What Libraries Can (Still) Do

James Gleick in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_1480 Oct. 31 21.34Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journalconference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

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The Scariest Story Ever Told

Colin Nissan in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_1479 Oct. 31 21.23At the end of a quiet road, behind a veil of twisted black oak trees, there was a house. A woman lived there. On bitter nights like this one, she sat by the fire and read until she grew tired enough for sleep. But on this night, as her lids grew heavy, she was startled by a sound. A sound she wasn’t accustomed to hearing these days. Who could be calling, she wondered? And this late? She rose from her chair and picked up the phone.

“I’m going to kill you,” a man with a deep voice said.

“Who is this?” she asked.

No answer.

“Who is this?” she repeated, her hand trembling.

There was a click. Silence. She quickly dialled the police and explained what had happened. The officer told her to wait while he traced the call. After a few moments he said, “The call is coming from . . . inside your house.”

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Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago

Shannon Hall in Scientific American:

A0FC1458-B984-4950-8A8ACB6813D0C224_articleExxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.

Experts, however, aren’t terribly surprised. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science,” says Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University. But as it turns out, Exxon didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research.

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51IgsWsnK6L._SX356_BO1,204,203,200_Jack Hanson at The Quarterly Conversation:

Broadly speaking, Mallarmé’s influence in Anglophone poetry cuts two ways. The first and most prominent is the heritage of the Symbolists, a combination of religious and philosophical preoccupations with a deep concern for musicality and rhythm. The latter of these is in part what makes Mallarmé so difficult to translate. The nearest English equivalent to my mind is Wallace Stevens, a poet whose work is in constant conversation with his French predecessor. (Consider the task of translating even Stevens’ most famous poems, such as the “Emperor of Ice Cream,” which opens, “Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.”) Through the American Modernist quadrumvirate of Stevens, Frost (with his insistence on the “sound of sense”), Pound, and Eliot (though, true to form, he cited the more obscure Jules La Forgue as a decisive influence), Mallarmé’s hand can be seen in all of what might be called “mainstream” poetry of the 20th century.

The other strain of Mallarmé’s influence comes down through the more experimental line in Modern poetry, from Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams to such diverse practitioners as Surrealists like André Breton, the Language poets, and, in our own time, the nascent movement of digital and computer-generated poetry. This loosely defined nexus of formally and conceptually experimental poets, who often relate intensely in their work with other art forms, can be traced directly to Mallarmé’s final work, Un coup des Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard.

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‘The Other Paris,’ by Luc Sante

1101-BKS-Haskell-SUB01-blog427Molly Haskell at The New York Times:

Luc Sante is no doubt a well-behaved person whose lodgings are neat as a pin, but his mind teems with filth and disorder, his nostrils alert to the dankness of slums. To this explorer of the urban under­belly, the squalid and the tawdry are manna from heaven.

Lost neighborhoods, the way the other half lived and died, buried treasure in the form of old photographs and documents, what he has called the “husks” cast off by the past, are the main attraction for this literary scavenger. The Belgian-born and vastly erudite Sante has followed his appetite for the detritus of the past in essays and translations and in books like “Low Life” (1991) and now “The Other Paris.” “I’ve always been a sucker for tales of lost civilizations, pockets in time, suppressed documents,” he once wrote.

In “Low Life” his quarry was the under­world of 19th- and early-20th-century New York, the freak shows and shooting galleries and Bowery museums, and those first flickers of cinema, the nickelodeons. Not finished with the “husks” contained in his chapters on “Gangland” and “Coppers,” this exuberant necrophiliac went on to publish “Evidence,” a macabre album containing crime scene photographs from the police archives.

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umberto eco’s ‘numero zero’

La-la-ca-umberto-eco-007-jpg-20151028David L. Ulin at the LA Times:

Umberto Eco's seventh novel, “Numero Zero,” represents the continuation of a theme. The story of a newspaper that doesn't publish, it traces a conspiracy, real or imagined, linking a long line of events in Italian history, from the death of Mussolini to the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade.

“The point,” a journalist named (aptly) Braggadocio insists, “is everything we heard was false, or distorted, and for twenty years we've been living a lie. I always said: never believe what they tell you …” That this extends to the very story the reporter is telling is, of course, the whole idea.

Eco has long played with the question of meaning — in his criticism and essays, his embrace of semiotics and intertextuality, and his fiction as well. He remains best known (in America, anyway) for his 1980 novel “The Name of the Rose,” but it is two later novels, “Foucault's Pendulum” and “The Prague Cemetery,” that “Numero Zero” most invokes. In those books too he illuminates conspiracies with deep roots, stretching across history: a series of shadow narratives that explain, or undermine our explanation, of the world. In the former, such a conspiracy is invented, although it still has profound ramifications; in the latter, perhaps, not so much.

more here.

