Amos Oz: Gossip is “a distant cousin of stories and novels”

From the New York Times:

Tell us about some of your favorite writers.

1127-BKS-ByTheBook-blog427-v3You see, I don’t have a bookshelf with my eternal beloved ones on it. They come and go. A few of them come more often than the others: Chekhov, Cervantes, Faulkner, Agnon, Brener, Yizhar, Alterman, Bialik, Amichai, Lampedusa’s “Il Gattopardo,” Kafka and Borges, sometimes Thomas Mann and sometimes Elsa Morante and Natalia Ginzburg.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

The short answer is that when a work of literature suddenly makes the very familiar unfamiliar to me, or just the opposite, when a work of literature makes the unfamiliar almost intimately familiar, I am moved (moved to tears, or smiles, or anger, or gratitude, or many other, different, kinds of excitement).

More here.

Is Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Language Wrong? Steven Pinker Weighs in on Debate

John Horgan in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_2411 Nov. 30 19.46Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.

Chomsky’s ideas have profoundly affected linguistics and mind-science in general. Critics attacked his theories from the get-go and are still attacking, paradoxically demonstrating his enduring dominance. Some attacks are silly. For example, in his new book A Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe asserts that both Darwin and “Noam Charisma” were wrong. (See journalist Charles Mann’s evisceration of Wolfe.)

Other critiques are serious. In “Language in a New Key,” in the November Scientific American, Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello contend that “much of Noam Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics, including its account of the way we learn languages, is being overturned.” The online headline says “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky's Theory of Language Learning.” Ibbotson and Tomasello propose that children acquire language via “general cognitive abilities and the reading of other people’s intentions.”

Seeking enlightenment, I asked psychologist Steven Pinker what he thinks about the recent criticism of Chomsky.

More here.

Trump, the Dragon, and the Minotaur

Yanis Varoufakis in Project Syndicate:

ScreenHunter_2410 Nov. 30 19.38If Donald Trump understands anything, it is the value of bankruptcy and financial recycling. He knows all about success via strategic defaults, followed by massive debt write-offs and the creation of assets from liabilities. But does he grasp the profound difference between a developer’s debt and the debt of a large economy? And does he understand that China’s private debt bubble is a powder keg under the global economy? Much hinges on whether he does.

Trump was elected on a wave of discontent with the establishment’s colossal mishandling of both the pre-2008 boom and the post-2008 recession. His promise of a domestic stimulus and protectionist trade policies to bring back manufacturing jobs carried him to the White House. Whether he can deliver depends on whether he understands the role America used to play in the “good old days,” the role it can play now and, crucially, the significance of China.

Before 1971, US global hegemony was predicated upon America’s current-account surplus with the rest of the capitalist world, which the US helped to stabilize by recycling part of its surplus to Europe and Japan. This underpinned economic stability and sharply declining inequality everywhere. But, as America slipped into a deficit position, that global system could no longer function, giving rise to what I have called the Global Minotaur phase.

According to ancient myth, King Minos of Crete owed his hegemony to the Minotaur, a tragic beast imprisoned under Minos’s palace. The Minotaur’s intense loneliness was comparable only to the fear it inspired far and wide, because its voracious appetite could be satisfied – thereby guaranteeing Minos’s reign – only by human flesh. So a ship loaded with youngsters regularly sailed to Crete from faraway Athens to deliver its human tribute to the beast. The gruesome ritual was essential for preserving Pax Cretana and the King’s hegemony.

After 1971, US hegemony grew by an analogous process.

More here.

Reading Albert Murray in the Age of Trump

75bbc78f9a93405ca6e967a8b4b960f3378f9e1dGreg Thomas at The New Republic:

Murray’s blues idiom worldview, which he described as a secular form of existential improvisation, is summed up by his phrase “elegant resilience,” a synonym for “swinging” in jazz and “flow” in hip hop. “A definitive characteristic of the descendants of American slaves is an orientation to elegance,” he writes in From the Briarpatch File,

…the disposition (in the face of all of the misery and uncertainty in the universe) to refine all of human action in a direction of dance-beat elegance. I submit that there is nothing that anybody in the world has ever done that is more civilized or sophisticated than to dance elegantly, which is to state with your total physical being an affirmative attitude toward the sheer fact of existence.

