Margaret Atwood and Andrew O’Hagan on Trump, the Internet, and Our Dark Future

From Literary Hub:

John Freeman: The question I think all speculative fiction, and I think some of us who are politically active, want to know: Is now the time to be very, very worried?

Margaret Atwood: When was the time not to be very, very worried? Should we be more worried than ever before?

Andrew O’Hagan: Yes. Definitely.

JF: Maybe we should start when you both began as writers. Margaret, you in the early 1960s; Andy, you were, this was the early 1990s… What were the structural concerns that occupied you at the time, and how do they differ to some degree from what you see in front of you now as writers?

AO: Well, there was a basic reality that one could conjure with, certainly when I started. The situation now makes you feel slightly nostalgic for the Cold War, when the oppositions were pretty simple and almost charming, in fact quite delightful.

You know, one of the things that happened during the Cold War was that the CIA and the shape of the Council for Cultural Freedom decided the best way to tackle Russian ideology was to put money behind a literary magazine, Encounter, which it funded for some time thinking that, you know, somehow having an effect on the kinds of poets that would be published, and the way that F.R. Leavis would be handled as a critic, and the way that certain novelists would be discussed would be a decisive step forward in the war with Russia to rule humanity. And that makes me almost tickled pink to think that that was the level we operated on once upon a time, because now, of course, what’s happening is so deeply sinister, and it’s happening in the very basic units of veracity, of actuality, of what we can believe to be true.

Although there always was techniques and propaganda, of course, and lies—we always knew that—they were never operating at the level of everybody’s everyday life, I think, in the way that they are now. Everybody who opens a laptop and sits down for a mug of coffee in the morning is immediately confronted, I think, by a miasma of confected life and trying to separate out in order to have an opinion about what’s happening with the environmental crisis, or what’s happening in the election, or whether you can trust even the most basic reports.

Well, writers now, I think, are facing that every day, that you have got to see yourself, whether you want to or not, as having a responsibility, especially when it comes to nonfiction. You’ve got a responsibility to tackle that miasma and, if you like, the government institutional lying which is now an everyday reality for us.

More here.

To Live Your Best Life, Do Mathematics


Kevin Hartnett in Quanta Magazine:

QUANTA MAGAZINE: The title of your talk was “Mathematics for Human Flourishing.” Flourishing is a big idea — what do you have in mind by it?

FRANCIS SU: When I think of human flourishing, I’m thinking of something close to Aristotle’s definition, which is activity in accordance with virtue. For instance, each of the basic desires that I mentioned in my talk is a mark of flourishing. If you have a playful mind or a playful spirit, or you’re seeking truth, or pursuing beauty, or fighting for justice, or loving another human being — these are activities that line up with certain virtues. Maybe a more modern way of thinking about it is living up to your potential, in some sense, though I wouldn’t just limit it to that. If I am loving somebody well, that’s living up to a certain potential that I have to be able to love somebody well.

And how does mathematics promote human flourishing?

It builds skills that allow people to do things they might otherwise not have been able to do or experience. If I learn mathematics and I become a better thinker, I develop perseverance, because I know what it’s like to wrestle with a hard problem, and I develop hopefulness that I will actually solve these problems. And some people experience a kind of transcendent wonder that they’re seeing something true about the universe. That’s a source of joy and flourishing.

Math helps us do these things. And when we talk about teaching mathematics, sometimes we forget these larger virtues that we are seeking to cultivate in our students. Teaching mathematics shouldn’t be about sending everybody to a Ph.D. program. That’s a very narrow view of what it means to do mathematics. It shouldn’t mean just teaching people a bunch of facts. That’s also a very narrow view of what mathematics is. What we’re really doing is training habits of mind, and those habits of mind allow people to flourish no matter what profession they go into.

More here.

Would Twitter Ruin Bee Democracy?


Lixing Sun in Nautilus:

Did the ancient Athenians invent democracy? Or did bugs have it way earlier than the Greeks? Cornell entomologist Tom Seeley knows which option he’s voting for.

