Toni Morrison: First Lady of Letters

James McBride in The New York Times:

Toni Morrison, the author and Nobel Prize winner, turned 88 on Feb. 18. I have never met Morrison. And while you’ll likely see a donkey fly before you see her stand before a bunch of Harvard undergraduates and sing on demand, the fact is Toni Morrison is very much like Ella Fitzgerald. Like Fitzgerald, she rose from humble beginnings to world prominence. Like Fitzgerald, she is intensely private. And like Fitzgerald, she has given every iota of her extraordinary American-born talent and intellect to the great American dream. Not the one with the guns and bombs bursting in air. The other one, the one with world peace, justice, racial harmony, art, literature, music and language that shows us how to be free wrapped in it. Morrison has, as they say in church, lived a life of service. Whatever awards and acclaim she has won, she has earned. She has paid in full. She owes us nothing.

Yet even as she moves into the October of life, Morrison, quietly and without ceremony, lays another gem at our feet. “The Source of Self-Regard” is a book of essays, lectures and meditations, a reminder that the old music is still the best, that in this time of tumult and sadness and continuous war, where tawdry words are blasted about like junk food, and the nation staggers from one crisis to the next, led by a president with all the grace of a Cyclops and a brain the size of a full-grown pea, the mightiness, the stillness, the pure power and beauty of words delivered in thought, reason and discourse, still carry the unstoppable force of a thousand hammer blows, spreading the salve of righteousness that can heal our nation and restore the future our children deserve. This book demonstrates once again that Morrison is more than the standard-bearer of American literature.

She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.

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‘Sleeping With Strangers’ by David Thomson

Peter Conrad at The Guardian:

Were the humanists wrong to claim that art is good for us, “like Ovaltine and yoga”? Movies have been more like a secret vice, the first and most invasive of the technologies that have progressively estranged us from one another. As a Londoner resettled in San Francisco, Thomson is also keenly aware of the way the medium has duped Americans, convincing them that happy endings are inevitable so long as gun-toting men control the narrative. “Can’t we admit,” he asks, “how much American experience has been rooted in fear?” In one mind-bending paragraph he outlines an alternative pantheon of great American films – including Citizen KaneVertigo and a surprising number of screwball comedies – that expose the country’s gnawing insecurity.

Thomson’s last and boldest speculative forays try to find a way out of the current impasse between the genders, for which he makes movies in large part responsible. Are the sexes doomed to battle for ever, as in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday?

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‘Save the Bathwater’ by Marina Carreira

Max Gray at The Quarterly Conversation:

“Bloodlines” employs numbered sections, one of Carreira’s favored devices, to divide the poem into a triptych. She uses time and place to distinguish each, taking us from her adolescence in Portugal to early adulthood in New Jersey to the present moment. In the first, the adolescent version of Carreira feels shame about her body—not the first time we encounter, in heartbreaking fashion, the painful self-consciousness of a young narrator—while, at the same time yearning for physical connection. She wants “a God-fearing man,” but she observes that a young neighbor of hers is “a pretty boy.” The end of this section is marked by the advent of menstruation, a hallmark of maturity that doubles as a sign of heritage and hardship. While the neighbor boy collects the material possessions that “make for a good life,” the menstrual signature on the speaker’s bed sheets “promises thorns no bread or gold can dull.” The concrete trappings of health and prosperity are conflated with the promise of a bright future, but “blood,” in all its multi-layered meaning, complicates the simple promise of “bread or gold.” Profoundly, for Carreira, this duality echoes the divided heart of the Portuguese immigrant community in America—one heart striving and struggling forward in its quest for material security and the American Dream, while the other looks backward toward an idealized past that continues to drift further and further out of reach with the passage of time.

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Denis Diderot

Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker:

Diderot is known to the casual reader chiefly as an editor of the Encyclopédie—it had no other name, for there was no other encyclopédie. Since the Encyclopédie was a massive compendium of knowledge of all kinds, organizing the entirety of human thought, Diderot persists vaguely in memory as a type of Enlightenment superman, the big bore with a big book. Yet in these two new works of biography he turns out to be not a severe rationalist, overseeing a totalitarianism of thought, but an inspired and lovable amateur, with an opinion on every subject and an appetite for every occasion.

