Thursday Poem

Seeking the Hook

with its barbed point digging
into the soft palate behind my lower teeth
I am dragged along the mud and rock strewn
bottom for forty feet, then pulled up
drawn toward the light as I twist and
yank my head side to side and the hook
lodges deeper in my mouth I taste
the blood a silent cry goes up through
my skull and it is all so quick I see
the surface a hand the light overwhelms
me, and I lunge a last time with the hook
ripping across my lips and I’m free
suddenly falling back gasping through
air then slipping beneath the surface
into the dim, green sweetness and
the flesh of my mouth throbbing water
flowing through me and yet slowly.
beyond thought or even he will
to survive, I feel myself turn and
go back, seeking the hook and it
is there again, waiting for me,
rigged and tiny, the hidden barb
like a beautiful lie, too powerful
for me to resist, so that later when
they lift me, strip me, tear my guts
out and present me cooked and
spread open, I will believe I am being
honored like a new king

by Lou Lipsitz
Seeking the Hook
Signal Books 1997

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Does it matter if empathic AI has no empathy?

Garriy Shteynberg, Jodi Halpern, Amir Sadovnik, Jon Garthoff, Anat Perry, Jessica Hay, Carlos Montemayor, Michael A. Olson, Tim L. Hulsey & Abrol Fairweather, in Nature Machine Intelligence:

Imagine a machine that provides a simulation of any experience a person might want, but once the machine is activated, the person is unable to tell that the experience isn’t real. When Robert Nozick formulated this thought experiment in 1974, it was meant to be obvious that people in otherwise ordinary circumstances would be making a horrible mistake if they hooked themselves up to such a machine permanently. During the intervening decades, however, cultural commitment to that core value — the value of being in contact with reality as it is — has become more tenuous, and the empathic use of AI, in which people seek to be understood, cared for and even loved by a large language model (LLM), is on the rise.

The use of LLMs for information, entertainment and even behavioural encouragement (such as encouragement to go for a walk or make a friend) can be constructive. Applications of LLM chatbots in certain therapeutic domains, from diagnosis to health advice, also seem promising. However, we, as a team of psychologists, philosophers and computer scientists, have concerns about LLMs as a source of empathic care.

More here.

Neanderthal–human baby-making was recent — and brief

Michael Eisenstein in Nature:

Some 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals in western Eurasia acquired strange new neighbours: a wave of Homo sapiens migrants making their way out of Africa, en route to future global dominance. Now, a study1 of hundreds of ancient and modern genomes has pinpointed when the two species began pairing off — and has found that the genetic intermingling lasted for only a short time, at least on an evolutionary scale.

The high-resolution analysis also allowed the authors to track when certain Neanderthal DNA sequences appeared in the H. sapiens genome and determine whether they were retained.

More here.

Making a living by writing is as rare as being a billionaire

Eric Hoel at The Intrinsic Perspective:

Imagine that in every business school students were told, in all seriousness, that they were in training for being a billionaire. Imagine it was heavily implied that the natural conclusion of their careers—what “making it” in business meant—was legit billionaire-status. Judged from the outside, such a situation would appear the enactment of a collective pathological delusion.

And yet an equivalent, at least of a kind, occurs every year in the arts, in writing, and in music. Functionally, at least. For when it comes to certain creative fields, while there are other tangential options than simply becoming very famous (like working for a non-profit, or teaching creative writing at a university) there is an incredibly steep, punishingly steep, impossibly steep, beyond-Pareto-distribution-steep curve wherein only a vanishingly small fraction of people make a living via their artistic efforts alone.

More here.

Essays in Praise of Excess

Kenneth Dillon at the LARB:

IN AN INFLUENTIAL essay on the aesthetic values of minimalism and maximalism in literature, the late John Barth jokes that “[t]he oracle at Delphi did not say, ‘Exhaustive analysis and comprehension of one’s own psyche may be prerequisite to an understanding of one’s behavior and of the world at large’; it said, ‘Know thyself.’” But Barth, whose own novels are often long and complex, isn’t handing a victory to his more frugal peers. Instead, his essay argues that both minimalist and maximalist works of art can be appreciated and judged on their own terms—that each form has merit.