Honeybees regularly split from their mother colony. Seeley wondered, with tens of thousands of bees in a swarm, how do they reach agreement? His answer: simple-majority democracy.

In his 2010 book Honeybee Democracy, Seeley described how bees intending to strike out on their own first send scouts in all directions to collect information. On their return, these early scouts buzz and twirl to recruit more scouts. Some gain fans whereas others lose them. Newly deciding scouts go out to look for themselves. After the majority of scouts (which number in the hundreds) have converged on one opinion, the entire swarm takes off for its promised land.

Bees are not alone in using simple-majority rule—Tibetan macaques do it too. In 2014, my colleagues and I were studying how a group of 12 adult macaques coordinated their collective movements. We noticed that once three or more of them ganged up together, the entire group would often follow suit. The success rate in getting the group into action increased with the number of initiators—those who started the process. When the initiators numbered seven or more, exceeding a simple majority, the success rate reached its maximum: 100 percent.

Democracy in collective decision-making has also been observed in African buffaloes, red deer, baboons, and pigeons. Even single-celled bacteria make collective decisions based on a democratic process known as quorum sensing. Their genes control some aspect of their behavior, like how mobile or virulent they should become, based on how many of their bacterial comrades are already engaging in that behavior. Similar democratic processes are also used by cockroaches and other swarming insects.

More here.

World’s richest 500 see their wealth increase by $1tn this year


Rupert Neate in The Guardian:

The world’s super-rich hold the greatest concentration of wealth since the US Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, when families like the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts controlled vast fortunes. There are now 1,542 dollar billionaires across the world, after 145 multimillionaires saw their wealth tick over into nine-zero fortunes last year, according to the UBS / PwC Billionaires report.

Josef Stadler, the lead author of the report and UBS’s head of global ultra-high net worth, said his billionaire clients were concerned that growing inequality between rich and poor could lead to a “strike back”.

A report by Credit Suisse found that the world’s richest 1% people have seen their share of the globe’s total wealth increase from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn.

“The share of the top 1% has been on an upward path ever since [the financial crisis], passing the 2000 level in 2013 and achieving new peaks every year thereafter,” the Credit Suisse global wealth report said. The bank said “global wealth inequality has certainly been high and rising in the post-crisis period”.

The increase in wealth among the already very rich led to the creation of 2.3 million new dollar millionaires over the past year, taking the total to 36 million. “The number of millionaires, which fell in 2008, recovered fast after the financial crisis, and is now nearly three times the 2000 figure,” Credit Suisse said.

These millionaires – who account for 0.7% of the world’s adult population – control 46% of total global wealth that now stands at $280tn. At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000 (£7,600). Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth.

More here.

the Shadow of White Supremacy

Lydialyle Gibson in Harvard Magazine:

Resendstevenson005_smThe audience could sense where the story was going almost as soon as Bryan Stevenson began telling it. Two black children in the barely desegregated South, hurtling with giddy, unguarded elation toward their first swim in a pool that until recently had been available only to whites. A swim they’d been dreaming of for years. As Stevenson, J.D.-M.P.A.’85, LL.D. ’15, kept talking, an electricity of unease began to intensify among the listeners packed into First Parish Church last week—as many people as the pews would hold—who’d come to hear him deliver Harvard’s 2017 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, hosted by the Mahindra Humanities Center. A civil-rights lawyer who for three decades has defended death-row inmates and fought for criminal-justice reform from a warehouse-turned-office in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, Stevenson is a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, a New York University law professor, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.

…At the other end of the pool was a cluster of white children, whose parents were lounging nearby. At first, Stevenson and his sister didn’t really notice them. But then suddenly, the parents were screaming at their children to get out of the water, snatching them up by the arms, hustling them away crying. A little white boy was the last one left amid the commotion, and as Stevenson and his sister looked on in horror and confusion, the boy’s father waded into the pool to grab him. “And then I did this thing that I knew I wasn’t supposed to do,” Stevenson recalled. “I asked that man a question, even though I didn’t know him. I turned to him, and I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I will never forget, the man looked at me and he said, ‘You’re wrong, n—–.’”

