Jane Mayer in The New Yorker:
In December, Chief Justice John Roberts released his year-end report on the federal judiciary. According to a recent Gallup poll, the Supreme Court has its lowest public-approval rating in history—in part because it is viewed as being overly politicized. President Joe Biden recently established a bipartisan commission to consider reforms to the Court, and members of Congress have introduced legislation that would require Justices to adhere to the same types of ethics standards as other judges. Roberts’s report, however, defiantly warned everyone to back off. “The Judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence,” he wrote. His statement followed a series of defensive speeches from members of the Court’s conservative wing, which now holds a super-majority of 6–3. Last fall, Justice Clarence Thomas, in an address at Notre Dame, accused the media of spreading the false notion that the Justices are merely politicians in robes. Such criticism, he said, “makes it sound as though you are just always going right to your personal preference,” adding, “They think you become like a politician!”
The claim that the Justices’ opinions are politically neutral is becoming increasingly hard to accept, especially from Thomas, whose wife, Virginia (Ginni) Thomas, is a vocal right-wing activist. She has declared that America is in existential danger because of the “deep state” and the “fascist left,” which includes “transsexual fascists.” Thomas, a lawyer who runs a small political-lobbying firm, Liberty Consulting, has become a prominent member of various hard-line groups. Her political activism has caused controversy for years. For the most part, it has been dismissed as the harmless action of an independent spouse. But now the Court appears likely to secure victories for her allies in a number of highly polarizing cases—on abortion, affirmative action, and gun rights.
Rachel Cooke at The Guardian:
In July 1986, James Birch, a young London gallerist with vague designs on global domination, set off for the Soviet Union. It was his first visit and he had no idea what to expect. Mikhail Gorbachev had then been general secretary of the Communist party for one year: perestroika and glasnost were in the air (or, at any rate, in the British newspapers). But still, Moscow was a world apart. On the advice of his travelling companion, a “cultural entrepreneur” whose carpet business often took him to the USSR, Birch carried among his luggage a packet of chocolate digestives, just in case he found himself short of food, and cartons of Camel cigarettes, to be used as payment to all the drivers he would have to flag for a lift, there being virtually no taxis in the city.
Kathryn Davis in The Paris Review:
We’re in a room on the ground floor of a hotel, the bed facing a wall of curtained windows that in turn faces the street. It is nighttime. Rain is coming down, steadily, reflectively, a stream of passersby visible through the curtains, which are sheer. Everyone is moving in the same direction, bent slightly forward and holding an umbrella, from left to right, the good direction, from past to future, the opposite of where Death leads the knight and the squire and the monk and the smith and the mute in their final dance against the backdrop of time in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The umbrella is the canopy of the heavens; the rain is never going to let up. We can see the passersby but they can’t see us, though Eric has turned a light on above his side of the bed.
I was obsessed with The Seventh Seal my senior year in high school; I was obsessed with the vision it presented of a handsome knight playing a game of chess with Death. Death’s face was unexpectedly round and white, the blackness of his eyes and their sparkling avidity as terrifying as the sound of his name in Swedish. Döden. There could be no doubt of the fact that death at the end of it elevated life—an otherwise lackluster affair in which human beings were obliged to eat and mate and have jobs and engage in pointless conversation—into a realm worthy of passionate attachment.
Lloyd Spencer Davis at the NYT:
Here is a test. Scott, Shackleton, Mawson, Amundsen — who comes next? As surely as “10” follows the pattern 2, 4, 6, 8, by almost any measure “Fiennes” is the name that should come after the other four synonymous with Antarctic exploration. To give him his full moniker, Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has probably man-hauled sledges farther, endured more blizzards and lost more fingertips to frostbite than the rest of them put together.
So when Fiennes produces a book about Ernest Shackleton, it should get our attention: It suggests an insider’s look into a very select club.
My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware
that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part
to what he was—his memory, his name
(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim.
“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide
the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb
and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read
until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.
