The Birds of War

Christopher Benfey in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_824 Oct. 03 17.29Is it to be war? It would seem so, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the future seems, increasingly, unforeseeable, as the seers with furrowed brows, convened around the tables at CNN or PBS, predict the most extraordinary and contradictory things. Can the campaign against ISIS succeed without American “boots on the ground”? Well, yes and no. Can the Iraqi army become a reliable fighting force? That depends. Will the fickle American public—whipped into war fever by videotaped beheadings and an obscure group called Khorasan, apparently determined to attack the US from secret cells near Aleppo—still support the war when the November elections arrive? We’ll see.

When the Romans, those unsentimental warriors, considered launching a war in some far-flung locale on the margins of empire, they didn’t dilly-dally around with military experts. They consulted augurs, professional birdwatchers, who read, in the zigzag flight of birds, the course of the future, as clearly as words on the page. Such practices linger in our language whenever we “inaugurate” a president or find a course of action “auspicious.” Why shouldn’t we, like the Romans, take our bearings from the flight of birds? Would our expectations differ significantly from those of the so-called experts?

More here.

The Odds, Continually Updated

F. D. Flam in the New York Times:

30BAYES-master675Statistics may not sound like the most heroic of pursuits. But if not for statisticians, a Long Island fisherman might have died in the Atlantic Ocean after falling off his boat early one morning last summer.

The man owes his life to a once obscure field known as Bayesian statistics — a set of mathematical rules for using new data to continuously update beliefs or existing knowledge.

The method was invented in the 18th century by an English Presbyterian minister named Thomas Bayes — by some accounts to calculate the probability of God’s existence. In this century, Bayesian statistics has grown vastly more useful because of the kind of advanced computing power that didn’t exist even 20 years ago.

It is proving especially useful in approaching complex problems, including searches like the one the Coast Guard used in 2013 to find themissing fisherman, John Aldridge (though not, so far, in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370).

Now Bayesian statistics are rippling through everything from physics tocancer research, ecology to psychology.

More here.

The Sound So Loud That It Circled the Earth Four Times

Aatish Bhatia in Nautilus:

4363_c0a62e133894cdce435bcb4a5df1db2dOn 27 August 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.

It was 10:02 AM local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius* (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”1) In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.

Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. Travelling at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilometers per hour), it takes a noise about 4 hours to cover that distance. This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.

So what could possibly create such an earth-shatteringly loud bang? A volcano on Krakatoa had just erupted with a force so great that it tore the island apart, emitting a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere, according to a geologist who witnessed it.

More here.

Unraveling “Racial Threat”

Laura Levis in Harvard Magazine:

RaceRiding the train to work every day in Chicago, Ryan Enos began to notice an intriguing pattern: at a certain downtown station, all the African-American riders seemed to get off just as Caucasian riders climbed aboard. “It was like a meeting of two worlds, where you could feel this palpable tension between two communities that otherwise are strictly segregated from each other, but occasionally come into close proximity,” he says. Now an assistant professor of government, Enos at the time was teaching high school in the historically poor and almost entirely African-American neighborhood of Englewood. The experience of moving between two worlds and thinking about how that reality was an overwhelming presence in people’s lives, shaping everything from the way they view others to their own political views, led Enos to pursue the study of “racial threat”—how people react with uncertainty to those of a different race—in graduate school and his subsequent professional career. In his most recent paper, “What the Demolition of Public Housing Teaches Us About the Impact of Racial Threat on Political Behavior,” he explores how individuals’ politics are affected by the context in which they live.

Between 2000 and 2004, Enos and a group of Harvard graduate students studied a public-housing reconstruction project in Chicago that caused the displacement of more than 25,000 African Americans, many of whom had previously lived in close proximity to white voters. After the African Americans moved out of the voting district, a startling effect became apparent: the white voters’ turnout dropped by 12 to 15 percentage points, leading Enos and his team to believe that white residents’ previously higher levels of civic engagement were in large part caused by feelings of racial threat.

More here.

How cancer cells assure immortality by lengthening the ends of chromosomes

From KurzweilAI:

Telomeres-as-fishOn Sept. 23, KurzweilAI noted that scientists at the Salk Institute had discovered an on-and-off “switch” in cells that might allow for increasing telomerase, which rebuilds telomeres at the ends of chromosomes to keep cells dividing and generating. We also noted that cancer cells hijack this process and that the scientists expect that the “off” switch might help keep telomerase activity below this threshold. Now in another studypublished last week in Cell, Roger Greenberg, MD, PhD, associate professor of Cancer Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvaniaand his colleagues describe their discovery of a second method used by cancer cells to survive, involving a DNA-repair-based mechanism called “alternative lengthening of telomeres” (ALT).

