The New Age of Tragedy – New Statesman
Good article, with contributions from Robert Kaplan, Helen Thompson and John Gray.
Faith that creative human agency can triumph over nature’s limits has been a central feature of most modern political projects, not least liberalism. Missing the fact that technology cannot create energy, this conviction has long proved overly sanguine. Those who assume that the political world can be reconstructed by the efforts of human will have never before had to bet so much on technology over energy as the driver of our material advancement.
We are now a long way removed from the revolutionary hopes of the 19th and 20th centuries that the transformation of collective life would mean the complete development of all natural resources and an end to scarcity
Robert D Kaplan
To keep from destroying ourselves in this Malthusian world, we will have to husband fear without being immobilised by it. We cannot assume that technology will come to the rescue of every dilemma. The Ancient Greeks argued that no man is lucky until he is dead, since catastrophe can befall any of us at any moment. To carry that over into humanity at large, we should not assume that catastrophe cannot befall us at any moment or in any historical period. That is, we will need to think tragically in order to avoid tragedy. And precisely because our civilisation is rubbing up against limits of resources and space, such tragic thinking is more vital than ever before. (Robert D Kaplan)
Yet, it is less in evidence. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in Britain are technocrats in spirit and background, and technocrats assume there is a solution to every problem, which leads to a certain arrogance. Meanwhile, the American political elite is more ideological than ever before, and this leads to another form of arrogance; the world’s problems will not go away if only all of humanity became democratic – as the American elite seems to believe.
I fear that the elites in both Britain and the US will have to learn about tragedy the hard way, by actually living it, due to their failures in seeing it ahead of time.
From the editorial:
Mr Kaplan’s recent book The Tragic Mind is an attempt to grapple with his past support for the Iraq War, which led him to suffer clinical depression for years afterwards. Having visited Fallujah in 2004 and found anarchy far worse than Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, he concluded: “I had failed my test as a realist… I helped promote a war in Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.”
It’s bleak out there.
Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite · Puny Rump: Sick Notes · LRB 13 April 2023
In a debate on the Labour government’s plans for National Insurance in 1946, Beveridge said that it ‘did frankly send a chill to my heart to realise that it was contemplated that the only way in which most people would get their sickness benefit would be through the post.’ Working through friendly societies would guard against malingering, but it would also make the system more humane: ‘I am not going to say a word … to suggest that civil servants are not human … But while civil servants are perfectly human, the unfortunate fact is that anything as big as the civil service, merely because of its size, tends to become inhuman.’
Gosh, Mr Raab.
Blat, the Soviet art of getting by, comes to Britain | The Economist
But it is also corrosive. Blat compounded the inefficiencies of the Soviet system and rendered its boasts ridiculous. It does the same in Britain. Nine in ten dentists have no space for new nhs patients, yet the nhs website boldly declares that it will “provide any clinically necessary treatment needed to keep your mouth, teeth and gums healthy and free of pain”. This is fiction fit for a May Day banner. Blat is a declaration of distrust in a system that only sometimes does what it promises. To queue is to be taken for a fool. Better to shed that English reserve, and push to the front.
Metamorphosis — a magical memoir of a life in pieces | Financial Times
We all have trapdoors in our lives,” says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst on the opening page of his memoir, Metamorphosis: A Life in Pieces. His own trapdoor opened on a visit to a neurologist’s office in 2017. Sometimes, as he points out, we escape: the car swerves, we turn away from an argument. The terrible moment eventually comes for us all, though, and we are “on the trapdoor when the lever is pulled”.
From a review.
Former US mental-health tsar calls for a care overhaul
A kidnapper holds a psychiatrist and a cardiologist hostage. He pledges to release the one who has done most for humanity — and shoot the other. The cardiologist explains that drugs and procedures in her field have saved millions of lives. The psychiatrist begins ruminatively: “The thing is … the brain is the most complicated organ in the body.” “I can’t listen to this again,” says the cardiologist. “Shoot me now.”
This is one of the jokes that Thomas Insel, former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), scatters through early chapters of Healing, his probing analysis of what has gone so wrong with the treatment of people with mental illness in the United States.
Another telling quote
US prisons hold ten times as many people with severe mental illness as do state psychiatric hospitals.
Augar response: ‘highest earners benefit’ in student loan revamp | Times Higher Education (THE)
The DfE also said ministers would be announcing “almost £900 million of new investment in our fantastic HE system over the next three years”, including “£300 million of recurrent funding and a total of £450 million in capital funding over the next three years to support high quality teaching and new state of the art facilities, which we will ask the Office for Students (OfS) to distribute through the Strategic Priorities Grant (SPG).
