Mixed Metaphors

by Misha Lepetic

Digger2There's a certain kind of conversation in which I find myself every so often, which can roughly be summarized as "What's the big deal about DJing"? As someone who was a quasi-professional DJ in a former life, and is currently what one friend terms a 'monastic DJ', I've sensed a substantial gap in lay understanding of not just what a DJ does while engaged in the act of mixing, but also the place occupied by DJs in the contemporary musical ecosystem. This attitude — not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock while muttering to yourself that you could do just as well — has received further support from the rise and fall of the spectacularly excessive (and, to my ears, creatively bankrupt) EDM scene; the unholy marriage of superstar DJs, casino-based clubs and overpriced bottle service; and the fact that watching someone DJ is fundamentally uninteresting.

Is there any value in mixing other people's music? When viewed from the most reductive position, the answer is clearly not. As critic David Hepworth noted in a now-deleted blog post, "You must surely realise that you make your living by putting on records, which is only a tiny bit removed in degree of difficulty from switching on the radio." If that's all that DJs are good for, then I suppose it's a relief that streaming services and software-driven playlists have come along to put this particular horse-and-buggy paradigm out of its misery.

Instead, it's more helpful to look at the larger role that DJs play in parsing the ocean of music in which we swim in these post-Napster days. Just as we turn to critics in other fields to understand what we should be reading or watching, we also turn to DJs for clarity on what to listen to. In this sense, the appropriate metaphor is one of the DJ as tastemaker.

In order to talk about how a DJ guides others' taste in music, we have to address the DJ's own, internal process. Over time, a DJ is a collector, a curator and an editor. Of course, being a DJ involves inhabiting all three of these roles at the same time, all the time, but there is also a progression here. I'll go over each of these and then return to what it means to be a tastemaker at the end of this post.

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Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2608 Feb. 26 20.52For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions—illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.

Dennett is always good company. He has a gargantuan appetite for scientific knowledge, and is one of the best people I know at transmitting it and explaining its significance, clearly and without superficiality. He writes with wit and elegance; and in this book especially, though it is frankly partisan, he tries hard to grasp and defuse the sources of resistance to his point of view. He recognizes that some of what he asks us to believe is strongly counterintuitive. I shall explain eventually why I think the overall project cannot succeed, but first let me set out the argument, which contains much that is true and insightful.

More here.

Against Willpower


Carl Erik Fisher in Nautilus:

Thomas was a highly successful and mild-mannered lawyer who was worried about his drinking. When he came to see me at my psychotherapy practice, his wine intake had crept up to six or seven glasses a night, and he was starting to hide it from his family and to feel the effects at work. We discussed treatment strategies and made an appointment to meet again. But when he returned two weeks later, he was despondent: His drinking was totally unchanged.

“I just couldn’t cut back. I guess I just don’t have the willpower.”

Another patient of mine, John, also initially came to me for help with drinking. At our first meeting, we talked about moderation-based approaches and setting a healthier limit. But one month later, he came back to my office declaring that he had changed his mind and made peace with his drinking habits. Sure, his wife wasn’t always thrilled with how much he drank, he told me, and occasionally the hangovers were pretty bad, but his relationship was still fairly solid and drinking didn’t cause any truly significant problems in his life.

In the abstract, John and Thomas are similar: They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals. But while Thomas attributed that outcome to problems with willpower, John came to reframe his behavior from a perspective that sidestepped the concept of willpower altogether. Both John and Thomas would resolve their issues, but in very different ways.

Most people feel more comfortable with Thomas’ narrative. They would agree with his self-diagnosis (that he lacked willpower), and might even call it clear-eyed and courageous. Many people might also suspect that John’s reframing of his problem was an act of self-deception, serving to hide a real problem. But Thomas’ approach deserves just as much skepticism as John’s. It’s entirely possible that Thomas was seduced by the near-mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself—an idea that, ultimately, was working against him.

The Future of Not Working


Annie Lowery in the NYT Magazine:

The basic or guaranteed income is a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has washed ashore several times in the past half-millennium, often during periods of great economic upheaval. In “Utopia,” published in 1516, Thomas More suggests it as a way to help feudal farmers hurt by the conversion of common land for public use into private land for commercial use. In “Agrarian Justice,” published in 1797, Thomas Paine supports it for similar reasons, as compensation for the “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” It reappears in the writings of French radicals, of Bertrand Russell, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Silicon Valley has recently become obsessed with basic income for reasons simultaneously generous and self-interested, as a palliative for the societal turbulence its inventions might unleash. Many technologists believe we are living at the precipice of an artificial-intelligence revolution that could vault humanity into a postwork future. In the past few years, artificially intelligent systems have become proficient at a startling number of tasks, from reading cancer scans to piloting a car to summarizing a sports game to translating prose. Any job that can be broken down into discrete, repeatable tasks — financial analytics, marketing, legal work — could be automated out of existence.

