November 14, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 8:00 AM


Why Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?: Not all of life's questions can be answered rationally. Dostoyevsky points to another way. (Peter Wehner, NOVEMBER 3, 2023, Plough)

"Many Christians are convinced we see the world more transparently than the Scriptures themselves warrant," the theologian Mark Labberton once told me. "Our faith should be humbly courageous and confident, but it should not spontaneously and arrogantly multiply. When this happens, often in an effort to exert power or to deny mystery, it can leave us and those we may lead searching for certainty beyond what God has provided."

It seemed impossible to me that the problem of theodicy - why an all-powerful God allows the existence of evil - could be answered in a neat and tidy way. And I was hardly alone.

Earlier this year I listened to several  interviews where Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, discusses Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a famous Russian novelist and devout Christian who had a profound impact on Williams's own theology. Williams has a deep knowledge of Russian literature and philosophy; in 2008 he put that knowledge to work in an acclaimed book, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

Talking about The Brothers Karamazov, widely regarded as Dostoyevsky's greatest novel, Williams said it raised questions that "should go on worrying you for the rest of your life if you're a Christian." This intrigued me. Dostoyevsky, I discovered, believed that, as a Christian, he could prosecute the case against God better than an atheist ever could. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky lays out a searing indictment of the Christian God. And then he switches sides, and makes the case for the defense. Reading through three chapters of The Brothers Karamazov earlier this year with some of my friends - "Rebellion," "The Grand Inquisitor," and "The Russian Monk," which Dostoyevsky called the "culminating point" of the novel - I discovered an approach to doubt radically at odds with the apologetics I had been familiar with. Dostoyevsky doesn't answer the hard questions with neat and tidy solutions. He answers them with a kiss.

Posted by orrinj at 12:04 AM


You're Invited to a Colonoscopy! (Dynomight, Asterisk)

The Nordic-European Initiative on Colorectal Cancer (NordICC) is a huge randomized trial aimed at rigorously measuring how much colonoscopies reduce cancer and death.1

Here's what the researchers did: Between 2009 and 2014, they identified 85,1792 subjects mostly in Poland (64.1%), Norway (31.2%), and Sweden (4.3%), drawn at random from population registries of people between 55 and 64 years old.3 They invited one-third of them to a one-time screening colonoscopy. Of those contacted, 42% accepted the invitation and underwent a colonoscopy, while 58% refused the invitation. The other two-thirds of people were not contacted and seemingly never knew they were in the trial. The researchers then followed everyone (invited or not, colonoscopy or not) for a median of 10 years and checked government records to see who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, died from colorectal cancer, or died from any cause. [...]

The 18% reduction in colorectal cancer incidence was statistically significant, while the 10% reduction in colorectal cancer mortality and 1% reduction in overall mortality were not.

So the reductions -- they are small. This was a surprise.

The study had a huge sample and simple, reliable statistics. The authors seemed to expect a stronger showing for colonoscopies. When that didn't happen, they made no excuses -- they just followed their preregistered statistical plan and published the results. We want research to be reproducible, right? Well, then this is what we want people to do.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Physicists Simulated a Black Hole in The Lab. Then It Started to Glow. (MICHELLE STARR, 11/11/23, Science Alert)

Using a chain of atoms in single-file to simulate the event horizon of a black hole, a team of physicists in 2022 observed the equivalent of what we call Hawking radiation - particles born from disturbances in the quantum fluctuations caused by the black hole's break in spacetime.

...than faith in design.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Decarbonizing the World: MIT Energy Initiative's Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (MIT ENERGY INITIATIVE,  NOVEMBER 5, 2023)

Yet the solutions exist, [Jonah Wagner, the chief strategist of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Loan Programs Office] said. "Most of the technologies that we need to deploy to stay close to the international target of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming are proven and ready to go," he said. "We have over 80 percent of the technologies we will need through 2030, and at least half of the technologies we will need through 2050."

For example, Wagner pointed to the newly commissioned advanced nuclear power plant near Augusta, Georgia -- the first new nuclear reactor built in the United States in a generation, partly funded through DOE loans. "It will be the largest source of clean power in America," he said. Though implementing all the needed technologies in the United States through mid-century will cost an estimated $10 trillion, or about $300 billion a year, most of that money will come from the private sector, he said.

As the United States faces what he describes as "a tsunami of distributed energy production," one key example of the strategy that's needed going forward, he said, is encouraging the development of virtual power plants (VPPs). The U.S. power grid is growing, he said, and will add 200 gigawatts of peak demand by 2030. But rather than building new, large power plants to satisfy that need, much of the increase can be accommodated by VPPs, he said -- which are "aggregations of distributed energy resources like rooftop solar with batteries, like electric vehicles (EVs) and chargers, like smart appliances, commercial and industrial loads on the grid that can be used together to help balance supply and demand just like a traditional power plant." For example, by shifting the time of demand for some applications where the timing is not critical, such as recharging EVs late at night instead of right after getting home from work when demand may be peaking, the need for extra peak power can be alleviated.

