Getting Acquainted with Wallace Stevens

Kate Stanley at the LARB:

CAN POEMS TEACH US how to live? What does it mean to approach poetry as a source of self-help? It’s not hard to call to mind examples of poetry that rouse or soothe or refocus a reader, lifting or quieting the mind like a deep breath. Yet much of the poetry encountered in literature classrooms and canonical anthologies may not readily reflect the self that is reading it, and therefore may not readily become a tool of self-improvement. The work of many modernist poets in particular is placed under the banner of “art for art’s sake,” a motto meant to explicitly free such poetry from the responsibility of serving a didactic or utilitarian function. The poems of Wallace Stevens, for instance, are frequently taken to epitomize the kind of high modernist difficulty that in its slippery symbology and ambiguous affect would seemingly resist being reliably employed for any useful purpose.

more here.

Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

Michael Griffin at Literary Review:

Who are the real Kazakhs? Even by the end of Joanna Lillis’s wide-ranging survey of Central Asia’s wealthiest dictatorship, it’s hard to tell. The livestock-breeding culture of the Kazakh Khanate, a successor to the Mongol Golden Horde, was driven into the ground after its annexation by Russia in the mid-19th century as a result of successive waves of immigration and the Soviet policy of bringing its sprawling herds under state control.

Among the first to arrive, following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, were 400,000 Russian peasants. They were followed by nearly two and a half million farmers from Ukraine and central Russia and then a tragic procession of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Germans, Turks and Poles, forcibly relocated for suspected disloyalty to Stalin. An 85-year-old Tatar, originally from Crimea, recalled, ‘My mother ran up to me and said: “You may be taken to dark places.” … So she gave me two light bulbs.’ 

more here.

Ian McEwan: ‘Who’s going to write the algorithm for the little white lie?’

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

There is a scene toward the end of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, when the narrator, Charlie, is pushing his lifelike prototype robot, Adam, in a wheelchair through a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The demonstrators are protesting about everything under the sun – “poverty, unemployment, housing, healthcare, education, crime, race, gender, climate, opportunity”. The suggestion being presented by McEwan and his narrator, however, is that here, unnoticed in their midst, is the one thing they should be most concerned about: a man-made intelligence greater than their own. There is a Cassandra tendency in McEwan’s fiction. His domestic dramas routinely play out against a backdrop of threatened doom. Since the portent-laden meditation on war and terrorism, Saturday, in 2005, he has also turned his gimlet attention to climate change in Solar. The opening lines of that novel – “He was running out of time. Everyone was, it was the general condition…” – have sometimes sounded like his fiction’s statement of intent. The New Yorker called his work “the art of unease”.

It was perhaps, I suggested to him one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, therefore only a matter of time before he got around to the looming ethical anxieties of artificial intelligence. McEwan smiled at this idea and explained that he had been enthralled by the possibility of man-made consciousness for just about as long as he could remember.

More here.

The Cia Scheme That Brought Doctor Zhivago To The World

Rebecca Renner in Literary Hub:

In 1956, Sergio D’Angelo made a journey by train from Moscow southwest to the Soviet-made writers’ colony Peredelkino. He was there to meet the rock-star famous writer Boris Pasternak, whose poetry was so beloved that, if he paused during a reading, audiences would shout the missing words. But Pasternak’s original work hadn’t seen daylight in years; the Soviet government didn’t possess quite the same warm feeling toward Pasternak as his fans, doubting his loyalty to the Communist Party, which controlled the publishing industry. He’d been translating classic works of literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays, into Russian instead since the 1940s.

D’Angelo hadn’t ventured from the city to pay homage, though—he had a proposition for Pasternak. When he arrived at Pasternak’s dacha, a brown two-story house nestled among green birches and fir trees, D’Angelo found Pasternak waiting for him at the garden gate. Pasternak was 66 years old but still spry. He was dressed comfortably to work in his garden, including a pair of Wellington boots. From Pasternak’s bright smile and enthusiastic handshake, D’Angelo could see it was a joy for him to receive visitors, especially ones from outside the Soviet Union who brought news of the world.

More here.

How the Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire Spread

From the New York Times:

In just over an hour, a fire spread through the wooden attic of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and toppled its 300-foot spire on Monday.

Around 6:30 p.m., Paris time, smoke began to pour out of the cathedral’s roof, near scaffolding that had been put up over the last few months to conduct renovations on the spire.

