Baker of Tarifa: A Photo Essay

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

IMG_8958Trying to name the peculiar sweetness of Spanish sunlight in winter (lemon soufflé? saffron ice cream? malai qulfi?) before touchdown in Granada, I feel the small plane shake, then gently glide into descent. I’m reminded of a poem of mine in which a character has a dream of flying over the Alhambra: She grew wings so long they dipped in the Vega… Flying over Alhambra, she looked for the mexura, the court of myrtles, granaries, the royal stables…

FullSizeRender[2]This is my first flight to Granada and first visit since I finished Baker of Tarifa— my book of poems based on the legendary “convivencia” (peaceful coexistence of the Abrahamic people) in al-Andalus or Muslim Spain (711-1492). In the many years since the book was published, it has traveled to numerous places but this place, Andalucia, is a return to the world it embodies, the spectacular bridge that al-Andalus was— a bridge between antiquity and modernity, between Africa, Europe and Asia, between Medieval Jews, Muslims and Christians.

FullSizeRenderI am here to present from Baker of Tarifa and I am exhilarated to meet the academics who have invited me, to meet students, to present my poems at venues that are only a few miles away from the great Alhambra. These are difficult times to be speaking about the Islamic Civilization as a Muslim; being in the line of fire from the weaponry of literalism on both sides of the war-terrorism binary, the only thing we can do is attempt to be a bridge, to revive a language that conceived pluralism, a time known to be the pre-cursor to European Renaissance. The history of Al-Andalus, spanning nearly a millennium and collapsing with the Spanish Inquisition, is not entirely free of conflict, but it offers a model for tolerance and intellectual efflorescence and inspires hope.

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Data Nihilsm and Agnothology

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

IgnoranceFor those of us who work in the Sciences, the last decade or so has been a boon to research and new discoveries. This has been facilitated by the massive data collection and data analysis which would have been inconceivable just a few decades ago. The rapid change in the Sciences has been described as the forth paradigm of Science i.e., data intensive discovery. As a side consequence of these changes, many of us thought that the time has finally arrived where data will be the absolute arbiter of truth. If the global events of 2016 in general and the US elections in particular are any indication then we were dead wrong thinking this. One may even ask, in an era of post-Truth, fake news and alternate facts, is data really that relevant? One can do all the fact checking in the world but it won't matter if the person to whom the evidence is being presented gives the rejoinder, “What does evidence have to do with it?” Welcome to the brave new world of Data Nihilsm, a term coined by Terry Morse to denote outright denial of data. Closely related to the study of data nihilism is Agnothology or the study of culturally induced ignorance.

As a data scientist, I imagined that an argument based on careful analysis of data coupled with sound statistical reasoning and proper used of machine learning should be enough to convince any person of one’s argument. However in many contexts this may actually have the opposite effect. For one, the previous statement may actually sound elitist and there is strong evidence that if people have strong convictions about a certain belief then offering contradictory evidence may actually strength their belief instead of weakening it. Thinking about why people act this way becomes easier if we rather drop the assumption that people are rational and start thinking that people’s rationality is mediated via emotions. Leibniz theorized that one day we would have machines that will be able to calculate answers to any question for us and so people instead of arguing will just say let us calculate. One might argue that the data driven society that we are currently building is taking us close to this ideal. However there is a hidden assumption in this assertion that that all people evaluate evidence in the same manner. The presence of conformation bias and other cognitive biases in humans tell a different story altogether. People are more likely to be skeptical and thorough in investigation if evidence presented to them goes against what they already believe. Even things like what people perceive as the scientific consensus varies from person to person. Thus Creationists pounce over any alleged evidence that “proves” that the theory of evolution is false while neglecting any data that goes in its favor. The point is not whether one can use data to make one’s point but rather evidence is powerless if one has already made up one’s mind, to quote Salman Hameed who studies the public perception of the theory of evolution.

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As Trump worked on his immigration ban, Hillary Clinton showed her support for immigrant cancer researchers like 3QD editor Azra Raza

Of course, Azra Raza is also my older sister! Rebecca Robbins in Stat:

ScreenHunter_2548 Jan. 29 19.25During a week when President Trump’s efforts to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations touched off alarms among scientists worldwide, his former rival was sending a very different message.

Hillary Clinton spent Wednesday evening at a star-studded fundraiser supporting the cancer research of two top scientists at Columbia University — both of whom happen to be immigrants.

