October 4, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Fossil fuels 'becoming obsolete' as solar panel prices plummet (Anthony Cuthbertson, 27 September 2023, Independent)

The cost of solar power has dropped by nearly 90 per cent over the last decade, according to new research, taking it towards a key level that will make fossil fuel-generated power no longer economically viable.

Calculations by Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) found that the plummeting price of electricity produced by solar panels - down 87 per cent since 2013 - means the transition to renewable energy sources is "cheaper than expected".

The falling costs of batteries and other renewable technologies could also help supercharge the trend towards cleaner energy and meeting climate targets.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Philosophy and the Meaningful Life: a review of Philosophy: What Every Catholic Should Know By Peter Kreeft. (David Weinberger, Oct 1, 2023, University Bookman)

[K]reeft shows how the pursuit of beauty, truth and goodness--which lead to wisdom--enriches our lives. Beauty, he remarks, pulls us beyond ourselves toward truth and goodness: "Beauty is what first impresses us about truth and goodness. It is their child and their ambassador. It is the quality of all objects of love, as Plato taught in The Symposium. And it gives us an ecstasy, a 'standing outside yourself,' a blissful loss of self-consciousness." 

This point ought not slip us by, for it is not merely good, true and beautiful things that we want, but goodness, truth and beauty as they are in themselves. Aristotle observed that "all men by nature desire to know." Not only do we have a natural curiosity to understand--hence the unremitting stream of interrogation from the toddler who asks, "What's that?"--but no finite thing ever satisfies our never ending quest for knowledge. Whether we study bees, financial markets, sales techniques, woodworking or philosophy itself, we find that the complete understanding we yearn for forever eludes our grasp. Moreover, even when we have had our fill of some subject, do we ever say, "I now have all I ever need to know?" On the contrary, when we reach our capacity in one area we find ourselves sailing toward the next shore of knowledge to colonize, ever searching for the complete act of understanding itself. This is no less true for beauty and goodness. Even the most consuming mystical experience pales in comparison to our unrestricted drive for infinite beauty itself. 

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


American Homer: Celebrating the bicentenary of historian Francis Parkman, who produced a picture of America's origins that remains unsurpassed (Luke Nicastro, Sep 29 2023, City Journal)

Parkman was born in 1823 to a family eminent among Boston's Brahmin class. He was marked out early for a respectable career--perhaps as a Unitarian divine, like his father, or else as an attorney. But the muse of history had other plans: young Francis fell under its spell while a sophomore at Harvard, directing his first, precocious efforts toward a study of the French and Indian War. The ambition grew with the execution: "I enlarged the plan," he recounted in a later letter, "to include the whole course of the conflict between France and England; or, in other words, the history of the American forest. . . . my theme fascinated me, and I was haunted with wilderness images day and night."

The result was one of the most remarkable achievements in American letters. France and England in North America, published in six volumes across the span of three decades, astonished readers with its finely wrought prose and unerring command of historical detail. Beginning in the sixteenth century with his protagonists' first abortive efforts at colonization and ending on the Plains of Abraham 250 years later, Parkman's sprawling narrative elevated the contest for the continent to the level of epic.

Though Parkman published several other works, including a memoir of time spent on the Oregon Trail and a history of Pontiac's Rebellion, it is on France and England that his fame chiefly rests. Reviewers were quick to sense the magnitude of the accomplishment. The Atlantic pronounced it "a book for all mankind and for all time," on par with the works of Herodotus and Thucydides; later admirers included Oliver Wendell Holmes, C. Vann Woodward, and Edmund Wilson. And as recently as 1983, when the Library of America brought out its indispensable two-volume edition, the Washington Post declared it "the greatest history ever written by an American. . . . a thousand years from now, if there are still Americans, Parkman will be their Homer."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Underground thermal energy networks are becoming crucial to the US's energy future
(June Kim, October 4, 2023, Technology Review)

Thirteen US states are now implementing underground thermal energy networks to reduce buildings' carbon emissions as part of a nationwide push to adopt cleaner energy sources.

Thermal energy networks use pipe loops that connect multiple buildings and provide heating and cooling through water-source heat pumps. Geothermal heat is commonly used in these networks, but it is also possible to bring in waste heat from other buildings through the sewer system. 

When installed, these networks can provide efficient, fossil fuel-free heating and cooling to commercial and residential buildings. Thanks to legislative backing and widespread support from utility companies and labor unions they're likely to become an increasingly significant part of the future energy mix in the US.  

October 3, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


How Benjamin Netanyahu's ultra-religious, far-right government may be planting the seeds of its own demise (Micheline Ishay, October 3, 2023, New/Lines)

As the legend goes, in the 16th century Prague's Jewish ghetto was under assault. Hoping to protect his people from slaughter, a rabbi conjured a new entity. Using his hands, he slowly shaped the figure of a man from clay. The rabbi then blew into the nostrils of his creation and whispered the name of God into its ear. Thus animated, the intended savior became a monster, embarking on a furious rampage that killed everyone in sight. This creature is known in Jewish folklore as the golem.
To borrow this metaphor of unintended dark outcomes, Israel can now be described as under assault from a new golem, created by radical religious and ultranationalist zealots to battle imagined enemies. Having attained unfettered power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition of four political parties (Likud, the Religious Zionist Alliance, United Torah Judaism and Shas) purports to rescue Israel from globalist elites, mainstream secular Jews and those they regard as "violent Arabs."

The parties seek their country's "salvation" by stripping Israel's judiciary of its power, destroying the checks and balances needed to sustain liberal democracy, and allowing the reimposition of some religious laws, from bans on leavened bread in hospitals during Passover to discrimination against women. They also seem poised to rub out the so-called "Green Line" marking the 1967 boundary between Israel and the West Bank, undertaking a de jure territorial expansion by annexing portions of occupied Palestinian land.

The only existential threat is internal.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Don Quixote, the Hidden Knight (Robert Lazu Kmita, October 3, 2023, European Conservative)

Don Quixote proves to be a man for whom reading stories of chivalry is insufficient. He wants to experience firsthand the medieval chivalric code, delighting in the fruits of fidelity to its principles. Don Quixote is seeking a true king capable of rewarding his valiant deeds. The rest no longer matters. Unlike Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who renounced worldly honors to become a 'knight' of the Militia Christi, the aged hidalgo commits himself decisively to deeds of arms. These deeds are more real to him than the illusory reality of a declining world. Paradoxically, through our hero, one of the fundamental archetypes of Christianity is revealed to us: chivalry concealed beneath a cloak of humility.

Appearing mad in a world that no longer appreciates nobility, holy knights, like those for whom the great Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in De laude novae militiae, remain ever-present. They will never disappear, supported by the divine glory of the crucified Christ. Tasting the bitterness of an age that extolled Chivalric virtues only when they were confined to the pages of adventure books, Cervantes accurately described the condition of the hidden knight. Practicing Christian virtues, ridiculed precisely for this reason, he becomes a valiant fighter against windmills. Why does this happen? Because, as is evident from the teachings of Saint Paul, there exists an unavoidable conflict between "divine wisdom" and "worldly wisdom." And Don Quixote ardently loves only divine wisdom. Tirelessly pursuing his ideal, he sees ladies, knights, princes, giants, and he sees justice where there are only harlots, greedy innkeepers, thieves, lies, and hypocrisy. A miracle occurs before the astonished eyes of the reader: the "madman" discovers what he is seeking! And this discovery, it turns out, remains perfectly possible anytime, anywhere.