It wasn’t the first time Stevenson had been called that, but in that moment, he was unprepared to hear it, and the slur cut right through him. After the white families withdrew, he and his sister ran to their mother to tell her what had happened, afraid they’d be in trouble. They weren’t, but she was angry. She told her children to get back in the pool. They didn’t want to. She insisted. “Don’t let those people run you from the pool,” Stevenson remembers her saying. The next day, the family continued on to Disney World. “I know we had fun,” Stevenson said of the week in Florida, but he is fuzzy on the details. Instead, “What I remember most vividly about that trip was getting back into the pool, standing in a corner, holding my sister’s hand and desperately trying not to cry.”

In the years since, he’s wondered, do the white kids remember the day they were pulled out of the pool? Does that father remember what he said? Do any of them tell the story, as Stevenson and his sister still do? “And my fear is that they don’t remember,” he said. “My fear is that they haven’t been talking about it the rest of their lives. My fear is that it just evaporated. It was one more moment in a life of segregation with no consequences, no legacy, no shadow.”

More here.

What holds a society together in the absence of common ideas?

Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_2917 Dec. 31 00.37Dystopian novels are a difficult genre: They need to be imaginative, edging on the far-fetched, while being just plausible enough to terrify. Omar El Akkad’s American War, which interprets the American South by way of the Middle East, challenges Americans to imagine what it might be like to die for, but also kill, their fellow citizens.

The Second Civil War begins in 2074. Climate change has changed the continent, submerging the banks of Louisiana and the near entirety of Florida, save for an island enclave or two, one of which eventually houses the notorious Sugarloaf Detention Facility for Northern prisoners of war.

In the early 2070s, the federal government, by then based in Columbus, moved to outlaw fossil fuels. Southerners resented this and other impositions from the richer, prosperous Northern states. Fervor for secession began to build. The nature of Southern “culture” was rich, but also somewhat vague and constructed, like all cultural identities are. It was enough, though, to moor a movement that would lead to the deaths of millions. A Southern suicide bomber assassinated the president in 2073, plunging the country into violence.

There are little details that stand out: the stubbornness of symbols; how the simple revving of an engine still running on old fuel, while ultimately meaningless, becomes an act of rebellion, an expression of self-affirmation but a completely futile one in the face of so much killing.

More here. [Thanks to Omar Ali.]

Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary, The Idea of North (1967)

Over at Open Culture:

If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, Glenn Gould merits each and every one of the many applications of the word "genius" to his name. The world knows that name primarily as one of a genius of the piano, of course, especially when interpreting the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, but he also made an impression in his homeland of Canada as a genius of the radio editing suite. Having recorded for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's classical-and-jazz record label CBC Records placed him well to realize his ideas on the CBC's airwaves, most memorably in the form of The Idea of North, an hourlong meditation on the vast, cold expanse that constitutes the top third of the country, which first aired on December 28, 1967.

The broadcast's fiftieth anniversary has prompted Canadians and non-Canadians alike to have another listen to Gould's best-known radio project, back then shockingly experimental and still boldly unconventional today. "The pianist used a technique he called 'contrapuntal radio,' layering speaking voices on top of each other to create a unique sonic environment situated in the space between conversation and music," says the site of CBC's Ideas, which recently aired a new episode about the making of The Idea of North called Return to North.

More here.