The researchers found that approximately 15 percent of cancers use the ALT process for telomere lengthening, but that some cancer types use ALT up to 40 to 50 percent of the time. The team showed that when a cancer cell’s DNA breaks, the cell triggers DNA repair proteins (like the breast cancer suppressor protein BRCA2*) into action, along with other helper proteins that attach to the damaged stretch of DNA. These proteins stretch out the DNA, allowing it to search for complementary sequences of telomere DNA. “This process of repair triggers the movement and clustering of telomeres like fish being reeled toward an angler,” explains Greenberg. “The broken telomeres use a telomere on a different chromosome — the homologous telomere — as a template for repair.” In cancer cells that use ALT to maintain their telomeres, the team visualized these clusters of telomeres coming together.

More here.

A journalist remembers her days in Libya with James Foley

JFandCGintruckClare Morgana Gillis at The American Scholar:

BENGHAZI, April 2011–A large and detailed map of Sirte hung on the wall of the general’s office where James Foley and I conducted what turned out to be our last interview before our capture by Qaddafi’s troops, leading to an involuntary stay in Tripoli. The general—I forget his name–smoked cigarettes in a natty holder and explained his strategy for taking the town, almost exactly halfway between Benghazi, the rebel capital, and Tripoli, the regime stronghold, on the narrow, brush-lined coastal road. It had served as the front line when the British fought the Axis powers during World War II: “a tactician’s paradise, a quartermaster’s hell,” one of Rommel’s generals called it. Now it was where columns of rebel gun trucks beat hasty retreats once regime Grad missiles started thunking down, and the front line that had once spanned nearly to Bin Jawwad had been pushed back to somewhere around Brega. Sometimes those small cities changed hands twice in the same day.

The general’s take on rebel capabilities was a few shades brighter than our own, but Jim was enthusiastic anyway and showed up the next morning with a bag packed for Sirte. I raised my eyebrows and scratched my head. “Are you joking me?” He smiled sheepishly and left his bags in my room, both of us taking only small backpacks.

more here.

Pope Francis Revisits Liberation Theology

1411576686frithoscar_romero_elsalvadorstevemonty666Eric Frith at Dissent:

Late last month, Pope Francis told reporters he considers it very important that the beatification of Oscar Romero—the process of declaring Romero officially “blessed” that is the stepping-stone to sainthood—be accomplished quickly. “Romero is a man of God,” the pontiff said, and the process “must move now.”

Romero has long been recognized as the unofficial saint of liberation theology. Pope Francis’s signal that the late Salvadoran Archbishop now has a legitimate path to sainthood is the latest in a series of statements to trigger media speculation that the pontiff seeks a rapprochement with the controversial Catholic movement.

Liberation theology arose in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council, challenging the Church and believers to embrace both the cause and the perspective of the poor and to fight intractable political and economic injustices identified as “structural sin.” Romero undeniably embodied this spirit. A conservative when elected Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero soon found himself defending priests influenced by liberation theology. These priests, and like-minded laypeople, deliberately lived and worked among the country’s poorest, and allowed the needs of the poor to shape their vision of the Church’s role in a deeply divided society.

more here.

a week spent undercover among immigrant labourers in Italy

Gatti_toms_468w_1Fabrizio Gatti at Eurozine:

“Find out what this guy wants. If he's looking for work, tell him we don't need anyone today.” Having addressed the bodyguard in dialect, the boss drives off in his SUV.

The Maghrebi speaks perfect Italian. He doesn't wear any stripes on his sweaty shirt but it's quite obvious that he's the caporale, the “gangmaster”. “Are you from Romania?” A grimace is all it takes to convince him. “I can hire you. Tomorrow”, he promises. “Do you have a girlfriend?” “A girlfriend?” “You have to bring me a woman. For the boss. If you bring him one, he'll put you to work right away. Any girl will do.” He points to a twenty-year-old woman and her companion who are working on a conveyor belt attached to a huge tractor gathering tomatoes. “Those two are Romanians, just like you. She slept with the boss.” “But I'm alone.” “No work for you then.”

