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“The one who believes he can control violence by setting up defenses is in fact controlled by violence”*…

Envy_Invidia

Pieter Beugel, “Envy” (source)

René Girard (1923–2015) was one of the last of that race of Titans who dominated the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with their grand, synthetic theories about history, society, psychology, and aesthetics. That race has since given way to a more cautious breed of “researchers” who prefer to look at things up close, to see their fine grain rather than their larger patterns. Yet the times certainly seem to attest to the enduring relevance of Girard’s thought to our social and political realities. Not only are his ideas about mimetic desire and human violence as far-reaching as Marx’s theories of political economy or Freud’s claims about the Oedipus complex, but the explosion of social media, the resurgence of populism, and the increasing virulence of reciprocal violence all suggest that the contemporary world is becoming more and more recognizably “Girardian” in its behavior…

Stanford’s Robert Pogue Harrison on Girard’s life, work… and its cautionary relevance to our time: “The Prophet of Envy.”

* René Girard

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As we deconstruct desire, we might recall that it was on this date in 63 BCE that famed Roman orator (and Consul) Cicero gave the fourth and final Catiline Oration, an accusation that Senator Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline) had led a plot to overthrow the Roman government.  At Cicero’s urging (and over the the more moderate wishes of some other senators), Catiline was convicted and sentenced to death.

Some modern historians, and ancient sources like Sallust, suggest that Catiline was a more complex and sympathetic character than Cicero’s argument declares, and that Cicero, a career politician, was driven by a desire to establish decisively a lasting reputation as a great Roman patriot and statesman.

In any case, most accounts of the events come from Cicero himself.  And as he was an accomplished self-promoter, this is one of the best, if not the very best, documented events surviving from the ancient world– one that presaged the series of political struggles throughout history that pit state security against civil liberties.

cataline oration

A fresco by Cesare Maccari (1840-1919 CE) depicting Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Roman senate.

source

Written by LW

December 5, 2018 at 7:50 am

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard”*…

 

democracy 2

It probably goes without saying at this point, but democratic institutions are experiencing something of a crisis. The last decade has seen an increasing trend toward right-wing populism around the world, from Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the rise of autocratic regimes in Poland and Hungary. These developments are particularly troubling considering they are occurring in countries ruled by nominally democratic governments, even though democracy is meant to be a bulwark against exactly this kind of political extremism.

Although political theorists have long considered democratic governments to be among the most stable forms of governance, new research by an international team of complex systems theorists that analyzes how democracies become destabilized suggests that the stability of democratic governments has been taken for granted. As detailed in a paper published this week in the European Journal of Physics, Wiesner and an international team of mathematicians, psychologists, political theorists, and philosophers focused on two features of complex social systems—feedback loops and stability—to better understand why democracies around the world are backsliding…

A team of systems experts argue that the decline of democracies is poorly understood, but that concepts from complex systems theory may offer a solution: “Complex Systems Theorists Explain Why Democracy Is Dying.”

[image above: source]

* H. L. Mencken, who also (prophetically?) observed: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

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As we get down with governance, we might send carefully-researched and elegantly-written birthday greetings to Thomas Carlyle; he was born on this date in1795.  A Victorian polymath, he was an accomplished philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher.  While he was an enormously popular lecturer in his time, and his contributions to mathematics earned him eponymous fame (the Carlyle circle), he may be best remembered as a historian (and champion of the “Great Man” theory of history)… and as the coiner of phrases like “the dismal science” (to describe economics)

Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution, a three volume work that assured his fame as a historian, was finished in 1836 but not published until 1837 because John Stuart Mill’s maid mistook the manuscript of Volume One for kindling.  The setback prompted Carlyle to compare himself to a man who has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero.”   But he re-wrote the first volume from scratch.

“A well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.”   – Thomas Carlyle

 source

 

“MESMERISM, n. Hypnotism before it wore good clothes, kept a carriage and asked Incredulity to dinner”*…

 

mesmer

Detail from a colored etching after C-L. Desrais depicting people gathered around the “baquet” at one of Franz Mesmer’s group animal magnetism sessions — Source.