In this vision of the future, our economy could turn into a funhouse-mirror version of itself: extreme income and wealth inequality, rising poverty, mass unemployment, a shrinking prime-age labor force. It would be more George Saunders than George Jetson. But what does this all have to do with a small village in Kenya?

A universal basic income has thus far lacked what tech folks might call a proof of concept. There have been a handful of experiments, including ones in Canada, India and Namibia. Finland is sending money to unemployed people, and the Dutch city Utrecht is doing a trial run, too. But no experiment has been truly complete, studying what happens when you give a whole community money for an extended period of time — when nobody has to worry where his or her next meal is coming from or fear the loss of a job or the birth of a child.

And so, the tech industry is getting behind GiveDirectly and other organizations testing the idea out.

More here.


Jenny C. Mann in Avidly:

Gettyimages-56710525-e1486576471911I study the history of rhetoric, something that has made me intimately, painfully aware of the long history of hysteria around the idea of a woman speaking in public. The stubborn persistence of this hostility towards female speech is everywhere in evidence—as just one example, take the online and print harassment of the classicist Mary Beard, who ably responded in the London Review of Books by tracing the long history of men telling women to shut up all the way back to the Odyssey. And here we are again with Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans denying Elizabeth Warren the right to take to the Senate Floor and read aloud a letter from Coretta Scott King in opposition to the Cabinet appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions.

In justifying the collective Republican censure of their peer in the Senate Chamber, McConnell explained: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.” Already this “nevertheless” has become a rallying cry on social media for those who are horrified by the silencing of Scott King’s letter and Warren’s speech. When I awoke this morning to the many #nevertheless hashtags, I was overwhelmed with that giddy-nauseous feeling of possibility that you get when something in popular culture twangs a string that resonates with your own scholarly obsessions. For in his malice, McConnell has fastened on precisely the best word to describe the disorderly intrusions of female speech in a public forum.

More here.

The Reaction to the Dred Scott Decision

Alix Oswald Voces Novae:

DredScottOn March 6, 1857, Dred Scott's eleven-year struggle for freedom had finally come to an end. The Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision, ruling that Dred Scott was still a slave. Even more controversially, the Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; that all blacks, free or enslaved, could never be United States citizens, and that Congress did not have the right to decide the slavery question in the territories. This loaded decision, which was supposed to solve the slavery question once and for all and more importantly mitigate the nation's growing sectional crisis, ended up creating more tension in the country between the North and South. The reaction to the decision varied by region and political party, with it being criticized by northerners and Republicans, and praised by southerners and Democrats. The nation's intense reaction to the Dred Scott decision not only had an effect on politics in the late 1850s, but would also serve as one of several precipitates for the ultimate breakdown in American politics, the southern secession and Civil War.

…The Dred Scott decision had far reaching effects even long after it seemed like it had lost its influence. On February 23, 1865, Illinois Senator Lyman Turnbull proposed to Congress, House bill No. 748, which would have provided for a bust of Chief Justice Taney to be made and placed inside the Supreme Court Room.[136]To this proposition, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts retorted, "I object to that; that now an emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision."[137]Senator Wilson also vehemently opposed this bill, and responded with an impassioned speech. He began by declaring, "We, the chosen representatives of a people who have reversed that unrighteous decree, trampled it beneath our feet with loathing and scorn unutterable," had ended up "sitting here in the closing hours of the Thirty-Eighth Congress with an empty Treasury."[138]He expressed that Congress had more important matters to attend to, like the "$130,000 due to the heroes of the Republic who are fighting, bleeding, dying to defend their country," which was "menaced by armed treason born of the Dred Scott decision."[139]Senator Wilson then condemned Congress for "consuming precious time and giving our voices and votes to take $1,000 out of the pockets of the people, to keep out of the hands of our soldiers," which were "outstretched to receive them."[140]He concluded by again denouncing the proposal to allocate "$1,000 to set up a bust to the memory of the man," who Wilson described as doing "more than all other men that ever breathed the air or trod the soil of the North American continent to plunge the nation into this bloody revolution."

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Sunday Poem

Visiting the Oracle

It’s dark on purpose
so just listen.

Maybe I inhabit a jar, maybe a pot,
maybe nothing. Only this
loose end of a voice
rising to meet you.
It sounds like water.
Don’t think about that.

Let your servants climb back down the mountain
by themselves. I’ll listen.
I’ll tell you everything
I discover, but I can’t
say what it means.

Someone will always
assure you of the best of fortunes,
but you know better.