I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,
he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.
by Rhina P. Espaillat
from Poetry Out Loud
The Poetry Foundation, 2005
Sophie Haigney at Art In America:
The creature appears to be, at first glance, a parrot, with bright feathers in yellow, red, green, and blue. But another look, and one sees that it’s shaped more like a duck, or perhaps two ducks melded into one. What looks like an eye might really be the wing of a butterfly. The more closely one looks at the image, the more the creature is unrecognizable; it dissolves into a strange jumble of component parts, which seem to add up to nothing, and then cohere once again into something both familiar and unknown.
This is one of the images from Sofia Crespo’s series “Neural Zoo” (2018–20). Crespo is an artist whose work combines neural network technologies and images of the natural world to generate what she calls “speculative nature.”
Negar Azimi at Bookforum:
SHE CALLED HERSELF a minor writer. “I’m no Tolstoy,” said this woman whose parents named her after a character from War and Peace. One wishes Natalia Ginzburg hadn’t apologized for her gifts. Wishes that she had luxuriated in her standing as one of Italy’s finest postwar writers. The fact that her various novels, novellas, and essays are flying back into print—some freshly translated—thirty years after her passing is not unrelated to the extravagant success of the other Italian, the one whose books have become the stuff of prestige television. Ginzburg, alas, has no HBO series attached to her name, but surely her estate profits from the fumes of Ferrante fever. As publishers scramble to chart distinguished genealogies of Italian women writers, we are invited to “discover” Ginzburg’s work in essays like this one. As though it had not been hiding in plain sight for decades.
Dwight Garner in the New York Times:
The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was, in 2019, a youthful winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was 57, dreadlocked, mischievous of politics, a vegetarian.
Her novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” had recently been turned, by Agnieszka Holland, into the film “Spoor,” a slice of existential and ecology-minded dread.
Tokarczuk (pronounced To-KAR-chook) was not among those laureates the Swedish Academy sometimes seems to prop up in the crypt for a final viewing. Her career was, and is, in full gallop.
Her novels — they are often both pensive and mythic in tone — are slowly making their way into English. In addition to “Drive Your Plow,” these include the philosophical and often dazzling “Flights,” about travel and being between stations. It won the 2018 Man Booker International prize.
Tokarczuk’s most ambitious novel — the Swedish Academy called it her “magnum opus” — has long been said to be “The Books of Jacob,” first published in Poland in 2014. It’s here now. At nearly 1,000 pages, it is indeed magnum-size.
Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:
Being a human is tricky. There are any number of unwritten rules and social cues that we have to learn as we go, but that we ultimately learn to take for granted. Camilla Pang, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age eight, had a harder time than most, as she didn’t easily perceive the rules of etiquette and relationships that we need to deal with each other. But she ultimately figured them out, with the help of analogies and examples from different fields of science. We talk about these rules, and how science can help us think about them.
Musa al-Gharbi in The Guardian:
According to a number of polls and surveys, significant majorities of Republican-aligned voters seem to believe the big lie that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 US presidential election and, consequently, the Biden administration is illegitimate.
Taking these data at face value, a growing chorus insists that we’re living in a “post-truth” era, where members of one political party, the Republican party, can no longer tell facts from falsehood. As a result of the Republican party becoming unmoored from reality, the narratives typically continue, America is drifting headlong into a fascist takeover or a civil war.
Fortunately for all of us, these dire predictions are almost certainly overblown. We are not living in a “post-truth” world. We are not on the brink of a civil war. The perception that we are is almost purely an artifact of people taking poll and survey data at face value despite overwhelming evidence that we probably shouldn’t.
To pray you open your whole self
To Sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
that you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River, Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breath in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
by Joy Harjo
from Poetry Out Loud
The Poetry Foundation, 2005
Frank Rose in The New York Times:
David Byrne is all about connectedness these days. “Everybody’s coming to my house/And I’m never gonna be alone,” he sings on Broadway in “American Utopia,” half joyful, half fretful, still open. His online magazine, “Reasons to Be Cheerful” — which bills itself as “a tonic for tumultuous times” — catalogs all the ways in which people are pulling together to make sure the world does not in fact go to hell in a handbasket. And on Feb. 2, he reprises this theme of connectedness at Pace Gallery in Chelsea with a show of 48 whimsical line drawings that span 20 years of art making, from his “tree” series of the early ’00s to the “dingbats” he made in lockdown in 2020-2021.