Saturday Poem

Haunted Houses
All houses wherein men have lived and died Are haunted houses. Through the open doors The harmless phantoms on their errands glide, With feet that make no sound upon the floors.  We meet them at the door-way, on the stair, Along the passages they come and go, Impalpable impressions on the air, A sense of something moving to and fro.  There are more guests at table than the hosts Invited; the illuminated hall Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts, As silent as the pictures on the wall.  The stranger at my fireside cannot see The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear; He but perceives what is; while unto me All that has been is visible and clear.  We have no title-deeds to house or lands; Owners and occupants of earlier dates From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands, And hold in mortmain still their old estates.  The spirit-world around this world of sense Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense A vital breath of more ethereal air.  Our little lives are kept in equipoise By opposite attractions and desires; The struggle of the instinct that enjoys, And the more noble instinct that aspires.  These perturbations, this perpetual jar Of earthly wants and aspirations high, Come from the influence of an unseen star An undiscovered planet in our sky.  And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light, Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd Into the realm of mystery and night,—  So from the world of spirits there descends A bridge of light, connecting it with this, O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends, Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Halloween in Manhattan’s Most Expensive ZIP Codes

Christian Hansen in The New York Times:

ALLOWEEN-slide-WSJI-superJumboWhat’s for dinner? Apparently undaunted by neighborhood protests about last year’s seasonal display outside his $49 million townhouse, which featured an aged crone devouring a baby, the hedge fund billionaire Philip Falcone doubled down this year.


The original Addams Family lived at 0001 Cemetery Lane. The latest addition to the neighborhood lives just off Fifth Avenue, just opposite the artist Jeff Koons.

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What is Russia Doing in Syria?

Patrick Cockburn in counterpunch:

Plane_bomb_300915-510x383The military balance of power in Syria and Iraq is changing. The Russian air strikes that have been taking place since the end of September are strengthening and raising the morale of the Syrian army, which earlier in the year looked fought out and was on the retreat. With the support of Russian airpower, the army is now on the offensive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, and is seeking to regain lost territory in Idlib province. Syrian commanders on the ground are reportedly relaying the co-ordinates of between 400 and 800 targets to the Russian air force every day, though only a small proportion of them come under immediate attack. The chances of Bashar al-Assad’s government falling – though always more remote than many suggested – are disappearing. Not that this means he is going to win.

The drama of Russian military action, while provoking a wave of Cold War rhetoric from Western leaders and the media, has taken attention away from an equally significant development in the war in Syria and Iraq. This has been the failure over the last year of the US air campaign – which began in Iraq in August 2014 before being extended to Syria – to weaken Islamic State and other al-Qaida-type groups. By October the US-led coalition had carried out 7323 air strikes, the great majority of them by the US air force, which made 3231 strikes in Iraq and 2487 in Syria. But the campaign has demonstrably failed to contain IS, which in May captured Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. There have been far fewer attacks against the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the extreme Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, which between them dominate the insurgency in northern Syria. The US failure is political as much as military: it needs partners on the ground who are fighting IS, but its choice is limited because those actually engaged in combat with the Sunni jihadis are largely Shia – Iran itself, the Syrian army, Hizbullah, the Shia militias in Iraq – and the US can’t offer them full military co-operation because that would alienate the Sunni states, the bedrock of America’s power in the region. As a result the US can only use its air force in support of the Kurds.

The US faces the same dilemma in Iraq and Syria today as it did after 9/11 when George Bush declared the war on terror. It was known then that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Osama bin Laden was a Saudi and the money for the operation came from Saudi donors.

More here.

More Evidence that Income Inequality Sucks

David Sloan Wilson in Social Evolution Forum:

ScreenHunter_1478 Oct. 30 20.21The world is slowly reaching the conclusion that income inequality is toxic for human welfare. Books such as The Spirit Level, Why Nations Fail, and Capital in the 21st Century make the case at the macro scale by chronicling the fate of nations. In the United States of America, income inequality has swung like a slow pendulum, reaching an extreme during the Gilded Age and today. Well-being has swung in the reverse direction, as shown in this remarkable graph compiled by Evolution Institute Vice President Peter Turchin (go here for details).

A new study1 provides more evidence for the toxic effects of inequality, if more is needed. A team of economists led by Robert H. Frank measured changes in income inequality in each of the states and in the 100 most densely populated counties in America during the period 1990-2000. Income inequality was measured in two ways—the familiar GINI index and the ratio of the 90th percentile household income to the 50th percentile household income (P9050ratio). Well-being measures included non-business bankruptcy rates, the proportion of the adult population that is divorced, and the proportion of workers whose daily commute is an hour or more. The first two measures are obviously indicative of financial and other forms of stress. The rationale for the third measure is that most people do not want to commute more than an hour to work if they can afford to live closer. As with all good research of this sort, a host of other variables were controlled for.