“This funding will be used to drive up provision that the nation needs, including science and engineering courses, courses to support the NHS, and shorter degree alternatives focused on developing the right skills for our dynamic economy. [emphases mine]
“Oh, to be 80 again!”
A comment from just a few years back.
Edward Osborne Wilson, who wrote extensively on ants and popularized the field of sociobiology, died on 26 December 2021 at age 92.
Homeschooling has revealed the absurdity of England’s national curriculum – Prospect Magazine
Part of the problem is that “knowledge” has been incorrectly defined as “grammatical concepts.” Children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce tells me he has done readings in primary schools where the teacher says afterwards: “Now class, let’s identify the wow words, connectives and metaphors that Frank is using here.” This is not the fault of teachers: “I see amazing work all the time,” he says, “but it’s in the teeth of what they’re asked to do—they’re having to gouge moments out of the day and twist the curriculum to be able to do it.”
Cottrell-Boyce believes the value of listening to stories is being missed. “It’s a strange thing for a writer to say,” he tells me, “but I think we really overvalue writing”. A lot of the writing that’s done in the classroom is to create some physical entity that can be assessed. It has no intrinsic value apart from the testing—and kids know that.” [emphasis added]
I was just going to say: some people seem to hate children — and it is not the teachers. But it is more than that: some people just seem to hate the idea of childhood.
A climber’s story evokes classic mountaineering literature | The Economist
Though most celebrated mountaineers have been men, many of the best books about climbing are by women. Ms Fleming pays tribute to perhaps the greatest of all mountain writers, Nan Shepherd, the Scottish author of “The Living Mountain” (written in the 1940s but not published until 1977). Part memoir, part Buddhism-inflected meditation, Shepherd’s work influences both Ms Fleming’s prose and her approach to mountain life. “The thing to be known grows with the knowing,” Shepherd thought, a conviction reflected in Ms Fleming’s attitude to the mountains she scales. “We shape the rock,” she says, and “the rock shapes us”. [emphasis added]
A motto not to be confused with learning outcomes.
The government thinks if you pump up UK science with a verbal diarrhoea of optimism – it can somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Andre Geim of the University of Manchester
Covid PCR tests: at least 43,000 in UK may have had false negatives | Coronavirus | The Guardian
What a great name for a public health doc?
Dr Will Welfare, the public health incident director at UKHSA, said: “There is no evidence of any faults with LFD or PCR test kits themselves and the public should remain confident in using them and in other laboratory services currently provided.”
The Government is telling the world that it is fighting night and day to save Christmas, in September. Don’t you find that the fight to save Christmas starts earlier every year? I know I do. But what message does that send? Things are so bad, putting a turkey on the table in three months time, is now top of the government’s agenda.
Jonty’s jottings, Jonty Bloom
The next five years will be worse for English universities than the past five years have been. And the five after that could be worse still.
Alison Wolf writing in 2015. And don’t think this is all to do with Covid.
Can higher education’s golden age of plenty continue? | Times Higher Education (THE)
Things will be even quieter here than usual. Summer is here, and I have some long form writing to do. Take a break.
Which living thing is the best ‘mascot’ for long-term thinking? – The Long-termist’s Field Guide
Perhaps the most famous one is about the oaks of New College, Oxford. The tale goes that, sometime in the 1800s, officials realised they needed replacement beams for their main hall. To their surprise, they discovered that the college’s founders had planted a grove of oaks in the 1300s to supply the job. The story is often told to illustrate the virtues of long-term planning – even the former British Prime Minister David Cameron recounted it once during a Tory party conference speech. However, it is apocryphal. “I am amazed that this myth still continues: long-term tenacity if not long-term thinking,” the college archivist Jennifer Thorp once told me.
Such a shame. I always loved the story.
Thoroughbred horses are increasingly inbred | The Economist
Superstar sires “cover”, as horsey types call mating, over 200 mares per year, up from 40 in Northern Dancer’s day.
At first, horse breeders did not consider inbreeding a problem. On the contrary: horses, like maidens, were better when purer. Within a century of the arrival of those three stallions, it was decided that the job of perfecting the horse had been done so well that the stud book was closed to new entrants. Aristocrats policed the parentage of their horses, listing their dams and sires in Weatherbys stud book. In 1826 Burke’s Peerage appeared, allowing aristocrats to do much the same for themselves. Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, recommended that “no time ought to be lost” in instituting a human equivalent to the stud book, to record not class, but fitness and form.