We find ourselves, today, in a situation not dissimilar to that of the early Christians. Practicing virtues and battling unruly passions propel us into an unseen war fought "not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places" (Ephesians 6:12). This struggle takes place in the core of our being. Anticipating this phenomenon of internal chivalry, accompanied by the ridicule that results from habitually practicing its principles, Cervantes deserves credit for having described, in terms understandable to all, the condition of any Christian who opposes the cultural models of a corrupt and corrupting world.

If anyone wishes to conquer the giants of their own vices, they must, like Don Quixote, take up the lance, the shield, draw down the visor, and mount Rocinante. 

As his friends realize only too late--after they have broken his faith--the Don is the only wise man among them.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


RFK JR. Could Play Spoiler, but Not for Biden . (Chris Stirewalt, Oct 3, 2023, The Dispatch)

Kennedy's support already comes more from right-leaning Americans than from Democrats, and that would only intensify if he took on the Libertarian label.

Democrats are understandably nervous about their incumbent. And they should be. But Kennedy's candidacy, which was succored by mischief-making MAGA Republicans as a spoiler in the Democratic primaries, seems very much more likely to bite the hands that fed it than to harm Biden in a rematch with Trump.

October 2, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 1:00 AM


The Lesson of Newburgh (Miles Smith IV, 3/20/23, Law & Liberty)

A group of officers, enraged at the perceived shameful treatment of the army by Congress, began preparing ways to find redress. Without informing the army's high command, they circulated an unsigned letter urging a meeting at Newburgh in March 1783, ostensibly to discuss a range of possibilities including marching on Congress. George Washington caught wind of the meeting, which he called irregular and disorderly. He ordered the officers to a second meeting, overseen by a high-ranking officer. He also ordered a written report of the meeting, hinting that he himself would not attend.

When the second meeting occurred on March 15, the resentful and fuming officers were stunned when Washington himself appeared and asked to speak. Washington understood the officers' frustrations but rebuked any attempt to coerce the civilian government with military force. Anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood" should, he demanded, be opposed by the army. Coups, Washington made clear, would not only never be instigated by his army, they would also be opposed by the army. The civilian government of the United States must be protected, even when it acted inconsistently or imprudently.

After speaking, Washington took a letter out from a member of Congress of his pocket. He looked at it for a moment and held it uneasily. Slowly, he pulled his reading glasses from the pocket and haltingly put them on. Most of the soldiers had never seen Washington wear them. "Gentlemen," Washington said gently, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." The sight of a greying and aging Washington--loyal to the government as ever--shamed the conspirators, many of whom began to openly weep. The Newburgh Conspiracy was dead, and so was the first major threat to civilian government in the new republic.

Posted by orrinj at 12:34 AM


Turns out robot umpires have one big flaw: They're too perfect (Joseph Bien-Kahn, Sep 27, 2023, Business Insider)

Though robo-ump is sold as a more accurate future through technology, it's also another paradoxically progressive change that sets out to restore the game to the more action-packed glory of yesteryear. The MLB league official says they hope that a shrunken, more consistent zone will decrease strikeouts and walks and will lead to more balls in play. Unfortunately, so far this year, Hawk-Eye's ABS has added many more walks than the number of strikeouts it has removed. Those results are disappointing, the league official tells me, to say the least.

Founded by Paul Hawkins, who has a doctorate in artificial intelligence, in 2001 -- the same year the iPod arrived -- Hawk-Eye was originally conceived as an optical-tracking tool to enhance TV sports coverage. The first broadcast partner used it for cricket. But then, in 2006, Hawk-Eye became an official replay tool used by the tennis judges. Sony bought the company in 2011 for an undisclosed sum. Soon, English Premier League soccer, NASCAR, the Olympics, the Rugby World Cup, and golf's European Tour were using Hawk-Eye in broadcasts and to increase the accuracy of human refs. Hawk-Eye had 12 cameras perched in all 30 MLB stadiums by opening day 2020, marking a watershed for the American market. The NFL began using Hawk-Eye to aid with replays the next year, and the NBA just signed a multiyear deal with Hawk-Eye this March.

Umpires 2
Hawk-Eye's "average error is about 3 millimeters, less than the width of an M&M," says Goltz. That level of accuracy has already leapfrogged humanity's limits. Tyler Le/Insider
As I connect with Justin Goltz, Hawk-Eye North America's commercial director, he can't get his camera working on Zoom. A former college pitcher, Goltz says he's sure he'd be against ABS if he still played, because "the ambiguity of the strike zone probably works more in your favor" as a young pitcher without pinpoint control. "But as someone who now understands the nuances of the business of sports and baseball and the way they're trending with legalized gambling and betting and objectivity playing a big part in making the game as fair and as accurate as possible, I'm a firm believer that it's a step in the right direction," he says. (The MLB league official tells me that legalized gambling has not been a factor in implementing ABS.) 

"The technology is there," Goltz adds, explaining the intricacies of Hawk-Eye's ball-tracking system, which uses high-performance cameras to triangulate an object's trajectory. "Our average error is about 3 millimeters, less than the width of an M&M." That level of accuracy has already leapfrogged humanity's limits. But even Goltz acknowledges there's still the issue of what zone all his company's technology is legislating.

"There are additional layers to the problem that need to be solved," he says. "How do you define the strike zone? Is it on a per-player basis? Is it a standard strike zone? Is it an oval-shaped strike zone? Is it a square-shaped strike zone?" Goltz explains that MLB is taking the lead in answering those subjective questions; Hawk-Eye just delivers the data.

There's a curious phenomenon now where prospects are said to have "gamed" the robo-ump to get a good bb/strikeout rate.  Then when there are real umps at the next level they strike out more.  Essentially, they are being punished for knowing the strike zone better than the guys behind the plate.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


America, Europe's Frenemy: The United States serves as a projection screen for the desires and hatreds of many Europeans-and in the process, offers insight into Europe's own internal tensions. (Peter Hefele, 20 Sep 2023, American Purpose)

The first feature to note of transatlantic relations is that they have always consisted of a love-hate relationship. However the persistence of anti-American sentiment in parts of European society long after the Second World War is alarming for all supporters of a values-based relationship between the United States and Europe. More disturbingly, these continent-wide attitudes can be found across a broad range of the political spectrum, not only at the radical political fringes.

Mistrust and outright repudiation of the American political and socioeconomic systems are often built on an appalling lack of profound knowledge. For generations of Europeans, the United States has always been the projection screen of desires as well as hate, saying more about Europe's own internal tensions than reflecting American reality.