The fire started in the cathedral’s attic, said Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the Paris firefighters.

The attic is an oddly shaped space, seldom visited, that lies above the soaring stone arches visible from the floor of old European cathedrals. Diagrams of Notre-Dame and official descriptions of the space indicate that it is crisscrossed by giant, timber trusses that add structural integrity to the cathedral.

More here.

Elemental haiku

Mary Soon Lee in Science:

A review of the Periodic Table composed of 119 science haiku, one for each element, plus a closing haiku for element 119 (not yet synthesized). The haiku encompass astronomy, biology, chemistry, history, physics, and a bit of whimsical flair. Click or hover over an element on the Periodic Table to read the haiku.

Click here to try it.  [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

Trump’s America, Netanyahu’s Israel

Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books:

Israel’s legislative elections on 9 April were a tribute to Binyamin Netanyahu’s transformation of the political landscape. At no point were they discussed in terms of which candidates might be persuaded by (non-existent) American pressure, or the ‘international community’, to end the occupation. This time it was a question of which party leader could be trusted by Israeli Jews – Palestinian citizens of Israel are now officially second-class – to manage the occupation, and to expedite the various tasks that the Jewish state has mastered: killing Gazans, bulldozing homes, combatting the scourge of BDS, and conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. With his promise to annex the West Bank, Netanyahu had won even before the election was held. It wasn’t simply Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that sped the incumbent on his way; it was the nature of the conversation – and the fact that the leader of the opposition was Benny Gantz, the IDF commander who presided over the 2014 ‘Operation Protection Edge’, in which more than 2000 Gazans were killed.

Illusions about the ‘peace process’ – and Israel’s ‘search for peace’ – die hard. The hopes invested in ‘peace’ were once immense, but it has never looked so shaky, even in America, which has underwritten these fictions for decades and rewarded Israel handsomely for paying lip service to them. American liberals no longer lament the fact that Netanyahu has taken Israel off its preordained, conciliatory course, and hope that ‘the left’ might steer it back. There is no left in Israel aside from a few heroic groupuscules. Netanyahu’s Israel – illiberal, exclusionary, racist – is now the political centre.

More here.

Secrecy, Self-Dealing, and Greed at the N.R.A.

Mike Spies in The New Yorker:

This winter, members of the National Rifle Association—elk hunters in Montana, skeet shooters in upstate New York, concealed-carry enthusiasts in Jacksonville—might have noticed a desperate tone in the organization’s fund-raising efforts. In a letter from early March, Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s top executive, warned that liberal regulators were threatening to destroy the organization. “We’re facing an attack that’s unprecedented not just in the history of the N.R.A. but in the entire history of our country,” he wrote. “The Second Amendment cannot survive without the N.R.A., and the N.R.A. cannot survive without your help right now.”

LaPierre is right that the N.R.A. is troubled; in recent years, it has run annual deficits of as much as forty million dollars. It is not unusual for nonprofits to ask prospective donors to help forestall disaster. What is unusual is the extent to which such warnings have become the central activity of the N.R.A. Even as the association has reduced spending on its avowed core mission—gun education, safety, and training—to less than ten per cent of its total budget, it has substantially increased its spending on messaging. The N.R.A. is now mainly a media company, promoting a life style built around loving guns and hating anyone who might take them away.

On NRATV, the organization’s programming network, the popular host Grant Stinchfield might appear in a “Socialist Tears” T-shirt, taking a sledgehammer to a television set cycling through liberal news shows. The platform’s Twitter account circulates videos of the spokesperson Dana Loesch, a former Breitbart News editor who has said that mainstream journalists are “the rat bastards of the earth” and deserve to be “curb-stomped.” Over menacing images of masked rioters, she asserts that the only way to stop the left is to “fight its violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.” A lawyer and activist called Colion Noir, whose real name is Collins Idehen, Jr., also has a large following. After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, Noir appeared in a video chiding “all the kids from Parkland getting ready to use your First Amendment to attack everyone else’s Second Amendment.”

More here.

Next frontier in study of gut bacteria: mining microbial molecules

Ziba Kashef in Phys.Org:

The human gut harbors trillions of invisible microbial inhabitants, referred to as the microbiota, that collectively produce thousands of unique small molecules. The sources and biological functions of the vast majority of these molecules are unknown. Yale researchers recently applied a new technology to uncover microbiota-derived chemicals that affect human physiology, revealing a complex network of interactions with potentially broad-reaching impacts on human health.

