Friday Poem

I’m walking and wondering
why I leave no footprints.
I went this way yesterday.
I’ve gone this way all my life.

I won’t look back.
I’m afraid I won’t find my shadow.

‘Are you alive?’
a drunken gentleman suddenly asks me.

‘Yes, yes,’ I answer quickly.
‘Yes, yes,’ I answer
as fast as I can.

by Janis Elsbergs
from Rita kafija
publisher: Apgads Daugava
translation: Peteris Cedrinš

Phenomenology Never Goes Out of Date


Richard Marshall interviews Susanna Siegel in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You talk about cases where prior mental states interfere with perception. Can you talk about this idea and why this might lead to what you call an epistemic downgrade?

SS: Suppose you are afraid that I am angry at you, and your fear makes me look angry to you when you see me. Do you get any reason from your experience to believe that I’m angry at you? There’s something fishy and even perverse about the idea that your fears can get confirmed by fear-induced experience. I focus on the general notion of rationality. I am interested in the epistemic status of the type of “top-down” influences on perception from fears and desires. If you could confirm your fears through such fear-influenced experiences, rational confirmation of fears would be too cheap.

Here’s another example. In the early days of microscopes, the true theory of mammalian reproduction was still unknown. Some early users of microscopes were preformationists: they believed that mammals including people grew like plants, from seeds that were placed in a nutritive environment. Suppose their preformationism made them experience an embryo in a spermcell when they looked under the microscope. (It is probably apocryphal, but this was reported to have happened and is discussed in histories of embryology, such as Pinto- Correira’s excellent book The Ovary of Eve, Chicago, 1998). If favoring preformationism influenced your perceptual experience, that experience could not turn around and provide support for preformationism.

More here.

The Meanings of Life


Roy F Baumeister in Aeon:

The difference between meaningfulness and happiness was the focus of an investigation I worked on with my fellow social psychologists Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, published in theJournal of Positive Psychology this August. We carried out a survey of nearly 400 US citizens, ranging in age from 18 to 78. The survey posed questions about the extent to which people thought their lives were happy and the extent to which they thought they were meaningful. We did not supply a definition of happiness or meaning, so our subjects responded using their own understanding of those words. By asking a large number of other questions, we were able to see which factors went with happiness and which went with meaningfulness.

As you might expect, the two states turned out to overlap substantially. Almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. Nevertheless, using statistical controls we were able to tease two apart, isolating the ‘pure’ effects of each one that were not based on the other. We narrowed our search to look for factors that had opposite effects on happiness and meaning, or at least, factors that had a positive correlation with one and not even a hint of a positive correlation with the other (negative or zero correlations were fine). Using this method, we found five sets of major differences between happiness and meaningfulness, five areas where different versions of the good life parted company.

The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing ­— to add to a sense of meaning. People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult. Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need. Good health is a factor that contributes to happiness but not to meaningfulness. Healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning. The more often people feel good — a feeling that can arise from getting what one wants or needs — the happier they are. The less often they feel bad, the happier they are. But the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.

The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were.

More here.

America’s Best Unknown Writer: William Gaddis

Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_340 Sep. 26 18.18William Gaddis was nineteen in 1942, when he wrote to his mother, Edith Gaddis, saying that the “section man” in his Harvard English class had recommended a book to him:

I got it and turns out to be history of Communism and Socialism—Marxism—enough to make me actively ill—so don’t care about mark in this test but am going to tell him what I think of his lousy piggish socialism &c—sometimes I think he’s turned that way—he recommends many such books—so I’m going to tell him how stinking I think it is and not worry about an E.

One might think this simply callow, a snobbish reflex of class and family, but it does expose the bedrock on which Gaddis later built his idiosyncratic conservatism, just as it points to his unusually candid relationship with his mother.

His parents had separated when he was three and he didn’t see his father again for twenty years. William Gaddis Sr. worked on Wall Street and was mainly prized by his son for bequeathing him his name (“a family as fine and as noble as I feel the name of Gaddis to represent”). Edith Gaddis eventually became the chief purchasing agent of the New York Steam Corporation, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison. She brought up her only child in her Manhattan apartment and a house in Massapequa on Long Island, and when he was away from home, at boarding school and Harvard, or traveling in the southwestern states and Central America, then in Europe, Gaddis wrote her frequent, often copious letters.

