Nabokov’s ‘great gay comic novel’

Edmund White in the Times Literary Supplement:

ScreenHunter_2255 Sep. 30 21.03I never met Vladimir Nabokov face to face, though I exchanged phone calls and letters with him. My psychiatrist encouraged me to visit him in Switzerland, but I was too afraid that I would quickly sabotage close-up whatever good impression I might have managed to create long-distance. As an editor at the American Saturday Review, I had orchestrated a cover story dedicated to Nabokov on the publication of his novel Transparent Things (1972), and sent Antony Armstrong-Jones to take a portfolio of photographs, including one that showed the novelist dressed as Borges in a poncho. (My boss had wanted to send a great artistic photographer such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, but I believed Nabokov would be more amused by Armstrong-Jones, the Earl of Snowdon, who had been married to Princess Margaret since 1960 and was, I guessed, more polished than the austere French genius. The two men got along famously.) Nabokov wrote a short piece on “Inspiration” for us, which I illustrated with a reproduction of “Pygmalion and Galatea” by Jean-Léon Gérôme, a big bad nineteenth-century painting of the infatuated sculptor embracing his creation as she turns from marble to flesh, feet last.

A number of tiny errors, typographic and even grammatical, had crept into Nabokov’s text. I had the copy set twice in print, my version and his, and sent them both by overnight express. He wired back, “your version perfect”. In the Nabokov “number” I included rather grudging essays by Joyce Carol Oates, William Gass and Joseph McElroy – and of course my own ecstatic response.

More here.

Humans: Unusually Murderous Mammals, Typically Murderous Primates

A new study looks at rates of lethal violence across a thousand species to better understand the evolutionary origins of humanity’s own inhumanity.

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960Which mammal is most likely to be murdered by its own kind? It’s certainly not humans—not even close. Nor is it a top predator like the grey wolf or lion, although those at least are #11 and #9 in the league table of murdery mammals. No, according to a study led by José María Gómez from the University of Granada, the top spot goes to… the meerkat. These endearing black-masked creatures might be famous for their cooperative ways, but they kill each other at a rate that makes man’s inhumanity to man look meek. Almost one in five meerkats, mostly youngsters, lose their lives at the paws and jaws of their peers.

Gómez’s study is the first thorough survey of violence in the mammal world, collating data on more than a thousand species. It clearly shows that we humans are not alone in our capacity to kill each other. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have been known to wage brutal war, but even apparently peaceful creatures take each other’s lives. When ranked according to their rates of lethal violence, ground squirrels, wild horses, gazelle, and deer all feature in the top 50. So do long-tailed chinchillas, which kill each other more frequently than tigers and bears do.

The point of this macabre census was to understand the origins of our own behavior.

More here.

Michael Chabon: My Son, the Prince of Fashion

Michael Chabon in GQ:

ScreenHunter_2254 Sep. 30 20.47Half an hour late, and just ahead of his minder—he was always a step ahead of his ponderous old minder—Abraham Chabon sauntered into the room where the designer Virgil Abloh was giving a private preview of Off-White's collection for spring-summer 2017 to a small group of reporters, editorial directors, and fashion buyers. Abe's manner was self-conscious, his cheeks flushed, but if his movements were a bit constrained they had an undeniable grace. Saunter was really the only word for it.

“Now, this dude here, that's what I'm talking about,” Abloh said, smiling at Abe from the center of the room, the attic of an old photo studio in the Latin Quarter: crisscrossing steel beams, wide pine floorboards, every surface radiant with whitewash except for the gridded slant of windows in the steep-pitched roof. From their folding chairs opposite the atelier windows, the buyers and editors turned to see what Abloh was talking about. So did the four male models lined up and slouching artfully in front of the people in the folding chairs. By the time his minder caught up with him, everyone in the room seemed to have their eyes on Abe. Prompt people never get to make grand entrances.

