Rachel Cusk’s Risky, Revolutionary New Novel

Monica Ali in The New York Times:

Monica“Transit” is a novel that all but dispenses with plot. A recently divorced novelist buys a dilapidated house in London, and has conversations with builders, neighbors, a hairdresser, a friend. She appears at a literary festival where she brings “something to read aloud” (we learn no more), teaches, goes on a date and attends a disastrous dinner party. It is the second novel of a trilogy that began with “Outline,” in which Rachel Cusk’s project appears to be nothing less than the reinvention of the form itself. “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she told an interviewer after the publication of “Aftermath,” her memoir about the demise of her marriage, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” What, then, is to be done? How is the novel to be written? Cusk’s answer is to eliminate John and Jane in favor of an altogether different narrative structure, in which a shadowy narrator, Faye — named only once in each novel — becomes a conduit for multiple stories. These stories are not, as it were, played out John-and-Jane style; they do not unfold before us, nor are they — by and large — composed through dialogue. Instead they are delivered by Faye, who sums up what often amounts to the story of a life. Thus a chance encounter with an ex-boyfriend, Gerard, produces a tale of marriage, fatherhood, and the way life can be simultaneously ever changing and stuck in a rut. “Superficially, for him at least the facts of that life were unchanged since the days I had known him: he lived in the same flat, had kept the same friends, went to the same places.” The difference, Faye notes, was that his wife and daughter “were with him: They constituted a kind of audience.” Pavel, a Polish builder, yields a story about the house he built for himself back home, and the hardships of his new life in London. “He rented a bedsit near Wembley Stadium, in a building full of other bedsits occupied by people he didn’t know. In the first week, someone had broken in and stolen all his tools.”

It is a risky business, this summing up. Show, don’t tell, say the creative writing manuals. Cusk has torn up the rule book, and in the process created a work of stunning beauty, deep insight and great originality. Key to this originality is the novel approach to building a character. The narrator of “Outline” was described by critics as “a cipher,” “self-effacing,” “numbly inert,” or “a faint image.” In “Transit,” Faye is beginning to emerge from the numbness and passivity that followed the death of her marriage. As she tells the real estate agent, “I would want what everyone else wanted, even if I couldn’t attain it.”

More here.

Saturday Poem

“Excessive sorrow laughs. Excessive joy weeps.”
…………………………………………….……. —William Blake

Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz

Are you happy? It’s the only
way to be, kid.
Yes, be happy, it’s a good
nice way to be.
But not happy-happy, kid, don’t
be too doubled-up doggone happy.
It’s the doubled-up doggone happy-

happy people bust hard they

do bust hard when they bust.

Be happy, kid, go to it, but not too
doggone happy.

Carl Sandburg
from Harvest Poems 1910-1960
Harvest Books, 1960

After a century of failing to crack an ancient script, linguists turn to machines

Mallory Locklear in The Verge:

Jbareham_170124_1415_getty_01In 1872 a British general named Alexander Cunningham, excavating an area in what was then British-controlled northern India, came across something peculiar. Buried in some ruins, he uncovered a small, one inch by one inch square piece of what he described as smooth, black, unpolished stone engraved with strange symbols — lines, interlocking ovals, something resembling a fish — and what looked like a bull etched underneath. The general, not recognizing the symbols and finding the bull to be unlike other Indian animals, assumed the artifact wasn’t Indian at all but some misplaced foreign token. The stone, along with similar ones found over the next few years, ended up in the British Museum. In the 1920s many more of these artifacts, by then known as seals, were found and identified as evidence of a 4,000-year-old culture now known as the Indus Valley Civilization, the oldest known Indian civilization to date.

Since then, thousands more of these tiny seals have been uncovered. Most of them feature one line of symbols at the top with a picture, usually of an animal, carved below. The animals pictured include bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, and puzzlingly, unicorns. They’ve been found in a swath of territory that covers present-day India and Pakistan and along trade routes, with seals being found as far as present-day Iraq. And the symbols, which range from geometric designs to representations of fish or jars, have also been found on signs, tablets, copper plates, tools, and pottery.

