Default: Dread

January 19, 2020 at 11:47 pm (By Amba) (, )

What watching the news is like in 2020.

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The social media Rapture.

January 19, 2020 at 10:24 am (By Amba) ()

Even just cutting back on social media is like being one of those people in the Left Behind novels, wandering around in an empty world from which most people have been Raptured.

(And the Antichrist is taking over.)

(The two phenomena are related.)

Trying to fill and restructure a life “outside” these rushing pipelines, these lighted underground fiber optic subway tunnels where all the life has gone, will be a weird, pointless-seeming project. It will take a long time to work out. It will often feel quixotic, hermitic, and as I’ve said before, “vain” in both senses. Who am I not to participate? Who am I to try to gather passing thoughts instead of throwing them away like a seeding dandelion? This is a post-individual age. Outside the hive mind, you quickly start to petrify into a fossil. You have refused to evolve. You’re still lumbering around like the last Bigfoot when everyone else has shucked off their matter and transubstantiated to electrons. Come on in, the plasma’s fine!

Maybe it will be better out here, but there aren’t a lot of people to play with.

Maybe they all go on cruises just to have company. A nostalgic floating village for a week. Good timing.

Maybe I’ll actually remember how to form an intention and carry it out.

UPDATE: A conversation about this on . . . wait for it . . . social media! (Twitter)

Old blogfriend*: Terrible metaphor! Social media isn’t heaven. And you forget the tradition of thinkers isolating themselves from the masses, the “world”. Gurus on mountaintops, saints on pillars, communities in deserts, salons, societies of letters, schools in gardens….

Me: It’s only half a metaphor. It’s not that social media is heaven, it’s what earth is like when you’re Left Behind.

Yes, maybe using the word “hermitic” was not an accident. [At this point I realized he probably had not come here, just read the Twitter abbreviation.]

Old blogfriend: It’s your very own Walden Pond. Enjoy!

Me: Thank you for giving me a GOOD metaphor! ❤️

Maybe I’ll rename my blog Walden Three. :)

*Not identifying him because I haven’t gone through the laborious process of getting permission.

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Alexander Hamilton's Prophecy

January 18, 2020 at 6:29 pm (By Amba) ()

He foresaw our moment with chilling precision. Ticked off every particular.

When I flagged only one questionable item—”having the advantage of military habits”—my brother said, “Well, he did go to military school.”

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The view from 5 a.m.

January 16, 2020 at 9:09 am (By Amba)

Particularly since we lost our moorings in nature, we’re carried along in the torrent of human culture, trying to make a little mark, pitch a small shelter in the midst of this moving mass. But there is no fixed point of reference, the coordinates are constantly changing, driven now mainly by commerce, propaganda, psychopathology, and technology, and the directionless ferocity of trends. There is no way for an individual mind to get any purchase. And now this mass is accelerating like the Niagara above the falls. What do we do while we’re carried along toward the precipice? Our past plans have been pulled apart multiple times by the dissolution of their context, like a house frame in a flood.

Plans presuppose a world that holds still enough for long enough so their enactment still makes sense when it’s complete, if it can be completed at all. Interruption by crisis feels imminent: why commit yourself to a course of action that you’ll have to drop at any moment to simply survive? The universe wasn’t “absurd” until we made it so.

Is dematerialization and digitization, the dissolving of everything into a torrent of electrons, a response to this or a cause of it? Only a torrent is adapted to a torrent, only total fluidity and nonattachment can thrive. Momentary insights form and dissolve like snowflakes. If the material world once kept us anchored and sane, we’re dissolving that too, with the help of fire and flood . . . and finance.

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Twins in Winter

January 16, 2020 at 12:22 am (By Amba) (, )

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Political tensions and doubts…

January 15, 2020 at 10:13 am (By Amba) (, , )

. . . in rural Wisconsin, one of the swing areas that are crucial to Trump’s chances of reelection. It’s not a simple or monolithic picture. And it’s embodied in the falling-out of two women friends, who previously worked together for Trump’s campaign. One has changed her mind, and has had the guts to go public about it, though she’s fearful of the consequences:

“I’m worried about retribution. My barn is made of wood. People have matches. Do two plus two,”

The other expressed the pragmatic, goal-directed point of view of many evangelicals:

“I’m not voting for him to be my pastor, my father, my role model. I’m voting for him to get some things done in Washington DC that have never been done before. We forgive him because of other things.”