Led by immunobiologist Noah Palm, the research team used a chemical screening technology, known as PRESTO-Tango, that simultaneously tests thousands of human receptors at once. With it, they identified  that release  that activate a specific group of receptors. Since these receptors regulate a wide range of physiological functions, the authors reasoned that the small-molecule-producing bacteria would also impact various aspects of human biology.

The team cultured and screened over 100 diverse gut bacteria for production of molecules that activated host receptors, and uncovered multiple chemical interactions between microbes and their human hosts.

More here.

Three Magical Phrases to Comfort a Dying Person: “You will not be alone. You will not feel pain. We will be okay.”

Jenny Harrington in Human Parts:

At 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon, death announced it was coming for him. He was only eight years old; his cancer cells were not responding to treatment anymore. His body’s leukemic blast cell counts were doubling daily. Bone marrow was no longer making red or white blood cells, not even platelets. The marrow was only churning out cancer cells. In a process similar to churning butter, his blood was thickening with homogenous, malicious content: cancer. And like churning butter, it was exhausting work. The battered remnants of his healthy self were beaten down by chemo. And yet, every fiber pressed on.

He was so very tired. You could see it in his eyes. At the same time, you could see his love. His love for life was front and center. His love for sweetness crystalized on his tongue in the taste of sun-soaked strawberries. His love for satisfaction could be heard in the snapping sound of a puzzle piece set in place. His love for the simple, soothing smells of lavender emanating from a medicine ball was cherished, as was the fact that he could still hold a ball in his hands. He loved life down to the core, as only an eight-year-old can, and he was doing everything he could to stay alive.

Death was easy to detect. It was right under our eyes, sending the simplest of signals. No appetite. Breathing strained. Cold hands and feet, meaning compromised blood flow. Ankles swollen. Standing up was becoming nearly impossible. His body was shutting down.

More here.

The United States Owes the World $1 Trillion

Joseph Curtin and Max Münchmeyer in Foreign Policy:

LOS ANGELES, CA – APRIL 25: Heat waves emanate from the exhaust pipe of a city transit bus as it passes an American flag hung on the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice by workers renovating the historic structure on April 25, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The nation’s second largest city, Los Angeles, has again been ranked the worst in the nation for ozone pollution and fourth for particulates by the American Lung Association in it’s annual air quality report card. Ozone is a component of smog that forms when sunlight reacts with hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions. Particulates pollution includes substances like dust and soot. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Even as international efforts to address climate change have gathered momentum, emissions of heat-trapping gasses have risen, reaching a new peak last year. The next major opportunity to reverse the trend will be the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit in New York this coming September. But a necessary element that could break the deadlock—U.S. leadership—will be absent.

Back in 2016, at the end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s tenure, the United States formally joined the Paris agreement, which he believed was the “most ambitious climate change agreement in history.” By signing on, Obama argued, the United States had become a global leader in the fight against climate change. He was right—at that time, the United States was on track to cut carbon emissions by up to 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, in line with the objective it had set under the agreement.

But that moment has passed. In 2018, emissions growth resumed as the Trump administration rolled back the Obama-era environmental protections. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. In fact, the cycle is relatively well established.

More here.

Workers Should Be in Charge

Peter Gowan in Jacobin:

Earlier this month, Univision announced it was selling Gizmodo Media Group (a digital media company comprising former Gawker sites such as GizmodoKotakuSplinterJezebel, and The Root) as well as the Onion (including its eponymous site, The A.V. ClubClickhole, and The Takeout) to a private equity firm, Great Hill Partners.

No further layoffs have been announced for the 233 unionized employees at the two properties. But workers and contributors are probably right to worry that some or all of the sites will see mass layoffs or closure as Green Hill seeks to strip the companies for their most profitable parts while burning the rest. This is the private equity business model, after all, and it would be naive to expect anything else.

But what if there was an alternative? Wouldn’t it be better if the workers at the Gizmodo Media Group and the Onion had the right to block the Great Hill sale and buy the company themselves, turning it into a worker-owned business, with financial and technical assistance from the government?

More here.