“Come over here,” Abloh said. Abloh was a big man, solidly built, an architect by training who had emerged in the early 2000s from the fizzy intellectual nimbus—one-third hip-hop, one-third hustle, one-third McLarenesque inside joke—surrounding fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. Abloh had made a name for himself in fashion along the avant-garde perimeter of streetwear, screen-printing diagonal crosswalk stripes and cryptic mottoes onto blank Champion tees and dead-stock Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts that he re-sold for dizzying multiples of their original retail price. Abe thought Virgil Abloh was “lit,” the highest accolade he could award to anyone or anything. “Come right on over here. Hey, look at you!”

Abe went on over, sleeves rolled, hands thrust into his pockets, tails of his pale gray-green shirt freshly tucked into the waist of his gray twill trousers.

More here.

Is there an alternative to countries?

Debora MacKenzie in New Scientist:

ScreenHunter_2252 Sep. 30 17.56Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.

Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.

And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.

Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it.

Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.

How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?

More here.

Friday Poem

A word is no-thing with immanent substance
and power and so should be treated with
great respect —Anonymous

Magic Words

In the very earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen—
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody can explain this:
That's the way it was.


‘That Makes Me Smart’ vs. ‘They Don’t Pay’

James Fallows in The Atlantic:

OliverAfter Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, he was asked on Fox News about his views on NATO and other American alliances. He gave his familiar “they’re freeloaders” answer:

The fact is we are protecting so many countries that are not paying for the protection. When a country isn’t paying us and these are countries in some cases in most cases that have the ability to pay, and they are not paying because nobody is asking…. We’re protecting all of these countries. They have an agreement to reimburse us and pay us and they are not doing it and if they are not going to do that. We have to seriously rethink at least those countries. It’s very unfair.

This has of course been a repeated theme in his speeches and interviews. Another example: after the Democratic convention, Trump told John Dickerson on Face the Nation, “I want these countries to pay for protection”—“these countries” being the usual range of U.S. allies. On Monday night, in his debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump essentially acknowledged that he might not be paying any federal tax himself. Here was the remarkable passage:

CLINTON: Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes, because the only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license, and they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.

TRUMP: That makes me smart.

That makes me smart. Among the several hundred people watching the debate at the site where I saw it, there was an audible gasp at this line. Everyone tries to minimize taxes. But not many “normal” people manage to avoid them altogether, or even contemplate doing so. Most Americans, regardless of politics, resent the rigged nature of our public systems and look for ways to corner-cut annoying obligations (“Yeah, yeah, juries are really important, but I’d just as soon not get picked”). But most still recognize some basic obligations we all bear—school taxes even if we don’t have children, paying for highways or emergency relief even in places where we don’t live—to keep the system going as a whole. You might call this mutual burden-sharing part of Making America Great Again. You could call it “the price we pay for civilization,” if you were Oliver Wendell Holmes. Or “paying for protection,” if you were Donald Trump.

PICTURE: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous dissent. Donald Trump begs to differ.

More here.

The dark universe: 4 big questions

Neil Savage in Nature:

DarkScientists have theories about dark matter and dark energy — and some observations — but both are poorly understood. Here are four of their biggest questions.

1. Is there a dark-matter particle?

Why it matters
Subatomic dark-matter particles, analogous to the particles that make up the visible Universe, would fit nicely into current physics models. But discovering that dark matter is something else would expand scientists' understanding of the Universe.

What we know
Weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) are the leading candidates. Other possibilities include a potentially very light particle called the axion and a more recent proposal — the very heavy Planckian interacting massive particle.

Next steps
The search for the particles is ongoing. Physicists at CERN's Large Hadron Collider are looking for WIMPs, the Axion Dark Matter Experiment is running at the University of Washington, Seattle, and China has launched the Dark Matter Particle Explorer.

More here.

Not all things wise and good are philosophy

Nicholas Tampio in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2251 Sep. 29 19.01I have published widely on Islamic political thought, including an encyclopedia entry on the topic. Reading the Quran, Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), philosophy (falsafa) and Ibn Khaldun’s history of the premodern world, the Muqaddimah (1377), has enriched my life and thought. Yet I disagree with the call, made by Jay L Garfield and Bryan W Van Norden in The New York Times, for philosophy departments to diversify and immediately incorporate courses in African, Indian, Islamic, Jewish, Latin American and Native American ‘philosophy’ into their curriculums. It might seem broadminded to call for philosophy professors to teach ancient Asian scholars such as Confucius and Candrakīrti in addition to dead white men such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. However, this approach undermines what is distinct about philosophy as an intellectual tradition, and pays other traditions the dubious compliment of saying that they are just like ours. Furthermore, this demand fuels the political campaign to defund academic philosophy departments.