Such programs "offer a broad range of benefits," including affordability, reliability and resilience, decarbonization, and emissions reductions. But implementing such systems on a wide scale requires some up-front help, he explained. Payment for consumers to enroll in programs that allow such time adjustments "is the majority of the cost" of establishing VPPs, he says, "and that means most of the money spent on VPPs goes back into the pockets of American consumers." But to make that happen, there is a need for standardization of VPP operations "so that we are not recreating the wheel every single time we deploy a pilot or an effort with a utility."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


HATE, FEAR AND INTERGROUP CONFLICTExperimental Evidence from Nigeria (Miguel Ortiz, UC Berkeley, (Job Market Paper), November 1, 2023)

I deploy this protocol as a lab-in-the-field experiment in Jos, Nigeria, to study the region's ongoing conflict between Christians and Muslims. I find that fear explains 76% (and hate 24%) of the non-cooperative behavior I observe in a coordination game played between Christians and Muslims. Moreover, this fear is mostly unwarranted, as non-cooperators grossly exaggerate the percentage of hateful people in the outgroup. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Where is the true center of the Universe? (Ethan Siegel, 11/01/23, Big Think)

No matter which direction we look in, or how far away our telescopes and instruments are capable of seeing, the Universe appears pretty much the same on large cosmic scales. The number of galaxies, the types of galaxies that are present, the populations of stars that exist within them, the densities of normal matter and dark matter, and even the temperature of the radiation that we see are all uniform: independent of the direction we look in. On the grandest cosmic scales of all, on scales of several billions of cubic light-years, the average difference between any two regions is merely 0.003%: about 1-part-in-30,000.

The biggest differences that we see, in fact, aren't a function of which direction we look in, but rather how far away we're looking.

The Universe is a function of our seeing.

November 13, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Is the Universe conscious? A panpsychism Q&A with philosopher Philip Goff (Marcelo Gleiser and Philip Goff, 11/09/23, Big Think)

Today, I am hosting the British philosopher Philip Goff, a professor at Durham University in England. He is a strong proponent of panpsychism, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as, "The doctrine or belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness." [...]

At some point in the book, you address the issue of fine-tuning, that the constants that determine the strength of the fundamental forces of nature and other physical properties of matter appear to be selected to ultimately allow for life to emerge in the Universe. Tweak the strong force coupling constants and you won't have stars. Without stars there is no life -- no us, no purpose. Physicists try to get around this by assuming the existence of unified theories that preselect those values, for example, the multiverse in string theory. (In fact, one colleague even claimed that if you don't want God, you had better have the multiverse!) How do you respond to this? Another possibility is that the whole fine-tuning debate is a straw man argument. Who says physics should be able to derive the values of the fundamental constants of nature? (See my book A Tear at the Edge of Creation for an expanded critique of unification and fine-tuning.) It may very well be that these values are simply part of the alphabet of physics, measured quantities we use to build our descriptions of natural phenomena. In other words, maybe we are asking physics to do something it's not cut out to do. And when we do that, we end up needing to add purpose to physics, which is not a necessary part of it.

This isn't controversial physics. But I think as a society, we are in denial about its evidential implications, because it doesn't fit with the picture of the Universe we have gotten used to. It's a bit like in the 16th century when we started to get evidence that we weren't in the center of the universe, and people struggled with it because it didn't fit with the picture of reality they had gotten used to.

Ultimately, we face a choice. Either it's just an incredible fluke that the numbers in our physics are right for life -- an option too improbable to take seriously -- or the relevant numbers in our physics are as they are because they are the right numbers for life; in other words, that there is some kind of directedness toward life at the fundamental level. That's weird, and not how we expected science to turn out. But we should follow the evidence where it leads, without being influenced by our cultural prejudices.

For many, there is a third option: the multiverse. And for a long time, I thought the multiverse was the best explanation of fine-tuning. But over a long period of time, I was persuaded by philosophers of probability that the inference from fine-tuning to a multiverse commits the inverse gambler's fallacy.

Imagine we walk into a casino and in the first small room we see someone having an incredible run of luck. I turn to you and say, "Wow, there must be lots of people playing in the casino tonight." You're baffled, so I explain, "Well, if there are thousands of people in the casino tonight, it's not so surprising that someone will have an incredible run of luck, and that's just what we've observed." Everyone agrees that's a fallacy -- the inverse gambler's fallacy -- as our observational evidence concerns the good fortune of a particular individual, and the number of people elsewhere in the casino has no bearing on how likely it is that this particular person will play well.

This flawed reasoning is indiscernible from that of the multiverse theorist. Our observational evidence is that this universe is fine-tuned, and the number of other universes that are out there has no bearing on how likely it is that this universe is fine-tuned.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Dollarization Is A Cost-Effective Solution for Argentina (Nicolás Cachanosky,  November 11, 2023, AIER)

Implementing dollarization in Argentina may be a formidable undertaking, but it is far from impossible. Argentina needs approximately $6 billion over several months to manage currency exchanges, and even less if it takes a voluntary approach. Argentina would certainly be able to secure $6 billion if a new government were to introduce a credible set of reforms. 

Dollarization has arguably never been cheaper for Argentina than it is today because much of the cost has already been incurred. Individuals and businesses have converted many pesos to dollars on their own. Official dollarization would largely formalize the informal dollarization that has already occurred. 

To be consistent, dollarization critics should be more concerned about alternative stabilization plans designed to salvage the peso. These reforms, which would necessitate some form of exchange rate controls, would likely require even more dollars than dollarization. If Argentina lacks the resources for dollarization, it most certainly does not possess the means to rescue the peso. The alternative is to continue on the current course, and approach dollarization under circumstances akin to Zimbabwe rather than the more successful experience of Ecuador. Dollarization not only provides the most cost-effective escape from Argentina's monetary quagmire, but also presents the reform with the highest prospects of long-term success.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Car Crashes Are a Public Health Crisis, and Autonomous Vehicles May Be the Cure (Jordan McGillis, 11/09/23, Discourse)

And yet, another public health horror--one of much graver annual and cumulative impact--exists today in our collective blind spot. Since 2020, motor vehicle collisions have killed more than 120,000 people in the U.S. and sent an estimated 10 million more to emergency rooms. Mercifully, a solution of a profundity comparable to Salk's vaccine--autonomous vehicles--could significantly lower these terrible figures if strategically adopted.