Europe's complicated views of freedom are crucial in explaining this unpleasant truth. Largely forgotten or taken for granted are the contributions of America's thinkers, politicians, and its people in creating, restoring, and maintaining free and open societies in Europe. 

October 1, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Recovering the Sacred in MusicThe music of Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener is the music of a new civilization. These composers have gone against the prevailing grain of the twentieth century for the sake of a greater love. (Robert Reilly, September 25th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)

The attempted suicide of Western classical music has failed. The patient is recovering, no thanks to the efforts of music's Dr. Kevorkian, Arnold Schoenberg, whose cure, the imposition of a totalitarian atonality, was worse than the disease--the supposed exhaustion of the tonal resources of music. Schoenberg's vaunted mission to "emancipate dissonance" by denying that tonality exists in Nature led to the successive losses of tonality, melody, harmony, and rhythm.

Music went out of the realm of Nature and into abstract, ideological systems. Thus we were given a secondhand or ersatz reality in music that operated according to its own self-invented and independent rules divorced from the very nature of sound. Not surprisingly, these systems, including Schoenberg's twelve-tone method of mandatory atonality, broke down. The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Jean Sibelius' Music of the Logos (Robert Reilly, September 19th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)

Apart from the Finnish mythological figures of the Kalevala with whom Sibelius deals in his tone poems, there are no people in his music. This not so much limits Sibelius's music as defines it. Imagine one of the breathtaking nature portraits from the Hudson River Valley School of painting that depicts a stupendous mountain range. It matters very much if there are tiny human figures in the foreground of the painting. Such figures may provide a sense of scale, but an audience inside the painting also changes the relationship of what is depicted to the audience outside. They are distracted from the main event. With Sibelius, there are no people interposing themselves between what he portrays and you, the listener. There is nothing there to distract from the solitary grandeur and mystery of nature. Its impact is direct and overwhelming.

Because he composed such stirring tonal music with nature as its subject, Sibelius has often, and I believe mistakenly, been labeled a Romantic. He is certainly not one in the conventional sense. The late Glenn Gould described Sibelius's music as "passionate but anti-sensuous." Sibelius is uninterested in letting us know how he feels about the mountain. He wants to show the mountain itself. His music is not autobiographical. The sensibility behind, for example, Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) is completely foreign to him. So is Mahler's self-indulgence. If anything, Sibelius's music was, in part, a reaction against this kind of late Romanticism. Sibelius's attitude toward nature is worth exploring because it may have something to do with the ups and downs of his reputation.

Sibelius said, "There is music in the whole universe." He believed in the "Music of the Spheres," the classical Greek view that held that the mathematical relationships among the heavenly bodies are the same as those of music. The heavens are literally harmonious. He said, "I believe that there are musical notes and harmonies on all planets." This included planet earth. Sibelius's experience of the world was essentially musical. He was one of those extraordinary individuals gifted with perfect pitch. He not only noted the key and character in which various birds sang, but experienced the most commonplace, everyday sounds in musical terms. Once, when a repairman was hammering away on the veranda, Sibelius observed, "The man is all the time hitting a g that is about a quarter-tone out of tune." Sibelius also experienced colors musically, and often whole visual scenes resolved themselves into musical forms for him. As a young boy, he sat at the piano and tried to play the colors he saw in the parlor carpet. His favorite, a clear green, he said, was "somewhere between d and e flat." When he first heard the sounds of orchestral instruments, they seemed at once familiar to him. Sibelius never wrote in short score. He heard his music orchestrally; each sound came to him instrumentally--as it were, without intermediaries.

Sibelius saw the larger significance of the musical harmony of the world, and it is the key to the meaning and power of his music. One day, Sibelius spoke to his personal secretary Santeri Levas about the astonishing sense of law in the universe, and an almost inconceivable harmony that makes every human effort seem tiny and senseless. This realization did not induce in him a sense of futility, but of humility. "That," Sibelius concluded, "is what I call God."

Though Sibelius was not religious in a conventional sense, he was a deep believer. "The essence of man's being," he said, "is his striving after God." He saw art as hieratic and composition as a vocation. In words that could hardly go more directly to the heart of the matter, he said, "It [composition] is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Night the Cops Tried to Break Thelonious Monk (JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, 8/18/23, CounterPunch)

Usually Monk walked. He ambled across the city on feet as light as a tap-dancer. He weaved his way down block after block, whistling, humming, snapping his fingers. Monk liked to take different routes, but most of them led eventually to the Hudson River, where the large man in the strange hat would lean on the railing and watch the lights of the city dance on the black water.

Wordsworth said that many of his poems collected in the Lyrical Ballads were written to the rhythms of his long walks across the hills of the Lake District.  Thelonious Monk composed some the most revolutionary music of the 20th century out on the streets of Manhattan, rambling down the sidewalks or staring out at the sluggish river. Those fresh new sounds just flowed through his head as he prowled the city: "Criss Cross," "Coming on the Hudson," "Brilliant Corners," "Manhattan Moods."

But on a steamy August night in 1951 Monk missed his evening walk. Instead he was sitting in a car outside his mother's house with his friend Bud Powell. Monk's mother, Miss Barbara, had cancer and he had been staying with her when Powell, the tormented genius, dropped over with a couple of his friends.

Powell was agitated, manic, talking smack. He skittered around the kitchen, bellowing a stream of invective. Monk wanted to calm Powell down. Bud hadn't been the same since that night in Philadelphia when a racist cop split his head open with a truncheon. He was a little off now, a little paranoid, a little skittish. Powell had grown so unpredictable that even his old friend Charlie Parker refused to play with him anymore, telling Miles Davis: "Bud's even crazier than me!"

More and more, Powell needed booze and junk just to steady his hands, to force himself on stage, to dull the painful throb in his head.  Sometimes the sound of Monk's voice could ease him, settle him back into a groove. On this fateful night, Monk suggested they go out in the car to talk so that his mother and young son could sleep.

A few minutes later two New York City cops approached the car, swinging nightsticks. They were from the narcotics squad, out to harass the local junkies. When Powell saw the cops flash their badges, he panicked. He franticly threw a small sleeve of heroin toward the window. He missed. The packet landed at Monk's feet. The cops picked up the envelope, noticed the drug residue and promptly arrested everyone in the car on charges of narcotics possession.

At the station, Monk denied that the heroin was his and said he didn't know who it belonged to. During his interrogation he repeatedly refused to implicate Powell, who had been strapped into a straightjacket and sent to the psych ward at Bellevue. Monk would never snitch out Powell. Seven years older than Powell, Monk had been his mentor, his friend, his nurse. He knew Powell was too frail to handle prison and  later said he wasn't about to "drag him down."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The South's Jewish Proust: Shelby Foote, failed novelist and closeted member of the Tribe, turned the Civil War into a masterpiece of American literature (BLAKE SMITH, SEPTEMBER 06, 2023, The Tablet)

By the beginning of the 1950s, with the completion of Shiloh, Foote had written four novels and a collection of short stories, all of which did moderately well in sales and reviews. In late 1951 he felt ready to tackle what he planned in his diary to be a tremendous, multigenerational novel about a Delta family (gentiles) to eclipse Faulkner's own sagas. In a letter to Walker Percy on Dec. 31, he crowed, "I'm among the greatest American writers of all time ... and at the age of thirty-five." The next New Year, after 12 months of uninterrupted writer's block, he confided to his diary, "Bad situation--the kind that leads to suicide with some people." His novel--Two Gates to the City--was going nowhere; another marriage had failed; he was broke.