Philosophy originates in Plato’s Republic. It is a restless pursuit for truth through contentious dialogue. It takes place among ordinary human beings in cities, not sages and disciples on mountaintops, and it requires the fearless use of reason even in the face of established traditions or religious commitments. Plato’s book is the first text of philosophy and a reference point for texts as diverse as Aristotle’s Politics, Augustine’s City of God, al-Fārābī’s The Political Regime, and the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book Plato’s Republic (2013).

More here.

Why Neuroscientists Need to Study the Crow

Grigori Guitchounts in Nautilus:

10426_8553adf92deaf5279bcc6f9813c8fdccThe animals of neuroscience research are an eclectic bunch, and for good reason. Different model organisms—like zebra fish larvae, C. elegans worms, fruit flies, and mice—give researchers the opportunity to answer specific questions. The first two, for example, have transparent bodies, which let scientists easily peer into their brains; the last two have eminently tweakable genomes, which allow scientists to isolate the effects of specific genes. For cognition studies, researchers have relied largely on primates and, more recently, rats, which I use in my own work. But the time is ripe for this exclusive club of research animals to accept a new, avian member: the corvid family.

Corvids, such as crows, ravens, and magpies, are among the most intelligent birds on the planet—the list of their cognitive achievements goes on and on—yet neuroscientists have not scrutinized their brains for one simple reason: They don’t have a neocortex. The obsession with the neocortex in neuroscience research is not unwarranted; what’s unwarranted is the notion that the neocortex alone is responsible for sophisticated cognition. Because birds lack this structure—the most recently evolved portion of the mammalian brain, crucial to human intelligence—neuroscientists have largely and unfortunately neglected the neural basis of corvid intelligence.

More here.

David Graeber: Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs

David Graeber in Evonomics:

David-Graeber_avatar_1475021244-175x175Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

More here.

the history of paper and print

3eafe096-857d-11e6-9270-cf26736cb244Dennis Duncan at The Times Literary Supplement:

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the general public has always found paper fascinating – remember how the sitcom The Office used a paper merchant to epitomize deadening banality – but for the last few years it seems to have been having a moment in terms of popular history. We’ve had Ian Sansom’s Paper: An elegy (2012), Nicholas Basbanes’s On Paper: The everything of its two-thousand year history (2014), Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The age of paper(2014), and Alexander Monro’s The Paper Trail: An unexpected history of a revolutionary invention (2014). This summer another pair of books tell paper’s story, the processes by which it has been made, and the slow spread of this technology across the globe.

Credited as the invention of Cai Lun, an official of the Han dynasty, in 105 AD (though fragments have been found in China which predate Cai Lun by several centuries), paper made its way westwards, firstly through the Islamic world – the first paper mill in Baghdad opened at the end of the eighth century – before arriving, via Spain, in Christian Europe by the middle of the thirteenth. By 1495, Britain, a late adopter, was producing its own paper at John Tate’s mill at Sele in Hertfordshire. For the couple of decades before that, Caxton and the other early English printers had been relying on European imports.


161003_r28793rd-930x1200-1474672669Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

Jerusalem was among the first conquests of the Arab Caliphate, in 638. It was a polyglot city, in which Christians suffered oppression, when, in 1099, armies of the First Crusade took it and massacred nearly all the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. The lavishly renovated Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the supposed site of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, stood near the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, built on the ruins of the Hebrew Second Temple, which were temporarily converted to a palace and a church, respectively. (The rock enshrined is thought to be the one on which Abraham was to have sacrificed Isaac, and from which, in 621, Muhammad ascended to Heaven during his night journey.) Muslims led by Saladin, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, retook the city in 1187, and several subsequent Crusades failed to achieve more than fleeting footholds there. But a regime of general tolerance, instituted by Saladin and continued by Mamluk sultans, prevailed throughout most of the following two centuries, drawing visitors including the Spanish poet Judah al-Harizi, who characterized his days in Jerusalem, in the early thirteenth century, as “carved from rubies, cut from the trees of life, or stolen from the stars of heaven. And each day we would walk about on its graves and its monuments to weep over Sion.”