By taking humans out of the driver's seat, autonomous vehicles remove the proximate cause of the vast majority of crashes. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) "Critical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey" released in 2015, in 94% of collisions the "immediate reason for the critical pre-crash event" was the vehicle's human driver. This finding corroborates a 1977 NHTSA-commissioned study, which found that human errors "were probably causes in about 90-93% of accidents" and "were possibly a cause in up to 97.9% of accidents."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Illiberal Integralists: A Book Review of All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, by Kevin Vallier (Samuel Gregg, 11/07/23, Econlib)

Vallier goes to some lengths to illustrate that contemporary integralism is not a monolithic phenomenon. Among its ranks are numbered thinkers like the distinguished British philosopher and historian Thomas Pink. He has focused explicitly on intra-Catholic arguments about the meaning of Vatican II's 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious2 (to give the declaration its full title) and what it means for the Church's relationship to the secular political order.

Pink has shown no particular interest in pushing specific political and economic programs like the corporatism typically favored by integralists. His primary concern is ad-intra (to use a Latin phrase used during discussions at Vatican II): that is, his attention is overwhelmingly upon the Church's self-understanding and then what that means for the Church's relationship with the state.

By contrast, the priority of integralists like the Harvard professor of constitutional law Adrian Vermeule is ad-extra. Such integralists are often cagey, Vallier observes, about the precise theological-political roots of their agenda. They are not, however, shy about working towards the realization of very specific political, constitutional, legal, and economic programs in the world outside the Church in ways that go far beyond anything proposed by Pink. These invariably involve rigorous use of state bureaucracies like the administrative state to reshape society in non-liberal directions.

These arrangements and goals--such as those associated with the corporate state--are largely antithetical to those which characterize the United States Constitution. If the changes desired by integralists were to be realized democratically, it would require 1) the mass conversion of a majority of Americans to Catholicism 2) plus the conscious decision of these Catholics to embrace integralism, and then 3) overcoming the presumed opposition of millions of non-Catholic Americans to integralism.

"The parallels between progressives and integralists cannot be understated."
The sheer unlikeliness of this progression makes an alternative approach more probable: that is, integralists doing what progressives have been doing since the 1900s--working to subvert the Constitution via creative reinterpretation of the Constitution and building bureaucracies that gradually neutralize the influence of political institutions identified in the Constitution. The parallels between progressives and integralists cannot be understated.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM



Genes inherited from our ancestors crossbreeding with an extinct species of humans may have left a significant and lasting impact on our mental health, according to researchers.

A new study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, concludes that these genes are one of the most widespread traces of our ancient ties with the Denisovans, who are believed to have mated with modern humans leaving Africa around 60,000 years ago.

They aren't extinct: we are them.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Inside John Darnielle's Boiling Brain: More than 30 years after making his crackly first recordings as the Mountain Goats, the celebrated songwriter talks about defying his past without disowning it, sidestepping the obvious, and his engrossing new album, Jenny From Thebes. (Sam Sodomsky, October 30, 2023, Pitchfork)

On a private floor at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, surrounded by rare editions and elaborate first pressings, John Darnielle opens his cheap notebook plastered with images of Bob Marley. He's showing me drafts of the setlist for his solo performance the previous night, a wildly unpredictable airing of Mountain Goats deep cuts and fan favorites at a cozy venue in Brooklyn. In the same scribbly handwriting that once graced the covers of his cassette releases in the early 1990s are names of decades-old songs he had never played live before along with more recent rarities like "For the Krishnacore Bands," whose reference-heavy lyrics about the obscure punk microgenre require an introductory speech that runs nearly double the length of the song itself. "As you can see, I wrote that one down twice," Darnielle notes. "I was very excited about it."

That same sense of urgency has fueled Darnielle's music for more than 30 years. In the beginning, he recorded his songs into a boombox shortly after writing them, capturing the spark of creation on tape, his voice and acoustic guitar clipping in the microphone. This spontaneous energy offset the careful, literary observations that have come to cement him as one of his generation's greatest songwriters (and, increasingly, one of its most celebrated novelists, too).

During his early shows, Darnielle would translate his enthusiasm by screaming and shaking, exhausting himself on stage. "I now realize the vein-popping stuff was just me being nervous," he says. "I was expelling it, almost like a skunk." These days, Mountain Goats shows are a lot more relaxed, with the 56-year-old basking in the moments when the audience can carry the energy for him.

Darnielle bridges the gap between past and present on the latest Mountain Goats record, Jenny From Thebes, which acts as a sort of sequel to 2001's All Hail West Texas, a classic from his boombox era. The new album's title character, who first appeared on West Texas as a mysterious runaway, is now the focus of an elaborate song cycle that also stands as the band's most beautifully orchestrated record to date. Darnielle recorded the album with producer Trina Shoemaker, who's worked with Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls, and the Chicks, and longtime accompanists Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster, and Matt Douglass, who have helped Darnielle's sound evolve with each new record. "I'm the worst musician in the Mountain Goats," he notes, before quickly clarifying: "But I'm the best songwriter in the Mountain Goats." [...]

What are some things that strike you as corny?

Any hint of self-pity. I don't want people in my songs to seem enamored of their own pain, or to think that they're special. And in that way, the characters are me: I'm not special and my pain isn't special.

People often use the word "compassion" when they talk about your songwriting. What does that mean to you?