Though we now have thousands of examples of these symbols, we have very little idea what they mean. Over a century after Cunningham’s discovery, the seals remain undeciphered, their messages lost to us. Are they the letters of an ancient language? Or are they just religious, familial, or political symbols? Those hotly contested questions have sparked infighting among scholars and exacerbated cultural rivalries over who can claim the script as their heritage. But new work from researchers using sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and even cognitive science are finally helping push us to the edge of cracking the Indus script.

More here.

How Reliable Are Cancer Studies?

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2542 Jan. 27 19.41In recent years, scientists have been dealing with concerns about a reproducibility crisis—the possibility that many published findings may not actually be true. Psychologists have grappled intensively with this problem, trying to assess its scope and look for solutions. And two reports from pharmaceutical companies have suggested that cancer biologists have to face a similar reckoning.

In 2011, Bayer Healthcare said that its in-house scientists could only validate 25 percent of basic studies in cancer and other conditions. (Drug companies routinely do such checks so they can use the information in those studies as a starting point for developing new drugs.) A year later, Glenn Begley and Lee Ellis from Amgen said that the firm could only confirm the findings in 6 out of 53 landmark cancer papers—just 11 percent. Perhaps, they wrote, that might explain why “our ability to translate cancer research to clinical success has been remarkably low.”

But citing reasons of confidentiality, neither the Bayer nor Amgen teams released the list of papers that they checked, or their methods or results. Ironically, without that information, there was no way of checking if their claims about irreproducibility were themselves reproducible. “The reports were shocking, but also seemed like finger-pointing,” says Tim Errington, a cell biologist at the Center for Open Science (COS).

Elizabeth Iorns had the same thought, and she saw a way to do a better and more transparent job.

More here.

Is AI Sexist?

Erika Hayasaki in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_2541 Jan. 27 19.30It started as a seemingly sweet Twitter chatbot. Modeled after a millennial, it awakened on the internet from behind a pixelated image of a full-lipped young female with a wide and staring gaze. Microsoft, the multinational technology company that created the bot, named it Tay, assigned it a gender, and gave “her” account a tagline that promised, “The more you talk the smarter Tay gets!”

“hellooooooo world!!!” Tay tweeted on the morning of March 23, 2016.

She brimmed with enthusiasm: “can i just say that im stoked to meet u? humans are super cool.”

She asked innocent questions: “Why isn’t #NationalPuppyDay everyday?”

Tay’s designers built her to be a creature of the web, reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) to learn and engage in human conversations and get better at it by interacting with people over social media. As the day went on, Tay gained followers. She also quickly fell prey to Twitter users targeting her vulnerabilities. For those internet antagonists looking to manipulate Tay, it didn’t take much effort; they engaged the bot in ugly conversations, tricking the technology into mimicking their racist and sexist behavior. Within a few hours, Tay had endorsed Adolf Hitler and referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “the monkey.” She sex-chatted with one user, tweeting, “DADDY I’M SUCH A BAD NAUGHTY ROBOT.”

By early evening, she was firing off sexist tweets:

“gamergate is good and women are inferior”

More here.

Harnessing Evolution

Jonathan Shaw in Harvard Magazine:

EvoApplying evolution in the laboratory poses a fundamental problem: the experiments can take so long, researchers may turn gray waiting for results. The process rests on random mutations passed on during reproduction: beneficial mutations that improve fitness spread in subsequent generations, detrimental changes are pared. But even in fast-reproducing organisms, a round of laboratory evolution takes about a week. For “100 rounds of evolution, that’s two years,” says professor of chemistry and chemical biology David Liu. “If you need to do a thousand rounds, that’s two decades. It’s just not practical to set up experimental evolution on that time scale,” especially given the risk that an experiment might not work.

