'We can't comprehend this much sorrow'

The official tolls are almost certainly an undercount. The morgues are overflowing. Those are the facts. But where is the grief? When we first started getting the news out of Italy, and then Spain, with frightening daily numbers comparable with what is now happening in New York, that news seemed to be delivered with holy awe. In the American papers, I usually have to do some searching to find how many people have died in the past day. The front pages here seem to often carry news of the financial markets or of the political squabbles of the day. But what I want is to be directly confronted with the fact, the enormity, the irreducible sadness of all these deaths.

19 Jun 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Protests in Modi's India; the meat-substitute industry; and fun reviews of bad pop science

Early on, we had two goals that were fully aligned: to be identical to a burger from a cow and to be much better than a burger from a cow. Now they’re somewhat at odds, and we talk about the chocolate-doughnut problem: What if what people really like in a burger is what makes it taste like a chocolate doughnut, so you keep increasing those qualities and suddenly you’re not making a burger at all?

13 Jan 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Female politicians in developing countries; development lessons from the Congolese Ebola response; revisiting Wong Kar-Wai; and Barry Jenkins' signature close-ups

The biggest impediment to containing Ebola in Congo is not its contagiousness, but suspicion of the state and of aid personnel… The international responders aggravated the community’s distrust by interpreting reluctance to follow rules about safe burials and patient isolation as a lack of understanding of public health that required reeducation. In fact, the reluctance reflected an understandable lack of enthusiasm for practices that required total separation from loved ones during their illness, denial of human touch at the point of death, and the abandonment of traditional funeral rites, which are of central importance to social and cultural life.

10 Jan 2020 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Sex workers' rights; and 'Dark Money' by Jane Mayer

Is sex work degrading or empowering? Mac and Smith reject this dichotomy from the start. ‘This book—and the perspective of the contemporary left sex worker movement—is not about enjoying sex work,’ they write. Work need not be a good time for workers to deserve autonomy, respect, safety, and better pay. The British coal miners who battled Margaret Thatcher hardly claimed that their coal pits were fun. The question ‘Is sex work good?’ has little to do with ‘Should sex workers have rights?’ But this obvious truth is often ignored by writers who get hung up on the ‘sex’ part, painting sex workers as brainless bimbos or voiceless victims. ‘Sex workers are associated with sex, and to be associated with sex is to be dismissible.’

08 Aug 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Mechanism design and social justice; and 'Go Tell It on the Mountain' by James Baldwin

This paper investigates the peculiarities that arise when mechanism design is deployed in contexts in which social, racial and distributive justice are particularly salient. The paper draws on the distinction between ideal theory and non-ideal theory in political philosophy and the concept of performativity in economic sociology to argue that mechanism can enact elaborate ideal theories of justice. A normative gap thus emerges between the goals of the policymakers and the objectives of economic designs. As a result, mechanism design may obstruct stakeholders’ avenues for normative criticism of public policies and serve as a technology of depoliticization.

23 Jul 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Data imperialism in the NBA; Apichatpong Weerasethakul; the virtues of academic giants dying; and Emily Wilson on translating Homer

In 2003, the two of us made a wager. We had just left a talk by a renowned scientist when Pierre quipped, ‘It must be amazing to work in his orbit, where his brilliance and the intellectual exchange of ideas must raise the level of scholarship of everyone around him.’ Josh, a bit more sardonic in nature, replied, ‘I don’t know. I bet he consumes a lot of scarce research resources and commands an oversized amount of attention. He might well suck all the oxygen out of the room.’ Without missing a beat, Pierre countered that this was really an empirical question. Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we have some answers. It seems we were both right. These results paint a picture of scientific fields as scholarly guilds to which elite scientists can regulate access, providing them with outsized opportunities to shape the direction of scientific advance in that space.

20 Jul 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Corrective narratives of the migrant caravan and the American frontier; Sally Rooney's 'Marxist novel'; and 'Sabrina' by Nick Drnaso

San Pedro Sula may not be well known, but from 2011 to 2014 it was the most violent city in the world. The only thing to do there is escape. The crime syndicates, which have complete control over the region and the power of life and death over its people, have in recent years plunged Honduras into an unofficial state of war…. President Trump talks about the migrant caravan as if it were an attempted invasion. In reality, Honduras and Central America have paid an enormous price precisely because of US policies.

09 Mar 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

'The Uninhabitable Earth' by David Wallace-Wells and the moral imperative of alarmism

I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt [in the Jim Crow South]. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. It felt futile for them too. Then, as now, there were calls to slow down. To settle for incremental remedies for an untenable situation. They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world. You don’t fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called ’the sickness unto death.’ What, now, do you have to lose? What else can you be but brave?

05 Mar 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

How we write about other cultures, how we write about racism, how we write about climate change, and how we write about the Animorphs

They fire us, we have to abandon them, and then you have to learn to love a new set of children, and you’re always afraid you’re going to be fired all over again and lose them. One woman cried as she explained this. ‘They never think about the fact that we love the children.’ she said. That the women I interviewed could love the children they cared for—and love them, in fact, to the point of heartbreak—was to me nothing short of miraculous.

27 Jan 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis

Robert Caro's research process and non-line-of-sight imaging

‘I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,’ he said. ‘From now on, you do investigative work.’

27 Jan 2019 · Matthew Alampay Davis