Thursday Poem

After a deadly aerial engagement, a cup of tea

Past the news of war, you sleep in a litter of cacophony
knowing the dead will forever bind their miasma to your hair

knot their shrouds to every hook in the house,
hem the sound of sirens to your head

Between tonight’s brocade sky, inked textile of tomorrow,
and tomorrow, there will be an hour of war, creeping like a reptile

across the fields where two countries grow rice with their backs
to each other and fly kites this time of the year to welcome spring

The sort of night an emperor could create from the shudder of mortality
a marble mausoleum to house his love after death— moonbeams

sewing the lips of loss, light swirling through filigrees, carved tulips and fruit buds,
turning time to flesh — it is early spring, you too feel a tingle in your fingertips,

tremble a moment like a Shalimar cypress, but the masonry of your body
is recalled when warplanes approach, when all around you are loved ones

asleep, and what the newscasters will later call aerial engagement
has been the chase all along— the flute song in your dream chased

by steam engines, swooped up by MiG-21s, chased by surface-to-air missiles
The air as sharp, the trees as majestic this side of the border, the pilot

of the downed plane asks hysterically which country he is in. Which way
should he run? As a prisoner of war, he is recorded saying, between sips

of tea, the officers of the Pakistani Army are thorough gentlemen.
He is nervous. The cup he holds is Raj-white, with a pale green bough,

vaguely Mughal in its vegetal flourish. The temperature in Islamabad is 11 degrees
Celsius, in Delhi it is 16. Yellow trumpet daffodils are blooming. It is early spring.

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
from Poethead, 4/16/19

Thinking about Mushrooms

Alexis Harley at The Sydney Review of Books:

As Nicholas Money puts it in Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, thinking of the mushroom in place of the whole mushroom-forming organism is ‘a bit like using a photograph of a large pair of testicles to represent an elephant’. (The flaw in this memorable comparison is that the spore inside a mushroom is ready to grow into next-generation fungus, so long as it’s launched into congenial conditions, whereas an elephant sperm cell only contains half the chromosomes needed to begin a baby elephant.) Like the testicle, the mushroom is just one component of an organism, relatively peripheral to the organism’s viability, if essential to the continuation of its species. Unlike the elephant testicle (and hence the force of Money’s comparison), it is the part of the organism to which human cultures have in general paid the most attention. It’s this spore-disperser, not the hard-working mycelium, that we might consider dining on, illustrating, ingesting for hallucinatory or medicinal purposes, founding a taxonomic system around, deploying in the assassination of an unlikeable Roman emperor, or photographing on our nature rambles. It’s what appears in the field guides, the cookbooks, and the mythologies.

more here.

Coltrane: The Search for a Higher State of Humanity

Kevin Le Gendre at the TLS:

Yet Coltrane’s commercial clout, transient or permanent, should not detract from his huge artistic stature. Next to Miles Davis, he is the post-war jazz musician most likely to be on the radar of those who do not consider themselves jazz fans. His allure as a figure entirely dedicated to, if not consumed by, his work (to the point where he was often seen in public with theory books such as Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns), makes him a role model for all students of “serious” music. Coltrane is the archetypal creative obsessive intent on finding unheard approaches to the building blocks of music, from the arc of his melodies to the rhythmic drive of his solos to the harmonic framework for his songs.

A trawl through the vast body of work he left behind (he died of liver cancer at the age of forty) reveals several signature pieces that typify his ability continually to break new musical ground. First, there is “Giant Steps”, a composition with a dizzying, spiral staircase of chord changes set to a vaulting high tempo that makes substantial demands on any rhythm section worth its salt.

more here.

The Shape-Shifting Music of Tyshawn Sorey

Alex Ross at The New Yorker:

There is something awesomely confounding about the music of Tyshawn Sorey, the thirty-eight-year-old Newark-born composer, percussionist, pianist, and trombonist. As a critic, I feel obliged to describe what I hear, and description usually begins with categorization. Sorey’s work eludes the pinging radar of genre and style. Is it jazz? New classical music? Composition? Improvisation? Tonal? Atonal? Minimal? Maximal? Each term captures a part of what Sorey does, but far from all of it. At the same time, he is not one of those crossover artists who indiscriminately mash genres together. Even as his music shifts shape, it retains an obdurate purity of voice. T. S. Eliot’s advice seems apt: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.”

Last month, Miller Theatre, at Columbia University, featured Sorey in its indispensable Composer Portraits series. He was joined by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ice) and the jack Quartet. After intermission, the flutist Claire Chase, a co-founder of ice, interviewed him onstage about his origins and his aims.

more here.

