Saturday Night at the Club

by Samia Altaf

I was perhaps ten years old when I had unending cups of Eatmore’s fresh handmade mango ice cream while sitting on the lawns of Services Club Sialkot. It was one of the brightest days of my life, with my parents all to myself, undistracted by the demands of their daily doings, and the crystal cups of ice cream brought to us. We sat on reclining garden chairs on the perfectly manicured lawn, bordered by fragrant motia plants and the chambeli vine clinging to the tall peepal tree, all in full heady bloom. 

My mother ordered Coca-Cola with crushed ice—a very hip fizzy drink that had just appeared in our lives and our city, taking sleepy Sialkot by storm. She ordered sizzling –hot shami kebabs and cool cucumber sandwiches and French fries—another recent and grand addition to the club’s menu. All of these were strictly forbidden to her because of her “weight problem” and her recent bout of “slipped disc,” which her doctor thought was the result of the former. But she was happy, breaking frequently into her characteristic ringing laugh, her head thrown back. 

Clad in magenta-pink French chiffon sari, a daring sleeveless blouse and a string of pearls around her neck, pearls brought back all the way from Tokyo by my father. On her feet she had pointed-toe kitten-heel slides in pearl-colored leather, hand made by Hopson, the exclusive Chinese shoemaker on Mall Road, Lahore. She had just returned from the city, where she got, from Hanif’s Mall Road salon, the stylish Jackie Kennedy haircut that along with Coca-Cola and French fries had become quite the rage. My father in his white “bush-shirt”—half-sleeves, tennis collar, buttons down the middle, worn untucked, and white linen trousers sipping nimboo-pani in a tall glass with generous chunks of clinking ice, gazed lovingly at her, and since she looked so radiant, felt that nothing could do her any harm. Read more »

The story of a flea market purchase

by Cathy Chua

Landscape by André Engel

In that famous speech where Leonard Cohen told us  ‘…never to lament casually’, he continued ‘And if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.’

When I’m in Geneva I often go to the large flea market in Plainpalais. For most people it’s a source of bargains, or a way to pass the time. But I see death everywhere there, with no lamenting and a marked lack of respect. I am a mourning party of one. I see people’s lives laid out for a few francs. What’s there often tells a story. Curated collections of jazz music, or slightly kooky egg cups from everywhere. From the lost days of photographs, albums of happy tourist are muddled with strange books to see in this market, but put in place by the pictures. I even see home sometimes, a story of Indigenous people, or a guide to Australia, snapshots amongst them.

I lament not only the person who has gone, but the process which ends here, in a scrabble for a bargain. Did nobody care about this deceased human being, that their belongings have been tossed into cardboard boxes to be disposed of in indecent haste? Did the person who left behind this collection of sewing bits and bobs have no one to sew for? I spend a lot of time imagining what had existed. I am moved to buy things I shouldn’t. Does nobody want this framed picture of a child from the turn of the nineteenth century? Somebody must. I must.

But I mainly don’t. I can’t single-handedly save the small histories of these human lives. Instead I mostly stick to a reserved regret and try to honour what I see when it tells a story. Read more »

Wilderness, Walking, and Womanhood: Solitary Women in America’s Wild Spaces

by Katie Poore

The Sierra Pelona Mountains of southern California, taken from the Pacific Crest Trail.

“How will you defend yourself?”

It was one of the first questions my oldest brother asked me on the phone several months ago, along with: “Do you have a knife? Do you know how to use it? Maybe you should just buy a machete, if they sell those at REI. Do you know where you’re getting water? Is this really safe?” Another older brother said, “Are you bringing pepper spray?” A few weeks prior, my mom had asked, seemingly out of the blue: “Should you bring a gun?”

“No, absolutely not,” I told her. “And also, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”

When it trickled down the family grapevine that I would be backpacking alone in southern California for a few days, reactions were mostly alarmed. It didn’t matter that I’d been backpacking plenty of times before, nor that I had been teaching children outdoor survival skills for two summers, nor that backpacking was a mostly safe exercise, if one only took the necessary precautions. It didn’t matter that the risk of being attacked by an axe-wielding murderer—on whom I would, presumably, use the pepper spray, or maybe even the knife, or, as the oldest brother later suggested, a flare gun—were slim-to-none.