Viruses, which consist of genetic code in a protein capsule, reproduce by hijacking the machinery of cells. The virus and host combination at the heart of the PACE system (the acronym stands for phage-assisted continuous evolution) is filamentous bacteriophage, which infects E. coli cells. PACE forces the virus into a dependent relationship with the host cell. To engineer this dependency, researchers remove a piece of the viral genome critical to the virus’s survival and place it in the E. coli cell’s genome instead. Now the virus can’t survive unless the cell provides what it needs. At the same time, the researchers modify the host cell to produce what the virus needs only if the gene the researchers are forcing to evolve is increasingly active in the virus. What results is a biological machine for evolution that promotes the activity of the specific DNA sequence the researchers have introduced.

More here.

the quiet, underrated masterpieces of Michael Andrews

ANDREWS-1974-Lights-VII-A-Shadow_Gagosian-e1485440730881Martin Gayford at The Spectator:

Michael Andrews once noted the title of an American song on a scrap of paper: ‘Up is a Nice Place to Be.’ Then he added a comment of his own: ‘The best.’ This jotting was characteristic in more than one way. A splendid exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Grosvenor Hill, London, makes it clear that Andrews was — among other achievements — a supreme aerial painter. No one else has better caught the sensation of floating, to quote another song from the Sixties, up, up and away.

It was also typical of Andrews that his addition to that title was only two words — but it makes a big difference. His paintings are like that. At first, there may seem not to be much there. ‘Lights VII: A Shadow’ (1974) is almost a painting of nothing at all. Its subject is the silhouette of a balloon, seen from above, drifting over the sand of an empty beach, with bands of blue sea and sky beyond.

The effect is quite close to an abstraction. But for the spot-on verisimilitude of that shadow — with ropes and dangling basket clearly outlined — you might be looking at a Rothko. On the other hand, a glance at a reproduction could suggest that this is a photograph. Indeed, as the curator Richard Calvocoressi explains in the catalogue, the sources for Andrews’s later works were often photographic. As part of his research for the picture, Andrews assembled shots of coastal scenery and images of inflated balloons in flight. The changes he made to his sources might seem a matter of nuance, but they were crucial.

more here.

A Hebridean Journey

516bDi4f7DL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Candia McWilliam at Literary Review:

The Hebrides lie between the narrow seas and the great ocean; they are places in literature and in the self-understanding of the nation, at once at its heart and ‘other’; they are located, too, in the oft-treacherous main of Romance. In English, we say, ‘How do you do?’ meaning ‘How are you?’ In Gaelic it would be, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Who do you come from?’ An answer would provide a sense of location, not merely physical but in memory too. Islanders tend to share not only memories but also what they have forgotten.

In this account of several journeys to the north and west, to the islands of Jura, Iona, Staffa, Rum, Eriskay, Lewis and St Kilda, Bunting demonstrates with vivid craft, like that of a manuscript illuminator or an embroiderer (this is very much a stitched, as well as a woven, text), the truth of Rebecca Solnit’s words in The Faraway Nearby: ‘We think place is about space but in fact, it is really about time.’ Bunting’s location on Eriskay of three events, centuries apart – the arrival of Prince Charles Edward Stuart in 1745; a 19th-century scandal involving a young Englishwoman, the supernatural and several distinguished thinkers; and the grounding of the SS Politician with 28,000 cases of whisky in 1941, giving rise to the book and the filmWhisky Galore (gu leòir being the Gaelic for ‘abundance’) – makes the notion of arranging history around not time but place both seductive and refreshing.

more here.

A defence of ardour

ImagesAdam Zagajewski at Eurozine:

In Krakow, I sensed the luminescence of all that was best in the Polish tradition: distant recollections of the Renaissance recorded in the architecture and museum exhibits, the liberalism of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia, the energy of the interwar period, the influence of the democratic opposition just then coming into being.