There's this notion in Jewish thinking of healing the world. I'm almost always writing about situations that you as a person would prefer to avoid. And then I want [the characters] to heal. Because all your characters are eventually you anyway. There's no way you can write a character who doesn't somehow come from you. Nobody has that kind of vision. So I want them to learn something from their hard times and wind up someplace better. When you tell a story, you imagine yourself in it. And when you imagine yourself someplace, you hope you come out of it OK.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Awakening the Moral ImaginationThe beauty of fairy tales is their ability to attractively depict character and virtue. Goodness glimmers while wickedness and deception are unmasked... (Vigen Guroian, May 2013, Imaginative Conservative)

[I]t is surprising to me how little has been written on the moral meaning in fairy tales. Literary criticism on fairy tales and modern children's literature is a relatively new enterprise that has not yet accumulated a substantial or impressive corpus of interpretation, and the studies done by psychologists and educators mostly address the special concerns of these disciplines. One would have thought that ethicists might do better. Yet religious and philosophical ethicists have not reflected a great deal on children as moral learners nor written much on children's literature. Perhaps this is because, like so many others, they have subscribed to the falsehood that children are at a pre-moral stage and that socialization rather than moral formation is more appropriate to their kind. But intuitively and from our experience as parents and teachers we ought to know that it is not that simple.

The American writer Flannery O'Connor spoke a simple but profound truth when she said that "a story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way.... You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."[3] The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of struggles between good and evil where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. The great stories avoid didacticism and supply the imagination with important symbolic information about the shape of our world and appropriate responses to its inhabitants. The contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre sums this up eloquently:

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance..., that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.[4]

Musing on the wisdom and ethics of the fairy tale, G.K. Chesterton observes that the genre sparks a special way of seeing that is indispensable to morality. Chesterton writes: "I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by mere facts."[5] I am calling this way of looking at life the moral imagination. For Chesterton is suggesting what the moral imagination is when he remarks: "We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears."[6] Likewise, we can say that values are set by the free market or by the state and assess what we are up against and how we should trade our wares or parley our talents; but we cannot know, except within the context of the entire story, why what seemed to be courage in one character turned out to be stupid bravado, while what looked like disloyalty in another character turned out to be creative fidelity to a greater good.

Moral living is about being responsive and responsible toward other people.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Ivan Karamazov's Meth Lab: Dostoevsky's Theology in Breaking Bad (Sophia Belloncle, 10/27/23, Voegelin View)

Like Ivan, this show is concerned with both the depth of human suffering and the awful, astounding lengths that human beings will take to destroy one another. But even more remarkably, Gilligan profoundly echoes Ivan Karamazov in the way that he makes his point about the injustice of suffering not through the pain of his adult characters (who, frankly, often deserve what comes to them), but through the suffering of children.
Indeed, this argument is baked into the premise of the series. Walter White's primary reason for becoming a drug dealer is his fear that his wife and children will suffer when he dies. As a chemistry teacher, Walt has no money to leave his family when (presumably) his lung cancer finally kills him. He fears that both his teenage son, who already suffers from cerebral palsy, and his unborn daughter will struggle without a father to provide for them--and so he turns to dealing meth as the only way to leave an inheritance behind for them.

Besides this structural element, we find another example of Gilligan's emphasis on suffering children in Walt's partner Jesse Pinkman, whose endearing youthfulness and moral compass mark him, in many ways, as the show's emotional core. Although Walt initially disdains Jesse as a good-for-nothing who couldn't even pass high school chemistry, he eventually comes to care for and treat Jesse like one of his own children. To Jesse, who has a turbulent relationship with his own family, Walt becomes something of a surrogate (if deeply flawed) father. Indeed, there is something childlike about Jesse, who never stops calling Walt "Mr. White," despite the fact that it has been years since Walt taught him chemistry.

But although Jesse is willing to help Walt cook and distribute the meth for him, he also possesses a sensitivity to evil that stands out among his degenerate colleagues. In particular, Jesse responds in horror and grief every time that his partnership with Walt inflicts suffering--intentionally or unintentionally--upon a child.

It is, perhaps, ironic that Walt's secret life as a drug dealer--which he initially undertakes in order to protect his own children from harm--so often ends up inflicting pain and suffering on children who are merely innocent bystanders. Key examples include 11-year-old Tomas, who is first used as a hit man and then murdered by drug dealers, 6-year-old Brock, who is poisoned and nearly dies in the hospital, and 14-year-old Drew, who is shot because he happens to witness Walt and his employees robbing a train.

Maybe even more telling is the fact that although Gilligan kills off many of the adult characters with hardly a second thought, he presents each of these events involving children as a crucial plot device, rather than a throwaway casualty. Each suffering child marks a pivotal moment in the plot, a moment whose repercussions echo throughout the narrative as a whole. Every time that an innocent child is caught in the crossfire, the main characters must wrestle with the guilt and moral consequences--but none more intensely than Walt's partner Jesse.

Jesse has a soft spot for children. In one early episode, Walt sends Jesse to retrieve money from a drug-addicted couple who ripped off one of Walt's distributors. But upon entering their home with a loaded gun, Jesse finds out that the couple have a young, neglected son. Throughout the episode, he struggles to do his job while simultaneously protecting the child from both physical harm and the psychological trauma of seeing his parents being threatened. But when the boy's mother, angry and high, murders his father, Jesse calls 9-1-1 and quickly takes the boy outside so that he won't see.
"Hey, you remember peekaboo?" he asks the boy. "Can you go peekaboo like this? Can you keep your eyes closed?.... It's a little game we're gonna play, okay?" Jesse leaves the boy wrapped in a blanket on the front steps of their house, begging him, "Just don't go back inside."

In his compassion for children, Jesse embodies Ivan Karamazov's point that the children "haven't eaten anything," that they deserve to be protected from even the knowledge of the suffering inflicted by the sins of their fathers. Instinctively, Jesse understands that he must shield the boy from the gruesome results of his parents' crimes. The murder itself is disturbing, of course--but not nearly as disturbing as the torment inflicted on a neglected child who doesn't know any better, who can't escape the consequences of his parents' actions.