Eugenics has fallen out of fashion. The horsey equivalent has not. Thoroughbreds can earn far more from propagating their race than from running races. At the National Stud, one commands a fee of £25,000 ($35,000) for a cover. Galileo, among the world’s finest stallions, is rumoured to command £600,000 a pop.
Such fees make the very best thoroughbred semen one of the world’s most expensive substances, at around £6m a litre.
An article available online today in the Times Higher. The answer of course is:
Yes, but not as we know it, Jim.
The Times Higher has a good summary of what I am trying to get across.
Does the UK need a radical shake-up of its medical schools? asks Jonathan Rees, emeritus professor of dermatology at the University of Edinburgh. Currently, they have three roles, which pull them in different directions: educating students, providing clinical leadership, and conducting academic research. But medical researchers are drifting away from treating real patients, or even lecturing to students, to pursue the pure research that best serves their careers – and the league table positions of their universities. Medical schools should focus on teaching “foundational knowledge and intellectual skills” for three years, but then medics should complete their training as full employees, Rees argues.
An opening shot from the Adam Curtis series of films on BBC iPlayer. Wouldn’t it be nice if we acted as if Graeber was right.
‘This is a secular age,’ replies [Professor] Godwin. ‘You cannot turn back the clock. You cannot condemn an institution for moving with the times.’
‘By an institution you mean the university?’
‘Yes, universities, but specifically faculties of humanities, which remain the core of any university.’
The humanities the core of the university. She [Elizabeth Costello] may be an outsider, but if she were asked to name the core of the university today, its core discipline, she would say it was moneymaking. That is how it looks from Melbourne, Victoria…
JM Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (2003, p. 125), quoted here
To Hell with Unity | by Fintan O’Toole | The New York Review of Books
We are at a historic juncture in which being a safe pair of hands does not mean playing it safe.
mainly macro: Why are the Conservatives so bad at running the economy?(Simon Wren-Lewis)
Why do Conservative Chancellors keep making mistakes? I think it’s a combination of three things. The first is a lack of respect for academic economists and their received wisdom. The second is the search for popularity and election success. The third is ideology. Let’s go through this short history looking at all three.
29th March 2021. Fashion | Debt — Just Two Things
The story is about the high environmental costs of much of the fashion industry, and why making second-hand purchases ‘trendy’ might be ‘useful’ strategically (my wife and her family have led the field for decades).
Not that everyone is going down this road. Chanel, in contrast, has taken the resale platform The RealReal to court, claiming that its stores are the only places qualified to sell authentic Chanel. I’m not sure that’s a position that’s going to survive. [emphasis added]
Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli — a brief lesson on quantum physics | Financial Times
The greatest populariser of physics today, Carlo Rovelli, prepares readers of his new book for this familiar fate when he warns that if “what I have described seems perfectly clear, then it means I have not been clear enough about it.”
The winds of change originate in the unconscious minds of domain experts.
But we are increasingly less tolerant of domain expertise favouring, instead, dismal generic skills.
Marcel Proust quote: For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke…
For each illness that doctors cure with medicine, they provoke ten in healthy people by inoculating them with the virus that is a thousand times more powerful than any microbe: the idea that one is ill.
Another terrific post from Scott Galloway.
I’m Not Done Yet! | No Mercy / No Malice
The capital structure of private firms is meant to balance upside and downside. CNBC/Trump want to protect current equity holders at the expense of future generations with rescue packages that explode the deficit. They also want to protect airlines, who spent $45 billion on buybacks and now want a $54 billion bailout, disincentivizing other firms (e.g., Berkshire Hathaway) that have built huge cash piles foregoing current returns. [Ed. note: Airlines ultimately received approximately $50 billion.]
The rescue package should protect people, not businesses. From 2017 to 2019, the CEOs of Delta, American, United, and Carnival Cruises earned over $150 million in compensation. But, now … “We’re in this together” (i.e., “bail our asses out”).
He goes on:
Since 2000, U.S. airlines have declared bankruptcy 66 times. Despite the obvious vulnerability of the sector, boards/CEOs of the six largest airlines have spent 96 percent of their free cash flow on share buybacks, bolstering the share price and compensation of management … who now want a bailout. They should be allowed to fail. Bondholders will own the firms. Ships and planes will continue to float and fly, and there will still be a steel tube with recirculated air waiting for you post-molestation by Roy from TSA.
