Geophysical Science Is Not Settled

(p. D2) Last year, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Africa erupted without warning.

. . .

Now, in a new study published this Wednesday [Aug. 31, 2022] in Nature, Delphine Smittarello, a geophysicist at the European Center for Geodynamics and Seismology in Walferdange, Luxembourg, and her colleagues articulated how the eruption managed to ambush everyone.

. . .

This sort of unannounced eruption offers scientists a harsh lesson: For every paradigm-shifting secret they extract from their mountainous subjects, “there are always things that we don’t understand,” said Emily Montgomery-Brown, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory who was not involved in the study. “It’s a good reminder not to get cocky.”

. . .

. . . it’s possible that we will never become perfect prophets of our volcanic futures. “There may be things we will never be able to forecast,” Dr. Montgomery-Brown said.

For the full story, see:

Robin George Andrews. “An Eruption That Forecasters Couldn’t Foresee.” The New York Times (Tuesday, September 6, 2022): D2.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version has the date Sept. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Volcano Erupted Without Warning. Now, Scientists Know Why.”)

The article in Nature mentioned above is:

Smittarello, D., B. Smets, J. Barrière, C. Michellier, A. Oth, T. Shreve, R. Grandin, N. Theys, H. Brenot, V. Cayol, P. Allard, C. Caudron, O. Chevrel, F. Darchambeau, P. de Buyl, L. Delhaye, D. Derauw, G. Ganci, H. Geirsson, E. Kamate Kaleghetso, J. Kambale Makundi, I. Kambale Nguomoja, C. Kasereka Mahinda, M. Kervyn, C. Kimanuka Ruriho, H. Le Mével, S. Molendijk, O. Namur, S. Poppe, M. Schmid, J. Subira, C. Wauthier, M. Yalire, N. d’Oreye, F. Kervyn, and A. Syavulisembo Muhindo. “Precursor-Free Eruption Triggered by Edifice Rupture at Nyiragongo Volcano.” Nature 609, no. 7925 (Sept. 1, 2022): 83-88.

(Note: the Sept. 1 issue of Nature was “published” on Aug. 31.)

The “Silly, Elitist,” and “Venal” in Modern Art

(p. A26) Suzi Gablik, an art critic, author and theorist who once championed modernism — and was once an artist of that persuasion — but found fame when she turned against it, died on May 7 [2022] at her home in Blacksburg, Va.

. . .

At the invitation of the United States government, she began to lecture about American art around the world, an experience that altered her thinking about contemporary art. It was not just daunting but embarrassing, as she wrote later, to try to describe “some of the aggressively absurd forms of art that dominated the decade of the 1970s in America: Vito Acconci putting a match to his breast and burning the hair of his chest; Chris Burden crawling half-naked across broken glass.”

She began to feel that modernism — her religion — had reached its limits. Its provocations were no longer transgressive but silly, elitist and even venal, having been co-opted by corporate sponsors and the growing art market. Her salvo of a book, “Has Modernism Failed?,” arrived with a bang in 1984, and all of a sudden she was a sought-after speaker in her own country, a dissident voice pilloried by some critics but welcomed by others.

. . .

Decrying the pointlessness and commercialism of contemporary art was hardly a new position — Tom Wolfe had gleefully staked it out in “The Painted Word,” in 1975 — but Ms. Gablik’s book nonetheless struck a chord.

For the full obituary, see:

Penelope Green. “Suzi Gablik, Art Critic and Author Who Took Modernism to Task, Dies at 87.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 21, 2022): A26.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 20, 2022, and has the title “Suzi Gablik, Art Critic Who Took Modernism to Task, Dies at 87.”)

Gablik’s “salvo” against modern art is:

Gablik, Suzi. Has Modernism Failed? Revised 2nd ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004 [1984].

As a student, I greatly annoyed one of my philosophy professors when I favorably quoted:

Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1975.

Kamoya Saw What Others Missed, Not by Magic, but by “An Invaluable Accumulation of Skill and Knowledge”

(p. A24) Kamoya Kimeu, the son of a goat herder whose preternatural gift for spotting and identifying petrified tibias, skull fragments and other ancient human remains among the arid, rocky badlands of East Africa won him acclaim as the world’s greatest fossil hunter, died on July 20 [2022] in Nairobi, Kenya.

. . .

“Digging human bones was associated with witchcraft,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 2009. “It was a taboo in African custom. But I was just a young adventurous man, eager to travel and discover things.”