The results spoke loud and clear: The states and counties that experienced the largest increases in income inequality between 1990-2000 also experienced the largest increases in bankruptcies, divorces, and long commutes.

More here.

The most important woman in Turkey: Meet Figen Yuksekdağ, whose party tries in vain to keep Erdoğan honest

Alec Scott in Politico:

ScreenHunter_1476 Oct. 30 20.12Figen Yuksekdağ would be a superstar in a country less suffocated by macho politics.

As co-chair of the party which unexpectedly robbed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of its ruling majority in June, Yuksekdağ is one of the most important politicians in Turkey today. She is also the embodiment of the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) commitment to gender equality, in a country that ranks 120 of 136 on the Global Gender Gap Index. All positions in the HDP are split between a woman and a man as a matter of policy, but it would be ludicrous to view Yuksekdağ as “the token woman.”

Since the age of 17, when she was arrested for the first time in a street protest in southeast Turkey, she earned her political stripes with decades of activism before becoming co-chair of the party at its formation three years ago. She is also the kind of politician who dismisses Tansu Çiller, Turkey’s first — and only — female prime minister, as “a cheap copy of Margaret Thatcher.” It is safe to say Yuksekdağ is not a cheap copy of anyone.

More here.

Woody Allen is a phenomenon but a foul dust floats in his wake

PA-2760389Sam Tanenhaus at Prospect Magazine:

In truth, glimpses of Allen’s other self had been visible all along. Kael had asked: “What man in his forties but Woody Allen could pass off a predilection for teenagers as a quest for true values?” The reference was to Manhattan, with its coltish 17-year-old co-star, Mariel Hemingway. The movie was a Pygmalion story. So was Annie Hall, and to some extent Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen was not just the director of that last film. He also “picked the wardrobe and hairdo for each actress, checking the makeup and rechecking, even reshooting a scene if he felt a minor detail of their appearance was wrong,” Shone notes. Such fussing isn’t uncommon among filmmakers. DW Griffith did it with the white-goddess Gish sisters. Hitchcock made it the premise of Vertigo. But few harboured delusions about those cold auteurs. Allen was different. He had all but invented the movie mensch who seemed “to get” women. His relationship with Farrow was itself a Manhattan fairy tale—exposed now as dreams always were in his films, only in this instance Allen stood before us, the malign sorcerer disrobed.

This is the foul dust that floats in the wake of Allen’s comedy. He has said, time and again, that the “Woody” onscreen is nothing like himself. But that is only partly true. Each of the many Woodys, surrogates for their creator, enact their different rituals of Zelig-like flight. It is the same impulse that drives him now, not just to make film after film, but to speed through each, as if he wants to be rid of it. Woody Allen’s art springs as much from rage as from hope. It offers not freedom, but escape—fleeting, delicious, the violent release of laughter in the dark.

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How to see yourself in a world where only math is real

Book-ad_TegmarkMax Tegmark at Nautilus:

The idea of spacetime does more than teach us to rethink the meaning of past and future. It also introduces us to the idea of a mathematical universe. Spacetime is a purely mathematical structure in the sense that it has no properties at all except mathematical properties, for example the number four, its number of dimensions. In my book Our Mathematical Universe, I argue that not only spacetime, but indeed our entire external physical reality, is a mathematical structure, which is by definition an abstract, immutable entity existing outside of space and time.

What does this actually mean? It means, for one thing, a universe that can be beautifully described by mathematics. That this is true for our universe has become increasingly clear over the centuries, with evidence piling up ever more rapidly. The latest triumph in this area is the discovery of the Higgs boson, which, just like the planet Neptune and the radio wave, was first predicted with a pencil, using mathematical equations.

That our universe is approximately described by mathematics means that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. That it is mathematical means that all of its properties are mathematical; that it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics, because all properties of our universe can in principle be understood if we are intelligent and creative enough. It also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics.

more here.

William Morris and the demise of printing

87ec15ec-7d61-11e5_1187920hJan Marsh at the Times Literary Supplement:

In 1893 William Morris predicted the end of the book, saying “within fifty years printing books would be an extinct art – we should be carrying all our books about in bottles with patent stoppers. While there was still a chance, [we] should try and produce a few specimens of what was really good printing”.

At the time the Kelmscott Press was in its third year and Morris had been asked to speak on printing for the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society. His talk “On the Printing of Books” took place on November 2, 1893 at the New Gallery in Regent Street, and was reported in The Times on November 6. Morris, who was received with cheers at the beginning and end of the lecture, “demonstrated by means of lantern slides the various stages which printing had passed through from the time of its invention until the third decade of the 16th century” and concluded with illustrations from Caxton’s Golden Legend and Historyes of Troy, printed at the Kelmscott Press.