When a publisher, appreciating the historian's art on display in Shiloh, offered Foote a contract for what was supposed to be a short nonfiction overview of the Civil War, he had little choice but to accept, although it soon became not a quick cash-grab but his 3,000-page, two-decades-long masterpiece, the real work of his life.

Faulkner had been in Foote's way; Proust was the light to his path. He had read In Search of Lost Time several times through before beginning the Civil War trilogy, and it was from Proust he learned the abilities essential to such a long, digressive narrative--which turns apparently meandering and spontaneous but moves only with its author's deliberate, far-seeing and much-remembering care--to its long, digressive sentences, and to the art of characterization by which Foote, following Proust, would supply a telling detail at just the right moment to surprisingly revise the reader's understanding. Here he added something new to his acquired mastery in moving among different perspectives, and became, albeit with found rather than invented characters, a master novelist, one who lets personalities shine out in action and be mirrored in the reactions of others. Foote does this even for the smallest characters who appear only briefly to receive a command or charge across a field.

Volume 3 of the trilogy, for example, begins with Grant, haggard, thin, fairly ugly, unphotographed and thus unfamiliar, visually, to the public, upon his arrival in Washington to receive command of the eastern theater:

Late afternoon of a raw, gusty day in early spring--March 8, a Tuesday, 1864--the desk clerk at Willard's Hotel, two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, glanced up to find an officer accompanied by a boy of thirteen facing him across the polished oak of the registration counter and inquiring whether he could get a room ... Discerning so much of this as he considered worth his time, together perhaps with the bystander's added observation that the applicant had 'rather the look of a man who did, or once did, take a little too much to drink, the clerk was no more awed by the stranger's rank than he was attracted by his aspect. This was, after all, the best known hostelry in Washington. There had been by now close to five hundred Union generals, and of these the great majority ... had checked in and out of Willard's ... The desk clerk ... still maintaining the accustomed, condescending air he was about to lose in shock when he read what the weathered applicant had written: 'U.S. Grant & Son--Galena, Illinois'
This extract condenses the opening paragraph, which occupies more than a full page, wherein Grant's taking command, with all its consequences, is introduced first through the snobbery of character so minor as to be otherwise invisible to history. This is Proust at war.

Except it's interesting.

September 30, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


'It's a charged place': Parchman Farm, the Mississippi prison with a remarkable musical history: Inmates at this bucolic but brutal prison have long been singing the blues to sustain themselves, and a new compilation of gospel songs continues the legacy (Sheldon Pearce,  20 Sep 2023, The Guardian)

In 1940, the Mississippi singer Bukka White released the song Parchman Farm Blues as a testament of the two years he spent in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a notorious prison-labour work farm also known as Parchman Farm - and the site of some of the most remarkable music in American history.

While serving a sentence for shooting a man in the leg, the singer recorded a few songs for the white musicologist John Lomax, but it wasn't until he was out that he wrote and recorded Parchman Farm Blues: a warning to stay off the farm, a lament of the long work day and a cry for deliverance. The song still resonates, demonstrating the chilling, natural power of delta blues, the profound isolation experienced by inmates, the harshness of prison labour camps, and the deep, almost visceral need to let song sustain you; to let the voice carry you out into the open, to freedom. [...]

Nowhere is this truer than Parchman Farm, which today has beds for nearly 5,000 inmate workers, many of whom are continuing its remarkable musical legacy. The producer Ian Brennan wanted to give them the opportunity to be heard. "It's mathematical. It's not philosophical. It shouldn't be politicised," Brennan says. "Mississippi has the highest poverty, the second highest rate of incarceration in the US, and African Americans are incarcerated at least five times the rate of white people. That inequity has no place in even a semblance of a democracy. That's my motivation." In February, he travelled to Parchman Farm to record a Sunday gospel service with the blessing of the prison chaplains, which was released last week as Some Mississippi Sunday Morning.

Brennan has been recording for nearly 40 years, with much of his work documenting underrepresented people and places. In 2011, he won a Grammy for his work in the Sahara on Tinariwen's album Tassili, and he was nominated for another for 2015's Zomba Prison Project in Malawi. After three and a half years (a wait exacerbated by the pandemic), Brennan was finally granted access to the Mississippi State Penitentiary with a week's notice - in part, because of pressure applied by lawsuits filed by the rapper Yo Gotti and Team Roc, the philanthropic arm of Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, on behalf of the inmates, citing inhumane living conditions. [...]

The music of Some Mississippi Sunday Morning is as tragic as it is striking; raw and naked in the baldness of singing and its emotional honesty. The singer and pianist who performs on Give Myself Away, So You Can Use Me, who asked to remain anonymous, submits himself to the song, the concession in the lyrics giving his feelings a form. On Solve My Need, a man identified as M Palmer delivers a booming baritone that hits like a foghorn.

Gospel is a foundation of American music, especially in the south, and its melodies and messages have always lent themselves to times of unrest, as a balm for those seeking hope. But you can hear the way Sunday services are particularly restorative for someone incarcerated - not simply because of the promise of redemption, but the solace of not being alone. The closer, Lay My Burden Down, a communal performance that was the last thing recorded during Brennan's visit, brought a group of divided men together as a unified body, and inmates initially separated along various ideological lines began high-fiving, hugging, smiling, and laughing. [...]

Very early on, Brennan provided me a sort of mission statement for his work: "Ethically and morally, we are obligated to listen to those least listened to or even silenced or censored." For him, questions about encroachment have to take a backseat to what must be heard. "It's very important that the music stands on its own," Brennan says. "Anybody that focuses on the politics of it is doing the artists a disservice. Because the focus should be on their voices." Imbued with a deep longing to be defined by more than the worst moment in their lives, those voices ring out and stir the soul

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


REVIEW: "Liberal" as an Adjective: The Politics of Michael Walzer (Peter C. Meilaender, 9/17/23, Public Discourse)

[W]alzer has a knack for drawing the reader into his argument as he thinks out loud, doubling back on himself, testing his ideas against experience, and checking his own impulses in a friendly, conversational tone. As he proceeds ever so reasonably, he carries you right along with him, having you nodding in agreement until, at times, you are surprised to discover where he has led you.

These qualities are on display in Walzer's most recent book, The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On "Liberal" as an Adjective, which is part memoir, part theoretical reinterpretation of liberalism, and part capstone to a long career. (On the first page of his preface, Walzer remarks, poignantly, "this may be my last book.") In it, he examines his most important personal, political, and professional commitments--to democracy, socialism, nationalism, communitarianism, feminism, academia, and Judaism--asking in each case what it means for such a commitment to be "liberal."