As a cultural center, the city was more a destination than a fount of creativity. Medieval invention from all points of the compass generated echoes in the area, with such hybrid effects as Christian symbolism engraved on a dagger-scabbard in a fabulously intricate Arab style. The effigy on the tomb of a Crusader knight—French, from the thirteenth century—finds him armed with a Chinese sword. (How he got it, by purchase or in combat, is among the time’s innumerable untold tales.)

more here.

music in the baltics

Screen Shot 2016-09-19 at 11.04.01 AMJay Nordlinger at The New Criterion:

The Baltics are bursting with musicians, as we in the West discovered when the Soviet Union collapsed. In fact, the region’s independence movement was dubbed “the Singing Revolution.” (For a piece I wrote about this in 2011, go here.)

The first head of state in a free Lithuania was a professor of music—Vytautas Landsbergis. I once discussed him with a prominent Lithuanian singer, Violeta Urmana, the soprano (who began her career as a mezzo).

Latvians? Outstandingly, there is the conductor Mariss Jansons—son of another conductor, Arvids Jansons. The junior Jansons was born in the Riga ghetto in 1943. His mother was in hiding. Her father and brother had already been killed by the Gestapo.

Today, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is Andris Nelsons. His wife is a soprano, Kristine Opolais. One of the opera world’s biggest stars is Elina Garanca, the mezzo.

more here.

Genes, Chance And Destiny

Lloyd Sederer in The Huffington Post:

SidAt 46, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a man driven by questions, by puzzles in science and society. In 2011, his first book, a 600-page book on the history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize, among other accolades. Time magazine lists the book among the one hundred most influential books written since 1923. His new and third book, The Gene, an Intimate History, published in 2016, sets out to tackle another crucial question that sits at the edge of science and society. This book is a finalist for the UK’s top award for nonfiction writing, the Baillie Gifford Prize, putting him in competition with a Nobel Laureate. More about both books below. As technologies accelerate, so does what we know about the human genome – the complete code of DNA in our cells and bodies that orchestrates our destiny. Mukherjee knows that the prospect of understanding aspects of our genetic code is no longer ‘if’ but when and how. As that happens, he asks us to wonder, as he does himself, what will we do with these new-found powers? What does the future hold for the human genome – now that we are learning to “read” and “write” our own codes of instruction? The easy answers are their application in preventing disabling and deadly genetic diseases and mitigating the progression of many illnesses, especially cancers. But science is agnostic, it does not set social or moral boundaries. Mukherjee comments that we are creating questions for our children as we master the capacity to not only decode but also to recode the genetic building blocks of our lives. We may be cutting, splicing, and inserting different genetic sequences that make us, and our progeny, truly different, where the consequences are deeply uncertain as to whether good or bad ― or both ― will result.

I met with him at his lab and office at Columbia’s Irving Cancer Center, in Washington Heights in Northern Manhattan, on a bright September morning that itself radiated hope. He was quick to let me know that he is a cell biologist, that his work and his insistent queries, scientific and societal, are meant to answer “how and why do cells go wrong {that is, mutate and become cancer}…and conversely how do they not go wrong?”, and all the variation that exists in between. Dr. Mukherjee spends a half a day each week seeing patients in a Columbia oncology clinic. That is time where he confronts the human faces and anxieties that patients and their families endure when nature goes awry and cancer takes its toll. He also has a lab that studies stem cells, the originating, undifferentiated cells that become every other type of cell in our body, from blood and bone marrow cells (his focus), to our heart, neurons and nerves, skin, nose and toes, to name a few. Stem cells undergo radical transformations and may supply clues to understanding cellular aberration and reveal how disorders can be prevented or treated. He is a husband who spoke proudly of his wife’s accomplished artistry and a dad who wonders about the future and fate of his two daughters.