The Leakeys, and especially Mary Leakey, Louis’s wife, soon recognized Mr. Kamoya’s aptitude, not just at finding fossils but identifying them; they began to offer him lessons in paleontology, evolutionary theory and excavating techniques.

“At the end of each day looking for fossil bones, I sat down with Louis Leakey, and he taught me to tell which bones belonged to which animal and how to tell if they were hominid, and people that led to us,” Mr. Kamoya told New African Magazine in 2000. “I asked: ‘How do you find them?’ He said, ‘It’s just luck. We can find them.’ Then I tried very hard. I was very keen. Then I started to find them.”

. . .

Mr. Kamoya’s most significant find came in 1984, on an expedition around Kenya’s Lake Turkana with Richard Leakey and Alan Walker, an anthropologist from Penn State.

One day Mr. Kamoya went out for a walk along the waterless Nariokotome River. Among the small stones and clumps of dirt he spotted what looked like a matchbook-size skull fragment — Homo erectus, he surmised, an extinct hominid species.

He radioed Mr. Leakey, who came to look. Soon the whole team was involved in a monthslong excavation that ultimately revealed a near-complete skeleton of a juvenile Homo erectus.

. . .

“To some of our visitors who are inexperienced in fossil-hunting, there is something almost magical in the way Kamoya or one of his team can walk up a slope that is apparently littered with nothing more than pebbles and pick up a small fragment of black, fossilized bone, announcing that it is, say, part of the upper forelimb of an antelope,” Richard Leakey told an interviewer with his family’s foundation in 2019. “It is not magic, but an invaluable accumulation of skill and knowledge.”

. . .

“Many people do not like this work because it is hard to understand,” he told The New York Times in 1995. “It is very hard work. It is very hot, walking and sitting with animals like mosquitoes, snakes, lions. I like looking.”

For the full obituary see:

Clay Risen. “Kamoya Kimeu Dies; Uncovered Treasures That Framed Evolution.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, Aug. 24, 2022): A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 1, 2022, and has the title “Kamoya Kimeu, Fossil-Hunting ‘Legend’ in East Africa, Is Dead.”)

Frank Capra Earned His Wings

When I was a college or graduate student, I once attended a conservative conference where one of the professors strongly criticized the film director Frank Capra for being too left-wing. I have always felt guilty that I did not have the courage to speak up in defense of my favorite director. Capra’s political views were not what mattered most about him. With good humor grace, and resilience, Capra saw the best within us.

(p. A19) Virginia Patton Moss, the last surviving adult member of the cast of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who, three years after that film was released, left Hollywood to find her own wonderful life raising a family in Ann Arbor, Mich., died on Aug. 18 [2022] in Albany, Ga. She was 97.

. . .

When reminiscing about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she spoke extensively about Mr. Capra and his message, delivered through the life of George Bailey, about the impact a single person’s life can have on his community.

“Capra knew we were coming out of a war, we were in terrible shape and there needed to be some type of stimulus,” she told the St. Nicholas Institute. She then rang a bell, which, in the film, signified that an angel had gotten its wings.

She added, “Go get ’em, Capra.”

For the full obituary see:

Richard Sandomir. “Virginia Patton Moss, 97, the Last Surviving Adult Cast Member of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.” The New York Times (Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated Sept. 1, 2022, and has the title “Virginia Patton Moss, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Actress, Dies at 97.”)

Freedom of Speech Matters “Above All Liberties”

(p. C14) Today, Milton is best known for “Paradise Lost.” Long before writing that epic poem about the fall of man, however, he was a polemicist who participated in the political controversies of his day.

. . .

A bill in Parliament demanded that printers receive government approval for their publications, in part to guard against the supposed heresies of Milton and his fellow authors. For Milton, this licensing scheme was an illiberal outrage—and he said so in “Areopagitica,” which is now widely regarded as the world’s first important essay in defense of free speech.

The 1644 treatise takes its peculiar name from the Areopagus, a rocky mount just below the Acropolis in Athens. The ancient Greeks gathered there for debates and trials. It’s also the site of Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. Milton presented his essay in the form of a speech, though he never delivered it. That’s probably just as well: At nearly 18,000 words, it would have taken about three hours.

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote Milton, in a line that has echoed across centuries.

. . .