What mattered was that I would be alone, and that I was a woman, and that I was going into a so-called wilderness without a companion. My mother couldn’t even feign excitement, electing only to grunt begrudgingly as I told her my route and gave her my flight information. Before I left, my younger brother cautioned me: “You better call Mom every night.” The oldest only said: “You know it’s going to be cold, right?” Read more »

“You are More Than the Sum of What you Consume”: Generation X and Consumer Society

Nellay123 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
by Mindy Clegg

Public discussions of generations lately most often only focus on two generations–the boomers (1946-1965?) and millennials (1985-2000?). Yet many in our culture do not identify with either. One such group, Gen X, represents a midpoint between the two. And it’s a cohort that exerts more cultural influence than is generally understood.1 Once dubbed “slackers”, for a while Gen X elicited the concern common in our discourse since the 1950s (when “teens” as a social and consumer category were born2). Those who were born from the late 60s into the early 1980s qualify, around 80 million people by some estimates.3 But we rarely hear about the social and cultural contributions made by Gen Xers to the modern cultural landscape, despite the current surge in 80s nostalgia (such as Stranger Things, which is so full 80s nostalgia that they even brought back New Coke for a season 3 promotion!)4.

Despite the lack of attention from the major media outlets, several Gen X themed thinkpieces have been published in various venues across the web. They center on pop cultural phenomenon, generally speaking. Youth is also part of the prism, another unsurprising facet to these works. It is hard to ignore experiencing history in part through our relationship to pop culture in the postwar age or to fail to note how that shaped people (individually and collectively) during their teenage years. But these thinkpieces on Generation X rarely explore groundshaking events in the same way that discourses on boomers or millennials do, through events like the war in Vietnam and the anti-war movement for boomers or the 2008 economic crisis and the still ongoing student debt crisis for millennials. Nor do they seem to recognize the role Gen X played in shaping the modern subcultural landscape, which signals a deep politicization of popular culture. Gen X embraced subcultures readily, and carried that on into building the modern internet age.

As a cultural historian myself, I embrace the focus on pop culture in defining generational cohorts to a certain extent. After all, in the postwar consumerist world where young people had an increasing share of the buying power, cultural experiences helped define a generation’s cohesiveness – think of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Beyonce’s Lemonade album. But under closer inspection, those generational moments often break down. Read more »

Expressing Vitality: Wine as the Art of Life

by Dwight Furrow

If a rectangular canvas splashed with paint and lines can express freedom or joy, why not liquid poetry?

Works of art are pleasing but they are also intended to communicate or express something. Something is shown or made manifest through a work of art. In many cases what is communicated is some feeling or attitude that in some way belongs to the artist. But not all art is about self-expression. Some works are intended to reveal something about the artist’s materials when worked on in a particular way. For instance, many Impressionist works by Monet and others expressed a singular relationship between color and light, although these works also communicate something about the artist’s point of view regarding what is being expressed.  Some works reveal something about their subject matter when placed in an assemblage with other subject matters regardless of whether they reflect anything about the artist. A landscape may express the relationship between a building and an atmosphere, without expressing something important about the artist’s psychology or biography. To express is to reveal something hidden or not obvious but that need not be restricted to human psychology. Works of art invite us to feel something about them but that feeling need not be something possessed by the artist. Hamlet expresses uncertainty and ambivalence independently of any feelings Shakespeare may have had and there is no need to investigate Shakespeare’s biography to grasp what Hamlet is expressing.

Even when art is expressing some human quality, the expression reaches far beyond facts about an individual artist. The 19th Century German philosopher Hegel argued that art expresses a shared sense of “the deepest interests of mankind, the most comprehensive truths of the spirit”. Art’s role for Hegel is to express something whole cultures can share when brought to light and put on a pedestal.

What about wine? Can wine be expressive in the way works of art are expressive? I’ve argued that wine can express emotion, although only occasionally is that related to a winemaker’s feelings. But here I want to focus on other dimensions of wine’s expressiveness that go beyond the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. Read more »

Alternative Field Trips to the Art Institute of Chicago: Broken Art

by Liam Heneghan

Chinese Bodhisattva from the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618–907). (Art Institute of Chicago: CC0 Public Domain Designation)

The Art Institute of Chicago is unremarkable in this one respect: like every world class art museum its galleries teem with works representing indefatigable artistic industry besieged by the entropic desolation that all the works of humankind are heir to.

Our lot is to amass and assemble; the universe responds, dispassionately, with decay and dispersion. Millennia of creative effort crumble away. Walk through any decent sized art museum and behold the craquelure of old oils, the loss of patina in the watercolors, the splintering of carved wood, dents in metalwork, and the extremities snapped off old stonework. Can there be a pleasure in art that is completely unhinged from the intimations of loss ? The sense of loss that decay evokes may intensify pleasure if you incline to morbidity. Read more »

Salman Rushdie puts a playful spin on Don Quixote in his new novel, ‘Quichotte’

Wendy Smith at Publishers Weekly:

Rushdie takes another journey into unexplored territory in Quichotte, which will be published by Random House in September and was recently long-listed for the Booker. Inspired by Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the novel portrays an elderly traveling salesman “deranged by reality television” who falls in love with the host of a daytime talk show whom he has never met. As Quichotte (the name he takes in letters to his beloved) travels across the country to meet Miss Salma R, a parallel plot concerns the writer who created him; these twin story lines eventually converge in a fantastical ending that tips its hat to some of the science fiction tales Rushdie loved as a boy.