One of the event’s beneficiaries was Dr. Azra Raza, who last summer wrote an opinion piece for STAT under the headline: “I’m an immigrant and a Muslim. And I’m here to cure cancer.” Raza, who researches early-stage leukemia, grew up in Pakistan. She said Clinton repeatedly thanked her for her work.

The fundraiser also raised money to support the work of Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” Mukherjee, who studies blood cancers, was born in India.

More here. And a picture slide-show of the event here in the New York Times.

Inside a Moneymaking Machine Like No Other

Katherine Burton at Bloomberg:

ScreenHunter_2547 Jan. 29 18.49Sixty miles east of Wall Street, a spit of land shaped like a whale’s tail separates Long Island Sound and Conscience Bay. The mansions here, with their long, gated driveways and million-dollar views, are part of a hamlet called Old Field. Locals have another name for these moneyed lanes: the Renaissance Riviera.

That’s because the area’s wealthiest residents, scientists all, work for the quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, based in nearby East Setauket. They are the creators and overseers of the Medallion Fund—perhaps the world’s greatest moneymaking machine. Medallion is open only to Renaissance’s roughly 300 employees, about 90 of whom are Ph.D.s, as well as a select few individuals with deep-rooted connections to the firm.

The fabled fund, known for its intense secrecy, has produced about $55 billion in profit over the last 28 years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, making it about $10 billion more profitable than funds run by billionaires Ray Dalio and George Soros. What’s more, it did so in a shorter time and with fewer assets under management. The fund almost never loses money. Its biggest drawdown in one five-year period was half a percent.

More here.

The computational foundation of life

Philip Ball in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2546 Jan. 29 18.43What’s the difference between physics and biology? Take a golf ball and a cannonball and drop them off the Tower of Pisa. The laws of physics allow you to predict their trajectories pretty much as accurately as you could wish for.

Now do the same experiment again, but replace the cannonball with a pigeon.

Biological systems don’t defy physical laws, of course — but neither do they seem to be predicted by them. In contrast, they are goal-directed: survive and reproduce. We can say that they have a purpose — or what philosophers have traditionally called a teleology — that guides their behavior.

By the same token, physics now lets us predict, starting from the state of the universe a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, what it looks like today. But no one imagines that the appearance of the first primitive cells on Earth led predictably to the human race. Laws do not, it seems, dictate the course of evolution.

The teleology and historical contingency of biology, said the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, make it unique among the sciences. Both of these features stem from perhaps biology’s only general guiding principle: evolution. It depends on chance and randomness, but natural selection gives it the appearance of intention and purpose. Animals are drawn to water not by some magnetic attraction, but because of their instinct, their intention, to survive. Legs serve the purpose of, among other things, taking us to the water.

Mayr claimed that these features make biology exceptional — a law unto itself. But recent developments in nonequilibrium physics, complex systems science and information theory are challenging that view.

More here.


Sheila Weller in Vanity Fair:

The-blood-of-emmett-till-02On a steamy hot September day in 1955, in a racially segregated courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi, two white men, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant—a country-store owner—were acquitted of the murder of a 14-year-old black Chicago boy. His name was Emmett Till. And in August of that year, while visiting a Deep South that he didn’t understand, Till had entered a store to buy two cents worth of bubble gum. Shortly after exiting, he likely whistled at Bryant’s 21-year-old wife, Carolyn. Enraged, Bryant and Milam took matters into their own hands. They would later admit to local authorities that they’d abducted Till three nights later. And when they finished with him, his body was so hideously disfigured from having been bludgeoned and shot that its horrifying depiction—in a photo in Jet magazine—would help to propel the American civil rights movement.

Milam and Bryant were arrested, and, with the aid of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers and other black activists in seeking out witnesses, the prosecution produced compelling evidence. Even so, it wasn’t a surprise when the all-white, all-male jury voted “not guilty,” in little over an hour. Mississippi, after all, had had very few convictions for white-on-black murders. And the state led the nation in lynchings. (Four months after their irreversible acquittal, Milam and Bryant admitted their guilt to Look magazine, receiving a fee of some $3,000 for their story.) But the most explosive testimony, which certainly influenced the local white public’s perception of the motive for the murder, were the incendiary words of Carolyn Bryant, who was working in the store that night. On the stand, she had asserted that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the “unprintable” word he had used (as one of the defense lawyers put it), “he said [he had]’”—done something – “with white women before.’” Then she added, “I was just scared to death.” A version of her damning allegation was also made by the defendant’s lawyers to reporters. (The jury did not hear Carolyn’s words because the judge had dismissed them from the courtroom while she spoke, ruling that her testimony was not relevant to the actual murder. But the court spectators heard her, and her testimony was put on the record because the defense wanted her words as evidence in a possible appeal in the event that the defendants were convicted.)

