the book by DFW’s wife

ImageAdam Plunkett at n+1:

“You are an oil spill,” Green writes to her husband, in plain text. “But from an airplane the catastrophe is gorgeously baroque.” This is all she writes of Wallace the hero, Wallace the icon, aside from the title and a mention of the time some asshole emailed her to say that people know her only through her husband (with which she agrees). She stays far enough from his public life that she doesn’t even include his name and hardly alludes to his work. This is private grief made public, and for her, without anything like the distance to see his death as sublimely complex. Green does describe the day she returned to her house to find her dogs distraught and her husband hanged. After she called the police, she cut him down herself. “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down,” she writes. “I keep hearing that sound.” The authorities arrived with a therapist with “the first name of a vacuum cleaner or a stain remover: Hoover, Kirby, Comet.”

more here.

The Immortality Chronicles

Adam Leith Gollner in The Paris Review:

You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne

Charles-LindberghlargeIn 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life. After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.” In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality. Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature.

In his later years, he characterized himself as a former disciple of science, someone who’d mistakenly enthroned knowledge as his idol. “I felt the godlike power man derives from [it],” he wrote. “I worshipped science.” He publicly acknowledged how mistaken he had been, adding that “physical immortality would be undesirable even if it could be achieved.” In his final years, he became convinced of the necessity of dying. In death, he concluded, “is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries not realizing they had it as a birthright … Only by dying can we continue living.”

More here.

Grafted ovaries lead to successful pregnancy

Karen Ravn in Nature:

BabyA previously infertile woman has given birth to a healthy baby after undergoing a procedure that involved removing her ovaries and stimulating them in the lab to produce eggs. The fertility treatment, dubbed in vitro activation, could offer hope to millions of women who have problems with ovulation. In vitro activation addresses a condition called primary ovarian insufficiency, or premature ovarian failure, whereby egg-containing ovarian follicles do not grow in the way that they are supposed to. Few, if any, eggs ever reach maturity. As many as 1% of women of reproductive age are infertile because of the condition, and egg donation is the currently the only option available to help these women to become pregnant. But in the new procedure, described in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, physicians removed study participants' ovaries, cut them into small pieces and treated them with growth-stimulating drugs. After two days, some pieces were then 'grafted' back into the women's Fallopian tubes, and monitored for follicle growth. In some participants, mature eggs were retrieved, and these underwent the standard process of in vitro fertilization.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

A Fox
A fox knows,
on this sunny desloate field,
that it is all alone.
Therefore, it also knows:
it is a part of the field
and the whole of it as well;
it could be wind or withered grass,
and then a beam of light
on this fox-colored desolate field;
it is a shadowy existence, as if all or nothing.
It knows it runs like the wind
and that it runs faster than light.
So it believes
it is no longer seeable.
The invisible is running while thinking.
Only the thought is running. Before it knows it,
the daytime moon rises above the desolate field.
by Shinjiro Kurahara
from Iwana
publisher Dowaya, Tokyo, 2010
translattion Mariko Kurihara, William I. Elliott, Katsumasa Nishihara

Myths of the Golden Age


Richard Beck in Prospect:

[P]erhaps there is another reason why television’s anti-heroes have been such a hit. In a conversationrecently published by the website Slate, Stephen Metcalf proposed a theory about our obsession with the middle class father living a double life in crime. The economic collapse of 2008, he argued, revealed the hollowness of the economic promises made to the middle class. A responsible life of white-collar work no longer guaranteed you a retirement or a house of your own (at least not a house with any value). What’s more, the middle class was destroyed by a group of plutocratic investment bankers whose behaviour is widely regarded as criminal in its own right. With the rules degraded to the point of cruel uselessness, why should it be any surprise that TV viewers find themselves hungry for shows in which middle class dads break the laws that were not really protecting them in the first place?

It’s a compelling argument, but it misses an important aspect of the genre, which is its aggressive and resentful masculinity. At a recent appearance in New York, the novelist Norman Rush observed that, over the last half-century, men have steadily lost many of their “prerogatives.” A man can no longer control his wife’s finances, for example, nor can he feel up the pretty secretaries who work for him, at least not without being sued. At the same time, men continue to dominate the legislatures of every country on earth, and they also control the vast majority of the world’s wealth. This dual phenomenon, Rush said—the loss of many smaller, everyday privileges, combined with continued possession of all the bigger ones—has enormous psychological consequences. Prestige television hints at what these consequences might be. Many of the genre’s flagship programs are organised around a man who remains angry and unhappy despite the power he wields over every other character in the show. Tony Soprano, the head of a criminal empire, sees a therapist because of family anxieties. Walter White, in becoming a drug kingpin, puts his family in extraordinary danger, and he justifies his actions on the grounds that he is simply trying to protect his family.