There's no limit to the shame in the triangle of slavery. The gangmaster wants a woman for the boss to screw.

more here.

Friday Poem

There is Never Enough Time

Above the clouds
is nothing
but a leprous
single star
(B. Brecht)

The more I look at it
the less I feel.
I try to recollect. I shake
a distant hand
& pay for laughter.
The odds are heavily
against me.
There is never enough time.
When I place a foot
in the hot water
someone declares me lost.
I smile into a mirror
& my face
glares back.
A father holds his babe
up to the light.
Where will it lead us?
Heaven is no place for fools.
I run my fingers
through your hair
& feel the universe
shut down.

by Jerome Rothenberg
from A Book of Witness
New Directions, 2002

debating the double life of Paul de Man

P5_Jefferson_Web_1098874hAnn Jefferson at the Times Literary Supplement:

But there is a further and more problematic accusation. Using de Man’s argument according to which the evolution of literature is determined by its inherent dynamic, independently of individual writers – Jewish or otherwise – Barish comments that de Man was in search of “general principles” and “abstract theories” into which he could then fit literary works whose particularities might be ignored: “cutting away what was individual and showing how writers ‘submitted’ to those supposed aesthetic regulations shifting with the ages would be the task for the historian”. The implication here is that, like the Nazi ideology of the German occupier, “Grand Theory” rides roughshod over individuals and, moreover, that this reflects a general attitude of mind on the part of the person who chooses to explore the larger forces at work in literature.

What this implication ignores is that the notion of a literature that transcended the individual was part of avant-garde French thinking from Mallarmé to Gide, and that de Man’s interest in such ideas was a reflection of his immersion in that literature. To describe him as an “autodidact”, as Barish repeatedly and somewhat disparagingly does, is to fail to acknowledge de Man’s responsiveness to what were the most urgent and challenging issues in contemporary literature and literary thinking. His later interest in Georges Bataille, the author of a defence of expenditure and excess, is interpreted here merely as providing endorsement for de Man’s spendthrift habits, Surrealism is made to sound simply dubious, and Sartre’s existentialism treated as a morally reprehensible licence to “flee forward” and leave history behind.

more here.

in pursuit of the amazons

Holland_10_14Tom Holland at Literary Review:

No one today believes that an army of female warriors really sailed from the Black Sea to attack Athens. If a historical basis for the legend has to be found, then it is likeliest to be a refraction of the invasions of Greece in the early fifth century BC by the Persians. The Athenians, who never wearied of reminiscing about their stunning victories at Marathon and Salamis, had a conflicted attitude towards their great enemy: they could never quite decide whether to dread the Persians' martial prowess or despise them as effeminate. How better, then, to sublimate this ambivalence than by representing them as female warriors? There was an additional reason, though, why the figure of the Amazon should have appealed so strongly to Greek fantasy. Women in Greece led lives that were invariably demarcated by the domestic. In Athens, respectable wives were barely so much as seen outside the house. The notion of women who could wield weapons as proficiently as men was therefore simultaneously transgressive and titillating. It was precisely because they were so fantastical that Amazons came to be invented.

Such, at any rate, has long been the scholarly consensus. Recently, though, archaeological finds in the lands traditionally identified as the home of the Amazons have begun to prompt a rethink. Excavations around the Black Sea and across the steppes of Central Asia, that immense region known collectively by the Greeks as Scythia, suggest that there may well have been more to the stories of female warriors than overheated fantasy.

more here.

is religion to blame for history’s bloodiest wars?

2014_38_theinquisitionJohn Gray at The New Statesman:

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

It’s a confusion compounded by the lack of understanding, among those who issue blanket condemnations of religion, of what being religious means for most of humankind. As Armstrong writes, “Our modern western conception of religion is idiosyncratic and eccentric.” In the west we think of religion as “a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centring on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities”. But this narrow, provincial conception, which is so often invoked by contemporary unbelievers, is the product of a particular history and a specific version of monotheism.

more here.

The Anatomy of Attention

Alan Lightman in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_823 Oct. 02 19.43Every moment, our brains are bombarded with information, from without and within. The eyes alone convey more than a hundred billion signals to the brain every second. The ears receive another avalanche of sounds. Then there are the fragments of thoughts, conscious and unconscious, that race from one neuron to the next. Much of this data seems random and meaningless. Indeed, for us to function, much of it must be ignored. But clearly not all. How do our brains select the relevant data? How do we decide to pay attention to the turn of a doorknob and ignore the drip of a leaky faucet? How do we become conscious of a certain stimulus, or indeed “conscious” at all?