When published, the lecture traced the origins of European printing with moveable metal type when “it was a matter of course that . . . when the craftsmen took care that beautiful form should always be a part of their productions whatever they were, the forms of printed letters should be beautiful, and that their arrangement on the page should be reasonable and a help to the shapeliness of the letters themselves”.

more here.

Friday Poem

The Roads of Western Europe

The roads of Western Europe hum
like parachute lines stretched taut:
there you see the patches of Central Europe –
a cup of poison, a few ravines with grapevine,
and here is Eastern Europe, a partly rotted watermelon . . .
Some put the blame on Tartars, some on Communism.

It was not long ago that bashful Franz,
a pariah with his earlocks shaved off,
wandered amidst the pines and churches
of Europe where you will never find
a mate for a one-night stand, a man to share
a drink of pure alcohol with. He should have fled
to our land of tolstoys and dostoyevskys, where
the red hag trots in the deathly foam of sweat,
where he would write and shine until the day
they would do him in . . .

by Bakhyt Kenzjejev
from Nevidimye
publisher: OGI, Moscow, 2004

translation: 2011, Steven Seymour

The Radical Ellen Willis

Emily Greenhouse in Dissent:

EmilyFor those of us born in the eighties and nineties, unpleasantly called Millennials, prosperity has long seemed out of reach. We who rushed into the economy right as the “lesser Depression” peaked were worse off by nearly every metric possible: income, employment, mobility, home ownership, student loan debt. In 2012, according to the New York Times, the median household income for twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds was about the same, adjusted for inflation, as it was in 1980—and almost $8,000 less than it was in 2000. By last year’s measure, around 14 percent of my demographic—that’s 2.5 million people—were living with their parents. Of those, 43 percent would be below the poverty line if they moved out on their own. Plainly, we should not expect what our parents had: we will not be getting it. Better educated though our generation may be, the opportunities out there are increasingly slim. For all the facetious mewling we confront—the mainstream knocking of spoiled liberal arts grads by people confused by Lena Dunham’s persistent nudity—the chance to make our way, creating and thinking, is slimmer than ever. In twenty years’ time, how many significant literary fiction writers will have grown up working class? How many career artists at all who weren’t endowed with a trust fund?

Maybe we’re oblivious, or maybe just stretched thin, but not enough people are talking about this. The late cultural critic Ellen Willis did—and years before the worst of it hit. With a clarity of thought and the kind of fury that pangs and never scabs over, she diagnosed, snarled, and illuminated what she considered a central plague of her day: the way our economy limits our creative expressions. As she put it in her essay “Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity”: “On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living.” Willis, who died at the age of sixty-four in 2006, did not set out to write about austerity and economic inequality. But she couldn’t stand to see folks around her struggling, being denied what, in her mind—“in a rich postindustrial economy like ours”—should be guaranteed: job (and income) security, freedom of expression, time off. This insistence on everyone’s right to full and free human satisfaction was at the center of her politics from the get-go. How women were denied this satisfaction became her subject.

More here.

The Path To Immune Burnout

Jason Tetro in Popular Science:

TcellYou have to hand it to the immune system. The collection of specialized cells works endlessly throughout our lives to keep us safe. They are involved in almost every aspect of our daily life and are the front lines of defense against infection.

Normally, when a pathogen enters the body, an able immunity is capable of defeating most invasions. B-cells, T-cells, macrophages, neutrophils and others work in combination with one another to eliminate the threat and restore us back to health. It’s not always an easy process, however, and at times can lead to exhaustion. When this happens, our ability to fend off other invaders decreases. We essentially become more susceptible to other ailments. One of the most common causes of exhaustion happens with chronic viral infection, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or hepatitis C virus (HCV). Both of these pathogens have the ability to evade the defenses and maintain a presence for years. As this happens, the immune system continues to fight without any progress towards victory.

A vital immune cell in the fight against viral infection is called the CD8 T-cell. It has the task of finding these tiny pathogens and purging them from the body. The cell accomplishes this by either signaling an infected cell to kill the virus or, more viciously, to kill the infected cell altogether. Depending on the type of signal they receive their population can be controlled such that the response is just right for the situation. Once an infection is cleared, most of the cells die but some are kept around to serve as memory for any future viral attacks. Unfortunately, when a chronic infection happens to occur, this process is interrupted and some of the CD8 T-cells lose their ability to function. This is known as exhaustion and can cause significant detriment against the current infection and worse, any new ones that happen to arrive. In HIV and HCV positive individuals, exhaustion is a serious concern as it may be the basis for even greater susceptibility to secondary infections.

More here.