To become a bit more human


Julie Wark reviews Belén Fernández's Letter from Iran, in Open Democracy:

As a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman represents the acme of establishment journalism. As the man who came up with the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, he might better fit W. B. Yeats’ depiction, viz. “There is nothing in [journalists] but tittering jeering emptiness.” Yet Friedman is actually much worse than a hamburger purveyor since, as Belén Fernández has scathingly demonstrated, he is The Imperial Messenger, complete with guerdons, garlands and garbling. Friedman’s Iran is only scantily parodied in the clever spoof The New York Times Op-Ed generator as a country where “a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. […] If corruption is Iran’s curtain rod, then freedom is certainly its faucet.” What might a curtain rod and faucet have to do with Iran? Meaning here is overridden by function, something Karl Kraus warned of. A Friedman-style journalist “kills our imagination with his truth, he threatens our life with his lies”. One reads his rubbish and a desire to smack him red-mists any rational imagining of what he is actually saying. But the message being drummed in is that America must impose its “mindset” on those who are foreign to it, with nuclear weapons if necessary. He literally threatens everyone’s lives.

Belén Fernández is another kind of journalist, more like that described by Marguerite Duras. “Every journalist is a moralist […], someone who takes a close look at things every day and reports what she sees […].” This journalist isn’t after establishment awards but offers a gift that only asks in return a response in the same coin: that we see ourselves and others as members of the same species, with the same rights, feelings, wishes, and dreams. Her journalistic standpoint is clear in her recent review of Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World in which she writes that the self-critical Hansen “does the field of journalism a great service with her humility, introspection, and willingness to defy the establishment line.” Much the same could be said of Fernández who, a practitioner of what she preaches, finishes her review saying that the aim is “to become a bit more human”.

More here.


Iliac-crestSarah Coolidge at The Quarterly Conversation:

Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest is a novel riddled with holes, disappearances that have the effect of warping and obscuring the world its reader inhabits. If this book were to have a single guiding principle, it might be these words: “Disappearance is contagious. Everyone knows this.” The narrator’s confidence in this fact is a bit alarming, and may come as news to the reader. Is disappearance a physical illness and this book some kind of existential science fiction treatise? Well, yes and no.

It’s hard to assert definitively just what this book is, although what is clear is that, in Rivera Garza’s world, disappearances are not unconnected—they propagate through a chain reaction, through physical contact, as the narrator goes on to explain almost scientifically, as if we were dealing with an outbreak of the flu. In fact, disappearance in this book is often referred to in medical terms, as an “epidemic,” or else in political terms, as a “conspiracy.” Either way, the fact is that these disappearances are all connected, whether by microscopic bacteria, by the secret crimes committed by a police state, or by some other insidious means.

But what, exactly, does it mean to disappear in Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel? Disappearances occur in multiple forms, both as seemingly passive actions—a memory or piece of information the narrator has forgotten or failed to mention; a made-up language that has not been deciphered for us—and active ones—the deliberate silencing of women with morphine; mysterious cover-ups; a stolen manuscript; and of course death.

more here.

Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power

515bYxuNXPL._SY344_BO1 204 203 200_Stuart Jeffries at The Guardian:

The new surveillance society that has arisen since 1984, argues Han, works differently yet is more elegantly totalitarian and oppressive than anything described by Orwell or Jeremy Bentham. “Confession obtained by force has been replaced by voluntary disclosure,” he writes. “Smartphones have been substituted for torture chambers.” Well, not quite. Torture chambers still exist, it’s just that we in the neoliberal west have outsourced them (thanks, rendition flights) so that that obscenity called polite society can pretend they don’t exist.

Nonetheless, what capitalism realised in the neoliberal era, Han argues, is that it didn’t need to be tough, but seductive. This is what he calls smartpolitics. Instead of saying no, it says yes: instead of denying us with commandments, discipline and shortages, it seems to allow us to buy what we want when we want, become what we want and realise our dream of freedom. “Instead of forbidding and depriving it works through pleasing and fulfilling. Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.”

Your smartphone, for Han, is crucial in this respect, the multifunctional tool of our auto-exploitation. We are all Big Brother now.

more here.