Viewers’ devotion to these characters has reached such a pitch that Anna Gunn, who plays Walter White’s wife on Breaking Bad, felt compelled to write an editorial this August about the vitriol directed at her character by fans of the show. “I have never hated a TV-show character as much as I hate her,” one fan wrote online. This is not a fringe view. It is, in fact, an unattractive premise of certain prestige television shows. In Difficult Men,Martin reports an early brainstorming session around The Sopranos. “Look at what’s going on in this country,” a colleague remembers David Chase saying. “Now, nobody’s taken care of. And marriage is the same thing: You go to work and everybody’s selling you out and you get home and your wife’s busting your balls.” (AlongsideThe Sopranos and Breaking Bad, shows like Homeland and Mad Men also present variations of the ball-busting wife, who is also usually blonde.)

More here.

Merkel in the Land of Smiles


Joschka Fischer in Project Sydnciate:

Chancellor Angela Merkel is celebrating a landslide victory, with her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) having fallen just short of an outright parliamentary majority. But the scale of her triumph is mainly due to the collapse of her liberal coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which for the first time in the German Federal Republic’s history will not be represented in the Bundestag.

The liberals have always formed a key part of German postwar democracy; now they are gone. Responsibility for that lies, first and foremost, with the FDP. No governing party can afford such woefully incompetent ministers and leadership; Merkel had merely to stand back and watch the liberals’ public suicide over the last four years.

The opposition parties, too, paid the price for their failure to come to grips with reality. The economy is humming, unemployment is low, and most Germans are better off than ever before. But, rather than focusing on the government’s weaknesses – energy, Europe, education, and family policy – they bet their political fortunes on social justice. Merkel’s Panglossian campaign was much more in tune with the sentiment of the German electorate than the opposing parties’ tristesse about working-class distress, which was rightly seen as a ploy for raising taxes.

Governing majorities (and therefore elections) in Germany are always won in the center. Merkel’s predecessor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Gerhard Schröder, knew this well. But this time her opponents – the SPD, Die Linke (The Left), and the Greens – cleared the center and cannibalized each other on the left.

More here.

A World in Which No One Is Listening to the Planet’s Sole Superpower


Dilip Hiro over at Guernica (Image from Flickr via Desmond Kavanagh):

What if the sole superpower on the planet makes its will known — repeatedly — and finds that no one is listening? Barely a decade ago, that would have seemed like a conundrum from some fantasy Earth in an alternate dimension. Now, it is increasingly a plain description of political life on our globe, especially in the Greater Middle East.

In the future, the indecent haste with which Barack Obama sought cover under the umbrella unfurled by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis will be viewed as a watershed moment when it comes to America’s waning power in that region. In the aptly named “arc of instability,” the lands from the Chinese border to northern Africa that President George W. Bush and his neocon acolytes dreamed of thoroughly pacifying, turmoil is on the rise. Ever fewer countries, allies, or enemies, are paying attention, much less kowtowing, to the once-formidable power of the world’s last superpower. The list of defiant figures – from Egyptian generals to Saudi princes, Iraqi Shiite leaders to Israeli politicians – is lengthening.

The signs of this loss of clout have been legion in recent years. In August 2011, for instance, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ignored Obama’s unambiguous call for him “to step aside.” Nothing happened even after an unnamed senior administration official insisted, “We are certain Assad is on the way out.” As the saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

More here.

The Comedy of Seamus Heaney


Robert Pinsky in The Daily Beast:

Irreverent comedy subverts, but it doesn't necessarily hurt. Its best laughter can be derisive, but not cruel.

Seamus Heaney, among many other things, embodied that central principle: his comic sense was gleefully sharp, but it was not mean. I think he disdained cruelty, as well as pomposity. Mischievous, more bite than bark in the sense that it was mordant with minimal rhetoric, Heaney was not genteel. He enjoyed the disrespectful roar of impropriety.

Examples? Here's a story he told me, about an Irish literary eminence who was invited to a dinner party attended by the young William Butler Yeats. In those days the youthful emerging poet Yeats was at his most affected: a cape-wearing aesthete, with a lock of hair falling over his pale brow, and a distracted, ethereal manner.

The eminence was asked, the next morning, “Well, you've met the young Yeats— what did you think of him?”

Seamus, already chortling, delivered the answer at Full Twinkle, and possibly amping the Irish accent a bit:

“Think of him? Think of him, is it? I think he should be put back in and fooked-for again!”