Throughout the series, Jesse's empathy for children clashes violently with his choice of occupation. Whenever Walt or one of his employees makes a decision that brings about the suffering of a child, Jesse responds in anger and sorrow. He weeps on behalf of the sins committed by those around him. He experiences the guilt and shame of their actions as acutely as if he himself had harmed the children. Like Ivan, Jesse understands that pain is an inevitable consequence of human evil. After all, he has no moral qualms with cooking and selling meth to adults who have the agency to face the consequences of their own bad decisions. But the children have nothing to do with it, and they suffer anyway, and Jesse does not know what to do about them.

The existential vision of Breaking Bad is practically inseparable from the philosophy of Ivan Karamazov: There is an evil in humanity so selfish, so profound, that it results in unimaginable suffering. When that suffering falls back upon the perpetrators, the murderers, the drug dealers, we feel no sympathy for them. But then there are the children--the Tomases, Brocks, and Drews of the world--who did nothing to deserve the knife, the poison, the bullet. The children suffer not for anything they have done, but for the evil of others. When Gilligan highlights the suffering of children, he compels us in turn to ask Ivan's climactic question: What are we going to do about them?

Although it takes him over 800 pages to do so, Dostoevsky answers this question. And, against all odds, so does Walter White.

November 12, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 2:17 AM


INTERVIEW | PI Laureate Wynton Marsalis on Believing in the Music: Jazz great Wynton Marsalis talks about his music, healing the divides and maintaining integrity in an interview upon receiving the PI music category award. (Japan Forward, 11/12/23)

Can you share one of the lessons you learned from your father?

One of the greatest lessons that he taught in our high school class was, on the first day of his class, he would put the four chairs in the middle of the room. Each facing a different direction. And he would say, "What do you see?" Each person would say what they saw. "I see this, I see a blackboard, I see a fan, I see a window." Everyone saw something totally different. 

We thought the test was how much you can see. So we would keep naming the stuff we saw. And then when we finished, we thought he would say, "You are very observant. You observed more." But he said, "Does anybody doubt that they are in the same room?" That was his lesson. 

This is the thing we struggle with on earth to this moment. We struggle with it.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Renewable Energy Is the Key to Building a More Resilient and Reliable Electricity Grid (Rachel Chang, 11/07/23, CAP 20)

Fossil fuels are proving to be increasingly unreliable in the face of climate-induced extreme weather events
The status quo is not working; America's fossil fuel-fired power fleet is becoming increasingly unreliable, causing outages and grid failures during extreme weather events. In fact, in its 2023 "State of Reliability" report, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation's (NERC) first key finding was that conventional generation is experiencing its "highest level of unavailability" and facing severe reliability challenges, primarily due to poor performance of the gas fleet during extreme weather events and the increasing outage rates of coal-fired power plants. NERC also noted that "there are no apparent trends in the unavailability of the other forms of generation." The coal and gas fleets are not sufficiently equipped to perform under extreme weather conditions.

This trend was clearly on display during Winter Storm Elliott in December 2022, which knocked out electricity for millions of Americans in the eastern United States. PJM, one of the grid operators in the region, found that 70 percent of its forced outages were caused by failing gas plants and 16 percent were caused by coal. This is because gas plants face fuel supply and equipment failures from freezing temperatures; and while fossil fuel-fired power plants caused the vast majority of outages, wind resources performed well above their expected capacity during the storm. Grid operator Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) also found that wind production remained high during the storm, providing support to the grid while gas plants caused shortfalls.

And it's not just winter storms that pose threats to the fossil fleet; extreme heat also causes power plants to shut down or underperform. While Texas faced extreme heat waves this summer, coal and gas resources faced significantly higher outages than usual. Meanwhile, renewables supported almost half of the electricity demand in the state, meeting and exceeding forecasts. As the world faced its hottest summer on record and climate change continues to exacerbate extreme weather events, it's crucial that grid operators pay attention to the vulnerabilities of conventional gas generation.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM



Unbeknownst to millions of residents of California and Texas, batteries kept them cool during the extreme heat that plagued both states during the summer of 2023. 

Though the energy needed from these storage batteries was relatively small compared to overall energy usage, it was enough to help the grid survive. And now, the capacity for energy storage is about to skyrocket.

In 2020, Texas only had 275 megawatts of storage capacity, according to the Texas Tribune. In early 2021, millions of homes in Texas went without power when the energy grid failed due to an extreme winter weather event, but the state that is firmly entrenched in the production of dirty energy has seen enormous growth in the clean energy sector since then.

Texas now has over 3,500 megawatts operating on the grid today and is expected to reach over 10,000 megawatt capacity by the end of 2024, according to the Tribune which stated that one megawatt is enough to power about 200 homes.

Just as the coal and gas-fired power plants failed the state in 2021, many shut down again due to the heat in 2023, leaving battery-stored energy, along with solar power, to pick up the slack.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Archival Parallels: Donald Trump and Jefferson Davis (Yael A. Sternhell, 11/07/23, Yale University Press)

Early in his presidency, commentators began calling Donald Trump "the first Confederate president."1 There were obvious reasons why the sobriquet seemed to take--Trump spoke in a language of white supremacy that seemed more appropriate for the nineteenth century than for the twenty first and openly sympathized with the Charlottesville rioters who killed and wounded demonstrators supporting the removal of a Confederate monument. Yet only after he left office it turned out that Trump shares another similarity with the actual Confederate president, Jefferson Davis: both were terrible record keepers during their respective tenures and both wreaked additional havoc on their archives as they departed the executive mansions in Richmond and Washington. [...]

Perhaps the reason Donald Trump is now facing criminal charges for the mismanagement of official records is because he failed to understand that he was not, in fact, the Confederate president. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


How Tiny 'Instant Houses' Could Help Solve Big Global Challenges (Miho Suzuki, 11/06/23, Japan Forward)

At first sight, the "Instant House" resembles an igloo made of lightweight tent fabric. However, upon touching it, one quickly realizes that the structure is made of robust, solid materials. Instant Houses are the brainchild of LIFULL ArchiTech, based in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. They are gaining popularity for their hassle-free setup and comfortable design, finding applications in glamping and various other scenarios.

