(Roughly) Daily

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”*…

 

science

There is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

But these trends are Janus-faced…

Jeremy Baumberg argues that we live in an age of hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research: “What Is Threatening Science?

* Buckminster Fuller

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As we rethink research, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: as of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

 source

 

Written by LW

September 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.”…

 

TulaneFishArchiveInterior

Hidden in a bend of the Mississippi River just south of New Orleans, 29 concrete bunkers lie on a grid of dirt and grass roads. Some hold remnants from the past—40-year-old gas masks and biohazard signs still hang on a wall. Most of them have been abandoned for decades. But inside two of those bunkers, 15 million fish eyes stare at the walls through the glass of their jars. This is the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection, the largest collection of preserved fish in the world, and almost no one knows it exists…

More of the story– and explore the collection– at “A Pair of WWII Bunkers in New Orleans Contains 7 Million Fish.”

* Franz Kafka (commenting on his then new-found vegetarianism)

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As we ponder preservation, we might spare a thought for David Starr Jordan; he died on this date in 1931.  The leading ichthyologist of his time, he was also an educator and advocate for science.  He became the youngest President of Indiana University, then founding President of Stanford; he was an expert witness at the Scopes Trial, testifying for the efficacy of the theory of evolution.

His career was not unblemished however: he helped cover up the murder of Jane Stanford, and argued in favor of eugenics.

220px-Portrait_of_David_Starr_Jordan source

 

 

“Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger”*…

 

Know Thyself

An anonymous 17th-century allegorical painting inscribed Nosce te Ipsum (Know thyself)

 

We all know the most famous bit of ancient advice inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself. It’s a powerful and daunting recommendation. If you take it seriously, you will begin to push through all of the misconceptions you have, not only about yourself but about human beings generally. You will begin to think deeply about who you really are and who you ought to be. You might start making life-altering decisions, decisions that (if you are right) bring you into harmony with your nature and your circumstances, or (if you are wrong) turn your life into a big mistake. There should be little wonder that this one command is the highest command of all philosophy: follow it like a religious law, and – one way or another – you will be a great philosopher.

But this powerful command is in fact just one of some 147 apophthegmata (pithy words of wisdom) inscribed upon a stone monument at Delphi. It’s not clear where these lesser-known maxims came from. The ancient compiler Stobaeus attributed them to the Seven Sages – wise men of the sixth century BCE, such as Solon and Thales – but maybe they were generated in the same hazy way that all instances of folk wisdom (sticks and stones, stitch in time, etc) are generated, and then set in stone for the benefit of later seekers of wisdom – such as us.

Some of these maxims are, for us, complete nonstarters…

Appraise the advise at “More than ‘know thyself’: on all the other Delphic maxims.”

* variously attributed to Mark Twain, Abbie Hoffman, and Aardvark Magazine

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As we wonder about wisdom, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson

source

 

Written by LW

September 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts”*…

 

pogo_comic_1050x700

During the 1950s, Walt Kelly created the most popular comic strip in the United States. His strip was about an opossum named Pogo and his swamp-dwelling friends. It was also the most controversial and censored of its time. Long before Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury blurred the lines between the funny pages and the editorial pages, Kelly’s mix of satiric wordplay, slapstick, and appearances by Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev, J. Edgar Hoover, and the John Birch Society, all in animal form, stirred up the censors.

Taking place in a mythic Okefenokee Swamp, Pogo satirized the human condition as well as McCarthyism, communism, segregation, and, eventually, the Vietnam War. The strip is probably best remembered today for Pogo’s environmentalist’s lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Pogo was syndicated from 1949-1975, reaching its peak readership of about 37 million readers in the mid-1950s, when it was carried by 450 newspapers. The strip’s popularity put editors and publishers opposed to Kelly’s content in a pickle…

A story of sly satire: “The Most Controversial Comic Strip.”

* Walt Kelly

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As we agree with Pogo’s friend Porky Pine “Don’t take life so serious, son, it ain’t nohow permanent,” we might recall that on this date in 1859, Norton I distributed letters to the newspapers of San Francisco proclaiming himself Emperor of North America…

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of S. F., Cal., declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these U. S.; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

– NORTON I, Emperor of the United States.

180px-Emperor_Joshua_A._Norton_I

source

Written by LW

September 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The prevailing ideology of the modern west – which is political economy – is in the doghouse”*…

 

recession

 

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers (the largest bankruptcy in U.S.history) and the start of the Great Recession.  We took a look at the crisis, it’s dimensions, and its aftermath last month (“Not every business cycle has a financial crisis. Frequently they do“); but there’s so much to remember– and so many may smart folks from whom to learn…

In “From Trump to Trade, the Financial Crisis Still Resonates 10 Years Later,” Andrew Ross Sorkin thinks about the consequences of the crash still unfolding.  In “Can We Survive the Next Financial Crisis?,” Bloomberg’s Yalman Onaran, considers both the ways in which the system that led to the last crisis has become safer and also the pockets of risk that have grown since 2008.  (Keep your eyes on CLOs– collateralized loan obligations– this decade’s version of the CDOs that tanked the economy in 2008…)