As a single parent in mid-divorce, she had once temporarily needed public assistance, but sees no contradiction with Trump’s cuts in food stamps:

She agrees with the move, she said, because the restrictions do not apply to families with children or those with disabilities.

“Of course, we want to make sure the children are taken care of,” she said. “But single adults, you need to get out there and work. Life is hard. Sorry. Life was hard for me too.”

She’s not against some version of public health insurance, though (“I think that’s good. Who wouldn’t?”) . . . as long as it doesn’t raise taxes too much:

If somebody told me my taxes would go up $500 a year for Medicare for All, I might do it. That’s pretty good. But if somebody told me my taxes would go up $10,000 a year, oh no.”

The two women no longer speaking to each other. Meanwhile, a pastor worries about “an unquestioning and even aggressive adulation for Trump” among some congregants who have crossed a line between pragmatism and idolatry:

“It seems like there are many evangelical Christians that are willing to die on the hill of supporting the Republican president, supporting Donald J Trump. And to me, that hill is not worth dying on. No matter who the candidate is, no matter who the individual is,” he said. “To put all your hope into that individual is a dangerous road. Scripture would warn us against that.”

I consider this a must read, especially for us city kids.

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Berlinski Burrows into Iran

January 14, 2020 at 7:40 pm (By Amba) (, , , )

in its full complexity, which is less about us than we would like (and, insofar as it is about us, in ways we don’t like).

if the Iranian regime falls, it will not be because of Trump. It will be because it is a regime that’s capable of shooting a civilian airliner out of the sky and then trying to bulldoze the evidence. It will be because that regime is rotten to the core. 

If the regime survives, it will not be because of Trump, either. It will be because it is a regime capable of killing as many of its own citizens as it needs to quell these protests. 

As I write this, the news that the Iranian regime has opened fire on the protesters has come across the transom. That is not Trump’s fault—but this point does seem very hard for some to grasp. . . .

Unless we invade and occupy Iran, the future of that regime is in Iranian hands, not ours. 

Read to the end if you have some notion of how to apportion the “blame” for Iran’s enlargement of power between Obama and Trump. Clue: Berlinski says “If you deplore one but not the other, partisanship has taken over your frontal lobe.” But what has ultimately empowered Iran is the wars in Iraq and Syria.

The bottom line:

The issue is not Obama versus Trump, Democrats versus Republicans. It is that we wish for things that cannot both be true. We don’t want to be at war, but we don’t want the world to be overrun by hostile and despotic regimes. We don’t want to go to war to prevent Iran from acquiring the Bomb, but we don’t want Iran to acquire the Bomb. We want to scare Iran. But we don’t want to be scared.

We busily project half of our incompatible desires onto the other political party, rather than acknowledging that our own desires are in conflict. Meanwhile, no one mentions that we have no recognizable strategy for anything and haven’t had one since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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Amazing Stuff 2

January 14, 2020 at 7:00 pm (By Amba) ()


I didn’t know this till just now: the new and, I think, heartening trend (tell me if I’m wrong) is to use robotic exoskeletons—first imagined in sci-fi movies, then used to empower people with disabilities—to increase the strength, speed, dexterity, and safety of human manufacturing and stock workers, instead of replacing them with all-out robots. The first link is to a serious in-depth article. Here’s a popular one. You want pictures?



It turns out that the subtlety of a human brain and senses is not that easily simulated and surpassed. Since wearing and partnering with these devices (also known as cobots) will require training and skill, one can be cautiously optimistic that these will be decently paying jobs. (The devices themselves can cost as little as $1,000 to $5,000; repair and rehab for a shoulder injury runs at least in the tens of thousands.)