How Mortuaries, Medicine and Money Have Built a Global Market in Human Cadaver Parts

51RvQxXbScL._SX331_BO1 204 203 200_Rose George at Literary Review:

Medicine’s search for dead bodies with parts available for harvesting is called bioprospecting. It always comes up against an essential supply problem: there are plenty of dead bodies, but how can they be accessed? Getting consent is time-consuming, unpredictable and expensive. For a long time this was dealt with by not bothering to seek it. In 1921, the embryologist Herbert McLean Evans discovered that rats given ‘a soup of anterior lobes’ grew three times heavier than untreated littermates. This was the beginning of the growth hormone craze, which lasted until synthetic growth hormone was developed. Any gland could yield useful hormones; Evans went so far as to stand beneath some gallows and ‘without bothering to take the dead man’s trousers down or waiting for the attending doctor to hold up his hand to indicate that the heart had stopped beating … used scissors and knife to cut off the scrotum’. Evans defended himself by saying he only cut off the testicles of prisoners who were unclaimed by kinfolk. Later, much cadaver stuff was reaped by allowing the person lawfully in charge of the corpse to authorise harvesting if he or she thought there was no objection. To ascertain this, they simply had to make ‘a reasonable enquiry’. In law, mortuaries became a ‘no-place’, where corpses had no rights. Penalties for misuse of bodies were scanty. The UK Human Tissue Act of 1961 didn’t bother to include any penalties for the theft of body parts because the law did not recognise a right of property in the human body.

more here.

The Handmaid’s Tale held a mirror up to a year of Trump

Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian:

OffIn politics and culture, the year 2017 was the opposite of Where’s Wally? The question, instead, was always Where Isn’t Trump? All roads – public debate, private argument, artistic endeavour – seemed eventually to lead in his squalid direction; his gravitational pull irresistible, his fleshy presence horribly ubiquitous. It wasn’t just the explicit satire of, say, Saturday Night Live that kept the US president front and centre in cultural life. Lee Hall’s triumphant reworking at the National Theatre of Network, Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film about mass media and demagoguery, held a more subtle mirror up to the age of Trump. Shakespeare’s history plays acquired fresh and often unsettling relevance (watch out for the Bridge theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, opening in London next month). Even War for the Planet of the Apes teemed with apparent parallels in its post-apocalyptic vision of walls, segregation and deportation.

Yet it was Hulu’s television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that jangled the nerves most vividly and to such startling effect. Set in the near future, it imagined Gilead: an authoritarian mutation of the United States, in which the constitutional apparatus has been forcibly dismantled and replaced by the patriarchal rule of “Sons of Jacob”, stripping women of all rights and enslaving those who remained fertile as handmaids, serially raped in a pseudo-biblical “ceremony” to provide the childless governing caste with progeny.

The Handmaid’s Tale was ostensibly televisual fiction. Yet in its uncompromising exploration of fear and power and its abuse, it also captured the lightning of the moment in a bottle of dystopian genius. It was nothing short of mesmeric, all the more so on repeated viewings. When the series was ordered in April 2016, Trump was the frontrunner to win the Republican nomination but not quite the presumptive candidate. It was still orthodox to assert that Hillary Clinton would trounce him in the election itself. His unapologetic misogyny had been perfectly clear at the first Republican contenders’ debate in August 2015, in which he sparred with the moderator, Megyn Kelly, and insulted Rosie O’Donnell. But the notorious Access Hollywood tape – “grab them by the pussy” – did not become public until October 2016, by which stage The Handmaid’s Tale was already in production. Yet, through luck, intuition or a combination of the two, the series became a disturbing text for our times. Produced by Atwood, author of the original novel, and Elisabeth Moss, who played the lead character, June/Offred, it did more than a thousand news bulletins to capture all that was most toxic about the new populist right and the shredding of constitutional norms.

More here.