For decades, philosophers and scientists have debated the process by which we pay attention to things, based on cognitive models of the mind. But, in the view of many modern psychologists and neurobiologists, the “mind” is not some nonmaterial and exotic essence separate from the body. All questions about the mind must ultimately be answered by studies of physical cells, explained in terms of the detailed workings of the more than eighty billion neurons in the brain. At this level, the question is: How do neurons signal to one another and to a cognitive command center that they have something important to say?

More here.

Apocalypse soon: the scientists preparing for the end times

Sophie McBain in New Statesman:

2014+37_Little_Boy_Montage2The men were too absorbed in their work to notice my arrival at first. Three walls of the conference room held whiteboards densely filled with algebra and scribbled diagrams. One man jumped up to sketch another graph, and three colleagues crowded around to examine it more closely. Their urgency surprised me, though it probably shouldn’t have. These academics were debating what they believe could be one of the greatest threats to mankind – could superintelligent computers wipe us all out?

I was visiting the Future of Humanity Institute, a research department at Oxford University founded in 2005 to study the “big-picture questions” of human life. One of its main areas of research is existential risk. The physicists, philosophers, biologists, economists, computer scientists and mathematicians of the institute are students of the apocalypse.

Predictions of the end of history are as old as history itself, but the 21st century poses new threats. The development of nuclear weapons marked the first time that we had the technology to end all human life. Since then, advances in synthetic biology and nanotechnology have increased the potential for human beings to do catastrophic harm by accident or through deliberate, criminal intent.

In July this year, long-forgotten vials of smallpox – a virus believed to be “dead” – were discovered at a research centre near Washington, DC. Now imagine some similar incident in the future, but involving an artificially generated killer virus or nanoweapons. Some of these dangers are closer than we might care to imagine.

More here.

“Fanaticism Anxiety” about Muslims has been with us since the Colonial Era

Edmund Burke III in Informed Comment:

9780520273818Today we hear a great deal about the question of what went wrong in Middle Eastern societies. For an historian of the early twentieth century world, it’s déjà vu all over again. Similar questions and similar anxieties were being voiced a century ago. Very much like fin de siècle Europeans, we seem to have civilizations on the brain, even as the world changes at vertiginous speed.

In 1900 media fulmination about the threat posed by alleged Muslim fanaticism dominated the headlines. Then as now, nineteenth century European tabloid railings against the Sudanese Mahdi and pan-Islamic conspiracies were a proven way to sell newspapers. Then as now, the lords of empire sought to spook metropolitan populations into supporting military interventions by manufacturing Muslim rebels. Then as now, this helped win continued public support for endless war and colonial expansion. Thus our current preoccupations with al-Qaida, Somali hijackers and ISIS fanatics, fit rather well in the museum of imperialist culture.

The French colonial experience provides a salient example. French Algeria was a veritable bestiary of what not to do, ranging from such Islamophobic policies of closing mosques, libraries and Islamic schools to demonizing sufi brotherhoods as the sources of alleged pan-Islamic insurgency. By 1900, French colonial experts and metropolitan officials had become convinced that a change was needed. They looked to the model of British India for an example of what worked, and to Morocco as the potential site where they could “get it right” by introducing the model of British India. But before they could do that, they first had to get acquiescence of the other European powers and contend with Moroccan resistance.

More here.

Tender Is The Night and the “Ode to a Nightingale”

William Doherty in

Tender Critics often express a feeling that there is something mysterious about Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, that there is something unsatisfying in the analyses we have had—a discomfort one does not feel with the more elaborately structured The Great Gatsby, or with the intriguing, unfinished The Last Tycoon. Searching the critical opinion on Tender Is The Night—this “magnificent failure” —one is likely to feel that something is missing; one seems to have, as Maxwell Geismar says, “the curious impression at times that the novel is really about something else altogether.”(Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincial, (Cambridge, Mass.. 1947), 333.) It seems strange that the relationship between the novel and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which supplied Fitzgerald with both title and epigraph, should have received no more than passing attention from the critics. The epigraph reads:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