A minor curiosity of “Areopagitica” is Milton’s brief mention of visiting “the famous Galileo grown old, a prisner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise then the Franciscan and Dominican licencers thought.” This is the only record of a meeting between the era’s greatest scribe and its greatest scientist, and it would have happened when Milton traveled to Italy in 1638.

For the full review, see:

John J. Miller. “MASTERPIECE; A Ringing Defense of Free Speech.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, May 07, 2022): C14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 6, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

A recent edition of Milton’s book is:

Milton, John. Areopagitica and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 2016.

A.I. Cannot Learn What 4-Year-Old Learns From Trial-And-Error Experiments

(p. C3) A few weeks ago a Google engineer got a lot of attention for a dramatic claim: He said that the company’s LaMDA system, an example of what’s known in artificial intelligence as a large language model, had become a sentient, intelligent being.

Large language models like LaMDA or San Francisco-based Open AI’s rival GPT-3 are remarkably good at generating coherent, convincing writing and conversations—convincing enough to fool the engineer. But they use a relatively simple technique to do it: The models see the first part of a text that someone has written and then try to predict which words are likely to come next. If a powerful computer does this billions of times with billions of texts generated by millions of people, the system can eventually produce a grammatical and plausible continuation to a new prompt or a question.

. . .

In what’s known as the classic “Turing test,” Alan Turing in 1950 suggested that if you couldn’t tell the difference in a typed conversation between a person and a computer, the computer might qualify as intelligent. Large language models are getting close. But Turing also proposed a more stringent test: For true intelligence, a computer should not only be able to talk about the world like a human adult—it should be able to learn about the world like a human child.

In my lab we created a new online environment to implement this second Turing test—an equal playing field for children and AI systems. We showed 4-year-olds on-screen machines that would light up when you put some combinations of virtual blocks on them but not others; different machines worked in different ways. The children had to figure out how the machines worked and say what to do to make them light up. The 4-year-olds experimented, and after a few trials they got the right answer. Then we gave state-of-the-art AI systems, including GPT-3 and other large language models, the same problem. The language models got a script that described each event the children saw and then we asked them to answer the same questions we asked the kids.

We thought the AI systems might be able to extract the right answer to this simple problem from all those billions of earlier words. But nobody in those giant text databases had seen our virtual colored-block machines before. In fact, GPT-3 bombed. Some other recent experiments had similar results. GPT-3, for all its articulate speech, can’t seem to solve cause-and-effect problems.

If you want to solve a new problem, googling it or going to the library may be a first step. But ultimately you have to experiment, the way the children did. GPT-3 can tell you what the most likely outcome of a story will be. But innovation, even for 4-year-olds, depends on the surprising and unexpected—on discovering unlikely outcomes, not predictable ones.

For the full commentary see:

Alison Gopnik. “What AI Still Doesn’t Know How To Do.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 16, 2022): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 15, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Spreading Smallpox Inoculation to Impress Voltaire

(p. A15) Dimsdale had been summoned by Catherine the Great to inoculate not only the empress herself but also her 13-year-old heir, the Grand Duke Paul.

. . .

As Lucy Ward dramatically relates in “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus,” Catherine’s invitation was a high-stakes affair, a testament to Dimsdale’s writings on the methodology of smallpox inoculation and his reputation for solicitous care. His Quaker upbringing had encouraged a brand of outcome- rather than ego-led practice.

. . .

As devastating as smallpox was, for the empress herself and the grand duke who would succeed her to personally undergo inoculation was a risk to both patient and doctor. On the success side stood immunity from the disease, an almost holy example for Catherine’s people, and as-yet-untold riches for her nervous doctor. On the other side, not only the fact that all Russia would refuse the treatment if their “Little Mother” died, but also a disaster for Dimsdale and the son who had accompanied him. Geopolitics came into play too—if things went wrong, some would interpret it as a foreign assassination.

. . .

With a happy result for her and her less-robust son, Catherine sets about publicizing the success. Dimsdale receives the equivalent of more than $20 million and a barony. Bronze medals are cast of Catherine’s profile, reading “She herself set an example.” It helps that Catherine was competitive beyond reason: “we have inoculated more people in a month than were inoculated in Vienna in eight,” she wrote to Voltaire, determined to beat Empress Maria Theresa’s efforts.

For the full review, see:

Catherine Ostler. “BOOKSHELF; Inoculate Conception.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, June 23, 2022): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated June 22, 2022, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Empress and the English Doctor’ Review: Inoculate Conception.”)

The book under review is:

Ward, Lucy. The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus. London, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2022.