In doing so, he turns our attention away from thinking about "liberalism" and instead toward the project of his subtitle: thinking about "liberal" as an "adjective," or what he calls "a new way of describing and defending" the political commitments he has endorsed over many decades. Our primary commitments, he suggests--the "nouns" we embrace, like democracy, socialism, or feminism--name the goods or ways of life we pursue, whereas "liberal" describes a specific manner of pursuing them. It requires that we be "open-minded, generous, and tolerant"; neither relativists nor dogmatists; and ever pragmatic, skeptical, and pluralist. The adjective brings certain "liberal qualifications" to all the nouns it modifies: "the constraint of political power; the defense of individual rights; the pluralism of parties, religions, and nations; the openness of civil society; the rights of opposition and disagreement; the accommodation of difference; the welcome of strangers."

Walzer's descriptions of his own liberal commitments make this picture more concrete. To be a democrat is to recognize the right of the people to shape and pursue its own common life; but to be a liberal democrat is also to oppose all forms of majoritarian tyranny over minorities, to "defend a state where power is constrained, where the common life is pluralist and inclusive, . . . and where every man and woman is a political agent, able to join any and all meetings and movements and free to stay home--the equal of all the others." To be a socialist is to be committed to egalitarianism, the reduction of poverty, and a world in which wealth cannot be converted into political power or access to goods like education or health care; but to be a liberal socialist is also to insist on building this world through persuasion rather than force, resisting the claims of an unrepresentative "vanguard" to impose its egalitarian vision forcibly on unenlightened fellow citizens. To be a nationalist is to "put the interests of [one's] own nation first;" but to be a liberal nationalist is to "do that and recognize the right of other people to do the same thing--and . . . then insist that all the 'firsts' accommodate one another." And so on. As he weaves back and forth between the commitments and their liberal qualifications, Walzer combines a robust defense of moral and political ideals with an honest recognition (and not merely grudging acceptance) that they must be pursued in partnership (and heated debate) with fellow citizens who are equally committed to their own different and opposing ideals.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


PODCAST: SPEECH AND CENSORSHIP #1: Kindly Inquisitors with Jonathan Rauch (Flagg Taylor, 9/15/23, Enduring Interest)

Enduring Interest is very pleased to launch our series on speech and censorship with this conversation on Jonathan Rauch's Kindly Inquisitors, first published in 1993 and reissued in 2013 with a new afterword. We discuss Jonathan's conception of "liberal science," or the liberal intellectual system's approach to sorting truth from falsehood. He suggests this is arguably liberalism's greatest achievement yet seems always under attack from a variety of quarters. We discuss the fundamentalist and humanitarian threats to free speech, focusing most of our attention on the latter. Can speech cause harm? If yes, why should one not limit it? We compare and contrast the threats to free speech as Jonathan saw them back in 1993 with the situation today. We conclude with Jonathan's recommendations for books and essays that make the case for free speech.

One might quibble with Mr. Rauch around the edges, but this is the case for protestantism as the vital third part of liberalism/The End of History.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Douglass' Sacred Effort: Frederick Douglass and the great truth of America. (KENLY STEWART, SEP 17, 2023, Freemen News-Letter)

Transitioning from the second to the third section, Douglass noted there were those who claimed all the horrors and injustices of slavery he "denounced" were "guaranteed and sanctioned by the Constitution of the United States" as "framed by the illustrious Fathers of this Republic." In contrast to the "honest men" Douglass proclaimed the Founders to be in the first section, those who enlisted the Constitution to defend slavery suggested the Founders "were the veriest imposters that ever practiced on mankind." Douglass vehemently disagreed with those who charged such "baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States." 

Americans who use this speech to denounce the Founding or the Constitution as explicitly pro-slavery find themselves in stark disagreement with Douglass. Instead, they find themselves, ironically, in agreement with supporters of slavery who made the same argument: that the Constitution was designed to protect slavery.

This odd alliance between ideological opponents is not new. Elements of the abolitionist movement, chief among them William Lloyd Garrison, made similar arguments at the time. Garrison went so far as to burn a copy of the Constitution, denouncing it as "A Covenant with Death and an Agreement with Hell." Since Douglass opposed both the Garrisonian and pro-slavery interpretation of the Founding, one assumes he would equally oppose the anti-Founding views of modern self-loathing Americans. 

While the sheer power of the second section of the speech will always stand out, arguably, the most radical sentences come near the conclusion. "The Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT," Douglass boldly declared. He implored his audience to "Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither." As the "charter of our liberties, which every citizen has a personal interest in understanding thoroughly," Douglass was convinced the Constitution contained "principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery." 

Lucas Morel points out Douglass could use "incendiary" language "as well as any abolitionist of the day," but what makes this speech truly shocking is this was the "first speech where he announced that he had a change of heart and mind in particular about the constitution." Douglass refused to stay in his echo chamber. He read widely, thought critically, and, in the end, changed his mind. After his courageous fight against slavery and passionate defense of the Founding, Douglass' truly liberal approach to learning may be his greatest lesson for us today. 

"Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation," concluded Douglass, "I do not despair of this country... I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope." And where did this "hope" come from? He found it in "the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions." Douglass ends the same way he began, with a passionate defense of the Founding. His powerful condemnation of slavery in the second section of the speech came not from a hatred of America, but a deep love for the promise held in the nation's Founding Charters. 

In defending the Founders, the Declaration, and the Constitution, while harshly criticizing the nation for failing to live up to the principles it proclaimed, Douglass revealed himself to be that most unfashionable thing: a patriot.

September 29, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 6:45 AM


Realism meets reality: A new book by two leading advocates of the realist school of International Relations inadvertently demonstrates the enduring importance of history, literature and philosophy when dealing with geopolitical crises.: a review of How States Think: The Rationality of Foreign Policy, John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato (AARON MACLEAN, 9/25/23, Engelsberg Ideas) 

Mearsheimer and Rosato detect an increasingly strong acceptance among both academics and laymen that 'states' often behave nonrationally. In their view, the growing acceptance of this position is a serious problem both for the modern field of international relations theory, which has generally been premised on the notion that states and their leaders are rational actors, and also for political leaders, who faced with a world of madmen would be unable to make good decisions. As neither the study nor practice of international politics 'can be coherent in a world where nonrationality prevails', the authors intend to demonstrate that 'states are rational most of the time'. They will do so by offering 'a meaningful definition of rationality in international politics where none existed', then comparing it to a series of cases where nonrational state behaviour has been claimed by others. The historical record will then show that most of these cases have been examples of rational behaviour after all.

What is this new, meaningful definition of state rationality? At the individual level, 'Rationality is all about making sense of the world for the purpose of navigating it in the pursuit of desired goals.' That is to say, rational people form theories of the world and make decisions in light of those theories. In the words of the authors, man is 'homo theoreticus'. But not every theory is rational - it must be a credible theory. One gets no points for acting in accordance with the view that the moon is made of cheese. Furthermore, a 'state is rational if the views of its key decision makers are aggregated through a deliberative process and the final policy is based on a credible theory'.

