A (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read – the first in an occasional series on Panademonium.
The Assassin’s Veto: Blasphemy and Charlie Hebdo
Myra MacDonald, War on the Rocks, 11 April 2016
You don’t need to like Charlie Hebdo. But you should asking why anyone should compromise with the most regressive forces in Islam represented by the men who killed cartoonists for blasphemy. It does a terrible disservice to Muslims to suggest they are all the same, with ‘all Muslims’ on one side and Charlie Hebdo on the other. Only a few decades ago, Muslim countries were far less culturally conservative and far less influenced by the politicization of religion. There is nothing permanent about today’s situation and nor is it intrinsic to Islam. Historically, Islam spread worldwide in part because of its openness to other cultures. Islamic scholarship contributed to the European Enlightenment. It is that openness to debate that should be encouraged; not those who want to shout down Charlie Hebdo.
Migration as a Killjoy,
Leo Lucassen, Comenius Lecture, April 2, 2016
There are striking parallels between past and present, but not everything has remained the same. From the nineteenth century, the established and the outsiders have become a national, sometimes even a European character. Not that these local identities disappeared herewith, as the protests against the refugee centres show, but nationalist feelings that are in the past century do undeniably play a larger role in our image of “others”. That has to do with the fact that states created much sharper boundaries between its citizens and foreigners. The question is then, when and why European countries started to check their borders and how they have done so. Why did authorities see certain groups of immigrants as an insurmountable problem and others not? The anxious and sometimes downright hostile responses to the arrival of refugees in Europe don’t stand alone and are only to be understood by looking at the years with increased uneasiness about migration. If we want to understand the current contradictions in the debate on refugees, we must first reflect on the historical roots of such emotions.
Kicked Out in America!
Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books, 11 March 2016
Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling. Crystal, who takes in Arleen, had parents on crack and got passed around to two dozen foster homes. She ends up homeless and prostituting herself, but never misses church. Pam has “a midwestern twang and a face cut from a high school yearbook photo.” But she is so desperate for housing that she tolerates a racist boyfriend who makes her biracial daughters chant “White power!” It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.
The Secret Rules of the Internet
Catherine Buni & Soraya Chemaly, The Verge
The moderators of these platforms — perched uneasily at the intersection of corporate profits, social responsibility, and human rights — have a powerful impact on free speech, government dissent, the shaping of social norms, user safety, and the meaning of privacy. What flagged content should be removed? Who decides what stays and why? What constitutes newsworthiness? Threat? Harm? When should law enforcement be involved?
The Hitchhikers Guide to Quantum Field Theory
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 13 April 2016
The fundamental problem we face when we try to visualize quantum behavior is how to describe what things are. Consider electrons, photons, and quarks. Are they particles or waves? We think of particles as pointlike things that have a definite location—small billiard balls, say. Waves, by contrast, ripple out through space and exhibit behavior such as diffraction and interference. But asking whether something is a particle or a wave is like asking whether Hobbes from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was an anthropomorphic tiger (as Calvin saw him) or a stuffed tiger toy (as everyone else saw him). Clearly, in the world of the comic strip, Hobbes was simply Hobbes: he had properties like anthropomorphic tigers and properties like stuffed animals, but he was his own thing, and fitting him into either category would miss some of Hobbes’s important properties, his intrinsic Hobbes-ness. Likewise, we should not ask whether an electron is a particle or a wave; it is its own thing. In particular, electrons are excitations of a particular quantum field—the electron field. In some situations an excitation can look like a particle, and in others it can act like a wave, but to force a quantum field into either of these categories would miss some of its intrinsic properties.
Gender – Good for Nothing
Lionel Shriver, Prospect, 21 April 2016
We are told that a trans woman may have been born a man, but “feels like” a woman. I do not mean to be perverse here, but I have no idea what it “feels like” to be a woman—and I am one. My having happened to be born female has always seemed a biological accident, mere luck (or lack thereof) of the genetic draw. Honestly, being female “feels like” it has nothing to do with me. I respect that some people may feel alienated from their bodies (as I age, I’m as alienated as could be; the “real me” does not have arthritic knees), and I realise I am getting myself into trouble here. Nevertheless, the whole trans movement does seem to have awfully to do with clothes. Especially in the male to female direction—and I am baffled why anyone would want to be female with any other option available—“feeling like” a woman seems to imply feeling like wearing mascara, heels, hair extensions, and stockings.
Be my guest. I don’t care what anyone wears. But I hate to break it to the converts to my sex: women who were born women schlep around most of the time in jeans and trainers. The version of femininity offered up by Caitlyn Jenner is foreign to me—exaggeratedly coiffed, buffed and corseted. It’s a parody of the female wholly composed of surfaces.
Notes on a Hoax
Justin Smith, 13 April 2016
It seems to me in other words that what this hoax exposes is not so much Badiou, or his gullible acolytes, but rather the dismal state of publishing today— or perhaps we should not dignify it in this way, and instead call it what it is: posting. The Journal of Badiou Studies is a website masquerading as an academic journal. It has an editorial board (of which Badiou himself is a merely ‘decorative’ member), but it is run rather more like the Huffington Post or, dare I say, The Guardian: it is a place that lets people deposit stuff they have written, and then call it a ‘publication’. In this respect it is not clear whether what Huneman and Barberousse have exposed is something much smaller, or much bigger, than what Sokal exposed twenty years ago. Sokal exposed an elite and illicit hot-air factory; the most recent hoax exposes something that we should all already know about but somehow need to be reminded of: there is no such thing as academia anymore, but only countless fly-by-night ventures ensuring that everyone gets to play along.
Why Physics is Not a Discipline
Philip Ball, Nautilus, 21 April 2016
The habit of physicists to praise peers for their ability to see to the “physics of the problem” might sound odd. What else would a physicist do but think about the “physics of the problem?” But therein lies a misunderstanding. What is being articulated here is an ability to look beyond mathematical descriptions or details of this or that interaction, and to work out the underlying concepts involved—often very general ones that can be expressed concisely in non-mathematical, perhaps even colloquial, language. Physics in this sense is not a fixed set of procedures, nor does it alight on a particular class of subject matter. It is a way of thinking about the world: a scheme that organizes cause and effect.
Still Tilting at Windmills
Stephan Phelan, Boston Review, 20 April 2016
He held up his copy of Don Quixote and asked how many of us had read it. A few of the kids raised their hands, while their parents muttered qualifiers about abridged or illustrated versions. Among the adults, a few more hands went up, with a communal laugh of embarrassment.