And keep this in mind: The answer
reveals itself in time
like the clue that fits
perfectly and explains everything
after the crime has been solved.

Then you will say: I should have known.
It was there all along
and never even concealed,
like the story of the letter
overlooked by the thief because
it had not been hidden.
That’s the trick, of course.

You don’t need me.

by Lawrence Raab
from The Collector of Cold Weather
Ecco Press, NY, 1976


Splat goes the theory


Louise O. Fresco in Aeon:

The tomato is one of our lovelier foods; juicy icon of the good life. There’s almost nothing better than buying fresh tomatoes on a Saturday morning, bringing them home to your kitchen, washing them carefully, slicing them, admiring their shiny interiors with the miraculous seeds inside, adding a few drops of green, virgin olive oil, and perhaps a leaf or two from the basil plant on the windowsill. Just paradise.

Few people are indifferent to the sun-drenched cherry tomatoes served up in every picturesque Italian village trattoria; or a well-tended vegetable garden where the branches of each tomato plant are carefully tied by hand with a green ribbon – these fruits are harvested with loving care. Most likely you feel that such tomatoes should be organically grown, on small fields, reflecting tradition and history. You might think that, this way, they accrue authenticity, honesty and truth, that their production will be small-scale, and preferably local.

But how ‘good’ are they really? And what does ‘good’ mean in this context? Are the organic hand-picked tomatoes sold at farmers’ markets really better, in a technical sense, or do they just make us feel like better consumers – perhaps even better human beings? If the organic tomato is just a vehicle for romantic fallacy, then we have to look dispassionately at how they are grown from the perspective of sustainability.

More here.

‘THE ONE INSIDE’ By Sam Shepard

26Haskell-master315Molly Haskell at The New York Times:

“You can’t go home again.” Thomas Wolfe’s famous phrase has long served as a dictum for writers and analysands, but it needs an addendum: You can’t stop trying. Sam Shepard has acknowledged the compulsion — and also the futility — in interviews and dramatized it in plays where protagonists return to the place that’s supposed to take you in, but doesn’t. They come home not for comfort but to settle scores, demand respect, even elicit an acknowledgment of their existence. Family members in extremis shout and holler, hoping, like the father in “Buried Child,” that the sounds they make will signal an affirmative reply to the question, “Are we still in the land of the living?”

This question floats over Shepard’s novella of short-burst imaginings and conversations with himself, as the aging narrator ruefully takes stock. He’s in the land of the living, but only just, hanging on by his fingernails, his memory, his imagination, his never-ending obsession with his father, his blue thermal socks (nicked from a movie set) and his ongoing arguments with women, including a sometime-girlfriend 50 years his junior. She’s called the Blackmail Girl because she’s recording their conversations for a book that will launch her literary career. Maybe. There’s a wry poetic justice in the spectacle of a writer, that scavenger of others’ lives, helplessly furnishing material for another. The voyeur voyeured.

more here.

“Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire”

9780307700278Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:

There are no half measures to Kay Redfield Jamison’s medico-biographical study of poet Robert Lowell. It is impassioned, intellectually thrilling and often beautifully written, despite being repetitive and overlong: A little too much would seem to be just enough for Jamison.

Nonetheless, “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire” achieves a magnificence and intensity — dare one say a manic brilliance? — that sets it apart from more temperate and orderly biographies. Above all, the book demands that readers seriously engage with its arguments, while also prodding them to reexamine their own beliefs about art, madness and moral responsibility. Reading this analysis of “genius, mania, and character” is an exhilarating experience.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, Lowell was the most admired and talked-about American poet of his generation. Scion of a privileged New England family, he counted among many distinguished ancestors two notable poets — James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell — as well as Percival Lowell, the astronomer who sighted what he thought were canals on Mars.

more here.

Anthony Burgess at 100

Anthony-Burgess-and-typrewriterAL Kennedy at The Guardian:

Here’s how to open with a bang. “It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” That’s the confident, melodious, literate, entertaining first sentence of Earthly Powers, the 1980 novel by Anthony Burgess. Not bad for someone born in 1917. One of the few advantages in choosing authorship as a profession is the faint possibility of a long career, but not everyone manages to keep words and passion alive for the duration. Burgess’s practical attitude to his writing, his detailed understanding of voices, the changing sounds of humanity and the musics and mass cultures they produce all helped to keep his voice on the page young and, in every sense, vital. His outrage in the face of media-sponsored human folly also helped to keep him burning bright. Burgess always both gave and received in his relationship with popular culture.

more here.

