Atheists. We also talked about the weirdness of consciousness, the weirdness of quantum physics, and other weird things. And I got a chance to commend John for his role in fighting the rampant hyping of scientific findings.

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