The Instant House is entirely different from typical buildings, which usually require foundations, pillars, and roofs. Instead, the Instant House is supported by an outer wall made of polyester tent sheets and a rough inner wall of polyurethane. It even includes doors and windows, giving it the appearance of a "tiny house" straight out of a fantasy world.

House the homeless.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


"Consolation" by Wislawa SzymborskaPoems read aloud, beautifully (Amanda Holmes, October 24, 2023, American Scholar)

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


A Tale of Two Revolutionaries (Paul Krause, 10/24/23, Voegelin View)

The essence of Russian nihilism wasn't the absence of values or an assertion of the meaninglessness of life. Far from it. Russian nihilism was a philosophy of individualist liberation and progress. In the emptiness of the cosmos and the socially constructed morality imposed upon Europe by Christianity, the nihilists were arguing that once humans realized the meaninglessness of life and the social construction of all values, revolutionary progress could create a new meaning of life and a new moral and social and political order that would exceed the darkness, superstition, and oppression of the prior system. Nihilism in its intellectual credo asserted two things: the intrinsic meaningless of life but also that all values are man-made, socially created, without reference to Transcendence or Divinity. It was the latter which preoccupied the minds of the nihilist intellectuals and writers--the belief that a new world could be made out of the ash-heap of the old by those courageous enough to build from nothing. 

What Russian nihilism entailed, then, was the heroic (revolutionary) concept of man. Man, as an individual, would liberate himself from the system that oppressed him and kept his creative and erotic ambitions and desires from manifesting itself. In this heroic liberation of the self out of the old order, the liberation of the self would necessitate the destruction of the older order and begin the process of ushering in a new creation. "Heaven on earth," if you will. Individuals, in this process of liberative struggle, would be able to create their own world and their own happiness and become man-gods in the process. It was the dream of Adam and Eve without the Fall.

...and then they wonder why the societies the try to build are so anti-human.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM



The eagle is the symbol of contemplation and wisdom because in and of himself he combines two essential abilities that seem contradictory to both the foxes and the hedgehogs. He flies high above the earth, so that he's able to embrace everything below within his entire vision. Soaring about in the air, he allows every single thing to be what it is. But the eagle also has very keen eyesight, which allows him to see everything below clearly, with penetration and focus. The vast breadth of his vision and its pinpoint acuity are not mutually exclusive, but actually in harmony. The eagle is the union of the wings spread wide and the piercing eye.

Hedgehogs, on the contrary, have a keen eye for the single thing they obsess about, while the foxes can run through a wide range of things with their cunning flexibility, but they are never able to integrate them into a whole. The eagle has both faculties, and in such a way that his focus doesn't exclude the whole; nor does his integrative power obscure the tiniest nuances or details. This is so because he is the bird of the father of gods and men: he looks at everything in a divine manner. For the Classical Platonic sages of our tradition, such as Plotinus (AD 204-70), Augustine (AD 356-430), (Pseudo-)Dionysius the Areopagite (AD 5th/6th cent.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the First Principle of reality, which they call "God", is at once none of the things that exist and all of them.

They believed that God is infinitely other than the totality of existing beings which He creates, and He is more those beings than they are themselves (as Augustine famously put it, God is "more intimate than the most intimate centre of myself and higher than the highest in me" or interior intimo meo et superior summo meo, Confessions, 3.6.1). This paradox, which both modern pantheism and anthropomorphic theism are unable to contain, was well captured by the 15th century philosopher, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64), who said that God is "non aliud", the "not-other" (De li non aliud, published in 1462). Because God is not other than created beings, He is uniquely other and irreducible to them.

According to traditional metaphysics, God, who is the integrative and transcendent unity of all creatures in the non-pantheistic sense alluded to above, doesn't oppress the many with His infinitely simple oneness. He is the principle of the unity that liberates diversity, and never stifles it. And He is the source of the variegated richness which doesn't disperse, but integrates. He was called in the Middle Ages (but the image was already there in Plotinus) "a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere". Pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believed that He gives those who want to be like Him the power to be eagles, and to rise above any polarisation and fragmentation, above all the petty unities and all the pathetic pluralisms of our life.[12]

On the one hand, for the pre-modern metaphysicians, to become an eagle is a life-long journey, because we become one by our growing participation in the way God sees the world. This participation can be cultivated by various spiritual exercises, such as meditation, prayer or philosophical dialogue. Some of us are called to a more intellectual path, but the Abrahamic religions emphasise that the love of God and neighbour is the most efficacious way to grow wings, strengthen our sight, and become eagles. According to a popular medieval adage, formulated by Gregory the Great (c. 540-604): amor ipse notitia est, "love is a form of knowledge".[13] Augustine, towards the end of the Confessions, describes such a contemplative experience of the all-embracing vision of reality as allowing God to look at everything with our eyes: "we see all these things and they are very good, because it is you who see them in us, you, who have given us the Spirit by whom we see them and love you in them" (Conf. 13.34.49).[14]

On the other hand, it was not only the question of a few individuals who practised the way of the eagle, but also of the whole culture that was shaped by this ideal. In that way, even those who weren't privileged to have time or talent for developing the contemplative dimension of life could share in the holistic vision of the world as meaningful and thus feel at home in the universe and society. 

"Love one another, as I have loved you".