 

Patients, mostly women, are sitting around a large wooden tub filled with magnetic water, powdered glass, and iron filings. From its lid emerge a number of bent iron rods against which the patients expectantly press their afflicted areas. A rope attached to the tub is loosely coiled about them, and they are holding hands to create a “circuit”. Through the low-lit room — adorned with mirrors to reflect invisible forces — there wafts incense and strange music, the other-worldly sounds of the glass harmonica (invented by a certain Benjamin Franklin). Meanwhile, a charming man in an elaborate lilac silk coat is circulating, touching various parts of the patients’ bodies where the magnetic fluid may be hindered or somehow stuck. It appears that these blockages, in the ladies in particular, are generally in the lower abdomen, thighs, and sometimes “the ovaria”. The typical session would last for hours and culminate in a curative “crisis” of nervous hiccups, hysterical sobs, cries, coughs, spitting, fainting, and convulsing, thus restoring the normal harmonious flow of the fluid.

The man in the lilac coat is Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer and this scene could be describing any number of animal magnetism sessions he held in late eighteenth-century Paris. While Mesmer’s antics are perhaps familiar to many today, lesser known is the key role they played in the development of the modern clinical trial — particularly in connection with the 1784 Franklin commission, “charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practiced at Paris”…

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of “animal magnetism” in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomized placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today: “Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial.

* Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

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As we ponder proof, we might send thoroughly-analyzed birthday greetings to Anna Freud; she was born on this date in 1895.  The sixth child of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays (the aunt of Edward Bernays, the “father” of modern propaganda and public relations), she continued her father’s work, with special interest in the young.  Indeed, with  Melanie Klein, she is considered a founder of psychoanalytic child psychology.

220px-Anna_Freud_1957 source

 

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”*…

 

quantum computing

Quantum computing is all the rage. It seems like hardly a day goes by without some news outlet describing the extraordinary things this technology promises. Most commentators forget, or just gloss over, the fact that people have been working on quantum computing for decades—and without any practical results to show for it.

We’ve been told that quantum computers could “provide breakthroughs in many disciplines, including materials and drug discovery, the optimization of complex manmade systems, and artificial intelligence.” We’ve been assured that quantum computers will “forever alter our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscape.” We’ve even been told that “the encryption that protects the world’s most sensitive data may soon be broken” by quantum computers. It has gotten to the point where many researchers in various fields of physics feel obliged to justify whatever work they are doing by claiming that it has some relevance to quantum computing.

Meanwhile, government research agencies, academic departments (many of them funded by government agencies), and corporate laboratories are spending billions of dollars a year developing quantum computers. On Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and other financial giants expect quantum computing to mature soon and are keen to figure out how this technology can help them.

It’s become something of a self-perpetuating arms race, with many organizations seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind. Some of the world’s top technical talent, at places like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, are working hard, and with lavish resources in state-of-the-art laboratories, to realize their vision of a quantum-computing future.

In light of all this, it’s natural to wonder: When will useful quantum computers be constructed? The most optimistic experts estimate it will take 5 to 10 years. More cautious ones predict 20 to 30 years. (Similar predictions have been voiced, by the way, for the last 20 years.) I belong to a tiny minority that answers, “Not in the foreseeable future.” Having spent decades conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics, I’ve developed my very pessimistic view. It’s based on an understanding of the gargantuan technical challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work…

Michel Dyakonov makes “The Case Against Quantum Computing.”

* Albert Einstein

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As we feel the need for speed, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society)

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Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.

 source

 

Written by LW

December 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Three meals a day are a highly advanced institution”*…

 

breakfast_lunch_dinner_1050x700

The typical American “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” pattern is a product of the Industrial Revolution.

Early U.S. dining habits were shaped by those of English colonists. And, as Anne Murcott, a British sociologist specializing in food, writes, for centuries, up until about 1800, most English people ate two, not three, meals a day. The larger of these was often called dinner, but it wasn’t typically an evening meal. During the reign of Henry VII, from 1485 to 1509, the day’s big meal normally took place around 11 am.

In both England and the U.S., dinner became the large afternoon meal for farm families—which is to say most families—in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It might be preceded by breakfast—the meal to break the nighttime fast—and followed by some kind of light meal or meals, variously called supper or tea.

Lunch is the newest addition to the triad of U.S. meals. Back in 1968, the English-language scholar Anne Wallace-Hadrill traced the etymology of the word itself, along with its close relation, “luncheon.” One possible origin of the words is from “lump.” A 1617 source mentions “eating a great lumpe of bread and butter with a lunchen of cheese.” In 1755, one dictionary writer defined lunch or luncheon as “as much food as one’s hand can hold,” but not as a specific meal. Somewhere in the first half of the nineteenth century, the word “lump” seems to have merged with “nuncheon,” a light midday meal (with the “nun” coming from “noon.”)