More here.

Dangerous Inflection Point

Sanjay Reddy in Reddytoread:

UntitledIn the months before Donald Trump’s despicable executive order peremptorily banning entrants to the United States from select majority Muslim countries and placing a temporary stop on all refugee admissions, among other measures, was promulgated, many commentators have attempted to find the words to capture the smallness of mind and of moral vision of the new President. Roger Cohen is among those who have done so recently, in a powerful piece in the New York Times, published just before Trump’s latest execrable order, noting that “A rough translation of ‘America First’ is Muslims last.” That this pitiable notion of “America First”, although in a tradition, is not in keeping with other American traditions, such as for instance that of the Quakers, is the least point. Although it wraps itself in pragmatic claims of protection against terrorism it in fact represents the rejection of the idea of liberal democracy itself, understood as grounded in conceptions of equal treatment of persons (even if this idea was to be applied differently to citizen insiders and non-citizen outsiders).

Considerations of human dignity arising from what the philosopher John Rawls understood as a ‘broadly Kantian’ background to the shared public culture of liberal democracy played a crucial role in upholding their institutions, and underpinning such ideas as ‘public reason’ bringing together the idea that justification in a democracy must require reasons and that these must be of a kind that could be accepted by others, having different ‘comprehensive conceptions of the good’, such as followers of different religions or none at all. Another American philosopher, Richard Rorty, referred to a “human rights culture” underpinning liberal democracies, and crystalized in facts such as the abhorrence of torture, in retrospect a a precisely and presciently chosen example. However he worried, and controversially argued, that this had no ultimate philosophical or political support except itself.

More here.

Senate Democrats have the power to stop Trump. All they have to do is use it.

Adam Jentleson in The Washington Post:

SenateSenate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it, for resisting a president who has no mandate and cannot claim to embody the popular will. That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.

The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well. McConnell can ask for consent at any time, and if no objection is heard, the Senate assumes that consent is granted. So the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus must work together — along with any Republicans who aren’t afraid of being targeted by an angry tweet — to ensure that there is always a senator on the floor to withhold consent.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Woman Skating
A lake sunken among
cedar and black spruce hills;
late afternoon.

On the ice a woman skating,
jacket sudden
red against the white.

concentrating on moving
in perfect circles.

,,,,, (actually she is my mother. She is
,,,,, over at the outdoor skating rink
,,,,, near the cemetery. On three sides
,,,,, of her there are streets of brown
,,,,, brick houses; cars go by; on the
,,,,, forth side is the park building.
,,,,, The snow banked around the rink
,,,,, is grey with soot. She never skates
,,,,, here. She’s wearing a sweater and
,,,,, faded maroon earmuffs, she has
,,,,, taken off her gloves)

Now near the horizon
the enlarged pink sun sweeps down.
Soon it will be zero.

With arms wide the skater
turns, leaving her breath like a diver’s
trail of bubbles.

Seeing the ice
as what it is, water:
seeing the months
as they are, the years
in sequence occurring
underfoot, watching
the miniature human
figure balanced on steel
needles (those compasses
floated in saucers) on time
sustained, above
time circling: miracle

Over all I place
a glass bell.

by Margaret Atwood
from Selected Poems
Simon and Shuster, 1976

How the Women of the Mormon Church Came to Embrace Polygamy

29GAGE-master315Beverly Gage at the New York Times:

Her main interest is in what plural marriage meant for Mormon women in the 19th century, forced to adapt on the fly to a situation they could never have anticipated. This is in some ways a personal question for Ulrich, herself a mother of five and a practicing Mormon as well as a Harvard history professor. All eight of her great-grandparents settled in Utah before the Civil War, members of the faith’s pioneer generation. To ask what it was like for the women who made that journey is also to ask how the modern Mormon Church developed its tight-knit social world, and to think about who mattered within it.