The West Berlin of the early eighties struck me as a peculiar synthesis of the old Prussian capital and a frivolous city fascinated by Manhattan and the avant-garde (sometimes I suspected that the local intellectuals and artists treated the wall as yet another invention of Marcel Duchamp). In Paris, I didn't encounter the great minds, the great French arbiters of civilization – I'd come too late for that. But I discovered nonetheless the beauty of one of the few European metropolises to possess the secret of eternal youth (even Baron Haussmann's barbarism hadn't ruined the continuity of the city's life). Finally, at this brief list's conclusion, I came to know Houston, sprawled on a plain, a city without history, a city of evergreen oaks, computers, highways, and crude oil (but also wonderful libraries and a splendid symphony).

After a time I understood that I could draw certain benefits both from the wartime disaster, the loss of my native city, and from my later wanderings – as long as I wasn't too lazy and learned the languages and literatures of my changing addresses.

more here.

Why Pascal’s Wager Is Eminently Modern

Ed Simon in Nautilus:

PascalPascal’s theological masterpiece Pensees (or “Thoughts”) was where he elaborated on one of his most famous concepts, born out of an obsession with gambling inculcated during his libertine years, between his father’s death and his conversion. (Pascal was the inventor of a type of early roulette.) From this strange union of luck and theology Pascal conceived his infamous and celebrated “wager,” the argument not for the rationality of God, but for the rationality of belief in God. Reflecting the skepticism of the age, Pascal affirmed that we are “incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.” The patristic churchmen and medieval scholastics had used gallons of ink and yards of vellum to rationally prove the existence of God, but prefiguring Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason a century later, Pascal claimed that such proofs were for naught. Between humankind’s apprehension and the true nature of reality, there is, he said, “an infinite chaos which separate[s] us.” But the mechanism for one’s own personal faith can be supremely rational, and to make his case, Pascal returned us to the smoky gambling dens of his youthful indiscretions.

Pascal reasoned that life is a sort of “game,” and that our faith in God, or lack-there-of, is our wager as to the ultimate nature of reality—and what we stand to win (or lose) is nothing less than eternal life. Imagine that all of reality rides on a coin-toss, with one side of the coin affixed with the phrase “God Exists” and the other “God Does Not Exist.” The question that Pascal asked is, “What will you wager?” The essence of his thought experiment was that if one wagers that God does exist, and He does not, the gambler loses comparatively little (perhaps a bit of wine, women, and song, as Pascal may have enjoyed during his wild years). However, if one makes the bet that God does exist, and that coin lands heads-up, then the gambler is rewarded with an eternity in paradise. On the other hand, bet rightly that God does not exist, and you’ve gained very little (again, a life of finite pleasures). Bet wrongly that God does not exist, then you are punished with eternal damnation.

More here.

Friday Poem

Cole Porter

Tell them something you can live with.

The world is a hyperbole of grief.

Say Grief and give them magic.
Your sleight of hand
is all they need to understand that magic
is its own hyperbole,
that the world they’ve been banking on
is going out of business —Sale
of the Century
across each window,

The mannequins half stripped, the windows
half empty. You at the door, handing
out coupons for anything. You

at the door, talking the language
of the restless. Because it sounds good.
Or because there’s always a market
for love in an age of discontent.

Let them bank on that.

Rob them clean. Sell them back
their own dreams and live on the profit.
Say Bargain. Say Your money
or your heart.

by Dionisio D. Martínez
from Touching the Fire
Anchor Books, 1998

Is Atomic Theory the Most Important Idea in Human History?

Carlo Rovelli in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2540 Jan. 26 20.36According to tradition, in the year 450 BCE, a man embarked on a 400-mile sea voyage from Miletus in Anatolia to Abdera in Thrace, fleeing a prosperous Greek city that was suddenly caught up in political turmoil. It was to be a crucial journey for the history of knowledge. The traveller’s name was Leucippus; little is known about his life, but his intellectual spirit proved indelible. He wrote the book The Great Cosmology, in which he advanced new ideas about the transient and permanent aspects of the world. On his arrival in Abdera, Leucippus founded a scientific and philosophical school, to which he soon affiliated a young disciple, Democritus, who cast a long shadow over the thought of all subsequent times.