“It comes from the literary tradition of the picaresque novel, combined with a certain kind of modernist playfulness,” Rushdie says. “There’s quite a lot of Joyce in it. This was a scary book for me to write, because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off. There are these two narrative lines, which echo and mirror and talk to each other. I knew that the thing that would make the book work was if by the end they could merge, and I really wasn’t sure how to do that for a long time. I was quite nervous about it.”

Rushdie adds, “Normally I don’t show anyone a work in progress, but in this case when I had written 50 or 60 pages of the first draft, I actually asked Andrew Wylie [his agent] to read it. I said, ‘Look, this is very weird, but I need to know if it’s good weird or bad weird.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to go with this, because it could go in a lot of directions, but what I can say is that it’s the funniest thing of yours that I’ve read.’ That was comforting, and I’m pleased to see in the early responses that a lot of people have been finding it very funny.”

More here.

Quantum Darwinism, an Idea to Explain Objective Reality, Passes First Tests

Philip Ball in Quanta:

How do quantum probabilities coalesce into the sharp focus of the classical world?

Physicists sometimes talk about this changeover as the “quantum-classical transition.” But in fact there’s no reason to think that the large and the small have fundamentally different rules, or that there’s a sudden switch between them. Over the past several decades, researchers have achieved a greater understanding of how quantum mechanics inevitably becomes classical mechanics through an interaction between a particle or other microscopic system and its surrounding environment.

One of the most remarkable ideas in this theoretical framework is that the definite properties of objects that we associate with classical physics — position and speed, say — are selected from a menu of quantum possibilities in a process loosely analogous to natural selection in evolution: The properties that survive are in some sense the “fittest.” As in natural selection, the survivors are those that make the most copies of themselves. This means that many independent observers can make measurements of a quantum system and agree on the outcome — a hallmark of classical behavior.

This idea, called quantum Darwinism (QD), explains a lot about why we experience the world the way we do rather than in the peculiar way it manifests at the scale of atoms and fundamental particles.

More here.

Implicit Biases toward Race and Sexuality Have Decreased

Matthew Hutson in Scientific American:

Psychologists have lots of evidence that implicit social biases—our unconscious, knee-jerk attitudes associated with specific races, sexes and other categories—are widespread, and many assumed they do not evolve. The feelings are just too deep. But a new study finds that over roughly the past decade, both implicit and explicit, or conscious, attitudes toward several social groups have grown warmer.

The study used data from a standard test of implicit attitudes collected via a Web site called Project Implicit. Participants were asked to quickly press a certain computer key in response to positive words, such as “happy,” and a different key in response to negative words, such as “tragic,” that appeared on a screen. These words were interspersed with images or words that represented two categories of people, such as blacks and whites, and participants were asked to flag these using the same keys. Faster reactions when, for example, black rather than white faces shared a key with negative words suggested a racial bias.

Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji, psychologists at Harvard University, analyzed more than four million results collected over a 10-year period from U.S. adults who had taken implicit association tests for sexuality, race, skin tone (in which faces differ in color but not shape), age, disability and body weight.

More here.

The music of Bach is full of suggestive structures of counterpoint and recursion (even if Hofstadter got it quite wrong)

Ilari Kaila in Aeon:

Twenty years ago, in the preface to the 20th-anniversary edition of his classic book, Douglas Hofstadter marvelled at how misunderstood its thesis has been. A treatise on the nature of consciousness, it is often wildly misconstrued as an exploration of how ‘math, art, and music are really all the same’. But one likely source of the confusion is in the name – which is, at the same time, a big reason for the book’s lasting popularity: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, or GEB for short, sounds like a promise of just such a dazzling, cosmic counterpoint. Another likely culprit is Hofstadter’s own musings about music. While M C Escher’s artwork elegantly (and literally) illustrates many of the book’s themes, Hofstadter’s attempts at justifying the inclusion of Bach are mostly banal and often badly off the mark.

There are good reasons for GEB’s fame besides the sexy and marketable title, though. In its attempt to build a grand theory of minds and meanings, the book discusses an eclectic range of topics and, at its best, does it in a genuinely enlightening way. It is obviously an inspired work, even if the fundamental case it sets out to make falls flat. Like most attempts at ‘explaining’ consciousness, GEB is rooted in a category mistake: it treats our phenomenological core as just another phenomenon, making the book an 800-page exercise in begging the question. But it’s a stimulating 800 pages, riffing on fractals, Zen koans, computer languages, quantum physics and much more.