Despite Ulrich’s emphasis on women’s voices and ideas, “A House Full of Females” centers its narrative in part on a man named Wilford Woodruff. An apostle of the church and one of Mormonism’s early converts, Woodruff played a significant role in Mormon history. But his most important quality, from Ulrich’s perspective, is that he kept a detailed diary. That diary paid attention to women, noting on one occasion that the local ward meeting house “was full of females quilting sewing etc.” (thus providing Ulrich with her title). Woodruff married his wife Phebe Carter in 1837 and by all accounts loved her deeply, despite long sojourns apart for missionary work and the difficult deaths of several children. In the mid-1840s, he nonetheless “sealed” himself to two teenage girls, the beginning of a decades-long adventure in polygamy.

more here.


Dance-volcanoBronwyn Averett at The Quarterly Conversation:

For those familiar with canonical texts of Haitian literature, the translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel La Danse sur le volcan into English is a long time coming. Vieux-Chauvet is a key figure of Caribbean literature, known for interlacing charged subjects such as slavery, colonialism, erotic desire, racial injustice, and the influence of Vodou in Haiti, and it is surprising that, until now, only her famous trilogy of novellas Amour, colère et folie—originally published by Gallimard in 1968 with the support of Simone de Beauvoir—has been translated. From a writer whose most frequent subject is the psyche of Haitian women during violent and politically charged moments of Haiti’s history—she herself fled the Duvalier régime after the publication of her trilogy—Dance on the Volcano is an intimate rendering of the Haitian Revolution and a nuanced portrayal of the brutality that resonated across all realms of society in the colony of Saint Domingue at the turn of the 19th century. Kaiama L. Glover’s translation is fluid, remaining faithful to the elegance of Vieux-Chauvet’s prose while navigating the stylistic concerns inherent to recreating a work written in the 1950s and about the colonial life of the 1790s, for a 21st-century audience.

The novel follows the story of Minette, a “free woman of color” (gens de couleur or “people of color” being the term for free men and women, usually of both African and European heritage, living in the colony before the Revolution) who becomes a beloved star of the Comédie de Port-au-Prince. Much of the plot revolves around Minette’s slow and tortuous disillusionment as she comes to realize that she is not nearly as “free” as she believes, even after reaching unprecedented social heights and gaining wide recognition for her talent. Beloved by the public, and cared for in private by a close group of white Créole artists of the theatre, she remains unpaid and has severely limited professional agency.

more here.

How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free

Sam Dresser in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2545 Jan. 28 23.12They were an odd pair. Albert Camus was French Algerian, a pied-noir born into poverty who effortlessly charmed with his Bogart-esque features. Jean-Paul Sartre, from the upper reaches of French society, was never mistaken for a handsome man. They met in Paris during the Occupation and grew closer after the Second World War. In those days, when the lights of the city were slowly turning back on, Camus was Sartre’s closest friend. ‘How we loved you then,’ Sartre later wrote.

They were gleaming icons of the era. Newspapers reported on their daily movements: Sartre holed up at Les Deux Magots, Camus the peripatetic of Paris. As the city began to rebuild, Sartre and Camus gave voice to the mood of the day. Europe had been immolated, but the ashes left by war created the space to imagine a new world. Readers looked to Sartre and Camus to articulate what that new world might look like. ‘We were,’ remembered the fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, ‘to provide the postwar era with its ideology.’

It came in the form of existentialism. Sartre, Camus and their intellectual companions rejected religion, staged new and unnerving plays, challenged readers to live authentically, and wrote about the absurdity of the world – a world without purpose and without value. ‘[There are] only stones, flesh, stars, and those truths the hand can touch,’ Camus wrote. We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically.

More here.

Evolutionary Wars: How Darwin’s Masterwork Shook Up America

Eric Foner in the New York Times:

51YINKT+d0L._SY346_The first book by Richard Hofstadter, the leading historian of his generation (and, decades ago, my Ph.D. supervisor), was “Social Darwinism in American Thought,” a study of the impact on American intellectual life of the scientific writings of Charles Darwin. Hofstadter related how businessmen, free marketeers and opponents of efforts to uplift the poor seized upon Darwin’s seminal work, “On the Origin of Species,” to justify social inequality during the Gilded Age. They invoked Darwinian ideas such as “natural selection,” “survival of the fittest” and “the struggle for existence” to assert the innate superiority of the era’s 1 percent and to define people at the bottom of the social order as innately ill equipped to succeed in the competitive race of life.

“Social Darwinism” has remained a byword for racism and a dog-eat-dog vision of society. But as Randall Fuller shows in “The Book That Changed America,” this was not the only way Darwinian precepts were assimilated into American life and thought. Fuller, who teaches English at the University of Tulsa, is the author of a prizewinning study of the Civil War’s impact on American literature. His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to “On the Origin of Species” usually (but not always) at the center.