Becca Rothfeld isn’t so sure. In a literary climate that seems to champion terse yet purportedly serious volumes like 2023 novels The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor and The Vegan by Andrew Lipstein—a world of words in which brevity has, ostensibly, come to represent the soul of lit—Rothfeld goes against the suddenly too-fine grain, issuing what The New York Times called a “plea for maximalism.”

more here.

Sofa Sessions with Babushka: In the Weimar Years

Victor Brombert at the Hudson Review:

Friends called her Anna Vassilievna, according to the Russian custom of having the patronym follow the given name. As evening fell, I often lay in my child’s pyjamas, on the living room sofa, close to my grandmother, my Babushka. The sofa stood in our living room in the Leipzig apartment, close to the large window. Some light came from the outside.
Babushka would recite Russian poetry. She made me repeat the names of Pushkin and Lermontov, and sang to me snatches from the opera Eugene Onegin. “Why don’t you dance, Lenski, why don’t you kiss the ladies’ hands?” Onegin asks his close friend whom he will soon kill in a duel. I heard the story many times, as it appears in Pushkin’s verse novel and in Tchaikovsky’s operatic version.

more here.

How to monitor cell health in real-time

From Nature:

Although chimeric antigen receptor (CAR)-T therapy — where a patient’s T cells are engineered to fight cancer — works well against blood cancers in young people, that success drops dramatically for older patients. The impact of ageing on an older patient’s T cells, so-called cell fitness, could be the problem.1 “By measuring key markers of cell health and metabolic state it should be possible to determine whether CAR-T cells are developing correctly,” says James Cali, director of research for the assay design department at Promega, a biotechnology company in Madison, Wisconsin. “By providing assays for those markers, we hope to help scientists understand the fitness of CAR-T cells for their intended therapeutic purpose.”

For CAR-T cells and other applications, scientists would like to track the health of cells in real time. Most cell health assays are endpoint assays, often including a reagent that kills the cells. As a result, these assays provide just one reading, and tracking the time course of changes in cell health requires multiple experiments — say, one at 30 minutes after a treatment, another at 60 minutes, and so on. With a kinetic assay, cells stay alive, and scientists can continuously monitor their health over a single experiment, saving time and resources.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


She’s a voice, they say
but when did you hear a human voice
sing such grace

in baroque quintets and ragtime bands alike?

lilt through the ornaments
and lament with so much reason?

like a low star
then slide on up and scatter notes
far and wide, a firework
under the blackwood skies of the Jazz Age?

This is the world as sung to you by a long-
serving, sensible
weary angel

compassionate after all she’s seen but
not deceived.

Her saddest song
has a whisper deep inside
of translunary laughter:

the sorrows of all the people of all the world
shadow the phrases
she makes dance.

And with such sweet tears
– you realize
when it’s too late – she sings

that same old song again
for you, distingué lovers
so newly met in the garden

by Judith Taylor
from The Open Mouse

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Without death, there is no art’: How Amitava Kumar’s new novel came to be

Amitava Kumar at

For the first half of my life, certainly, when I was in my twenties, I was a great disappointment to my parents. College had held no interest for me. I was threatened that I had such a bad record of attendance at Hindu College that I would not be allowed to sit for my final-year exams. Each morning I boarded the University Special, the shuttle bus that the DTC provided for students, but I did so with the sole aim of sitting close to a girl I liked. (In three years, the sum total of our conversation had gone like this: “Would you like to read my poems?” “No.”) Then, I fell in love with another woman, from a different year, a year junior to me. I wrote her many letters, and even received responses, but we spent very little time together. We never even held hands. But I was happy. Instead of going to class, I sat on the college lawns smoking cigarettes, or reading in various libraries in the city, discovering poetry and fiction.

I believed I was improving my mind.

More here.

Self-driving cars are underhyped

Matthew Yglesias in Slow Boring:

The Obama administration saw a flurry of tech sector hype about self-driving cars. Not being a technical person, I had no ability to assess the hype on the merits, but companies were putting real money into it, and so I wrote pieces looking at the labor market, land use, and transportation policy implications. But the tech turned out to be way overhyped, progress was much slower than advertised, and then Elon Musk further poisoned the water by marketing some limited (albeit impressive) self-driving software as “Full Self-Driving.”

That whole experience seems to have left most people with the sense that self-driving cars are 10 years away and always will be.