Philosophers Kwame Anthony Appiah and Danielle Allen have described a worldview they call “rooted cosmopolitanism,” which I think describes Murray and the blues idiom to a tee. Rooted cosmopolitanism counters the insular nationalism exemplified by the conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Murray, unequivocal about his local Southern roots and nationality as a black American, believed that Americans are heir to the best of culture from all times and places—a global, cosmopolitan conception. Likewise, the blues is a vernacular music rooted in the black South of the United States that’s connected to Western church music harmonically as well as to music globally. The blues idiom is America at her best because it synthesizes “everything in the world as a matter of course, and feed[s] it back to the world at large as a matter of course.”

more here.

Robert Bresson’s cinematic philosophy

Article00Dennis Lim at Bookforum:

Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph holds a special place on the small shelf of books about filmmaking by filmmakers. First published in 1975, this slender and endlessly quotable manifesto by one of the cinema's supreme masters remains, for the receptive reader, potentially seismic. As distilled and exacting as his films, Bresson's compendium of epigrams—its title misleadingly translated in previous English editions as Notes on Cinematography and Notes on the Cinematographer—is film theory at its most aphoristic, the cinephile's equivalent of Letters to a Young Poet, a book to be read in an afternoon and pondered for a lifetime.

In four decades, Bresson made only thirteen features, works of extraordinary lucidity and profound mystery, of absolute rigor and overwhelming emotion. Most of his characters—who include an imprisoned resistance fighter (A Man Escaped), an obscurely motivated petty thief (Pickpocket), and a suicidal young wife (A Gentle Woman)—are searching for a liberation of sorts, whether or not they know it, and most of his films assume the form of a quest for the essential, for a state of grace. Bresson came to movies late, having started as a painter, and he would attempt to exercise as much control over a collaborative, industrial medium as an artist has over his canvas. His allergy to compromise meant that the films were few and far between. Reflection, whether by inclination or necessity, was part of his process. “Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations,” he writes in Notes, which he took several decades to complete, adding that Debussy would spend a week “deciding on one chord rather than another.”

more here.

Sanders in Philadelphia, Castro ad mortem

SanderscastroNikil Saval at n+1:

The growing alliance between Sanders and the Democratic Party—his being in a position as it were to save the Party from itself—has been a source of disquiet for those who feel that his movement could go in other directions. On stage at the main branch of the Free Library, Sanders was interviewed by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, who admirably pushed him on the two-party “duopoly,” and the innovations of the Obama presidency—the extrajudicial “kill list,” for example—that the grotesque Trump will inherit. You knew these weren’t questions that he was ready to confront, because he would sink back into a deeper slouch, his voice dropping to a quiet guttural croak, as he offered, “That’s a fair point. That’s a fair point.” When Sanders is slipping into the well-worn groove of his talking points—income and wealth inequality—the volume is more likely to turn up higher than the room can plausibly bear. But when Goodman asked him about the possibility of a future independent run for President, he demurred quietly, indicating that his efforts were focused on “transforming the Democratic Party,” in a tone that exuded concession rather than triumph. Sanders’s other effort in this vein—also called Our Revolution—is off to a bad start, with many of its staff having resigned over the appointment of the much-loathed Jeff Weaver as its director. It remains to be seen whether it develops into a real alternative force, or something more akin to MoveOn—a way of generating dollars and door-knocking for already existing “progressive” candidates.

The conversation exited the distorting gravitational pull of the US when it drifted to Fidel Castro. Here, too, Sanders was circumspect, cautiously lauding the island’s health care and education systems, while admitting the lack of real avenues for dissent, and that “the economy is in bad shape,” and not just because of the US embargo.

more here.

Dear Jack: A father writes his son a note on election night

Dennis Mahoney in The Morning News:

Dear-jack_1780_1187_80_sOn election night, when Florida’s results mysteriously stalled and Clinton supporters such as myself grew nervous, I drank some gin. My 12-year-old son went to bed. My wife went to bed two hours later. By midnight, Trump’s victory looked all but certain, and I wrote my son a note. If I’d known that a million-plus people would read it within the coming week, I probably would have worded things more clearly and attempted better penmanship.

Dear Jack,

Trump won. Don’t panic.

The world won’t end. The country won’t fall apart. We’re just underdogs now, caring about women, minorities, decency, and truth.

You’re going to have a job now: Be Extra Moral. Rebel against meanness. Be kind. Heal things. Inspire people with optimism.

Most of all, LOVE.