Fuller focuses on a group of New England writers, scientists and social reformers. He begins with a dinner party on New Year’s Day, 1860, at the home of Franklin B. Sanborn, a schoolmaster in Concord, Mass. The guest of honor was Charles Loring Brace, a graduate of Yale and founder of the Children’s Aid Society, which worked to assist the thousands of orphaned, abandoned and runaway children who populated the streets of New York City.

More here.

Human-Pig Hybrid Created in the Lab—Here Are the Facts

Erin Blakemore in National Geographic:

03-human-pig-chimera.adapt.590.1In a remarkable—if likely controversial—feat, scientists announced today that they have created the first successful human-animal hybrids. The project proves that human cells can be introduced into a non-human organism, survive, and even grow inside a host animal, in this case, pigs.

This biomedical advance has long been a dream and a quandary for scientists hoping to address a critical shortage of donor organs.

Every ten minutes, a person is added to the national waiting list for organ transplants. And every day, 22 people on that list die without the organ they need. What if, rather than relying on a generous donor, you could grow a custom organ inside an animal instead?

That’s now one step closer to reality, an international team of researchers led by the Salk Institute reports in the journal Cell. The team created what’s known scientifically as a chimera: an organism that contains cells from two different species. (Read more about the DNA revolution inNational Geographic magazine.)

In the past, human-animal chimeras have been beyond reach. Such experiments are currently ineligible for public funding in the United States (so far, the Salk team has relied on private donors for the chimera project). Public opinion, too, has hampered the creation of organisms that are part human, part animal.

More here.

Trump’s Muslim Ban Is Culmination of War on Terror Mentality but Still Uniquely Shameful

Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept:

ScreenHunter_2544 Jan. 28 22.38It is not difficult for any decent human being to immediately apprehend why and how Donald Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries is inhumane, bigoted, and shameful. During the campaign, the evil of the policy was recognized even by Mike Pence (“offensive and unconstitutional”) and Paul Ryan (violative of America’s “fundamental values”), who are far too craven and cowardly to object now.

Trump’s own defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, said when Trump first advocated his Muslim ban back in August that “we have lost faith in reason,” adding: “This kind of thing is causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through this international system.”

The sole ostensible rationale for this ban — it is necessary to keep out Muslim extremists — collapses upon the most minimal scrutiny. The countries that have produced and supported the greatest number of anti-U.S. terrorists — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, UAE — are excluded from the ban list because the tyrannical regimes that run those countries are close U.S. allies. Conversely, the countries that are included — Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen — have produced virtually no such terrorists; as the Cato Institute documented on Friday night: “Foreigners from those seven nations have killed zero Americans in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and the end of 2015.” Indeed, as of a 2015 study by the New America research center, deaths caused by terrorism from right-wing nationalists since 9/11 have significantly exceeded those from Muslim extremists.

Trump’s pledge last night to a Christian broadcasting network to prioritize Christian refugees over all others is just profane: The very idea of determining who merits refuge on the basis of religious belief is bigotry in its purest sense. Beyond the morality, it is almost also certainly unconstitutional in a country predicated on the “free exercise of religion.” In the New York Times this morning, Cato analyst David Bier also convincingly argues that the policy is illegal on statutory grounds as well.

More here.

Imperfect Ignorance

Arthur Cody in Inference Review:

ScreenHunter_2543 Jan. 28 22.33If we start from scratch, how might we make out the cognitive faculties? Do they present themselves to us as discrete operations of mind? Do they always merge together? Or do they appear in one context to be distinct from one another and commingled in another? The usual approach divides them into belief, memory, intention, hope, fear (of something), regret, and desire. This list is not exhaustive, but illustrative.

Marcel Proust’s concept of memory as the recollection of a past event will not do for every case. Sometimes we recall a moment from the past without wishing to, but at most other times memory serves to aid in understanding what is going on right now, what some person or community in these circumstances is likely to do, or where something misplaced might be found. Would recollection include the grammar and vocabulary of my language or the knowledge that I employ in speaking or writing? Is everything I have learned and everything I accept or act on, whether or not I compose it in my mind, remembered or the product of memory, and thus essentially dependent on memory?

Neither neuroscientists nor philosophers of mind grant or even suggest an affirmative reply to this question.

More here.