More here.

Google is becoming the Web’s unofficial policeman

“Whatever there is of value in America Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, the robots.” —Henry Miller

Joel Whitney in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_339 Sep. 26 18.05In June 2011, Guernica, an online magazine that I helped to found, received an ominous letter from Google.

“During a recent review of your account, we found that you are currently displaying Google ads in a manner that is not compliant with our program policies,” the letter read. Google cited an essay Guernica published in February of that year, Clancy Martin’s “Early Sexual Experiences.” We were given just three working days to change our site or else—the threat was clear—we could lose the income we were making from Google’s AdSense program, which served advertisements on our pages.

We stood by our violation, and our author. In the process we learned the workings of GoogleSpeak, how it can be used to stand arbitrarily with government despots, and how it serves as the Web’s unofficial censor.

Born in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, Guernica is an engaged literary magazine. Politics and art, we believe, are never separate but part of the same cultural cloth. This became particularly clear as the U.S. media collectively failed to stand up to the Bush administration over its shifting rationale for the Iraq war. From the outset we covered feminism and sexual politics in what we have always taken to be a thoughtful, if frequently provocative, way.

More here.

a history of alchemy

TLSPopper_372168hNicholas Popper at The Times Literary Supplement:

Alchemy’s significance has altered radically in the three centuries since this heyday, Principe argues, after professionalizing Enlightenment scholars rejected the suitability of Decknamen, pseudonyms and dreams of transmutation to a properly rigorous, public science. Denied knowledge of their physical references, Victorian occultists and Jungian psychologists mythologized the arcana of alchemical texts as autonomous allegories, as symbols for occult forces or a psychological manifestation of the collective unconscious. Meanwhile, historians of science dismissed its practitioners as gullible fools. Many recognized that the quest for the Stone involved work at the forge, but alchemists were still frequently portrayed as credulous dupes who begged God’s favour as they wishfully tossed arbitrary heaps of plants and metals into their fires.

For Principe, such flawed interpretations stem from projecting post-Enlightenment meanings of alchemy onto the earlier period and assuming that earlier alchemists’ spiritual declarations wholly governed their coded recipes. Scholars now equipped with revelatory chemical expertise, he insists, will recognize that these reflected a context in which all knowledge was described as a divine gift – a claim strengthened by his lucid deciphering of esoteric images and fascinating replications of experiments purporting to transmute silver into gold, revivify dead bodies, and grow trees of gold.

more here.

talking with Greeks in thessaloniki

Article_grunbergArnon Grunberg at The Believer:

In One Step Ahead, Dimitris Athyridis’s documentary on the 2010 municipal elections in Thessaloniki, the then–mayoral candidate, Yiannis Boutaris, talks frankly about his alcohol dependency, his marital problems, and his conflict with Anthimos, the archbishop of the city, whom he accuses of hate-mongering because of Anthimos’s outspokenly nationalistic speeches. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Boutaris after watching the documentary, even though it’s clear that the mayor, after the electoral close call, has not been able to solve all the problems before him. Garbage continues to pile up on street corners.

The mayor is not a career politician; he’s a vintner. He got his first diploma in chemistry in 1965 from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and another—in oenology—in 1969 from the Athens Wine Institute. I recognize the tattoos on his fingers from other articles I’ve read about him.

Boutaris is now seventy-one, his voice smoky.

more here.

looking back at the nuclear era

130930_r23936_p233Louis Menand at The New Yorker:

The Arkansas incident, in 1980, is well chosen as an illustration of Schlosser’s point. Objects fall inside silos all the time, he says. The chance that a falling socket would puncture the skin of a Titan II missile was extremely remote—but not impossible. When it happened, it triggered a set of mechanical and human responses that quickly led to a nightmare of confusion and misdirection. Once enough oxidizer leaked out and the air pressure inside the tank dropped, the missile would collapse, the remaining oxidizer would come into contact with the rocket fuel, and the missile would explode. Because a nineteen-year-old airman performing regular maintenance accidentally let a socket slip out of his wrench, a Titan II missile became a time bomb, and there was no way to turn off the timer. And the missile was armed. Schlosser says that the explosive force of the warhead on a Titan II is nine megatons, which is three times the force of all the bombs dropped in the Second World War, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it had detonated, most of the state of Arkansas would have been wiped out.

more here.