More here.

A Cultural History of First Words

Michael Ezard in The Paris Review:

Cute baby boy playing with mobile phone in the park, digital technologies in the hands of a child. Portrait of toddler with smartphone

A baby’s first word seems as if it ought to be universally fascinating. Laden with the promise of a new life, a first word is a new person’s first expression of self, even if it’s just to label the dog, ask for food, or say hi. First words are more than cute; they’re existentially profound. They represent the threshold where noise becomes signal, the moment that interiority breaks its confines to greet the outside world. And yet, for much of history, infant language wasn’t regarded as worthy of attention, and in many contemporary cultures it still isn’t. All babies, across time and space, transition from babbling to language at about twelve months of age, in spoken languages as well as signed ones, but not all parents and caregivers pay attention to that transition. That supposedly irresistible thing we call a “baby’s first word” is a romanticized milestone, shaped by social and economic circumstances, and it is surprisingly recent. The natural state of first words is to be disregarded, misheard, or entirely overlooked. Doting over them isn’t perverse—it’s just a modern, underappreciated luxury.

I was inspired to attempt a cultural history of “first words” by Germanist Karl Guthke, who wrote a definitive book about last words in the early nineties. He saw them as artifacts of each era’s conception of death. “There are styles of dying,” he noted, “so are there corresponding styles and fashions of last words?” In an aside, he dismissed first words, arguing they couldn’t tell us much about individual lives. They belong, he wrote, “with anecdotes of childhood, whose biographical value is inversely proportionate to their charm.” He had been musing on 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis whose reputation as a cold fish technocrat seemed to have been predicted by his alleged first words, in Greek: monos mou, or “all by myself.”

More here.

Ecology of Intelligence

Frank Wilczek in Edge:

I’m a theoretical physicist, but I’m going to be talking about the future of mind and intelligence. It’s not entirely inappropriate to do that because physical platforms are absolutely a fundamental consideration in the future of mind and intelligence. I would think it’s fair to say that the continued success of Moore’s law has been absolutely central to all of the developments in artificial intelligence and the evolution of machines and machine learning, at least as much as any cleverness in algorithms.

First I’ll talk about the in-principle advantages of artificial intelligence with existing engineering principles. Then I will talk about the enormous lead that natural intelligence in the world has, although there are obviously great motivations for having general-purpose artificial intelligence—servants, or soldiers, or other useful kinds of objects that are not out there. Then I’ll talk a little bit about the forces that will drive towards intelligence. Perhaps that’s superfluous here, but we’ve been talking about how improvements in intelligence are an end in themselves, but it’s worth at least saying why that’s going to happen. Finally, I’ll argue for an emphasis on a new form of engineering that is not being vigorously cultivated, and I’ll draw some consequences for what the future of intelligence will be.

More here.

Sunday Poem

On Swimming

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like a prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part, almost without end.
by Adam Zagajewski
Without End: New and Selected Poems.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002

Why I’m Inoculating My Kids Against The Dangers Of Scientific Evidence

Hannah Kane in McSweeney’s:

I used to be pro-science myself. I only became an anti-science activist after I realized how much of my dream-interpretation-based worldview was incompatible with what I was reading in scientific journals. Since then, I have become a fierce activist. I make passionate arguments against the so-called “scientific method” (it’s just making guesses) and the value of peer-reviewed studies (excuse me for wanting to think for myself!). When my children ask me why the sky is blue, I tell them the truth. That there’s no way to find out.

I am only advocating that people do what’s right for them, and I’m doing that the best way I know how — by focusing on the examples that support my point of view and sharing them on Facebook. My work also includes an intense regimen of exposing fake research. I have become very adept at spotting fake research — the trick is to look for evidence that counters my argument in any way.

More here.

‘The Era of People Like You Is Over’: How Turkey Purged Its Intellectuals

Suzy Hansen in the NYT Magazine:

An authoritarian state can do many things to get rid of these democratic types — put them in jail, put them on trial — but ultimately the government must attack the institutions that produce and sustain them. Newspapers can be easy to buy. NGOs are easy to shut down. Universities are much harder to dismantle.

But this is what, through the great purge, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allies sought to do. Thousands of academics lost their jobs, and many lost their right to travel, their passports canceled. They would not be able to work at public or private universities again. Legal proceedings would be opened against them — and drag on to this day, leaving the fired in limbo. Many who were abroad would not return. They feared being quoted in the press or even speaking to journalists. Some were sentenced to prison. At least one committed suicide. Around 90 of the purged academics came from Ankara University, and 36 came from Mulkiye alone, raising suspicions that the 160-year-old faculty of political science had become a particular target.

More here.