We Aren’t Destroying the Earth

David Biello in The New York Times:

BielloSince humanity left Africa some tens of thousands of years ago, large land animals across the world have had a mysterious habit of dying out: giant kangaroo, woolly mammoth, glyptodont, to name a few. As Alfred Russel Wallace put it, we live in a world that lacks “all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest” animals. It’s no wonder that invasive species are considered a big threat to wildlife, and none more so than the one species invasive on six out of seven continents: us. Hence the “ecological despair” that the conservation biologist Chris Thomas identifies early in his provocative new book. “A mass extinction is in full swing, and prognoses for the future seem dire. For these reasons, we have gone so far as to describe ourselves as the scourge of the Earth, and as exceeding our planetary boundaries,” he writes. But Thomas is not interested in feeding this despair. Rather, he makes an argument considered apostasy by many: People’s impact on the planet has not been that catastrophic. In other words, nature is more complicated, as the book explores in some detail. People spreading out across the globe and building international trade networks have reunited the continents in a kind of virtual supercontinent, mixing plant, animal, microbe and fungal species in a way unseen since Pangaea, more than 200 million years ago. Human alterations to the planet’s surface — like the conversion of most of the world’s grasslands into pasture and crops — have transformed the environment in which all other species thrive or die. As a result, some plants, animals, microbes and fungi win, and some lose.

Consider the sparrow. This bird of the Asian steppe has spread across the world because of all the man-made farms, towns and cities that resemble their original habitat. Plus the unique nature of man plays a role. In fact, just one man, whose name we know — Eugene Schieffelin — is responsible for first releasing into North America the millions of sparrows we know today, mostly because the immigrant bird was mentioned in the plays of Shakespeare. There are an estimated half-billion of these birds around the world now, and they are breaking up into independent species. The book is filled with such lovely anecdotes, many from Thomas’s own rich life of natural adventure, whether surveying sparrows in Italy or encountering pygmy elephants in Borneo.

More here.

Art at the margins of contemporary democracies

Beata Sirowy in Ephemera:

9780231183482In his recent book, Why only art can save us, Santiago Zabala makes an important contribution to the socially engaged art discourse, building upon phenomenology and critical theory. It is a text about demands by art, to use Michael Kelly’s formulation [9], i.e. art’s call for action on behalf of the weak, discarded and forgotten – the remains of Being on the margins of contemporary democracies.

The title of the book is a paraphrase of Heidegger’s famous statement ‘only a God can still save us’, indicating a path beyond the world overpowered by technology, where everything is calculable, nature is treated as a standing reserve, and we aim to exploit and control the world. As Zabala argues, Heidegger’s declaration should not be read in a literal sense, but rather as alluding to a forgotten realm of Being in our technological reality. Aiming to dominate and categorize the world, we replaced Being (existence) with enumerable beings (objects), bringing about ‘the endlessly self-expanding emptiness and devastation’ [2], related to the primacy of things over human relationships and nature.

In which sense the realm of Being offers us a salvation? A return to Being is a return to a non-reductionist perception of the world and human existence, a leap beyond instrumental rationality. Art can assist us in this process, awakening the sense of emergency – an awareness that our dominating way of framing the world is not the only option.

More here.

After 40 years of studying the strong nuclear force, a revelation

John Butterworth in The Guardian:

5616In the mid 1970s, four Soviet physicists, Batlisky, Fadin, Kuraev and Lipatov, made some predictions involving the strong nuclear force which would lead to their initials entering the lore. “BFKL” became a shorthand for a difficult-to-understand but important physical effect which could have big implications for high energy physics.

The strongest of the known fundamental forces of nature is something of an enigma. It holds together the nucleus of every atom – easily overcoming the electromagnetic repulsion between the positively-charged protons in there. The simplest atomic nucleus, that of hydrogen, is a single proton, but even that is held in one piece by the strong force, so tightly that it never falls apart – or at least, it lives billions of times longer than the current age of the observable universe. Truly, strong and stable.

We have a good theory of the strong force, which sits proudly in our Standard Model of particle physics. However, making predictions with this theory is very difficult. This is not simply to say that the sums are hard (they are), but that in many cases we don’t even know what sums we should be doing.

BFKL proposed, or discovered, a new set of sums which could be done using the theory behind the strong force. These sums should have a big effect on a particular type of particle collision, when very small fractions of the particle’s momentum are involved. If the energy of the colliding particles is high enough, this type of collision dominates all the others. So anything that has a big effect on these collisions is an important feature of nature, one that we would like to understand.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]