From Esquire:

Esq-bourdain-xlgI never, ever try to weasel upgrades. I'm one of those people who feel really embarrassed about wheedling. I never haggle over price. I sort of wander away out of shame when someone does that. I'm socially nonfunctional in those situations.

I don't get jet lag as long as I get my sleep. As tempting as it is to get really drunk on the plane, I avoid that. If you take a long flight and get off hungover and dehydrated, it's a bad way to be. I'll usually get on the plane, take a sleeping pill, and sleep through the whole flight. Then I'll land and whatever's necessary for me to sleep at bedtime in the new time zone, I'll do that.

There's almost never a good reason to eat on a plane. You'll never feel better after airplane food than before it. I don't understand people who will accept every single meal on a long flight. I'm convinced it's about breaking up the boredom. You're much better off avoiding it. Much better to show up in a new place and be hungry and eat at even a little street stall than arrive gassy and bloated, full, flatulent, hungover. So I just avoid airplane food. It's in no way helpful.

More here.

Human Nature and the Moral Economy

Economics is inextricably tied to moral behavior, though few economists will say that. It’s time someone did.

Eric Michael Johnson in Scientific American:

Giving-by-Nathaniel-Gold-300x218In every financial transaction–whether you’re selling a car, paying employees, or repackaging commodity futures as financial derivatives–there are ethical calculations that influence economic activity beyond the price. Sure, you can cheat a potential buyer and not mention that your 1996 Ford Mustang GT has a cracked engine block, in the same way that your boss can stiff you on overtime. If you get away with it you will succeed in making a short-term gain or see a bump in the next quarterly earnings report. But, if you eventually develop the reputation as someone who consistently defrauds the people you do business with, there is a good chance that the value of your net worth will be as negative as the moral values you embraced.

But why is it that businesses that are “too big to fail” don’t seem bound by the same moral economy as the rest of us? It turns out that anthropologists may have some insight, not only on this question, but also how we might integrate our economic and moral values that so often appear at odds. Researchers have found that the interconnection between economics and morality is seen most clearly in small communities where everybody knows each other, everyone has a free choice in who they deal with, and gossip can make or break reputations. This is even the case forsocieties that look very different from our own.

More here.

James Fadiman’s studies of the effects of LSD

Tim Doody in The Morning News:

ScreenHunter_337 Sep. 25 17.40At 9:30 in the morning, an architect and three senior scientists—two from Stanford, the other from Hewlett-Packard—donned eyeshades and earphones, sank into comfy couches, and waited for their government-approved dose of LSD to kick in. From across the suite and with no small amount of anticipation, Dr. James Fadiman spun the knobs of an impeccable sound system and unleashed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” Then he stood by, ready to ease any concerns or discomfort.

For this particular experiment, the couched volunteers had each brought along three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months. In approximately two hours, when the LSD became fully active, they were going to remove the eyeshades and earphones, and attempt to find some solutions. Fadiman and his team would monitor their efforts, insights, and output to determine if a relatively low dose of acid—100 micrograms to be exact—enhanced their creativity.

It was the summer of ’66. And the morning was beginning like many others at the International Foundation for Advanced Study, an inconspicuously named, privately funded facility dedicated to psychedelic drug research, which was located, even less conspicuously, on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Menlo Park, Calif.

More here.

What does George Orwell have in common with Edward Snowden?

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_SNOWD_AP_001George Orwell was not a political thinker, exactly. Sure, he wrote books like 1984 andAnimal Farm. Those books are political. Or better put, they are political thought experiments in novel form. Orwell liked to think about totalitarianism. He created fictional scenarios like 1984 in order to think through the logic of totalitarianism, to find out how it works. Orwell’s essays, too, are often about politics. He wondered if it was possible to create a decent Socialism in the aftermath of the debacle of real-life Socialism, as it existed in the Soviet Union.

The power of Orwell’s writing came from his honesty about the actions and motivations of human beings making decisions in a messy world. So maybe it is best to say that Orwell was thinking about politics without being a political scientist. He wasn’t good at looking at politics from a distanced, objective point of view in order to suss out general laws. That’s why one of his best political essays is a story about shooting an elephant in Burma. It is a story of Orwell himself.