– Dad

Cornball, yes, but totally sincere. My wife and I, along with many of our friends and relatives, had spent the year discussing a Trump presidency as the worst-case scenario for our country, and perhaps even the world. We were revolted by Mr. Trump’s hateful and untruthful rhetoric and behavior. We feared his environmental policies. We were alarmed by the thought of Mr. Trump gaining control of the nuclear codes. I worried my son would wake to the news of Trump’s win and be scared shitless. I was scared shitless. What exactly would a Trump presidency look like, what were we supposed to do about it, and how could I explain it to my son? I wrote the note with a Sharpie on a piece of printer paper. It was the least thought-out message I’d written in weeks (I’m someone who often proofreads texts) and was primarily meant to soften the initial blow of Clinton’s defeat. I left it on the dining room table and went to bed. I’m a later sleeper, so my wife was the parent who watched Jack discover the note the next morning. He read “Trump won,” said, “Fuck,” and walked away. My wife sympathetically pardoned the F-bomb and encouraged him to finish reading. And the note actually worked: he calmed down, felt reassured, and discussed the election with my wife over a plate of Eggos.

Right there, the note was a homerun.

More here.

Weaponized antibodies use new tricks to fight cancer

Heidi Ledford in Nature:

WEB_C0320137-Breast_epithelial_cancer_cell,_SEM-SPLAfter decades of frustration, efforts to develop antibodies that can ferry drugs into cancer cells — and minimize damage to healthy tissue — are gathering steam. The next generation of these ‘weaponized antibody’ therapies, called antibody–drug conjugates (ADCs), is working its way through clinical trials. Researchers will gather to discuss this renaissance on 30 November at the Symposium on Molecular Targets and Cancer Therapeutics in Munich, Germany. The improvements come after the first wave of experimental ADCs failed to deliver on its promise. “Initially there was a lot of excitement, and then slowly many of them did not work,” says Raffit Hassan, a cancer researcher at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Now, he says, there are two new ADCs in phase III clinical trials, and many more in earlier-stage testing.

The concept that underlies these drugs is simple: repurposing an antibody as a vehicle to deliver a toxic drug into a cancer cell. When the antibody in an ADC seeks out and docks onto a tumour cell, the cell takes it up and cleaves the molecular links that bind the drug to the antibody. This frees the drug to kill the cell from within. But this approach has proved tricky to realize. Sometimes the molecular linkers are too tight, and do not release the drug inside the cell. Sometimes they are too unstable, and release the drug near healthy cells — limiting the dose that can be administered. Even the drugs themselves can be problematic: because most are toxic mainly to rapidly dividing cells, they can leave behind the slowly dividing cells that seed some tumours. And some have had trouble penetrating more than a few cell layers into their target tumours.

More here.

Slang — language at our most human

Mark Peters in the Boston Globe:

ScreenHunter_2408 Nov. 29 20.40Slang is probably as old as human language, though the first slang dictionaries only started popping up in the 16th century. But nothing has been a boon for slang lexicography like the digital age, as the searchability of newspaper databases has allowed the past to be explored like never before.

For fans of English at its rawest, the recent arrival of the online version of Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a major event. It’s also a reminder that slang — for all its sleaze and attitude — is just as susceptible to careful research as anything else.

British lexicographer and author Jonathan Green’s GDoS is the largest slang dictionary in the world, collecting terms from the United States, England, Australia, and everywhere else English is the dominant language. GDoS, like the Oxford English Dictionary, is a historical dictionary. This type of dictionary provides a lot more than definitions, etymology, and pronunciation notes: Historical dictionaries trace the evolution of terms over time. Since the best fossil evidence of word change is quotations, historical dictionaries are full of them, allowing readers to see how words function in the wild. A regular dictionary is a little like snapshots taken of zoo animals. A historical dictionary is more like footage from a hidden camera in the jungle or ocean.

This example-based approach is also the opposite of user-generated dictionaries such as Urban Dictionary. All major dictionaries crowdsource. But when there’s no editing or fact-checking, you get an entertaining product that’s far from a reliable source on what words are actually being used.

More here.

Microbes Might Explain Why Many Diets Backfire

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960 (1)In 2009, Danny Cahill won the eighth season of The Biggest Loser, a reality TV show in which contestants compete to lose the most weight. Over the program’s seven months, Cahill’s weight dropped from 430 pounds to just 191. But since then, he has regained 100. The same is true for most of the show’s contestants, several of whom are now heavier than they were before they took part.

Their story is all too common. Even when people successfully manage to lose weight, in the majority of cases, the vanished pounds return within a year—and often with reinforcements. For many people, weight loss isn’t just hard, it’s Sisyphean.