We know that Fitzgerald had a lifelong and deep response to Keats: “for awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.” The “Ode to a Nightingale” was especially important to him; he found it unbearably beautiful, confessed he read it always with tears in his eyes (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-up (New York, 1956), 298.)It is true that the title Tender Is The Night was chosen late in the extended course of the book’s writing; but it seems clear that Fitzgerald was conscious of the “Ode” not merely in the last stages of composition. The title is appropriate, though no one has said why. Yet, a moment’s reflection will show that there is a good deal of Keatsian suggestiveness in Tender Is The Night in both decor and atmosphere—the Provencal summers of sunburnt mirth, the nights perfumed and promising, the dark gardens of an illusory world. But I suggest that there are parallels more significant than those of color and mood. The correspondences I offer in this case, when taken individually, might seem no more than coincidental; but considered in their cumulative weight, they indicate a calculated pattern of allusion beneath the literal surface of the novel which deepens the psychoanalytic rationale and adds context to the cultural analysis the book offers. In addition, the “Ode” appears to provide us with a sort of thematic overlay which clarifies unsuspected symbolic structures, essential to the understanding of the book.

More here. (Note: Just re-read Tender is the Night and was deeply moved all over again by its beauty and sadness.)

How to Solve the Famous Birthday Problem

Jason Marshall in QuickandDirtyTips:

DiceprobabilityoddsAs you may know, the quadrennial World Cup was recently played in Brazil. As you may not know, each of the 32 teams in this year's tournament had 23 players on their roster. This week's Math Dude episode has absolutely nothing to do with soccer or the World Cup, so why have I mentioned this fun fact? Allow me to answer this question with a question: What are the odds that two players from one World Cup team share a birthday? It seems like the chances are pretty slim. After all, there are 365 days in a year, and only 23 players on a team—so surely there's not much chance of a shared birthday, right? Believe it or not, wrong. As we'll soon find out, there's actually a decent chance that many—perhaps even the majority—of World Cup teams will have a pair of players who share a birthday. How is that possible? Keep on reading to find out!

To help us understand the probabilities of shared birthdays, let's think a bit about the probabilities of rolling dice. To begin with, what's the probability of tossing 6 when you roll a single die? Since dice have 6 sides, the probability must be 1 out of 6, or 1/6. Now let's imagine that we roll the same die twice. What's the probability that we get the same number—no matter what it is—twice? Whatever we get on the first roll, there's a 1 out of 6 chance that we get the same number again. So, once again, the probability is 1/6. If we roll the same die three times, what's the probability of getting the same number three times in a row? As we've seen, there's a 1/6 chance that the first two rolls will give the same number. And whatever that number is, there's a 1/6 chance that the third roll will yield it again. So the probability of rolling the same number three times in a row is 1/6 x 1/6 = 1/36.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Rain

Rain, and driving thoughts of rain, miles
and hours of it, inches and yards of light
and dark rain, where seamless cloud has been
stitched and gathered into a great undoing
of itself, in wind that brings its freeplaying ride
through a highland plateau down into the hair-
pinned, run-off green below Mount Arrowsmith
or Frenchman’s Cap, whose faces have gone
to a full-blown curtain of angled rain
and its bright companions, ice and snow,
to make, under the button grass, a blackwater
seepage from a thaw that will come within days,
or less, here and there at rain-mined overhangs
flowering with spillage, and in Queenstown,
where a conveyor belt sounds like a mongrel
dragging its chain against the rim of an over-
turned drum, it is raining still, at the tail end
of a mining era, on the open-cut towns of Linda
and Gormanston, diminishing under seasons
of rain-blurred windows and the shells of cars
in yards overgrown with absence, on lakes
where the rings of rising trout are one
with the surface-pelting blanket of the rain,
clear and clean as the spittle of a local
weather-telling prophet who grinds lens glass
and peers at the sky from a roof, rain-hammered
and domed above streets awash with longing,
and further afield, near a moored houseboat
on Macquarie Harbour, an old woodcutter
is remembering rain as an all-night, fly-sheet-
testing wall of black proportions, and day
as much the same, with sunlight no more
than a rumour, with running silver on the chip-
flecked sleeves of his oilskin, and now, inland,
with no change to the long-range forecast,
at Cemetery Creek and Laughing Jack Lagoon,
it is raining, and the rivers are full, their dark
mirrors bubbling, and even the mountain-fed
torrent between two hydro-electric plants
– its peaks and lines like whitewashed milestones
tumbling end over end – is driving the blood-
made turbines with its own internal rain.

by Anthony Lawrence
from The Sleep of a Learning Man
publisher: Giramondo, Artamon