As a young man, Orwell got a job as an imperial policeman in Burma. He was working for the British crown. This was the 1920s. The British Empire still lorded over many parts of East Asia. Orwell realized quickly that he was a symbol of oppression to most Burmese. He was harassed in the streets, especially by the young Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing to do, “except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” This bothered Orwell, a sensitive chap with little taste for flexing his authority as a policeman. In short, Orwell felt immensely guilty about his role as a tiny cog in the British imperial machine. The guilt made him angry and the anger tore him in two. He wrote that he was “stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.”

Then, one day, an elephant went berserk and started smashing things up in the village.

More here.

Mumbai Moment

Jil Wheeler in The Morning News:

A-moment-for-mumbaiMumbai, meri jaan—my life, my love. It’s a city that was once described to me as New York, Los Angeles, and Lagos all wrapped into one. It’s a city I left, a city I returned to, and now it’s a city that I am really just this close to writing off. I’ve spent nine months now defending my adopted hometown as safe for women, half a sub-continent away in distance and culture from the headline-worthy rapes in New Delhi and northern India. I’ve justified my safety to my friends, to my family, to my husband, and—most importantly—to myself. And last month this came crashing down with the gang-rape of a female photojournalist as she was poking around an abandoned mill with a male colleague, before sunset and in the center of town.I don’t feel as much scared or angry as I feel betrayed by a city I praised and defended more than its own natives did. My first “Mumbai moment”—what I’ve termed a feeling of joy and peace at being here and not there—came some evening in early 2009 when I was walking with friends along Marine Drive. The pedestrian walkway runs for two miles along the sea; walking north, there are six lanes of traffic and shabby Art Deco low-rises to your right, crashing waves to your left. We had just left an Asia Society talk on the fate of the euro or trends in microhousing or maybe developments in contemporary Chinese punk music. The feeling all over Mumbai was of great optimism. The economy was booming and the world’s eyes were on the city—whether for an Oscar-winning movie about the reality TV triumph of a slumdog or the well-publicized construction of a $3 billion single-family home.

As we strolled up Marine Drive, we congratulated ourselves for being the lucky few expats in a city where Things Were Happening, New Yorkers living through the early days of the next Jazz Age. We watched the long line of streetlights come on along Marine Drive, nicknamed “The Queen’s Necklace” for the way the lights resemble jewels on a chain. Mumbai was then, and still is now, a city that pushes itself forward. Religion, caste, gender, and tradition fall by the wayside as millions of people flock to the city to try their luck in business or Bollywood. Despite—or perhaps because of—the striving, struggling, and severe overcrowding, people remain happy, considerate enough, more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday. I fell in love with Mumbai not because I belonged there but because no one really belonged there. The city and its residents were heading into uncharted waters, me included. Walking along Marine Drive, chatting with a vegetable seller in the market, watching a Hindi film, I felt a satisfying combination of promise, acceptance, and adaptability. I was happy and free in a way I hadn’t felt in the U.S.

More here.

james salter, né horowitz

Cohen1Rich Cohen at The Jewish Review of Books:

James Salter changed his name from Horowitz for the same reason the Turks renamed Constantinople: He liked it better that way. His career, which began with spare war stories in the mid-1950s, has culminated, just now, with his magnum opus, All That Is, an autumnal novel that caps a stunning body of work. More than any other artist’s, Salter’s career, intentionally or not, has perfectly described the situation of many American Jews, who feel at once free and not free, liberated from Judaism yet stubbornly defined by it. Salter speaks to all those who intermarried and joined the club, donned white bucks and seersucker, who, lost in Sag Harbor and Hilton Head, have spent years trying to slip the shackles as Houdini, né Weiss, slipped his shackles before the multitudes. Between Salter’s most elegant lines, I can still hear Horowitz scream.Neither Bellow nor Roth, it’s Salter—defined by what he’s left out—whose art depicts the Jew who has tried to dissolve the ancient in the American quotidian but still feels a pang of difference.

more here.

victor serge’s Mexican notebooks 1940-47

Imgresat the New Left Review:

Marseille, winter 1940–41. Narrow back streets dingy by day, lost in the shadows by night, criss-crossed by washing lines draped with clothes strung from the windows. Narrow and slippery, the stone oozing poverty, magnificent ancient mansions now lairs with vast entrances like caverns (carved gates, rue de la Prison). Stench. Pizzas, Greek, Russian, Annamite, Chinese restaurants. Rue de la Bouterie, the brothels with their lights out, Chat Noir, Magdeleine, Lucy, locked doors for the rush of sailors, notices in several languages. At the bottom of the alleyway, the port’s bright lights, spindly masts, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde on the golden rock in the distance, the azure sky.