Byrne’s drawings are modest affairs, not much bigger than a standard sheet of paper. They compare perhaps with George Cruikshank’s illustrations for “Oliver Twist,” or John Tenniel’s for “Alice in Wonderland.” But when I dropped by the gallery two weeks ago to see them being hung, I found him some 15 feet up in the air, standing on a hydraulic lift as he labeled branches of an enormous tree he’d drawn on a wall that’s a good 20 feet high.
More here. (Note: Thanks to dear friend JP Le Calvezjean)
Researchers have explored the cellular changes that occur in human mammary tissue in lactating and non-lactating women, offering insight into the relationship between pregnancy, lactation, and breast cancer. The study was led by researchers from the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute (CSCI) and the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. Breast tissue is dynamic, changing over time during puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and aging. The paper, published today in the journal Nature Communications, focuses on the changes that take place during lactation by investigating cells found in human milk.
This research, led by Dr. Alecia-Jane Twigger of CSCI, found that the cells in milk, once thought to be dead or dying, are in fact very much alive. These living cells provide researchers with the chance to study not only the changes that occur in mammary tissues during lactation, but also insight into a potential early indicator of future breast cancer development.
Rosalind E. Krauss at Artforum:
In contrast with this array of translucence, viscosity, gleam, Johns exploits the matte, the opaque, the alkaline. His wax encaustic, charcoal, grease, paint stick all militate—it would seem—against sheen.
But that is to overlook the glassy gleam of the mirror, which holds the represented object apart from its suspended reflection on the surface of representation. When Johns worked with Samuel Beckett on the 1976 book Foirades/Fizzles, Johns refused to illustrate a well-known work, such as the suggested Waiting for Godot, instead requesting a new text. (Beckett responded, “A new work? You mean you want me to write another book?”) Beckett ultimately sent Johns five unpublished fragments, for which the artist created etchings of crosshatchings that serve as reinforcements of the planar surface of the page. Beckett chose these for the endpapers of the book, and Johns responded with the (inevitable) painting End Paper, 1976.
Graham Majin in Quillette:
McLuhan’s impact on journalism was significant. His message was that all the techniques and values of Victorian liberal journalism should be discarded. The old-fashioned search for truth, using the tools of balance, objectivity, and impartiality, no longer applied. Although greeted with indifference or derision by older journalists, McLuhan’s insight was a Damascene moment for many young writers. As one underground journalist explained in 1966:
One year ago, in the first issue of The Paper, I discussed the loyalty I felt I had to the traditional ideals of journalism. … In the year since we began publishing, a very significant evolution has taken place in and around the American press.
The writer adds that he attributes “a great deal of importance to McLuhan” who had been his guide on a journey of transformation and enabled him to abandon the old journalism: “[W]e really didn’t have the slightest idea what we were getting into last year, when we thought we cared mainly about journalistic ideals.” Having abandoned impartiality, the writer describes how he embraced “the tendency to enlightened and interpretative subjectivity.”
Elizabeth Svoboda in Undark:
In the fall of 1983, Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was monitoring his country’s nuclear warning systems when alarm bells suddenly started ringing. The screen in front of him flashed the word “LAUNCH.” The alerts signaled what appeared to be a terrifying reality: The United States had lobbed five intercontinental missiles straight at the USSR.
Petrov knew what he was supposed to do next: pick up his phone and report the launch to the Soviet high command. Yet he hesitated as fear gripped him. He knew his report would mean the start of a nuclear World War III. Everything in him protested against such a possibility, and his fear mixed with an inchoate suspicion that the alerts might be wrong. So he waited, seconds ticking torturously away, until confirmation came that no missiles had been launched. Sunlight reflections, it turned out, had confused Soviet monitoring satellites and triggered the alert system. Petrov’s emotion-driven response had steered two world powers clear of mutually assured destruction.
In “Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking,” physicist and science writer Leonard Mlodinow explores our feelings’ power to spur this kind of intelligent, nuanced action, even if the world’s fate doesn’t hang in the balance.