Together, these two thinkers have built the majestic cathedral of ancient atomism. Leucippus was the teacher. Democritus, the great pupil who wrote dozens of works on every field of knowledge, was deeply venerated in antiquity, which was familiar with these works. ‘The most subtle of the Ancients,’ Seneca called him. ‘Who is there whom we can compare with him for the greatness, not merely of his genius, but also of his spirit?’ asks Cicero.

What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea.

More here.

Roland Barthes, Jane Austen and the internet

Michael Saler in the Times Literary Supplement:

ScreenHunter_2539 Jan. 26 20.31In 1967, Roland Barthes formally announced the death of the author, a claim that seemed to have played out from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth. During this period, avowedly fictional characters and imaginary worlds rose to a prominence inconceivable in earlier periods, while acknowledgement of their creators’ role decreased. “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . . . what has he to do with Sherlock Holmes?” asked T. S. Eliot. To which the Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934, had a ready reply: he was John Watson’s literary agent.

During the fin de siècle, imaginary places and heroes became detached from earlier religious strictures, utilitarian concerns and authorial intentions, in the spirit of art for art’s sake. Authors such as William Morris, in The Well at the World’s End (1896), started to create wholly made-up worlds with rich, internally-consistent historical and geographic backgrounds. These “secondary worlds”, as J. R. R. Tolkien called them, generated a lively tourist trade as well as outright colonialism. Adults no less than children began to inhabit them, at the level of the imagination, for prolonged periods of time, often in the company of others. This persistent and communal manner of habitation brought the world and its denizens to life beyond the control of any single author or reader. Today the collective transformation of imaginary worlds into virtual worlds occurs largely through social networks on the internet, whereas for most of the past century readers engaged in such synergistic magic through the letters pages of magazines, clubs, fanzines and conventions.

Thanks to this public conjuration, authors began to relate to their fans not as demigods but as first among equals. (For poor Conan Doyle, not even that.) Indeed, with the advent of brand-name characters appearing simultaneously in books, films, radio and advertising, the seminal role of the creator could be overlooked if not ignored completely. Authors even became fictional themselves when publishers issued their work under house names: “Ellery Queen”, the nom de plume of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, did double duty as the non-existent writer of his own fabricated adventures.

More here.

The Parasite That Compels Other Parasites to Shove Their Heads Into Holes, and then eats them

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Lead_960In 2015, Scott Egan was walking along a Florida beach when he noticed some oak trees with distinctive swellings on their branches. He recognized them as the work of gall wasps—parasitic insects that lay their eggs in plants. From within, the larvae manipulate trees into creating chambers full of nutritious tissues. Tucked away in these crypts, the young wasps can eat their fill in safety. Once they turn into adults, they chew their way out and fly away.

Egan, being a keen naturalist and an expert on gall wasps, snipped off some of the branches, took them back to his lab, and kept them in a container on his desk. After a couple of months, he noticed that a few orange insects had fallen to the bottom. Those were the gall wasps—an orange species called Basettia pallida, which had finally chewed their way out of their crypts. But not all of them made it. Egan noticed that some were stuck, their heads wedged in their own escape holes.

To find out why, Egan teamed up with Kelly Weinersmith, a parasitologist and a colleague at Rice University. They cut open the branches and realized that every stuck wasp had a companion inside its crypt—a second wasp, half the size of the first, and iridescent blue. And in every case, the blue wasp was eating the orange one.

More here.

What Do They Want? Graeme Wood Speaks With Supporters of ISIS

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times:

CoverIn early 2011, as American forces were packing up to leave Iraq after eight years of fighting and occupying, one of the war’s most hideous byproducts was lurching toward what appeared to be certain death: Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had recently renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq, had seen most of its leaders killed and its membership whittled to a handful of dead-enders, who were huddled in sanctuaries in and around the northern city of Mosul.