Clearly, a lot hangs on the word 'credible' here. The authors provide us with a three-part test of credibility: the theory must be based on realistic assumptions, must involve logical causation, and must be verified by empirical support in the historical record. Even more helpfully, they then list the theories that are credible in the context of international politics, and condemn the ones that are not.

Which theories make the cut? As it happens, they are the academic theories promoted by the major modern schools of international relations. Defensive, offensive, and hegemonic realism and their major subvariants are on the approved list, as are (ecumenically, it must be said, given the authors' realism) democratic peace theory, economic interdependence theory, liberal institutionalism, and finally a set of theories falling within social constructivism.

How can a state hope to navigate rationally in the face of such generous pluralism? Well, as 'no credible theory applies to all problems', it's anticipated that policymakers will mix and match among credible academic theories, which 'find their way into the minds of aspiring decision makers before those individuals begin to make policy'. Moreover, the authors also helpfully provide a list of noncredible theories, ranging from the universally condemned (racial theories prevalent in scholarship a century ago) to upstart academic theories today that, in the authors' view, fail some element of their three-part test (for example: neoclassical realism, audience costs theory, nuclear coercion theory, and several more).

In other words, Mearsheimer and Rosato's book is an attempt by pre-eminent international relations scholars to seize the mantle of who gets to define rationality in the context of international politics from scholars dealing with rational choice theory and from the political psychologists who had been enjoying that privilege. In the view of the authors, both of these schools are failing to live up to their responsibilities, in the first case by failing to describe a mental process in which rational decisions actually happen, and in the latter case by simply surrendering to the argument that irrational choices are prevalent - that people rely on analogies or heuristics rather than full-blown theories. The historical record simply shows, in the authors' view, that this is not the case - state level decision-making seems to attract a clearer-headed sort of person who avoids these kinds of errors - and even, for the most part, avoids being overcome by his or her passions, as 'instances of emotions driving the train [in international politics] are rare'.

So much for the liberal pundits, the economists, and the psychologists. If the approach described here seems solipsistic, or perhaps a bit circular - the approach of international relations theorists, which depends upon rational decision making by policymakers, is vindicated because in fact policymakers make rational decisions using international relations theories that are definitionally rational, say international relations theorists - well, the historical record will have to be the judge.

...you face the problem that, as in every one of our wars, there is no rational basis for America to engage just to vindicate liberalism. Our Crusader State is not just irrational but anti-rational. We are, and have always been, perfectly happy to sacrifice pure self-interest on behalf of strangers.

Posted by orrinj at 6:32 AM


Is Homework Good for Kids? (ANNE THÉRIAULT, Sep. 13, 2023, The Walrus)

"Homework is seen to benefit time management, self-discipline, [and] organizational skills, but there have been no studies that really have shown that homework actually either develops those skills or reinforces them," says Etta Kralovec, professor emerita at the University of Arizona and author of The End of Homework and Schools That Do Too Much. She's not the only homework researcher who is questioning how and why homework is done. Linda Cameron and Lee Bartel from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have critiqued homework practices in Canada, noting, in 2010, that homework "may well be the 'tipping point' for the next educational reform movement" because the issue is "now uppermost in many parents' and teachers' minds." Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has found that, for many students, homework is the greatest source of stress in their lives. Homework stress can lead to burnout and negative impacts on academic achievement.

Kralovec tells me that there is no benefit to homework for elementary school students at all. A meta-analysis published in 2006 by Harris M. Cooper, distinguished professor emeritus at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, looked at all of the homework research that had been done in the United States between 1987 and 2003 and found that homework had "no association with achievement gain" in students from kindergarten through grade five. And while there is a link between homework and academic success in middle and high school students, Kralovec says that might be more correlation than causation. One example she gives is that students taking advanced placement classes in high school typically do more homework than their peers in other classes: Are they having more academic success because they do more homework, or are they doing more homework because those advanced classes tend to assign more of it?

Kralovec says that not only are the benefits of homework questionable but the practice also has clear detriments. It takes time away from more meaningful things that families can do together, like reading or playing. It can create tension between parent and child by placing them in the role of teacher and student--especially if the child already finds that a nerve-wracking role to play at school. It might also limit the extracurricular activities the child can participate in, especially if they're expected to do homework every night.

Part of the issue is that children, like adults, perform better when they have adequate outlets for stress--like exercise or leisure. In a groundbreaking educational program in Vanves, France, that started in 1950, students showed improved academic achievement when classroom time was shortened and physical education was extended. Follow-up studies, including some done in Canadian cities like Victoria, BC, and Trois-Rivières, Quebec, have produced similar results. Another facet to consider is that academic competency is not the only capability children need to develop: a study by Mollie Galloway, Jerusha Conner, and Denise Pope found that students overloaded with homework were "not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills."

Posted by orrinj at 6:26 AM

60-40 NATION:

How Well Is Rural America Doing? You'd Be Surprised: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's 'The Overlooked Americans' rejects grim depictions of rural life. (Brent Orrell, Sep 29, 2023, The Dispatch)

The first half of the book argues that differences over politics or economics between urban cosmopolitans and rural-home folks are often overstated. Using results from the General Social Survey (GSS), Currid-Halkett shows that on a range of questions--from pride in American democracy to confidence in political institutions and personal happiness--urban and rural voters vary only modestly. When asked, for example, about our political system ("How well does democracy in America work today?") both urban and rural voters cluster near the center of a 10-point scale, suggesting they both think our country's political system works moderately well. 

This urban-rural convergence extends to other issues in surprising ways. Among those with less than a high school education, rural Americans were more likely to strongly support hiring preferences for black Americans than those living in urban areas (37.5 percent to 32.2 percent). Almost equal numbers of rural and urban residents with less than a high school degree agreed these hiring preferences were "not very likely" to hurt whites. Similar patterns hold for attitudes toward Muslims, with somewhat more rural Americans holding neutral attitudes toward them than urban residents (43.6 percent to 37.6 percent). [...]

Currid-Halkett also makes the case that our perceptions of how well rural areas are doing often miss the mark. The "deaths of despair" narrative is so embedded in our public discourse that rural America has, mostly in our imaginations, been transformed into a dystopia. But in the words of one of her interview participants: "You'd be surprised at how well we're doing." GSS survey data shows that rural Americans are slightly happier with their marriages (64.9 percent to 62.2 percent) and their jobs (50 percent to 44.5 percent) than urban Americans. The two groups are exactly equal in terms of satisfaction with their financial situations (45.2 percent for both groups). And urban dwellers are only slightly more likely to say they are "pretty happy" with their lives (55.9 percent to 53.7 percent). On measure after measure--including median income, unemployment, and home ownership--Currid-Halkett's research suggests rural America may be doing a lot better than we think. [...]