No one really understands the reasons behind this “weight cycling”, this so-called “yo-yo effect”. It seems to happen no matter your starting weight, or how much exercise you do. As my colleague Julie Beck noted earlier this year, the speed at which people lose weight might be important—but even that’s controversial. “There’s a lot of speculation but very little knowledge,” says Eran Elinav from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Now, by studying mice, Elinav and his colleague Eran Segal have shown that the yo-yo effect might be at least partly driven by the microbiome—the huge community of bacteria and other microbes that share our bodies.

More here.

How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’

Amanda Taub in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2407 Nov. 29 20.14Yascha Mounk is used to being the most pessimistic person in the room. Mr. Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: that once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way.

His research suggests something quite different: that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline.

Mr. Mounk’s interest in the topic began rather unusually. In 2014, he published a book, “Stranger in My Own Country.” It started as a memoir of his experiences growing up as a Jew in Germany, but became a broader investigation of how contemporary European nations were struggling to construct new, multicultural national identities.

He concluded that the effort was not going very well. A populist backlash was rising. But was that just a new kind of politics, or a symptom of something deeper?

To answer that question, Mr. Mounk teamed up with Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.

Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, “the warning signs are flashing red.”

More here.

How Cubans Live as Long as Americans at a Tenth of the Cost

Lead_960James Hamblin at The Atlantic:

Cuba has long had a nearly identical life expectancy to the United States, despite widespread poverty. The humanitarian-physician Paul Farmer notes in his bookPathologies of Power that there’s a saying in Cuba: “We live like poor people, but we die like rich people.” Farmer also notes that the rate of infant mortality in Cuba has been lower than in the Boston neighborhood of his own prestigious hospital, Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s.

All of this despite Cuba spending just $813 per person annually on health care compared with America’s $9,403.

The difference comes back to the basic fact that in Cuba, health care is protected under the constitution as a fundamental human right. The U.S. protects unlimited firearms and freedom from quartering soldiers but does not guarantee health care. Instead we compromise, taking inefficient and expensive half-measures to rescue people in serious peril.

As a poor country, Cuba can’t afford to equivocate and waste money on health care. Much advanced technology is unavailable. So the system is forced instead to keep people healthy. This pressure seems to have created efficiency.

more here.

no small events

Leon_Werth,_1914Ian P. Beacock at The Point:

In May 1940, Hitler’s armies swept lightning-fast into France and the Low Countries. Fearing the worst as the Nazis advanced, more than eight million panicked civilians left their homes and fled south. It was soon one of the largest mass migrations in recorded history. Today, the French simply call it l’exode: the exodus. Two million Belgians were on the road by June, roughly one-third of the entire country. Six million of the refugees were French. Somewhere between one quarter and one third of them were children. Entire cities emptied overnight. Reims, a bustling regional center in Champagne, lost 98 percent of its quarter-million inhabitants. The town of Evreux shriveled from twenty thousand souls to fewer than two hundred. By June 13, even Paris had been deserted; only the old, the sick and the poor remained behind. Southbound roads coagulated and clogged with overheating cars, teenage boys on bicycles, pushcarts piled high with suitcases and mattresses and tired children. The last trains to leave the capital were choked with people.

One of the refugees, a 62-year-old French novelist named Léon Werth, produced an astonishing eyewitness account of his passage into exile. “We’re not living in ordinary times,” Werth wrote that summer. “We are shipwrecked.” That the memoir was ever published is something of a miracle. Thirty-three days after they left Paris, Werth and his wife Suzanne arrived in Saint-Amour, a village in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The text was completed by autumn, but publishing it in the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France was out of the question: Werth was Jewish. In October, however, Werth was visited by his best friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a gifted writer and pilot who smuggled the manuscript out of France via Algiers and Lisbon. Werth never saw the book in print. Lost mysteriously for fifty years, the memoir first appeared in France in 1992. The first English edition of 33 Days appeared last year, a slim volume translated with great dexterity and feeling by Austin Denis Johnston.

more here.

Getting by in Castro’s Cuba

CoppeliaNick Caistor at the Times Literary Supplement:

The first time I was arrested by the Cuban police was almost thirty years ago. I was at Los Cocos prison, a half-hour drive outside Havana, talking across a wall to AIDS patients locked up there by the authorities. At the time, Cubans were being tested for HIV at work, and those found to be suffering from symptoms were taken and put away in this prison hospital facility, denied visits from family or friends.