The “Perceptually Divergent” Are Open to How Species Differ in Their Sensory Trade-Offs

(p. C1) That I found myself surprised at so many moments while reading “An Immense World,” Ed Yong’s new book about animal senses, speaks to his exceptional gifts as a storyteller — . . .

. . .

(p. C4) Yong’s book is funny and elegantly written, mercifully restrained when it comes to jargon, though he does introduce a helpful German word that he uses throughout: Umwelt. It means “environment,” but a little more than a century ago the Baltic German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll used it to refer more specifically to that sensory bubble — an animal’s perceptual world.

. . .

The human Umwelt will necessarily shape how we apprehend other Umwelten. “An Immense World” inevitably refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s foundational essay on this struggle, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

But some humans might be more open-minded than others. A number of the sensory biologists Yong meets are perceptually divergent, seeing color differently or having difficulty remembering familiar faces: “Perhaps people who experience the world in ways that are considered atypical,” he writes, “have an intuitive feeling for the limits of typicality.”

When it comes to sight, there’s a trade-off between sensitivity and resolution; humans tend to have extraordinary visual acuity during the day but have a much harder time seeing at night, while animals with better night vision don’t register the crisp images at a distance that we do. “Senses always come at a cost,” Yong writes. “No animal can sense everything well.” The world inundates us with stimuli. Registering some of it is taxing enough; fully processing the continuous deluge of it would be overwhelming.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “An Enthralling Tour Of Nonhuman Reality.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “‘An Immense World’ Is a Thrilling Tour of Nonhuman Perception.”)

The book under review is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

Most Journalists No Longer Aspire to Objectivity

(p. B1) In 1979, two journalists got into an argument. More than four decades later, they haven’t settled it.

The subject of their disagreement was journalistic “objectivity,” a notion that goes back at least to the 1920s, when some of the more high-minded newspapers and magazines were trying to distinguish themselves from the scandal sheets and publications led by partisan and sometimes warmongering publishers.

In one corner, Alan Berger. In 1979, he was a 41-year-old media columnist for the Real Paper, an alternative weekly that had emerged from a rift at its predecessor, Boston Phoenix. Before he started watch-dogging the press, Mr. Berger had grown up in the Bronx, attended Harvard University and taught a class at M.I.T., in French, on the poet Charles Baudelaire.

His target in the debate over objectivity — which has come roaring back to life in the political storminess of recent years — was Tom Palmer. Back then, Mr. Palmer was a 31-year-old assistant national editor of The Boston Globe, meaning he belonged to the establishment and was thus a ripe target for the Real Paper.

. . .

(p. B4) His former protégé, the national correspondent Wesley Lowery, argued in a widely circulated New York Times opinion essay that objectivity mirrored the worldview of white reporters and editors, whose “selective truths have been calibrated to avoid offending the sensibilities of white readers.” Mr. Lowery, who ended up leaving The Post for CBS News, suggested that news organizations “abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.”

That same argument has found an embrace at some of America’s leading journalism schools, as well.

“We focus on fairness and fact-checking and accuracy, and we don’t try to suggest to our students that opinions they have should be hidden,” said Sarah Bartlett, the dean of the City University of New York Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “We embrace transparency.”

. . .

Mr. Palmer also never quite let the argument go. He appointed himself a kind of genial in-house watchdog at The Globe, eventually known for his persistent emails to reporters and editors he thought had allowed their liberal views to infiltrate their copy.  . . .

Needless to say, he remains unpersuaded by the arguments against his cherished ideal. They “were dead wrong back then,” he emailed me, “and I believe are dead wrong even more so today.”

“Journalists are simply not smart enough and educated enough to change the world,” he continued. “They should damn well just inform the public to the best of their abilities and let the public decide.”

He also said, ruefully, that he believed his side was losing. The notion of objectivity “was declining before Trump, and that era removed it from the table completely,” he wrote. “I have doubts it will ever come back.”

For the full commentary, see:

Ben Smith. “A 1979 Fight Over Ideals Is Still Going.” The New York Times (Monday, October 11, 2021): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated October 11, 2021, and has the title “Two Journalists Started an Argument in Boston in 1979. It’s Not Over Yet.”)