The Overlooked Americans offers two main solutions to this increasingly rancorous urban-rural culture war. The first, and most profound, is to try to persuade urban elites that what they often regard as "facts" are instead deeply informed by philosophical commitments that mimic, and perhaps replace, the role religion played for earlier generations. Some of what urban dwellers believe is "science" is what Currid-Halkett calls "scientism," or an ideology of science that forms a kind of sacrament for urbanites, and a symbol of tribal identity. A little introspection among elites on the role of commitments to progressive environmentalism, gender, and sex orthodoxies is in order. The search for transcendence is everywhere, including at Whole Foods.

The book also couples this call to epistemic humility with one for Americans to become better, less judgmental listeners. Currid-Halkett's advice in this area boils down to one of the precepts of all interpersonal engagement: Assume good intent until proven otherwise. The failure to use the correct pronouns or a decision to vote for Donald Trump says very little about someone's motivations and beliefs, or about the importance attached to those actions. As curiosity replaces outrage, Currid-Halkett argues, we will be able to find the values that connect rather than the differences that divide.

The notion of falling behind is a way to excuse attitudes.

Posted by orrinj at 6:04 AM


Donald Trump's thrill ride is nearly over -- but the media refuses to let go: What if we told America the truth about Donald Trump? He's a fraud, a cheat and a rapist, facing 91 felony counts (BRIAN KAREM, SEPTEMBER 28, 2023 Salon)

I take no joy in saying this, but we in the press are moral cowards.

Last Friday, former President Donald Trump called for the execution of U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, branding him a traitor. This was because Milley told his Chinese counterparts, toward the end of the Trump administration, that the U.S. was not planning to invade China and start World War III. In other words, Milley reiterated official U.S. policy since the end of World War II, which Trump is apparently unaware that we won. But forgive him: He also seems to think Jeb Bush was president.

A few days later, our actual president, Joe Biden, made history by standing on a picket line with striking UAW members in Michigan. 

We in the press didn't tell you much about that, but we wasted airtime, pixels and ink reporting that Trump calls himself "pro-worker" -- though there is no evidence of that to be found anywhere. We also told you that Biden wears tennis shoes. We pretty much ignored Trump's threat against the chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- who Trump himself appointed, by the way. We have also done minimal reporting on the New York judge who imposed the "corporate death penalty" on Trump's business enterprises this week and may end up confiscating Trump's property, after issuing a summary judgment that Trump's companies actively engaged in fraud over many years. 

...and he sells papers.

September 28, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Conservatism and Identity Politics: A Review of George Hawley's Conservatism in a Divided America (Kody Wayne Cooper, 9/27/23, Public Discourse)

[F]usionist conservatism was quickly faced with internal tensions or contradictions and the prospect of disintegration after the defeat of the Soviet menace. The more traditionalist or "paleo" conservatives like Pat Buchanan lambasted the free trade and open border policies promoted by the classical liberals as economically and culturally destructive of America. And paleocons were increasingly critical of the next generation of neocons' apparent desire for American-led liberal hegemony. In this light, the election of Donald Trump represented not only a backlash against the cultural aggression of the Left, but also a resurgence of paleocon ideas, which have found new theoretical life and expression in national conservatism.

...but, having won that war, they naturally returned to "the others."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


A Yom Kippur sermon warns American Jews of Israel's growing messianic rule (Yonat Shimron, 9/27/23, RNS)

Until recently, American rabbis have rarely criticized Israel, mostly because any critique is bound to offend members who view the country reverently. Many American Jews see Israel as core to their spiritual identity and pray for Israel's security at every Shabbat service. They visit frequently and fund various causes in the country through charitable donations.

These commitments have begun to waver since late December, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assembled a governing coalition that was anchored by ultranationalist parties. Its first bid was to take greater control of the judiciary, passing a law in July that limits the Israeli Supreme Court's ability to overturn decisions made by the government.

Thousands of Israelis have flooded the streets in weekly protests exhorting crowds against the government and what they see as a grave challenge to Israel's democracy.

But Brous identified the source of the tumor growing in Israel's government as the 56-year occupation of Palestinian lands, which many of the government's ministers believe were promised to Israel by God. 

"Many of us have spent years trying not to look," Brous said of the occupation, in part because Jews feared any criticism of Israel would fuel rising antisemitism. But Jews, she told her congregation, can be victimizers as well as victims.

Anti-Apartheid is not Anti-Semitic.

September 27, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 7:12 PM


The big idea: could we use music like medicine?: We know that music influences our emotions, but could it improve physical health too? (David Robson, 18 Sep 2023, The Guardian)

The idea that melodies can comfort a troubled soul has ancient origins. Jewish scripture reports that Saul would be visited by an evil spirit that made him depressed, upon which he would call for David to soothe him with his lyre. "David would take the lyre and play it; Saul would find relief and feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him."

The academic literature tends to distinguish "music medicine" from "music therapy". The latter requires the participation of a trained expert and may involve playing an instrument, composing or improvising. Music medicine is far easier to roll out: it involves listening to recorded music and can be done by yourself.

As you might expect, the creative expression of music therapy produces the most consistent benefits, but multiple studies confirm that the mere act of listening can be an effective treatment for symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and physical pain. Two trials have even found that a regular prescription of music can reduce the blood pressure of people with hypertension by 6mmHg. That's enough to lower the risk of a stroke by 13%.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


Judge Rules Trump Committed Fraud, Stripping Control of Key Properties (NY Times, September 26, 2023)

While the trial will determine the size of the penalty, Justice Engoron's ruling granted one of the biggest punishments Ms. James sought: the cancellation of business certificates that allow some of Mr. Trump's New York properties to operate, a move that could have major repercussions for the Trump family business.

The decision could terminate his control over a flagship commercial property at 40 Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and a family estate in Westchester County. Mr. Trump might also lose control over his other New York properties, including Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan and his golf club in Westchester.

The order will not dissolve Mr. Trump's company, which is a collection of hundreds of entities, but the decision could nonetheless have a sweeping impact on the heart of its New York operations. 

It was kind of fun when Never Trumpers pretended this was a weak case so they could seem judicious.  

September 26, 2023

Posted by orrinj at 5:12 PM


In depression treatment trials, placebo effect is growing stronger: As with placebo pills, time is making placebo magnetic stimulation more effective. (JOHN TIMMER, 9/26/2023, Ars Technica)

When it comes to depression, however, placebos have been acting a bit strange over the past few decades: They've been getting more potent since at least the 1980s. A number of studies have shown this is the case for pill-based placebos, and a few have hinted that it applies to transcranial magnetic stimulation as well. The new study aims to be a comprehensive meta-analysis that's large enough to both test whether the improvement really exists, and to figure out if it's associated with any specific types of study.

The researchers started with a pool of over 2,700 individual studies that used transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat depression. After selecting for high-quality clinical trial data that included randomization and blinding, they were left with only 52 trials and a total of 4,500 participants, about half of which received a placebo treatment.

These placebos always involved hardware, but the hardware could be either inoperative or mis-directed. The non-placebo treatments included a variety of different transcranial magnetic stimulation approaches.