More here.

Thursday Poem


In Paris, on a day that stayed morning until dusk,
in a Paris like –
in a Paris which –
(save me, sacred folly of description!) Clochard
in a garden by a stone cathedral
(bit built, no, rather
played upon a lute)
a clochard, a lay monk, a naysayer
sleeps sprawled like a knight in effigy.

If he ever owned anything, he has lost it,
and having lost it doesn't want it back.
He's still owed soldier's pay for the conquest of Gaul –
but he's got over that, it doesn't matter.
And they never paid him in the fifteenth century
for posing as the thief on Christ's left hand –
he has forgottenall about it, he's not waiting.

He earns his red wine
by trimming the neighborhood dogs.
He sleeps with the air of an inventorof dreams,
his thick beard swarming towards the sun.

The gray chimeras (to wit, bulldogryphons,
hellephants, hippopotoads, croakodilloes, rhinocerberuses,
behemammoths, and demonopods,
that omnibestial Gothic allegro vivace)

and examine him with a curiosity
they never turn on me or you,
prudent Peter,
zealous Michael,
enterprising Eve,
Barbara, Clare.

by Wislawa Szymborska
from View with a Grain of Sand
Harcourt Brace 1995

Read more »

How Vector Space Mathematics Reveals the Hidden Sexism in Language

As neural networks tease apart the structure of language, they are finding a hidden gender bias that nobody knew was there.

From the MIT Technology Review:

ImageBack in 2013, a handful of researchers at Google set loose a neural network on a corpus of three million words taken from Google News texts. The neural net’s goal was to look for patterns in the way words appear next to each other.

What it found was complex but the Google team discovered it could represent these patterns using vectors in a vector space with some 300 dimensions.

It turned out that words with similar meanings occupied similar parts of this vector space. And the relationships between words could be captured by simple vector algebra. For example, “man is to king as woman is to queen” or, using the common notation, “man : king :: woman : queen.” Other relationships quickly emerged too such as “sister : woman :: brother : man,” and so on. These relationships are known as word embeddings.

This data set is called Word2vec and is hugely powerful. Numerous researchers have begun to use it to better understand everything from machine translation to intelligent Web searching.

But today Tolga Bolukbasi at Boston University and a few pals from Microsoft Research say there is a problem with this database: it is blatantly sexist.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

Fish Can Be Smarter Than Primates

Jonathan Balcombe in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2249 Sep. 28 19.21Intelligence is shaped by the survival requirements that an animal must face during its everyday life, according to cognitive ecology. Some birds can remember where they buried tens of thousands of nuts and seeds, which allows them to find them during the long winter months; a burrowing rodent can learn a complex underground maze with hundreds of tunnels in just two days; and a crocodile can have the presence of mind to carry sticks on her head and float them just below an area where herons are nesting, then pounce when an unwary bird swoops down to collect nesting material.

What about the mental abilities of fishes? Notwithstanding the liberties taken by filmmakers in popular movies like The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, and its sequel, Finding Dory, can fishes really think?

Here’s an example of fish intelligence, courtesy of the frillfin goby, a small fish of intertidal zones of both eastern and western Atlantic shores. When the tide goes out, frillfins like to stay near shore, nestled in warm, isolated tide pools where they may find lots of tasty tidbits. But tide pools are not always safe havens from danger. Predators such as octopuses or herons may come foraging, and it pays to make a hasty exit. But where is a little fish to go? Frillfin gobies deploy an improbable maneuver: They leap to a neighboring pool.

How do they do it without ending up on the rocks, doomed to die in the sun? With prominent eyes, slightly puffy cheeks looking down on a pouting mouth, a rounded tail, and tan-gray-brown blotchy markings along a 3-inch, torpedo-shaped body, the frillfin goby hardly looks like a candidate for the Animal Einstein Olympics. But its brain is an overachiever by any standard. For the little frillfin memorizes the topography of the intertidal zone—fixing in its mind the layout of depressions that will form future pools in the rocks at low tide—while swimming over them at high tide.

More here.