I’ve never cried for a building, until now

Morgan Meis in The Porch Magazine:

“I’ve never cried for a building, until now,” I wrote to my aunt Lou Ann. Then I had a moment’s hesitation. Did I not cry for the World Trade Center back in 2001? I was living in New York, after all. We watched the Towers fall from a roof in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I know that I shed some tears that day. Tears of shock and grief and loss. But I was not, in truth, crying for the Towers themselves. I don’t think anyone cried for the Towers themselves. Because they were not loved. I remember a Greek friend of mine once commenting that he found the Towers ridiculous in their doubleness. He put it like this: “It is absurd that there are two of them.” One giant monstrous imposing monolith would have been enough. But to make two of them? It is like, my friend said, a couple of guys who are bragging and competing about who has the largest schlong. And then a third guy walks up and says, “I’ve got you both beat. I’ve got two of them.” But has he really won? Did he even understand the game? The Twin Towers were like that. They won the giant building game. But at what cost?

Notre Dame was, like the Twin Towers, a braggadocious type of building. It was constructed during the high medieval days of cathedral battles. What city will have the grandest cathedral of them all? It was also built for the glory of God, yes, I suppose. But it was an arrogant building, a building that flaunted its beauty, its embodied wealth and power, a worldly triumph over the forces of gravity and weight, and the sheer heaviness of stone.

More here.

Scientists Partly Restore Activity in Dead-Pig Brains

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

The brain, supposedly, cannot long survive without blood. Within seconds, oxygen supplies deplete, electrical activity fades, and unconsciousness sets in. If blood flow is not restored, within minutes, neurons start to die in a rapid, irreversible, and ultimately fatal wave. But maybe not? According to a team of scientists led by Nenad Sestan at Yale School of Medicine, this process might play out over a much longer time frame, and perhaps isn’t as inevitable or irreparable as commonly believed. Sestan and his colleagues showed this in dramatic fashion—by preserving and restoring signs of activity in the isolated brains of pigs that had been decapitated four hours earlier.

The team sourced 32 pig brains from a slaughterhouse, placed them in spherical chambers, and infused them with nutrients and protective chemicals, using pumps that mimicked the beats of a heart. This system, dubbed BrainEx, preserved the overall architecture of the brains, preventing them from degrading. It restored flow in their blood vessels, which once again became sensitive to dilating drugs. It stopped many neurons and other cells from dying, and reinstated their ability to consume sugar and oxygen. Some of these rescued neurons even started to fire. “Everything was surprising,” says Zvonimir Vrselja, who performed most of the experiments along with Stefano Daniele.

More here.

Powerful CRISPR cousin accidentally mutates RNA while editing DNA target

Jon Cohen in Science:

When researchers first reported 3 years ago that they had created base editors, a version of the powerful genome-editing tool CRISPR, excitement swirled around their distinct powers to more subtly alter DNA compared with CRISPR itself. But the weaknesses of base editors have become increasingly apparent, and a new study shows they can also accidentally mutate the strands of RNA that help build proteins or perform other key cellular tasks. Researchers say this could complicate developing safe therapies with the technology and hamper other research applications.

Human diseases from sickle cell to Tay-Sachs are caused by a single mutation to one of the four DNA bases—adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—and CRISPR has often had difficulty swapping out the bad actors. That’s in part because CRISPR cuts double-stranded DNA at targeted places and then relies on finicky cell repair mechanisms to do the heavy lifting of inserting a corrected DNA sequence for a mutation. Base editors, in contrast, chemically change one DNA base into another with enzymes called deaminases, which doesn’t require a cut or help from the cell.

Base editors, which adapt key components of CRISPR to reach targeted places in the genome, have been shown to have many off-target effects on DNA. But until now, its effects on RNA, which contains three of the same bases as DNA, had escaped scrutiny. So J. Keith Joung, a pathologist and molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, led a team that put base editors into human liver and kidney cells. Their finding: Deaminases can also alter RNA, the group reports today in Nature. Joung, a pioneering developer of base editors, was startled by the RNA changes, which had cytosines being converted to uracil, an RNA base that’s related to thymine. “When a postdoc first showed me the results and we saw tens of thousands of RNA cytosines being edited, I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what are we looking at here?’”

More here.