November 11, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:09 AM


Half of Europe's family homes could be energy self-sufficient with solar and storage (Carolina Kyllmann 4 November 2023, Renew Economy)

Just over half of Europe's single family homes could technically be fully energy self-sufficient with a combination of solar energy and storage systems, according to a report by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Already today, 53 percent of about 41 million buildings included in the analysis could theoretically go off-grid and have a fully self-sufficient supply of electricity and heat using only local rooftop solar irradiation, the report authors concluded based on calculations combining geographical information on the European building stock with local climatic and economic conditions.

Hating Greens more than they love economics is a tell for the Right.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Political Scientist Ian Bremmer Breaks Down the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (big Think,  November 9th, 2023)

Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and president of Eurasia Group, has an intelligent, fair, and humane way of explaining crises around the world. That includes the current crisis in the Middle East. Above, he spends an hour discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its geo-political and historical context. Speaking with BigThink's editor-in-chief, Robert Chapman-Smith, Bremmer delves "into internal politics in Israel -- including growing dissent against the government, how the conflict in Gaza is being handled, the influence of hard-right political parties, and the impact of these factors on the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Average American Is a Millionaire (Jeremy Horpedahl, Nov 09 2023, City Journal)

The Federal Reserve's latest Survey of Consumer Finances contains several revelations about the state of the American economy.

First, it found that the average American household's net worth is over $1 million. Outliers can distort averages, of course, but even median household wealth is at the Fed's highest level ever recorded. In 2019, it was still stuck below pre-Great Recession levels. By 2022, however, it had reached $192,000, eclipsing the 2007 mark by more than 10 percent, and almost doubling the post-Great Recession 2010 figure. (These and all subsequent data are adjusted for inflation.)

When the Right/Left whines about how tough times are, they really just mean their own lives are dissatisfying.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


What States Are Made Of: I can see no reason in principle why an ethnostate cannot be a democracy; the devil is in the details. (David Polansky, Oct 30, 2023, Strange Frequencies)

The matter is that I can see no reason in principle why an ethnostate cannot be a democracy; the devil is in the details. Quick 'Democracy 101' recap: every democratic government on earth (as well as not a few non-democratic ones), claims to derive its legitimate authority from the people. One way or another, the machinery of government is authorized by the collective body of citizens, aka "the people." This is also known as "popular sovereignty." As there is no a priori way of determining what sort of body that will be, you can have a basically civic understanding of it, in which citizens are primarily bound by their living under common laws (e.g., the United States) or a more ethnic one, in which they also enjoy the bonds of a common pre-political ethnicity and way of life (e.g., Japan). One is not necessarily more "legitimate" than the other. And of course even civic nations are going to end up wanting to define themselves in some more specific way than "a random bunch of individuals who happen to reside on a shared territory while claiming similar rights and prerogatives," etc. Thus, non-Americans have a perhaps-cliched but still reasonably robust idea of what Americans are like.

Conversely, even ethnostates are a kind of imagined community (in the case of Israel, imagining that the descendants of both Iraqi and Polish Jews ultimately share more in common than not--or at least enough to enjoy common citizenship in a state dedicated to that shared identity).

One can say of course (as Freddie does) that ethnic identities are in conflict with the universalist premises of modern liberal democracies, in a way that civic nations aren't, but I don't think this is right. If they are to function at all, even civic nations founded on universalist claims still have to make particular discriminations in ways that can seem historically arbitrary. For example, if you trace your family back to the mid-19th century American Southwest, then whether you are today a citizen of the United States or Mexico will have a lot to do with which side of various lines your ancestors found themselves at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And I am not even getting into all the inevitable ways that civic nations fail to live up to their universalist claims in practice--slavery and institutionalized racial hierarchies plus the general treatment of the First Nations being just the most egregious ones in the U.S. case.

Today, the most obvious sticking point here is immigration, in which our universalist premises (all people are endowed with inalienable rights, and in principle any of them could be or become a U.S. citizen) conflict with reality (there is no practical way the United States can either guarantee those rights to non-citizens abroad or just allow billions of people to immigrate so that they can enjoy that guarantee at home). Now the differences between types of nations is not negligible, but in both principle and practice, all democratic citizenship necessarily involves hard choices about borders, and population, and so on. Refusing to adopt an ethnic identity doesn't change that. To reply more directly to Freddie's argument: the tension between the universal and the particular is inherent in modern democratic political life, and you cannot resolve it by becoming the "right kind" of democracy.

Similarly, there is no essential virtue (or lack thereof) in being a civic or an ethnic nation. Japan was as ethnic nation throughout the 1930s, during which time much of its conduct was frankly terrifying, but it has been no less an ethnic nation since 1945, when it has emerged as peaceable and civilized a country as exists in the world. Conversely, the civic nationalism of the United States has not prevented it from spending more years engaged in war or "military operations" than not for nearly a century. And of course, a great deal of these discussions of the superiority of civic over ethnic nationalism tend to be conducted by...citizens of civic nations. It all reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke: sure, my brain is the most important organ in my body, but look what's telling me that!

Now, it must be said that these labels of "civic" and "ethnic" are ideal types, and in practice things inevitably get messier. Such is life. So the reality of even ethnic peoplehood is rarely binary, but rather exhibits what we might call clinal variation. Italians, for example, are not all one thing (hence tourists enjoy the variety between the Alpine Dolomites and the Mediterranean coasts), but they are also not just anything under the sun (hence Lecce still has more in common with Turin than either do with Hanoi). On top of this, within all kinds of nations, there is a good deal of historical randomness and drift. For example, there is no necessary reason why Houston has the largest population of Nigerians and Washington, DC the largest population of Ethiopians (respectively) in America, but they do.

It is because of this basic messiness in the majority of instances that Israel's situation may appear unique, when in fact it's just more starkly apparent in Israel's case. It's true that relatively few countries have written their ethnic status into their constitutions, and yet we and they possess a certain understanding of countries like Ireland, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, et very much cetera existing for their eponymous peoples.