To be put back in and fucked-for again—surreal, and wonderfully clear. As I remember, he repeated the phrase, relishing it two or three times. But maybe the important element in the story, and Seamus's pleasure in it, is the implicit rejection of piety about the great poet . . . maybe, as a further implication, about any great poet.

More here.

Should Slowing Trade Growth Worry Us?


Paul Krugman over at his NYT blog, The Conscience of a Liberal:

I’ve spent most of today both under pressure to get an assignment out the door and under the weather; still sniffling, but the piece has been emailed off, so a bit of time for the blog. Except I feel like taking a vacation from both the shutdown and Obamacare. So let’s talk about trade — specifically, a recent post by Gavyn Davies, “Why world trade growth has lost its mojo,” which expresses deep concern over the fact that in recent years trade hasn’t grown much faster than global GDP. He suggests that hidden protectionism may be partly to blame, and that this may have large economic costs.

So, I’m going to disagree with both propositions.

First, on the general point of the welfare gains from trade: I’m basically withDani Rodrik here. Standard economic models do not imply huge gains from trade liberalization. You can make arguments that suggest bigger gains, but they’re highly speculative, and the credulity with which people accept dubious nonstandard arguments for big trade gains contrasts oddly with the gimlet eye cast on arguments for, say, industrial policy. You should definitely not accept estimates that every dollar of additional trade raises world GDP by 46 cents — an extremely high number — as being definitive.

But my main thought, reading Davies’s piece, was that the belief that trade must always expand much faster than output, and that there’s something wrong if it doesn’t, doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny.

More here.

The Rise of the Machines


Meredith Hindley in Humanities:

In the years following World War II, the sciences—physical, biological, and social—embraced computers to work on complex calculations, but it took the humanities a little longer to see the value of computing. One of the biggest challenges for humanists was the question of how to turn language, the core operating system of the humanities, into numbers in order to be compiled and calculated. At this point in the history of computing, all data had to be in numerical form. It’s not sur-prising, then, that some of the first humanities projects were indexes and concordances, since the location of a word could be given a numerical value.

The first concordance was made for the Vulgate Bible, under the direction of Hugo of St-Cher, a Dominican scholar of theology and member of the faculty at the University of Paris. When completed in 1230, theConcordantiae Sacrorum Bibliorum enabled the Dominicans to locate every mention of “lamb” or “sacrifice” or “adultery.” According to legend, five hundred monks toiled to complete the concordance. Herein lay the challenge of making concordances and indexes: You either had to command a team of multitudes or be willing to devote yourself to the project for years. John Bartlett, he of the Familiar Quotations, spent two decades working with his wife on the first full Shakespeare concordance. The volume, given the unwieldy name of New and Complete Concordance or Verbal Index to Words, Phrases and Passages in the Dramatic Works of Shakespeare, with a supplementing concordance to his poems (1894), ran to 1,910 pages.

The story of digital humanities often begins with another theologian on a quest to make a concordance. In the mid 1940s, Father Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest, latched onto the idea of making a master index of works by Saint Thomas Aquinas and related authors. Busa had written his dissertation on “the metaphysics ofpresence” in Aquinas. Looking for the answer, he created 10,000 hand-written index cards. His work demonstrated the importance of how an author uses a particular word, especially prepositions. But making an index for all of Aquinas’s works required wrangling ten million words of Medieval Latin. It seemed an impossible task.

More here.

Why I Am Going on Hunger Strike


Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in n+1:

It has been a year since I arrived at Penal Colony No. 14 [henceforth, PC-14 —Trans.] in the Mordovian village of Partsa. As the women convicts say, “Those who haven’t done time in Mordovia haven’t done time at all.” I had heard about the Mordovian prison camps while I was still being held at Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 6 in Moscow. They have the harshest conditions, the longest workdays, and the most flagrant lawlessness. Prisoners see their fellows off to Mordovia as if they were headed to the scaffold. Until the last, they keep hoping: “Maybe they won’t send you to Mordovia after all? Maybe the danger will pass you by?” It didn’t pass me by, and in the autumn of 2012, I arrived in the prison country on the banks of the Partsa River.

My first impression of Mordovia was the words uttered by the prison’s deputy warden, Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov, who actually runs PC-14. “You should know that when it comes to politics, I am a Stalinist.” Colonel Kulagin, the other warden (the prison is administered in tandem) called me in for a chat my first day here in order to force me to confess my guilt. “A misfortune has befallen you. Isn’t that right? You’ve been sentenced to two years in prison. People usually change their views when bad things happen to them. If you want to be paroled as soon as possible, you have to confess your guilt. If you don’t, you won’t get parole.” I told him right away I would work only the eight hours a day stipulated by the Labor Code. “The code is the code. What really matters is making your quota. If you don’t, you work overtime. And we’ve broken stronger wills than yours here!” Colonel Kulagin replied.