Maybe humans won’t be rendered obsolete after all.

Only 700 people are left in the world who speak this Nepali language. Fifty of them live in one building in Brooklyn.

(Fascinating factoid: “Jackson Heights, in Queens, is the most linguistically diverse neighborhood in the entire US and one of the most in the world.”)

(Fascinating asides about one-block ethnic enclaves in NYC and how U.S. culture has grown at once bolder about preserving distinct identities and more relaxed about mixing them. “Interracial marriage [used to mean] an Italian Catholic marrying an Irish Catholic: both families got upset and agreed with each other that such a match was a bad idea.”)

Here’s a trick for actually seeing the Earth spin, from Earth.


. . . presented in the manner of military and diplomatic history.

H/T Ron Fisher / Cross-Posted on Purr View


There were 14 giant tortoises of the species Chelonoidis hoodensis on the Galápagos island of Española. Now there are 2,000. This Genghis Tortoise is the single, um, handed progenitor of roughly 40 percent of them.


That makes more tortoises on Española than there are people who speak the Nepali language Seke.

The best description of what New York City has become was penned by the late Elizabeth Wurtzel in 2013:


In 2019, this qualifies as amazing:

Only one actor of color was nominated, and no female directors are up for Best Director. Among the talents overlooked this year: Eddie MurphyJennifer LopezLupita Nyong’o,  Awkwafina, and Greta Gerwig.

White patriarchy reasserts itself in the Oscars. Drawing courage from similar developments in the 2020 presidential race?

I haven’t seen Awkwafina’s performance as an actor but I love her so much for this. (⚠︎ NSFW) Also her name.

I haven’t seen Awkwafina’s performance as an actor but I love her so much for this (! NSFW). And also her name.

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YIKES! Statins could make you more aggressive . . .

January 14, 2020 at 4:14 pm (By Amba) ()

. . . and Tylenol could make you less empathetic, among other unsuspected and uninvestigated emotional and behavioral side effects of common drugs:

 fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans have shown that the same areas of our brain become active when we’re experiencing “positive empathy” –pleasure on other people’s behalf – as when we’re experiencing pain.

Given these facts, Mischkowski wondered whether painkillers might be making it harder to experience empathy. Earlier this year, together with colleagues from Ohio University and Ohio State University, he recruited some students and spilt them into two groups. One received a standard 1,000mg dose of paracetamol, while the other was given a placebo. Then he asked them to read scenarios about uplifting experiences that had happened to other people, such as the good fortune of “Alex”, who finally plucked up the courage to ask a girl on a date (she said yes).

The results revealed that paracetamol significantly reduces our ability to feel positive empathy – a result with implications for how the drug is shaping the social relationships of millions of people every day. Though the experiment didn’t look at negative empathy – where we experience and relate to other people’s pain – Mischkowski suspects that this would also be more difficult to summon after taking the drug. . . .

“[T]o be honest, this line of research is really the most worrisome that I’ve ever conducted,” he says. “Especially because I’m well aware of the numbers [of people] involved. When you give somebody a drug, you don’t just give it to a person – you give it to a social system.” 

Mitigating factors:

  • “Technically, paracetamol isn’t changing our personalities, because the effects only last a few hours and few of us take it continuously.” But it’s good to be aware of the effect, so “you don’t . . . take paracetamol [ahead of] a situation that requires you to be emotionally responsive – like having a serious conversation with a partner or co-worker.”)
  • The same brain centers that host empathy govern both physical and emotional pain, so “paracetamol can make us feel better after a rejection.”
  • SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac markedly reduce the Big Five trait of “neuroticism” (“epitomised by anxious feelings, such as fear, jealousy, envy and guilt”) and make people more extroverted.

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A poem for this moment

January 14, 2020 at 12:02 pm (By Amba) ()

Yes, Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Yes, Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” Sure, even Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” But this one by e e cummings is right up there.

pity this busy monster, manunkind

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--- electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
                          A world of made
is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

E. E. Cummings

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