Since you can't really do a placebo control for a placebo, the work simply focused on whether the participants reported improvements in their conditions. And, in fact, the placebos did, pretty consistently, although the actual treatment typically had a larger effect. (Using a measure called the "response magnitude," the placebo was rated at 24 percent, while the actual treatment hit 38 percent.)

To look into whether things were changing over time, the researchers divided the trials up into two batches, one covering the years between 1999 and 2007, and a second covering 2018 to 2022. The effect of both the placebo and the treatment went up over time. The two, however, went up in parallel, so the change didn't affect the trial outcomes.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


The Republican case against Biden takes a body blow ... from Fox News (Philip Bump, September 25, 2023, Washington Post)

Kilmeade began by speaking with the former Ukrainian president -- defeated by Zelensky in the country's 2019 election -- about the war in Russia. He then transitioned to the interview with Shokin, who'd referred to Poroshenko as his friend.

He played a clip from the Shokin interview in which the former prosecutor claimed that "Poroshenko fired me at the insistence of the then-vice-president Biden because I was investigating Burisma. ... There were no complaints whatsoever, no problems with how I was performing at my job. But because pressure was repeatedly put on President Poroshenko, that is what ended up in him firing me."

This is patently untrue, as has been established repeatedly. But Kilmeade presented it to Poroshenko as possible, asking if that is, in fact, why Shokin was fired.

"First of all, this is the completely crazy person," Poroshenko began. "This is something wrong with him."

"Second," the nonnative English speaker continued, "there is no one single word of truth. And third, I hate the idea to make any comments and to make any intervention in the American election." He asked that Kilmeade "not use such person like Shokin to undermine the trust between bipartisan support and Ukraine."

"He's not your friend?" Kilmeade asked.

"I don't see him -- maybe four years or something," Poroshenko replied. "At all. And I hate the idea to have him because he play very dirty game, unfortunately."

"Okay, so that is not true," Kilmeade continued. "He didn't get fired because of Joe Biden." Poroshenko confirmed that he did not, saying that Shokin was fired "for his own statement."

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


'Art is anything you can get away with' (Jeff Jacoby, 9/25/23, The Boston Globe)

More than 50 years ago, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously declared (in an aphorism often misattributed to Andy Warhol): "Art is anything you can get away with." For nearly the whole history of human creativity, of course, that wasn't true. Talent and skill were required to produce works regarded as art, and artistic greatness required striving for truth or excellence or beauty.

But over the past century, as critics, collectors, and academics genuflected ever more reverently before works that amounted to mere stunts, gimmicks, or provocations, "art" really did come to be anything the artist could get away with. A banana duct-taped to an art gallery's wall made headlines in 2019 when it sold for $120,000. But such antics are now legion in arts circles.

At the Manchester Art Gallery in Great Britain, a wadded-up sheet of paper is displayed in a glass case and identified as "Work No. 88″ by the English artist Martin Creed. The museum has recorded a video in which a staff member explains the significance of displaying something so insignificant. "You might come across this," she says, "and feel frustrated and think: Why is that there? Why is that considered to be art? But that response is also valuable; it's also a creative response that can't happen if this work hadn't been made."

By such logic, what wouldn't qualify as display-worthy art? In recent years, museums have exhibited "art" involving pieces of dung, individuals throwing up, an American flag on the floor to be walked on, a plank of wood painted black and propped against a wall, and a messy unmade bed. As far back as 1917, Marcel Duchamp conceived of submitting a porcelain urinal, titled "Fountain," to a New York exhibition staged by the Society of Independent Artists. To their credit, the society's directors refused to display the item, regarding it as rude. A century later, anything goes -- the ruder (or sillier or dumber or shallower), the better. Art is anything you can get away with.

Introducing subjectivity to "art" was always headed here.  Ideology is not beautiful.

Posted by orrinj at 12:00 AM


After the Fall (Hillel Halkin, Fall 2023, Jewish Review of Books)

The demonstrators are all ages. One sees grandparents, parents, and children side by side. Nearly all belong to what can be called secular Israel, keeping in mind that many secular Israelis observe some Jewish rituals in their homes; kippot and other signs of strict religious observance are rare. Few of the protesters have been involved in political activity before. They are not demonstrating for a cause or ideology. They have turned out week after week because they fear that the alliance of an indicted prime minister, brainless and spineless politicians, fundamentalist rabbis, Land of Israel zealots, and Kahanist
xenophobes that is now running the country they live in and love will make it unlivable.

And they have succeeded. When Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his judicial reform plan to the Knesset on January 4, it contained four main planks: the abolition of the courts' right to strike down legislation or executive action as "unreasonable"; an "override clause" that would empower the Knesset to reverse court decisions by a simple majority vote; a change in the composition of Israel's Judicial Selection Committee that would give the elected government control of the appointment of all judges; and the demotion of the attorney general's office to a merely advisory body whose representatives could be fired at will and whose legal opinions, hitherto binding on the government's ministries, could be freely ignored. These measures would have allowed the Knesset and government to pass any law and issue any edict without effective judicial review or restraint, and ultimately, to pack the courts with subservient judges, as has been done in once-democratic countries such as Poland and Hungary.

It has been argued by proponents of the reforms that they are less drastic than claimed and are needed to correct imbalances created by an activist High Court that has for years exceeded its legitimate mandate. There is something to be said for this. Israel's High Court has indeed allowed itself to rule on issues that do not generally reach other such courts and to judge them by standards that few other courts would apply. Although the High Court has sometimes been drawn into vacuums created by government or Knesset inaction, it is admittedly problematic when, say, a court decides that a democratically elected government has behaved "unreasonably" rather than illegally. Yet is it any less problematic when a democratically elected government regularly flouts democratic norms by such acts as appointing a twice-convicted felon as its minister of the interior or an outspoken racist with a long record of inciting and defending violence to head its ministry in charge of the police? Does not the public need to be protected, whether by the courts or ministerial legal advisers with real powers, from a government like Benjamin Netanyahu's, even if it has elected it?

In the end, the Netanyahu government backed down from its original plan to ram Levin's entire package of reforms through the Knesset by the end of the latter's summer session and put only one of its proposals, revocation of the "reasonableness" criterion, up for a vote--and even that was approved in a watered-down version that applies to the decisions of cabinet ministers alone and not, as originally planned, to those of lesser officials as well. This retreat was due to the demonstrators.

Not just due to them, of course. Viewed narrowly, it was not due to them at all, since what caused the government to backpedal were other things: the threat of striking reservists; warnings by Israel's business elite of a severe economic downturn; a flight of capital from the country; a consequent plunge in the value of the shekel; the beginnings of a relocation abroad of Israel's vaunted high-tech sector; a possible downgrade of its credit rating; the worried reaction of foreign countries, particularly the United States; and public opinion polls showing part of the coalition's Likud electoral base turning against it. Netanyahu and his partners could put on a brave face and declare that all this would pass once it was realized that they meant to stand their ground, but they were scared by it and rightly so.

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