Digest: 26 May 2014
In Judging Spinoza, Steven Nadler (for The New York Times) discusses how Baruch Spinoza’s excommunication from the Portuguese Jewish community in 1656 has withstood even recent efforts to have it rescinded. This may be for good reason – he is dead and so has no need to be reintegrated into the community, he would likely have no interest in whether it was rescinded or not, and for it to be rescinded there must be a showing of regret and repentance which he cannot now give and which he had no intention of giving when still alive. His ongoing excommunication gives rise to the question of whether organized religion makes a mistake in adhering rigidly to conformity of belief (as distinguished from conformity of action) where it may deprive the devoted of the opportunity to experience the sort of enlightening metaphysical exploration that Spinoza achieved, a direct experience of God and the attendant realization of applied principle that such exploration may provide.
In Europe’s Secret Success, Paul Krugman (for The New York Times) discusses how despite the bad press Europe’s economy receives in the US for having high taxes and generous welfare programs, it is actually doing better at job creation than the US. In the past, Europe has had problems with job creation, but currently France’s employment of prime age workers are substantially more likely to be employed than those in the US, and the difference is even more pronounced in other European countries with similarly generous social programs. Essentially, programs which in the US are typically considered to be job destroying are correlating with higher employment. US economic philosophy has failed to take this adequately into account.
In Three Questions with the Man Leading Baidu’s New AI Effort, Adam Coates (for MIT Technology Review) discusses China’s advances in the development of artificial neural networks with Tom Simonite, the man leading the work at the Chinese web giant Baidu. Simonite discusses the Google Brain effort and its failure to achieve human performance at detecting human faces. Current artificial neural networks are unable to think for themselves, so they have a difficult time with the comprehension of the patterns we rely on to recognize one object as being a member of a class – “Human beings do not have to see a million cats to understand what one is”. Larger networks are necessary but insufficient in increasing the ability for computers to think for themselves.
In The Information Wars, Philip Giraldi (for Al Jazeera) discusses US attempts to control information in the aftermath of Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden. The Pentagon, White House and Air Force have all taken action to prevent their employees from accessing Wikileaks derived information online despite confirming the accuracy of the Wikileaks information contained in New York Times articles for example. Giraldi, himself a former military intelligence and CIA officer, points out that “[w]hile few would argue that there are legitimate secrets, … in some cases at least classification is used to conceal either illegal activity or actions that might widely be condemned as inappropriate if they had been revealed to the public.” The clearance process used to consider whether a publication of sensitive material should be allowed seems to allow works that praise the government far more easily than those that might be considered critical.
In Russia Looks East, Christopher R. Hill (for Project Syndicate) discusses some potential pitfalls in Russia’s shift of interest to China. In light of a currently complicated relationship with the West, Russia stands to gain from selling gas to China. However, China is not necessarily the boon that Russia is seeking. While China is not so touchy as the West on political and human rights questions, there are sufficient complications in China’s situation to make economic relations awkward. These complications include “restive western provinces, civil military tensions, environmental issues, and problems with a growing number of neighbors.” One victim of ongoing difficult relations is the possibility of international agreement on important regional and global issues. China has enough on its plate already and will likely wish to avoid entangling itself in Putin’s grandiose dreams.
In Treacherous Triangle, David Gordon and Jordan Schneider (for Foreign Affairs) discuss the shifting relationship between the US, Russia, and China. In the Cold War, China and the USSR were at odds and the US was able to take advantage of that by nestling a little closer to China, further ostracizing the USSR. Now as a result of US/Russian tensions it is China that has the advantage, being able to play one side off the other. Already China’s bargaining strength has been made apparent in its recent gas deal with Russia, in which it was able to secure highly favorable terms – gas prices below market value. The positions of the US and USSR are not entirely analogous – the US has a degree of military, financial and political strength the USSR did not have, but that won’t stop China from doing all it can to take advantage of its windfall.
In Faking Cultural Literacy, Karl Taro Greenfield (for The New York Times) discusses the effect of modern mobile and social network technology on cultural literacy. He argues that these days we all feel the need to know about everything without feeling the need to actually read or see or otherwise actually know anything about what it is we are talking about. Six in ten Americans do not read more than news headlines according to a recent American Press Institute survey. Instead, we skim headlines, breeze through opinions of friends on Facebook (who’ve probably not read anything either), and then share our opinions while providing telling notations like TL;DR – which [apparently] means: Too Long / Didn’t Read. But what turns up in our searches is governed by algorithms developed by companies, which means that what we know is increasingly governed by how many clicks something has received. Greenfield likens it to his first experience of Cliff Notes, which allowed him to avoid reading A Tale of Two Cities. The ability to mine the book directly for specific information requested on examination meant it was unnecessary to become immersed in the cultural document itself – he received a B without ever having read the work.
In The Truth About Race in America: It’s Getting Worse, Not Better, Gary Younge (for The Nation) discusses how despite the prominence in the US’s civic religion of the importance of progress, race equality in the US is digressing. It is not that progress has not been made – there is now a black president when only fifty years ago the US was an apartheid state. But the success of a few is not what the civil rights movement and Brown v Board of Education sought to achieve. The goal was equality, and in many areas the opposite development is taking place. The trend is not surprising, it is the result of specific policy choices.