Some Venture Capitalists “Act as Mentors,” Some Install Seasoned Veterans as C.E.O.s, and Some Are “Founder-Friendly,” Allowing Genius “to Do Its Work”

(p. C4) . . . Mallaby never quite settles on the story he wants to tell. He introduces the book by laying out what he intends to do: “to explain the venture-capital mind-set” and “to evaluate venture capital’s social impact.” This mind-set, he says, revolves around the “power law” of his title — the idea that the distribution of phenomena is not “normal” but skewed. Instead of a bell curve, picture a long tail, where “winners advance at an accelerating, exponential rate.” Adapt or die, sink or swim — there’s no middle ground. This is why V.C.s like to talk about “grand slams” and “moon shots”; Peter Thiel says that a fund’s top investment should generate returns so spectacular that it will outperform everything else in the fund put together.

This, clearly, isn’t the kind of logic that has much use for steady, incremental growth, to say nothing of a flourishing middle class. You might therefore wonder about the “social impact” of venture capital, which Mallaby deems to be, on the whole, good. He concedes that “V.C.s as individuals can stumble sideways into lucky fortunes,” or can sometimes do unhelpful things. But he is ultimately bullish on what they have to offer: “Venture capital as a system is a formidable engine of progress — more so than is frequently acknowledged.” That engine, Mallaby reminds us, has funded such ventures as the development of synthetic insulin and, more recently, plant-based alternatives to ecologically damaging meat.

. . .

He gives examples of the different kinds of funds, with their various personalities and philosophies. There are V.C.s who see it as their role to act as mentors and coaches to inexperienced founders. There are V.C.s who insist on installing seasoned outsiders at start-ups to serve as C.E.O.s. There are also “founder-friendly” V.C.s, who promise to be hands-off, allowing genius, no matter how unorthodox or weird, to do its work.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; A Funder-Friendly Look at Venture Capital.” The New York Times (Tuesday, February 1, 2022): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Jan. 31, 2022, and has the title “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; ‘The Power Law’ Is a Funder-Friendly Look at the World of Venture Capital.”)

The book under review is:

Mallaby, Sebastian. The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future. New York: Penguin Press, 2022.

“People Are Now Coming to Their Own Conclusions About Covid”

(p. 3) Lauren Terry, 23, thought she would know what to do if she contracted Covid-19. After all, she manages a lab in Tucson that processes Covid tests.

But when she developed symptoms on Christmas Eve, she quickly realized she had no inside information.

“I first tried to take whatever rapid tests I could get my hands on,” Ms. Terry said. “I bought some over the counter. I got a free kit from my county library. A friend gave me a box. I think I tried five different brands.” When they all turned up negative, she took a P.C.R. test, but that too, was negative.

With clear symptoms, she didn’t believe the results. So she turned to Twitter. “I was searching for the Omicron rapid test efficacy and trying to figure out what brand works on this variant and what doesn’t and how long they take to produce results,” she said. (The Food and Drug Administration has said that rapid antigen tests may be less sensitive to the Omicron variant but has not identified any specific tests that outright fail to detect it.) “I started seeing people on Twitter say they were having symptoms and only testing positive days later. I decided not to see anybody for the holidays when I read that.”

She kept testing, and a few days after Christmas she received the result she had expected all along.

Though it’s been almost two years since the onset of the pandemic, this phase can feel more confusing than its start, in March 2020. Even P.C.R. tests, the gold standard, don’t always detect every case, especially early in the course of infection, and there is some doubt among scientists about whether rapid antigen tests perform as well with Omicron. And, the need for a 10-day isolation period was thrown into question after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that some people could leave their homes after only five days.

“The information is more confusing because the threat itself is more confusing,” said David Abramson, who directs the Center for Public Health Disaster Science at the N.Y.U. School of Global Public Health. “We used to know there was a hurricane coming at us from 50 miles away. Now we have this storm that is not well defined that could maybe create flood or some wind damage, but there are so many uncertainties, and we just aren’t sure.”

Many people are now coming to their own conclusions about Covid and how they should behave. After not contracting the virus after multiple exposures, they may conclude they can take more risks. Or if they have Covid they may choose to stay in isolation longer than the C.D.C. recommends.

And they aren’t necessarily embracing conspiracy theories. People are forming opinions after reading mainstream news articles and tweets from epidemiologists; they are looking at real-life experiences of people in their networks.

For the full story, see:

Alyson Krueger. “Covid Experts, the Self-Made Kind.” The New York Times, SundayStyles Section (Sunday, January 23, 2022): 3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 21, 2022, and has the title “So You Think You’re a Covid Expert (but Are You?).”)