Now, many countries for situational reasons do not much need to put that national identity to the test, thus the particular character of their nationalism remains more tacit than explicit. It is only with the substantial rise in human migration that began to take place after 1945, that such tests have seriously emerged. Which is not to say that ethnic nationalism cannot accommodate any immigration of outsiders. When it comes to any of this, as the much-maligned Enoch Powell put it, "numbers are of the essence." This point I think is unavoidable. For example, every year the kinds of people who care about such things release their lists of Paris' finest boulangeries, and one now routinely finds bakers of Algerian or Vietnamese descent at or around the top. I think only a raving chauvinist could possibly be upset by this, and the attitude of the average person--and even the average Frenchman--would be to happily frequent any establishment that produced delicious crusty baguettes, regardless of the provenance of its owner.

The author accidentally gets to the main detail that bedevils the ethnostate right there at the end.  His premise is entirely dependent on the "average Frenchman" being "French."  Obviously, any ethnostate that valorizes a minority begins to be a problem and, even worse, the inevitable differences in how the chosen ethnicity and all others are treated means we're no longer talking about democracy.  

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


THE UNEXPECTED BLESSING OF A JIGSAW PUZZLE (John Wilson, 10 . 20 . 23, First Things)

I had never done puzzles, not even when I was a kid. The part of the brain associated with shapes (unless in the shape of persons) is deficient in my case, extremely so, more than you can imagine. As a boy, and long thereafter, I loved games, but puzzles were collaborative rather than competitive. Still, I found myself, for the first time, working on puzzles with Wendy.

We started with 1,000-piece puzzles, some of them gorgeously made and literature-themed: there was a series ("The World of . . .") that included Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen (that one a gift from my brother, Rick) and, yes, Ian Rankin (whose books I admire; Mark Noll is also a fan). But Wendy began to find those puzzles a bit daunting, and partway through "The World of the Brontës" we decided we'd better shift to 500-piece puzzles. Though now and then we take on a 1,000-piece one, as we just did with our eldest, Anna, here for a visit; she inherited Wendy's spatial intelligence.

On a visit to the blessed Morton Arboretum several months earlier, Katy and Wendy had stopped at the gift shop. A 500-piece puzzle there, "Butterflies of North America," from an outfit called Mudpuppy, caught Katy's eye, and they brought that one home. It was wonderfully colorful, enjoyable to assemble, a nice change of pace. When we sadly had to abandon the Brontës, we decided to try another puzzle from Mudpuppy.

Since then, Wendy and I have done a whole series of them, as well as puzzles from other outfits. Many of these are "family puzzles," pitched to a range of users, young kids very much included. Many of them, unlike the butterfly one we started with, are humorous (people allergic to "cuteness" wouldn't like them). Others show serene landscapes; others still feature layouts in which postage stamps or travel ads ("Come to Italy!") from around the globe are artfully and wittily juxtaposed in delightful profusion. Each puzzle has its own personality, its own color-scheme and method of organization (some puzzles are divided into a grid of distinct blocks, for instance, while others are not).

November 10, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Anti-Woke Campaigns Are Failing (Michael Thrasher, November 1, 2023, Institutional Investor)

Opponents want companies to refocus on their financials and steer clear of making political and social statements that could alienate customers and other stakeholders. They argue that ESG has diminished financial returns for investors. But if it has, shareholders either don't care or don't believe a solution is anti-ESG proposals, which "won some of the lowest support levels on record."

Diligent's report says that the National Center for Public Policy Research is "perhaps the most prominent player in the anti-ESG movement" but the conservative think tank's proposals failed to gain traction. In the 2023 season, the NCPPR filed 57 proposals on the risks of ESG investing, including corporate statements on abortion, business activities in China, and audits of corporate net-zero goals. More than 30 made the ballot but most received less than 2 percent of support from shareholders.

The National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative non-profit group, filed 14 anti-ESG resolutions (the second most) seeking content censorship risk audits and content censorship reporting, among other topics. Most proposals had little support but required reporting on operations in China were among its best received. At Boeing's and Walt Disney's annual meetings, the China proposals won 7.5 percent and 7.4 percent support, respectively.

The American Conservative Values ETF partnered with NCPPR to file four shareholder proposals related to risks of political speech, and diversity and inclusion policies. An average of less than 2 percent of shareholders supported them.

Turns out, hating black people won't make companies disregard risk/return.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Understanding That Chronic Back Pain Originates From Within The Brain Could Lead To Quicker Recovery, A New Study Finds (Yoni Ashar, University of Colorado Nov 4, 2023, Discover)
Most people with chronic back pain naturally think their pain is caused by injuries or other problems in the body such as arthritis or bulging disks. But our research team has found that thinking about the root cause of pain as a process that's occurring in the brain can help promote recovery. That is a key finding of a study my colleagues and I recently published in JAMA Network Open, a monthly open-access medical journal.

It's all in your head.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Largest-Ever Simulation of The Universe Could Finally Reveal How We Got Here (MICHELLE STARR, 10/30/23, Science Alert)

They're called the FLAMINGO simulations (Full-hydro Large-scale structure simulations with All-sky Mapping for the Interpretation of Next Generation Observations), run on a supercomputer at the DiRAC facility in the UK.

These simulations are intense. They're designed to calculate the evolution of all the known components of the Universe.

That means normal matter: the stars; the galaxies; all the stuff we could touch (it might kill us, but we could); dark matter - the mysterious mass creating weird extra gravity; and dark energy - the mysterious power accelerating the expansion of the Universe.

The largest of these simulations has 300 billion particles with the mass of the small galaxy, in a cubic volume of space with edges of 10 billion light-years.

The one thing everyone is certain of is that an Intelligence created the Universe.

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