An Annamite or Chinese procession (funeral, festival?) files past in the rain under banners of cloth and coloured paper. Scampering, the thin, sallow faces of smart but sad coolies.

Lively square, ancient fine houses, baths, the church below the hospital. We go inside to admire the Easter crèche, with all its little figurines at work, sawing wood, shoeing horses, etc. For twenty sous, the figures move.

more here.

Pynchon’s new book

170815128Leo Robson at The New Statesman:
It is probably fair at this advanced stage to note that Pynchon has an incurable obsession with language: its capacity for behaving like glass or gauze. The opening paragraph of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” – makes a point of stating where eloquence can’t go, either because we don’t hear V-2 rockets any more, or we no longer hear anything that resembles them, or because the only people who might have heard them were dead by the time they got the chance (being supersonic, the V-2 announces its arrival after it has already landed). But then “screaming” is already a comparison, a clarifying anthropomorphic metaphor. Fastforward more than half a century – from 1944 to 2001 – and there are even more phenomena to describe or half describe, more slang to borrow from espionage and economics, erotica and psychiatry. One of the things that Pynchon wants to expose is the way we massage things into metaphor and then forget that we’ve done it.
The book’s title, though a term in its own right (meaning new technology with risks attached), is repurposed here as a pun on a metaphor – the word “pun” being, as Gottlob Frege points out in Pynchon’s novel-beforelast Against the Day (2006), “und” upside down and back to front and a good way of bringing things together.
more here.

Naps Nurture Growing Brains

Jennifer Couzin-Frankel in Science:
NapFew features of child-rearing occupy as much parental brain space as sleep, and with it the timeless question: Is my child getting enough? Despite the craving among many parents for more sleep in their offspring (and, by extension, themselves), the purpose that sleep serves in young kids remains something of a mystery—especially when it comes to daytime naps. Do they help children retain information, as overnight sleep has been found to do in adults? A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides the first evidence that daytime sleep is critical for effective learning in young children.

Psychologist Rebecca Spencer of the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, had more than a passing interest in the subject: Her daughters were 3 and 5 when she began chasing answers to these questions. She also wondered about growing enthusiasm for universal public preschool, where teachers don’t necessarily place much emphasis on naps. “There is a lot of science” about the best curriculum for preschool classrooms, “but nothing to protect the nap,” Spencer says. Still, data to support a nap’s usefulness were scarce: Studies in adults have found that sleep helps consolidate memories and learning, but whether the same is true of brief naps in the preschool set was unknown. So Spencer approached the first preschool she could think of that might help her find out: her daughters’. She later added other local preschools to her sample, for a total of 40 children ranging from nearly 3 to less than 6 years old. The goal of Spencer, her graduate student Laura Kurdziel, and undergraduate Kasey Duclos of Commonwealth Honors College at UMass, was to compare each child against him or herself: How well did a child learn when she napped, and what happened when she didn’t?

To test this, the trio first taught the children a variant of the popular game Memory or Concentration. They were shown a series of cards with pictures on them, such as a cat or umbrella. The cards were then flipped over, hiding the pictures. Each child was offered another picture card and asked to recall where in the matrix its match lay. Then, about 2 hours later, it was naptime—or nap-free time, depending. Kurdziel and Duclos developed various “nap promotion” techniques, resting a hand on a child’s back, rubbing their feet (this was surprisingly effective), or simply sitting next to them. “If they know that someone’s got their eye on them then they can’t wiggle around as much,” Spencer says. The average nap was about an hour and 15 minutes. Soon after the children woke up, the memory game was repeated. On a different day, they learned the game in the morning, were deprived of a nap, and then tested again. All participants repeated the memory game the next morning, too. A nap made a notable difference in how the preschoolers performed, especially among those who were used to getting one.

More here.