Patrick Collison has a Few Questions for Tyler (Ep. 21 — Live at Stripe) | by Mercatus Center | Conversations with Tyler | Medium
TYLER COWEN: Frank Knight once said something wise, maybe overstated, but he said, “The main function of economics was to offset the stupid theorizing of other people.” So it’s very useful as a form of discipline. And economics is a way of thinking — it’s very useful for inoculating you against other kinds of mistakes, even though in some ways, it may be a mistake itself.
Chegg: a $12 billion headache for academic integrity? | Times Higher Education (THE)
Chegg is a site that provides different types of educational material. But it also has a facility that allows students to fire off a question and get an answer within…well, the timeframe of some online exams.
Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, agreed. While the site was not a typical essay mill – where students pay for someone else to write an essay for them – it “falls squarely into what we have referred to in our research as a ‘place where students outsource their learning’” [emphasis added].
A deeper problem, IMHO, is the impersonal nature of higher education, and the lack of knowledge by the faculty of student achievement.
Half a dozen little 2021 predictions about life after COVID-19 | I, Cringely
The pandemic of 1918 was ended by social distancing, hand washing, and face masks. The fact that we forgot at first the importance of face masks shows just how far beyond the Spanish Flu we were able to get in 100 years — far enough to forget how to save our own lives. The current pandemic is receding thanks to social distancing, hand washing, face masks, and vaccines. Vaccines are the technology that wasn’t available in 1918 and are what will keep our total death rate below 1918’s 0.65 percent. By the way, 0.65 percent of 331 million would be 2,151,500 deaths. If we can get out of this thing with only the loss of, say, 900,000 people (that’s my guess) then vaccines will have saved 1.25 million lives.
This graph is from the Economist. The article is titled English higher education’s value-for-money problem. Indeed.
All is not well.
The story of our time.
As the only child of a single immigrant mother who lived and died a secretary, I used to think I was self-made. But the truth is that I’m American-made and have benefited from a time and place of unprecedented prosperity, which dampened my failures and bolstered my successes.
To be sure, I work hard. But none of my ventures would have been possible without California’s public-education system, where I went to primary school, university and business school from the 1970s to 1990s for a total of $10,000. I entered as an unremarkable, lower-middle-class kid. I left with credentials, a network and my first startup. Without the generosity of California’s taxpayers, and being born in the right demographic (white, male), I’d probably still be installing shelving—my job until UCLA accepted my second undergrad application.
GLOBAL: What are universities for?
This is a quote from 2009 by Geoffrey Boulton, a former Vice Principal in Edinburgh.
We should be careful not to foist on universities tasks which they may be ill-equipped for and which, if too actively pursued, could damage their ability to deliver what they are uniquely able to deliver in terms of education and innovation. We need only look at banks to see the consequences of excessive and ill-conceived diversification. Let us not follow them. [emphasis added]
The analogy is an arresting one. Not certain how many were listening. The multiversity comes with great costs.
Science is all about finding broad underlying theories that unite apparent differences. It is not a looseleaf book full of facts. But sometimes mere facts are so adamantine that they stop you in your tracks and make you smile or even gasp out loud. Think of Erwin Chargraff and his observation that the ratios of guanine to cytosine and of adenine to thymine are both unity. What limits that placed on the search space for the structure of DNA.
Laying in bed early one morning at the weekend I came across a not so grand fact. I was listening to a Talking Politics podcast in which David Runciman and Helen Thompson were joined by two Irish historians, Niamh Gallagher and Richard Bourke. The topic was the state of the UK union, and Ireland. The discussion meandered in and around some unique characteristics of Irish demography (at least in terms of European states).
Ireland’s population was greater in the mid 1840s that it is now. Perhaps one million souls starved to death in the famine, and maybe two million emigrated in the same decade. The population of eight million was reduced by close to 50%. The population today is just short five million. This much I knew already.
But what made me sit up with surprise was the relative populations of England and Ireland at the time of the Act of Union in 1801. Ireland’s population was about five million whereas England’s was only eight million. So, this pacification was undertaken by a country only slightly larger (in absolute terms).
YMMV, and the discovery of a fact is, in one sense, always personal, but this made me pause the podcast, jump out of bed, and gasp. How much of my inferred world is as mistaken as this example reveals it to be.
At my door this morning. Calm and collected. I didn’t hear any knocking.
This is a slide from a John Kay talk. It is a few years old but the message resonates more than ever.