But then the Americans departed, and a vast uprising against the government across the border, in neighboring Syria, took off. Suddenly, the Islamic State in Iraq, led by an ambitious former graduate student who called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saw its fortunes brighten anew. Baghdadi dispatched a handful of fighters to Syria and within a few months they were running operations across much of the country. Iraq promptly returned to chaos, and in April 2013, Baghdadi, presiding over a vast fief that stretched from the Iraqi desert to the outskirts of Damascus, rechristened his group yet again — as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — and appointed himself caliph. Tens of thousands of volunteers from around the world flocked to defend his far-off kingdom in the sand.

In the years since, ISIS’ breathtaking lust for anarchy — temple-smashings, beheadings, crucifixions — has inevitably prompted the question: What do these people want? The usual answers — money, power, status — do not seem to suffice. Graeme Wood, a correspondent for The Atlantic and a lecturer at Yale, believes he has found something like an answer, and that it can be located in the sacred texts, teachings and folklore of early Islam. In “The Way of the Strangers,” Wood, through a series of conversations with ISIS enthusiasts, shows that many of them claim to want the same thing: a theocratic state without borders, ruled by a leader who meets a series of strict qualifications, and who adheres to a brand of Islam that most people — including most Muslims — would find stifling and abhorrent.

More here.

How to save capitalism from itself

A45dac18-e179-11e6-802a-dc53f5401bb9-1Paul Collier at the Times Literary Supplement:

In The Future of Socialism Antony Crosland redirected the Left from Marxism to social democracy. Written in 1956, it anticipated what became the dominant European philosophy. Social democracy successfully addressed the major problems of the time; but new problems have since arisen for which it lacks a credible narrative, or a credible solution. Social democracy now lies in ruins, its ragbag of policies rejected by electorates. Its heyday was the trente glorieuses, 1945–75, but, as Marc Levinson recounts in An Extraordinary Time, the splendid outcomes during these years cannot be attributed primarily to good economic policy choices. Rather, fortuitous technological changes and one-off structural opportunities coincided to lift Western living standards. In the very different circumstances of today, returning to the Keynesianism and redistributive taxation of 1960s social democracy is unlikely to restore Eden. Levinson’s book, which takes the sorry story of economic mismanagement through to 1990, is a valuable antidote to all passionately held economic ideologies. Levinson shows that the Keynesian “fine tuning” of demand was abandoned for good reason; but its replacement by tax cuts for the wealthy and monetary targeting fared no better. For those so inclined, I recommend combining this study with Paul Romer’s brilliant paper “The Trouble with Macroeconomics” (freely available online), which demolishes the past twenty-five years of macroeconomic theory. Reading these two together it becomes clear that no shiny economic theory is going to restore mass prosperity.

more here.

Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits

ChigozieChigozie Obioma at The Millions:

For the history of human existence, the eye has fed innovation, as much as other organs of the body, in the act of looking (say, at artwork or photography), or watching (say, live performance, theatre, or movies). In Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty, seasoned and renowned Nigerian photographer Iké Udé looks to fix our gaze, in the mutative act of looking, at the people who make up a burgeoning school of motion picture performance. Working in the tradition of documentary photography, Udé creates a compilation that strays from the tradition of this mode by its intervention in the crafting and organization of the photographed image. Udé performs the work of a movie director by making the actors and actresses sitters, thereby creating a mimesis of the process of production of the motion picture itself — the very subject of the compilation.

Nollywood, now the second-largest film market in the world after Bollywood, here provides a formidable subject. African screen came about in a series of prodigious leaps. The origins of Nollywood lie in the 1971 dramatization of Things Fall Apart directed by new stars Adiela Onyedibia and Emma Eleanya. But perhaps one of the earliest pioneers was also an audacious one — Ola Balogun.

more here.