My whole shift works sixteen to seventeen hours a day in the sewing workshop, from seven-thirty in the morning to twelve-thirty at night. At best, we get four hours of sleep a night. We have a day off once every month and a half. We work almost every Sunday. Prisoners “voluntarily” apply to work on weekends. In fact, there is nothing “voluntary” about it.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Mexican Cabdriver

We were sitting in traffic
on the Brooklyn Bridge,
so I asked the poets
in the back seat of my cab
to write a poem for you.
They asked
if you are like the moon
or the trees.
I said no,
she is like the bridge
when there is so much traffic
I have time
to watch the boats
on the river.

by Martin Espada
from A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen
W.W. Norton, 2000

Malcolm Gladwell interview

Gaby Wood in The Telegraph:

Malcolm-gladwell-p_2683360bMalcolm Gladwell says he never knows what people will take from his books. “It’s never what I think it’s going to be,” he shrugs. “Parts that you think are going to make this big impact are ignored, and parts that you wrote in a day are like the 10,000 hours stuff – I thought no one would ever mention that again. And it is, in fact, all people talk about. Who knew?” Not dissimilarly, the story of Malcolm Gladwell himself has taken off in ways that would have been difficult to predict. Once a journalist, he is now a phenomenon, revered and scoffed at in different quarters, somewhere between social scientist, motivational speaker and preacher-like source of consolation. He plays one-man shows to packed theatres on both sides of the Atlantic; he gives talks to businessmen about subjects such as Fleetwood Mac, earning tens of thousands of dollars per speech; his books are automatic bestsellers. His work has coined an adjective – “Gladwellian” refers to a sort of nerdy and captivating formula, against which there has been an inevitable backlash. A website called The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator mocked up fake Gladwell covers: “Blank”, one read, referring to his book Blink, “300 Empty Pages to Fill With Your Own F—ing Thoughts”.

Gladwell is often accused of stating the obvious. The topics he covers – turning points (The Tipping Point), acting on instinct (Blink), working hard to achieve success (Outliers) – are, on the face of it, the bland raw material of everyday life. He is now famous for the observation that in order to succeed at anything you need 10,000 hours of practice. But that calculation wasn’t entirely what Outliers was about, and “stating” is not what Gladwell does. Even if he’s interpreting the obvious or diagnosing the obvious, that’s a big step further. And most of the time he synthesises zanily sourced evidence with such alchemy that you can’t work out if it was obvious all along, or if it only seems obvious now that it has passed through Gladwell’s hands. That is his trick. He’d say he is just telling stories, which makes him a Scheherazade for our time, stringing out tales about the power within us, talking to keep us going and make us think. His new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, is his most accessible. Some would say it's too accessible – perhaps because of Gladwell’s mass audience or his habits as a speaker, he can swerve oddly into diction worthy of Richard Scarry – “Can you see why no Israelite would come forward to fight Goliath?”; “Would you send your child to Shepaug Middle School?”; “Do you know how few things 77 per cent of Americans agree on?”.

More here.

The World as They Knew It: Legacy of Greco-Roman Mapmaking

John Noble Wilford in The New York Times:

MapLong before people could look upon Earth from afar, completing a full orbit every 90 minutes, the Greeks and the Romans of antiquity had to struggle to understand their world’s size and shape. Their approaches differed: the philosophical Greeks, it has been said, measured the world by the stars; the practical, road-building Romans by milestones. As the Greek geographer Strabo wrote at the time: “We may learn from both the evidence of our senses and from experiences, that the inhabited world is an island, for wherever it has been possible for men to reach the limits of the earth, sea has been found, and this sea we call ‘Oceanus.’ And whenever we have not been able to learn by the evidence of sense, there reason points the way.”

Strabo’s words will greet visitors to a new exhibition, “Measuring and Mapping Space: Geographic Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” which opens Friday at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at 15 East 84th Street in Manhattan. The show runs through Jan. 5. Roger S. Bagnall, director of the institute, an affiliate of New York University, said the exhibition would not only cross ancient borders and cultures but also modern disciplines. “Our exhibitions and digital teams,” he said, “present a 21st-century approach to the ancient mentality concerning geographic space and how it is represented.” The show brings together more than 40 objects that provide an overview of Greco-Roman geographical thinking — art and pottery, as well as maps based on classical texts. (Hardly any original maps survive; the ones in the exhibition were created in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from Greek and Roman descriptions.)

More here.