The Function of Reason: A Conversation With Dan Sperber

From Edge:

ScreenHunter_2608 Feb. 25 20.16The general question I've been living with is how do we go about getting a better scientific grip on everything social? The social sciences have developed away from the natural sciences, even with some bit of hostility toward natural sciences, and that, I believe, is a source of poverty. If we want to have a more ambitious understanding of how social life functions, of the mechanisms involved, the challenge is to achieve continuity with neighboring natural sciences. The obvious neighbors to begin with are cognitive neuroscience, ecology, biology, and others.

I started as a social scientist. I started as an anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small group of people in the south of Ethiopia, asking myself fairly standard anthropological questions.

I was in this tribe in the south of Ethiopia, studying rituals—sacrifices and divinations. They had a fairly rich ritual life with lots of symbols and so on, and I would keep asking them, “What is the meaning of the symbols you’re using? What are the reasons for why you do this ritual the way you do?” And I never got a satisfactory answer, or so I thought. When asked about the meaning they said, “We do it because that’s what our fathers did, and our forefathers.” That was always the answer: “We do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I was very frustrated by this and went looking for possibly better informants—an older member of the society, a “wise man,” or whatever—who would know more, but I never found them.

More here.

Harvey Friedman Is About to Blow Up Mathematics

Jordana Cepelewicz in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2607 Feb. 25 20.07It is 7 o’clock in the morning and Harvey Friedman has just sent an email to an unspecified number of recipients with the subject line “stop what you are doing.” It features a YouTube link to a live 1951 broadcast of a concert by the famous Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. “There is a pattern on YouTube of priceless gems getting taken down by copyright claims,” Friedman writes, “so I demand (smile) that you stop everything you are doing, including breathing, eating, thinking, sleeping, and so forth, to listen to this before it disappears.”

His comment takes its place at the top of a chain of emails stretching back months, with roughly as many messages sent at 3 a.m. as at noon or 9 p.m. The haphazard correspondence covers a wide range of topics, from electronic music editing to an interdisciplinary field Friedman calls “ChessMath.” At one point, he proposes to record at home, by himself, a three-part “Emotion Concert.” Anonymous piano players on the email thread discuss their own thoughts on the lineup.

As diverse as the topics in the email history are, Friedman asks the same question of them all: What are their basic constituents and what laws govern them? He seems to be searching for the right vocabulary—“the right way,” he says, “of talking about what the fundamental ideas are, to black-box the ad hoc technicalities and get to the real meat of the thing.”

That is not to say all of these topics are equal. There is one that is nearest and dearest to Friedman’s heart: the foundations of mathematics, which concerns itself with the consistency, unity, and structure of mathematics itself.

More here.

I Was a Muslim in Trump’s White House and I Lasted Eight Days

Rumana Ahmed in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2606 Feb. 25 20.00In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.

Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.

I lasted eight days.

When Trump issued a ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and all Syrian refugees, I knew I could no longer stay and work for an administration that saw me and people like me not as fellow citizens, but as a threat.

The evening before I left, bidding farewell to some of my colleagues, many of whom have also since left, I notified Trump’s senior NSC communications adviser, Michael Anton, of my departure, since we shared an office. His initial surprise, asking whether I was leaving government entirely, was followed by silence––almost in caution, not asking why. I told him anyway.

More here.

Mohsin Hamid on the dangers of nostalgia: we need to imagine a brighter future

Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:

MohsinSince well before the dawn of history, human beings have gathered together around flickering campfires to tell and listen to tales. We still do, even if the campfires are now more often glowing screens – in cinemas, on television sets, or in our hands. There are a great many reasons for this: fictional narratives offer us so many things. But in our present moment it is worth remembering one reason in particular: storytelling offers an antidote to nostalgia. By imagining, we create the potential for what might be. Religions are composed of stories precisely because of this potency. Stories have the power to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is. We are all creators of fictions, and we all have a role to play in imagining our way out of the nostalgic traps strewn around us. But there are special opportunities open to those of us who create fiction for a living, and above all to those of us who are writers, because we are freer to create what we wish, without requiring funding for our projects, as a film-maker might. We are the startups of the storytelling world, the crazy solo inventors in the R&D department of humanity’s narrative imagination.

We should be glad for these opportunities. The future is too important to be left to professional politicians. And it is too important to be left to technologists either. Other imaginations from other human perspectives must stake competing claims. Radical, politically engaged fiction is required. This fiction need not focus on dystopias or utopias, though some of it probably will. Rather it needs to peer with all the madness and insight and unexpectedness and wisdom we can muster into where we might desirably go, as individuals, families, societies, cultures, nations, earthlings, organisms. This does not require setting fiction in the future. But it does require a radical political engagement with the future.

Take back control? Make America great again? Restore the caliphate? We can do better than these. Storytellers, now is the time to try.

More here.