He was and remains, as Zaretsky says simply, a mensch. He is also a very French mensch. He is a touchingly perfect representative—far more than the prickly Voltaire—of a certain French intellectual kind not entirely vanished: ambitious, ironic, obsessed with sex to a hair-raising degree (he wrote a whole novella devoted to the secret testimony of women’s genitalia), while gentle and loving in his many and varied amorous connections; possessed of a taste for sonorous moralizing abstraction on the page and an easy temporizing feel for worldly realism in life; and ferociously aggressive in literary assault while insanely thin-skinned in reaction, littering long stretches of skillful social equivocation with short bursts of astonishing courage.

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Nobel laureates, a new congresswoman and others urge raising taxes on the ultrawealthy to counter surging inequality

John Horgan in Scientific American:

In 2015 I attended a workshop on political polarization with an eclectic group of scholars and activists. We swapped ideas on resolving battles over climate change, inequality, abortion and gay rights. One obstacle to compromise, a psychologist said, is that many Americans have a visceral, emotional reaction to issues like homosexuality.

I have a visceral, emotion reaction to inequality, I replied. It sickens me that some Americans have billions while others barely have enough to eat. An economist derided my attitude as typical left-wing irrationality. Inequality isn’t the problem, he said, poverty is the problem, and we shouldn’t try to solve it by taking more from the rich.

I felt chastened. But a flurry of recent articles—with headlines like “Abolish Billionaires” and “The Economics of Soaking the Rich”—argues that we should be appalled by the immense gap between the poor and rich. The proliferation of billionaires shows that capitalism is malfunctioning and in need of reforms, including higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy.

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The Math That Takes Newton Into the Quantum World

John Baez in Nautilus:

In my 50s, too old to become a real expert, I have finally fallen in love with algebraic geometry. As the name suggests, this is the study of geometry using algebra. Around 1637, René Descartes laid the groundwork for this subject by taking a plane, mentally drawing a grid on it, as we now do with graph paper, and calling the coordinates and y. We can write down an equation like x2+ y2 = 1, and there will be a curve consisting of points whose coordinates obey this equation. In this example, we get a circle!

It was a revolutionary idea at the time, because it let us systematically convert questions about geometry into questions about equations, which we can solve if we’re good enough at algebra. Some mathematicians spend their whole lives on this majestic subject. But I never really liked it much until recently—now that I’ve connected it to my interest in quantum physics.

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Arundhati Roy On Balakot, Kashmir And India

Arundhati Roy in The Huffington Post:

With his reckless “pre-emptive” airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inadvertently undone what previous Indian governments almost miraculously, succeeded in doing for decades. Since 1947 the Indian Government has bristled at any suggestion that the conflict in Kashmir could be resolved by international arbitration, insisting that it is an “internal matter.” By goading Pakistan into a counter-strike, and so making India and Pakistan the only two nuclear powers in history to have bombed each other, Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute. He has demonstrated to the world that Kashmir is potentially the most dangerous place on earth, the flash-point for nuclear war. Every person, country, and organisation that worries about the prospect of nuclear war has the right to intervene and do everything in its power to prevent it.

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Species in Conflict on the Columbia River

Sallie Tisdale at Harper’s Magazine:

In 1974, after protracted legal efforts and sometimes violent protests, a US district court in Washington State upheld the treaties of the Columbia Plateau tribes. Known as the Boldt Decision, the ruling upended the fishing industry and still angers non-Indian fishermen. It gave tribal members the right to half of the river’s harvestable fish, and it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1979. (The number considered harvestable varies. Fishery managers meet throughout the year to set limits that will allow weak populations to rebound and tributary stocks to spawn, but the shares are always kept equal between treaty and non-treaty fishers.) The tribes also have access to thirty-one fishing sites closed to others. A long stretch of the lower river is now divided into six fishing zones. The first five zones are in the 145 miles between the mouth of the Columbia and Bonneville Dam. Zone 6 runs above Bonneville for another 147 miles, and commercial fishing can only be done by the tribes there. The Boldt Decision affirmed the right to fish—but it didn’t bring back the fish. It did nothing to mitigate the desperate losses caused by dams, development, and overfishing. By 1995, there were about 750,000 salmon left in the entire Columbia River.