I am still not a technical person, but at this point I am prepared to make a technical judgment: The current conventional wisdom is wrong and autonomous vehicle technology has become underhyped.

More here.

How justified are recent claims that China has been buying significant quantities of debt to undermine the sovereignty of African nations?

Jamie Linsley-Parrish at JSTOR Daily:

In 2017, strategic studies scholar Brahma Chellaney accused China of using “debt-trap diplomacy” in its lending activities with African countries: in other words, buying significant quantities of debt to increase political leverage in the region. The accusation was leapt upon in the United States, with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claiming Chinese complicity in “miring nations in debt and undercutting their sovereignty.” Sixteen US senators and Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, subsequently used the term to decry Chinese “corruption” through such lending. But are such claims justified, or are they borne from anxiety around China’s rise to become a superpower and the subsequent implications for the West?

More here.


Dan Piepenbring at The Baffler:

There’s the crux of the issue: the k-hole. Ketamine gets you really, elaborately, bizarrely high. Doctors have never quite known how to describe this high or what to do about it. During the drug’s clinical trials in 1964, recovering patients reported that they’d been dead, suspended among the stars, or living in a movie. One researcher observed that ketamine “produced ‘zombies’ who were totally disconnected from their environment.” Investigators had to find the right word to broach these effects; hallucinations and zombies wouldn’t go over well with the FDA. An early contender, schizophrenomimetic (i.e., mimicking schizophrenia), was tossed out for obvious reasons. They settled on dissociative, which suggested a gossamer untethering of body and brain. A hot air balloon dissociates from the earth; the two halves of a Venn diagram are a dissociated circle. Confusingly, there was already a long history of dissociation in psychology, where the word describes someone too detached from reality to function. Dissociative anesthesia is technically unrelated, but people understandably conflate the two, especially now that ketamine is used in mental health contexts. Hence ketamine clinics speak of “the healing powers of dissociation”—seemingly the very thing of which you’d want to be healed.

more here.

Remembering Alice Munro

Sterling HolyWhiteMountain and others at The Paris Review:

I reread “Family Furnishings” this morning because it is one of my favorite stories and because I will be discussing it soon with my students and because Alice Munro, possibly the greatest short-story writer there ever was and certainly the greatest in the English language, is dead. One of my teachers at the University of Montana introduced me to the story when I was an undergrad who had just begun to write and was utterly lost and did not know yet that these two things were one and the same. The story was so far beyond me I had almost no sense of what was going on except that by the end the narrator had been exposed to her own ignorance and arrogance and emotional irresponsibility in a way that was permanently imprinted on me, most likely because I understood it as a premonition of what was to come in my own life. But it is also a story about how the narrator becomes a fiction writer, about the ways a person from a small town might become such a thing, the ways high art will come into your life and separate you from the people who don’t live for art—this is most of them—and the things you must give up in order to commit yourself to the discipline of writing, the ways you will almost certainly piss people off back home when you finally find a way to fork the lightning of the sentence. Munro is one of the only writers whose work has haunted me not just on the first read but more and more as I’ve gotten older. A good story will hold your attention for a while, but a great story will open a new door in your head and then will change with you as you go and “Furnishings” is that kind of story. Each time I read it I see a thing I somehow did not before and understand something about life I did not before or had purposely forgotten; Munro’s best work is always a step past me and no matter what I do or how much older I get it remains that way and I hope it stays that way.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Three Poems by Nils Peterson

By the Sea

To watch a seagull fly overhead,
a girl child on the beach in red pajamas
tilts her head back and back,
impossibly back to anyone a second older.

Now she digs a hole
tossing the sand back between her legs
as if her hands were forepaws.

Now she sits on her haunches
in the hole and draws a circle
all about herself.

Now she is safe from everything.

With William

With Black William, half Lab and half
Golden Retriever, at the percolation ponds.
He is learning he likes the water and stands in it
up to his chest, snaps three times at the midges, then
erupts up the bank in a great larruping horsey gallop
surrounded for a moment by a fine thin silvery shield
of water curved like the battle shields of the Assyrians.

Tao from a Train Window

……….. a white cow
……….. picks up her
……….. right foot and
……….. places it
……….. down again.

from: All the Marvelous Stuff
Caesura Editions, Poetry Center of San José, 2019