As workers and kids left the farms for factories and schools over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, eating patterns shifted. Workers and children might shove a lunch of bread into their pocket to eat during the day or return home for a quick luncheon, but dinner now had to wait for the end of the day, creating the set of mealtimes we know so well…

The origin of the familiar breakfast-lunch-dinner triad: “Why Do Americans Eat Three Meals a Day?

* E.C. Hayes, Introduction to the Study of Sociology (1913)

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As we dig in, we might recall that it was on this date in 1999 that the Russian Duma (its legislature) voted 273-1 to pass an animal rights bill that prohibited Russians from eating their “animal companions”– their pets.  Shortly thereafter the newly-elected President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, vetoed the bill.

group-of-pets-together-15229056 source

 

Written by LW

December 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”*…

 

Brody-Bathtubs-Over-Broadway

Steve Young, who obsessively collects LPs of industrial musicals, at first found them “unintentionally hilarious,” but in addition to absurdity they often contain the sincere and authentic spark of creative imagination.

 

From the title alone, it’s obvious that “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a new documentary by Dava Whisenant… will be a delight. Its subject is the industrial musical—plays produced by corporations for their employees to enjoy at nationwide or regional sales meetings and conventions. Steve Young, who was, for more than twenty years, a writer for David Letterman, became obsessed, in the mid-nineties, with these shows—in particular, with LPs of them, which were pressed solely to be distributed to employees as souvenirs. The ostensible subject of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is the amusement value of these exotic, eccentric by-products of show business, whose kitschy pleasures include celebrations of automobiles, dog food, and disposable blood-absorbing liners for the operating room, in a number that rhymes “hysterectomy” and “appendectomy.” But the overarching and underlying question that the film poses is nothing less than: What is art? And, for that matter, is the conventional definition of good art too narrow to account for the merits of such works as these?…

Many classic works of art are, in effect, commercials, from Pindar’s epinician, or victory, odes to Bach’s church cantatas. For that matter, plays and movies aren’t immune from propagandistic values, whether imposed on the artists or shared by them. It’s a mark of mediocrity, on the part of an artist or, for that matter, of a critic, to judge works by their ostensible subjects rather than by their approach to them…

Richard Brody on the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway (it opens in some cities today), and on the aesthetic questions that it raises: “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet manufacturer be a work of art?

* Pablo Picasso

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As we know art when we see it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1566 that Ralph Roister Doister was first publicly performed at Eton (or so some scholars argue; the exact date is not universally agreed); it was published the following year.  Written in 1552 (again, scholars believe) by London schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, it was probably performed earlier by his own students.

In any case, scholars agree that Ralph Roister Doister was the first comedy (as opposed to “work with comedic elements”) to be written in the English language.

Ralph_Roister_Doister

Illustration in English Plays, by Henry Morley, Cassell’s Library of English Literature, 1891. Caption says from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger in Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) (1515/16).

source

 

Written by LW

November 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are”*…

 

machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli has a bad reputation. Ever since the 16th century, when manuscript copies of his great work The Prince began to circulate in Europe, his family name has been used to describe a particularly nasty form of politics: calculating, cutthroat and self-interested. There are, to be sure, reasons for this. Machiavelli at one point advises a political leader who has recently annexed a new territory to make sure to eliminate the bloodline of the previous ruler lest they form a conspiracy to unseat him. He also praises the ‘cruelty … well-used’ by the mercenary captain Cesare Borgia in laying the foundations of his rule of the area around Rome. However, Machiavelli did not invent ‘Machiavellian politics’. Nor was his advocacy of force and fraud to acquire and maintain rule the cause of individual leaders using them. What then did Machiavelli do? What did he want to achieve?…

Machiavelli’s  name has become synonymous with egotistic political scheming, yet his work is effectively democratic at heart; Catherine Heldt Zuckert explains: “The people’s Prince.”

[image above: source— also worth a listen on this subject]

* Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

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As we ponder power and presentation, we might send traitorous birthday greetings to Mildred Elizabeth Gillars; she was born on this date in 1900.  After failing to find a career in the theater, vaudeville, or music in New York City, she left the country, ending up in the 1930s in Berlin… where, in 1940, she became announcer for the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), German State Radio.  She broadcast English-language propaganda throughout World War II, earning (with her colleague Rita Zucca) the nickname “Axis Sally.”  She was captured after the war and convicted of treason by the United States in 1949.

AxisSallyMugshot source

 

Written by LW

November 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

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