The always-illuminating Matt Levine, considering John Cassidy’s review of Adam Tooze’s new history of the financial crisis/crises, Crashed, highlights Tooze’s central argument: that much of our current geopolitical situation — the nativism and fragmentation and general rejection of decades of stability and elite consensus — is a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis and the flawed response to it.  Levine concludes with a striking observation…

Finally here is a passage I found interesting from Tooze’s “Crashed,” on quantitative easing, political volatility, and the U.S.’s flirtation with defaulting on its debt in 2013:

That the astonishing events in Congress in 2013 did not lead to an immediate crisis in the bond market pointed to the resilience of the US Treasurys as the global safe asset of choice. Though the Chinese and Germans might complain and the market blipped, demand for US Treasurys quickly recovered. Ultimately, the market for IOUs drawn on the American taxpayer was underwritten by the Fed. Unlike the ECB, America’s central bank left no doubt that it backed its governments’s debt. QE3 bond purchases provided immediate support, keeping prices up and rates down. This provided at least one point of stability for global investors. But after the events of 2013 questions could no longer be avoided. Was one of the unintended side effects of the stability generated by the Fed to free politics from market constraints and thus enable Republican extremism? Did America’s ability to ride out short-term budget crises like those of 2011 and 2013 lead contemporaries to underestimate the future dangers that the degeneration of American democracy might bring with it? And how long would the Fed’s technocratic interventions compensate for America’s lackluster economic recovery and the shambles in the legislative branch?

Obviously one can disagree with some of the characterizations there. But one thing that we used to talk about a lot around here was that people were worried that people weren’t worried enough: Financial-market volatility seemed eerily low given the apparent instability of, you know, the world. That worry turned out to be overstated — volatility picked back up without causing any particular crisis — but it really was a bit eerie: Apparent actual volatility in the world kept not causing volatility in asset prices. But an implication of Tooze’s argument is that some of the causality went the other way: Because financial markets were calm in the face of geopolitical instability, they enabled more geopolitical instability. If you don’t have bond vigilantes checking up on you, then you can get up to a lot of weird stuff.

[image above: source]

* James Buchan

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As we try to keep cause and effect straight, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the biggest incidence of domestic terrorism in U.S. history to that date occurred: the Wall Street bombing.  At noon, a horse-drawn wagon passed by lunchtime crowds on Wall Street and stopped across the street from the headquarters of the J.P. Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street, on the Financial District’s busiest corner.  Inside the wagon, 100 pounds of dynamite with 500 pounds of heavy, cast-iron sash weights exploded in a timer-set detonation, sending the weights tearing through the air.  30 people were killed immediately, and another eight died later of wounds sustained in the blast.  There were 143 seriously injured; the total number of injured was in the hundreds.

Though investigators and historians believe the bombing was carried out by Galleanists (an anarchist group responsible for a series of bombings the previous year), the attack– which was a part of postwar social unrest, labor struggles and anti-capitalist agitation in the U. S.– was never officially solved.

The aftermath of the explosion

source

 

Written by LW

September 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Don’t just do something, sit there”*…

 

cows

You’ve heard of slow food and slow fashion. Now the BBC is spreading the gospel of slow radio.

The British public broadcaster’s Radio 3 programming this autumn will invite listeners to relax to the sounds of Irish cows being herded up a mountain and leaves crunching on walks through the country. Radio 3 controller Alan Davey tells The Guardian this “meditative, slightly old fashioned” radio will provide audiences with “a chance for quiet mindfulness.”

That sounds a lot like autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), or the pleasant calming sensation many people feel when listening to a range of gentle everyday noises, from softly spoken words to someone raking a zen garden…

More on soothing sound at: “The BBC is getting into ASMR.”  And for those who can’t receive Radio Three…

* Buddhist saying

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As we’re muse on mindfulness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1597 that Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, then a tax collector in the province of Grenada, was imprisoned in the Carcel Real, the royal prison in Seville, Spain.  Apparently a subordinate had deposited tax receipts with an untrustworthy banker.

Forced to slow down, Cervantes took good advantage of his free time: he started plotting (but probably not actually writing) “El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha” (“The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha“)– or as we have come to know it, Don Quixote.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”

cervantes source

 

Written by LW

September 15, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Take a sad song and make it better”*…

 

A rehearsal of the musical <i>Hair</i> at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, September 1968

A rehearsal of Hair.  Premiered in late 1967; photo taken, 1968

 

Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).

Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.

What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.

Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were…

Rutgers professor Jackson Lear considers several attempts to distill the lessons of the late 60s: “Aquarius Rising.”

Special bonus: film critic J. Hoberman on why, in 1968, an especially rich year for cinema, Night of the Living Dead was his pick for best movie.

* The Beatles, “Hey Jude”

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As we Let The Sunshine In, we might recall that on this date in 1968, our post’s title source, “Hey Jude,” sat at #2 on the pop chart– just ahead of “1,2,3, Redlight” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co. at #3 and The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” at #4… and just behind that week’s #1, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley.

jeannie-c-riley-harper-valley-pta-1968-a source

 

Written by LW

September 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

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