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Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial of, Oh, Say, About 1990

Ian Dreiblatt at The Believer:

Cheesemania ’93, as I’ve decided to call it, is a classic TV commercial. In a civilization organized primarily around the funneling of capital to corporations, commercials offer a space of transcendent communion with the objects of our dependence and desire. They take place in a realm understood to be ideational without quite being imaginary—existing not in any one person’s mind, but ambiently, on a level of reality we rarely think to question, encoded in the daily order of things as neatly as the peanut butter aisle of a suburban grocery store. (This bare proximity to capitalism’s exposed nerves, combined with a habitual callousness to human dignity, is I believe why, in the recent words of A.S. Hamrah, “TV commercials are the worst thing to see on hallucinogenic drugs.”) These commercials embody and transmit all kinds of cultural norms, declaiming on the career-destroying horror of “even one flake” of dandruff, the correct way to manage a labor force, how women should interpret cough syrup viscosity, and so on.

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Walter Gropius: A Very Romantic Modernist

Christopher Turner at Literary Review:

Fiona MacCarthy met Walter Gropius (1883–1969) through Jack Pritchard, the British entrepreneur who built Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, an experiment in modernist living where Gropius took up residence after escaping Nazi Germany in 1934. The Bauhaus, the school he founded in Weimar a century ago this year, had been closed by stormtroopers the previous year (by then it had moved to Berlin). In 1968, after the opening of a Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy, MacCarthy was invited to dinner with Gropius at the Lawn Road Isobar, the block’s in-house dining room: ‘He was then eighty-five, small, upright, very courteous, retaining a Germanic formality of bearing,’ MacCarthy recalled. He ‘was still valiant and impressive, with a flickering of arrogance’.

Gropius, who died nine months later, split his life into three acts, obligingly providing the overall structure for MacCarthy’s biography. He started out as a radical, avant-garde architect in Germany, working for Peter Behrens alongside Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, before founding the Bauhaus; he then fled Nazi Germany to Britain, where he became a leading advocate of modernism but struggled to build anything of substance or replicate his school; finally, he emigrated to America, where he was feted and taught a new generation of architects at Harvard, thereby exerting enormous influence.

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CRISPR offshoot still makes mistakes editing DNA, raising concerns about its medical use

Jon Cohen in Science:

Variations of the genome editor CRISPR have wowed biology labs around the world over the past few years because they can precisely change single DNA bases, promising deft repairs for genetic diseases and improvements in crop and livestock genomes. But such “base editors” can have a serious weakness. A pair of studies published online in Science this week shows that one kind of base editor causes many unwanted—and potentially dangerous—“off-target” genetic changes. The mistakes are still rare overall, says David Liu, a chemist at Harvard University whose team developed the first generation of base editors, and are unlikely to interfere with laboratory uses of the technology. But they are enough to concern anyone contemplating use of the technology in patients, Liu and others say. “The two papers are very interesting and important,” says Jin-Soo Kim, a CRISPR researcher at Seoul National University. “It is now important to determine which component is responsible for the collateral mutations and how to reduce or avoid them.”

In its original form, CRISPR uses an RNA strand to guide an enzyme known as Cas9 to a specific place in a genome. The Cas9 acts as a molecular scissors on the DNA, cutting both of its strands, and the cell’s attempts to repair the brake can disable the gene. Or researchers can use the cut to insert a new sequence of DNA. Base editors instead couple the guide RNA to a Cas9 that only cuts one DNA strand. This molecular complex also includes an enzyme, called a deaminase, that can chemically change one base into another. Because such editors have more control over the specific changes than CRISPR itself, researchers did not expect them to cause off-target errors.

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