At the time, soldiers returning from campaigns in Angola and Ethiopia were blamed for the outbreak of HIV-AIDS in Cuba. A few days after my attempt to interview the patients at Los Cocos, I found myself at a parade ground on the outskirts of Havana, where commander-in-chief Fidel Castro was to welcome the male and female troops back and bestow medals on them. This was the closest I ever came to El Comandante. He and his entourage brushed past me on their way towards the ranks of troops, and I could swear that the glare from the big man (and he was very big and burly, the son of an immigrant from Galicia in Spain) was meant just for me. Again, my attempts to interview any of the soldiers were cut short as I was bustled away from them.

more here.

What Not to Say to a Cancer Patient

Jane Brody in The New York Times:

CancerWhat do you think is the most commonly asked question of a person who has, or has had, cancer? If you guessed, “How are you?” you got it right. But as caring as those words may seem, they are often not helpful and may even be harmful. At a celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant relative asked me just that. I answered, “I’m fine.” She then pressed, “How are you really?” “Really” I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn’t been? Would I have wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to be a fun event? Would I have wanted even to be reminded of a bout with cancer? Although my relative undoubtedly meant well, the way her concern was expressed struck me as intrusive. A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more painful than if they said or did the wrong thing.

…Another author of very helpful books on living with cancer is Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades. She suggests that people offer specific ways they can help. For example, they may say they can shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a run, or accompany the patient to the doctor, and then be sure to follow through with the offer. Many people now use online sites like to keep people up to date on their health and needs or organizing platforms such as or to ask for specific help. Dr. Harpham said she came to dread the query “How are you?” because “no matter how it was intended, being asked ‘How are you?’ rattled my heightened sense of vulnerability. I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear. Even when the news was good, I didn’t have the energy to include all the people who wanted updates.”

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Saigon, The Movie

James Bond flies into Phuket, which he pronounces
Fukit and this announces the demise
of the colonial era.
My mother sits on the Left Bank, harvesting rice.
The Baron announces his arrival
with a slice of lemon between his teeth and
Panama with razors embedded in its rim, to wear
to restaurants with a view of crossfire.

The iron butterfly folds back her wings, and rests awhile
on the pillows of this city.
But they are soaked
with the formalin of diplomacy
and the perfumes of an irresistible corruption.

Finally the old merchants
dig up their gold and re-invest in a
coat of arms they wire to a security gate.
Guard dogs with degrees, and lap-dog breeds
that do not bark.
Here a childhood made sensitive to bombs,
a kindergarten closed down with prayer,
American linguists in a helicopter, dropping
ration packs of Chiclets and brand new grammar.
by Adam Aitken

from Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles
Brandl & Schlesinger, Sydney, 2000
ISBN: 1 876040 20 3

Will next year feature a Summer of Love or a Summer of Hate?

by Yohan J. John

Epic-sly-everyday-peopleEver since Donald Trump's shocking victory in the recent US Presidential Elections, I have gotten a kick out of reminding people of the following: next year we will mark 50 years since the Summer of Love. One response, which I imagine reflects a common sentiment among left-liberals, was a sardonic laugh followed by the line “So next year will be the Summer of Hate, eh?”

We may experience more than a summer of hate next year if our worst fears about Trump and the Republicans come to pass. The absolute control they will soon wield over all three branches of government give them the power to roll back half a century and more of progressive policy, if they so choose. So can we convince the Right, or at least some sections of their supporters, that a better solution to their grievances is possible? Is there anything we can do to breathe new life into the dreams of the 1960s hippies and radicals? Peace, Love, Equality and Good Music For All? Perhaps, but this will require a major reorganization on the part of the Left.

And this reorganization needs to start right away. Liberal and left-leaning people all over the world are still reeling from the election shock, but we need to snap out of it and get to work. Our delusional confidence in the liberal media establishment lulled us into complacency. Now we are having to confront our biases and filter bubbles: one of the few silver linings in this ominous time.

The soul-searching on the Left is necessary right now. But there is a danger that social liberals will double down, continuing their losing strategy of framing all political debates in terms of identity politics: they will cry racism, bigotry and misogyny until they are blue in the face. This election should have proved that this is politically naïve in the extreme. The media was virtually unified in its revulsion of Trump. If months of decrying racism and misogyny during the election campaign did nothing to sway the electorate, what will protests (to say nothing of KKK-bashing internet memes) now achieve?

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