Nina Simone in Appalachia

Leah Hampton at Guernica:

Though most people associate Nina Simone with the jazz clubs of New York and Paris, she grew up here, in rural Appalachia. Her home is only a few miles from my mother’s house, in an area that is more genteel and diverse than the rest of the region. In western North Carolina, where Nina Simone was raised, and where I still live, we don’t mine coal. We grow apples. While Appalachia technically stretches across thirteen states, its core starts here in Tryon and ends somewhere in West Virginia. Coal country may get more attention, but Tryon is wholly Appalachian, too, and it was in these foothills south of Asheville where Simone learned classical piano from a local teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich. “Miss Mazzy” organized concerts to raise money for Simone’s tuition at a prestigious Black high school in Asheville. Eventually, her neighbors raised enough to send her to Juilliard for a summer. The rest of Simone’s life is much better known—her legendary musical career, her protracted battles with racism, mental illness, and a fickle public. But first, there was East Livingston Street in Tryon, and that rolling, crazy-magic landscape.

more here.

Namit Arora On India’s troubled relationship with democratic values

Namit Arora in The Baffler:

SOMETIME AFTER MIDNIGHT ON JUNE 25, 1975, over six hundred political leaders, social activists, and trade unionists in India were rudely awakened by knocks on their doors. By dawn, they had been placed behind bars for inciting “internal disturbance.” In parallel, the government shut off electricity to newspaper offices, blocking their next day’s editions.

“The President has proclaimed the Emergency,” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced in a surprise broadcast the next morning on All India Radio. “This is nothing to panic about.” The previous night, she had made a bleary-eyed President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed trigger the Emergency provision in Article 352 of India’s constitution, which allowed her to postpone elections and suspend most fundamental rights, including those to speech, assembly, association, and movement. With the stroke of a pen, Gandhi had effectively dismantled India’s democratic infrastructure, concentrating dictatorial power in herself. Total press censorship was imposed, and foreign journalists who did not toe the line were summarily expelled, including stringers with the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph. On June 28, someone snuck a clever obituary into the Bombay edition of The Times of India: “D’Ocracy—D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, and Justice, expired on 26th June.”

More here.

Hints of twisted light offer clues to dark energy’s nature

Davide Castelvecchi in Nature:

Cosmologists say that they have uncovered hints of an intriguing twisting in the way that ancient light moves across the Universe, which could offer clues about the nature of dark energy — the mysterious force that seems to be pushing the cosmos to expand ever-faster.

They suggest that the twisting of light, which they identified in data on the cosmic microwave background (CMB) collected by the Planck space telescope, and the acceleration of the Universe could be produced by a cosmic ‘quintessence’, an exotic substance that pervading the cosmos. Such a discovery would require a major revision of current theories and physicists warn that the evidence is tentative — it does not meet the ‘5 sigma’ threshold used to determine whether a signal is a discovery. But it underscores the fact that modern cosmology still has an incomplete picture of the Universe’s contents.

If dark energy is a quintessence, its push on the expansion could slowly wither or disappear, or could even reverse to become an attractive force, causing the Universe to collapse into a ‘big crunch’, says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More here.

George Soros: Europe Must Stand Up to Hungary and Poland

George Soros in Project Syndicate:

Hungary and Poland have vetoed the European Union’s proposed €1.15 trillion ($1.4 trillion) seven-year budget and the €750 billion European recovery fund. Although the two countries are the budget’s biggest beneficiaries, their governments are adamantly opposed to the rule-of-law conditionality that the EU has adopted at the behest of the European Parliament. They know that they are violating the rule of law in egregious ways, and do not want to pay the consequences.

It is not so much an abstract concept like the rule of law that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and, to a lesser extent, Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, oppose. For them, the rule of law represents a practical limit on personal and political corruption. The veto is a desperate gamble by two serial violators.

It was also an unprecedented step, coming at a moment when Europe is suffering from a dangerous surge of COVID-19 cases, and it threw the other EU countries’ representatives into confusion. But when the shock wore off, closer analysis revealed that there is a way around the veto.

More here.

On Hervé Guibert

Will Harrison at The Hudson Review:

There’s a passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which the French theorist, eyeing his own author photo (turned head, silvered temples, faintly illuminated desk) exclaims: “But I never looked like that!” And yet, how can one know? You are, indeed, “the only one who can never see yourself except as an image” whether that be in the form of a reflection or a photograph. Moreover, one can argue that the author photo is a particularly deceptive sort of image, one that is meant to elicit disparate or even contradictory feelings in the viewer.

Such was the case with Hervé Guibert, the famously beautiful French author who died of AIDS in 1991, and who—prior to a falling out—sustained an epistolary friendship with Barthes. One cannot find a single piece of criticism on Guibert that fails to mention his comeliness, which is fitting of a man who also worked as a photographer, making images that were as physically charged as his novels and memoirs.

more here.

An Affair of Clowns

Lucy Scholes at The Paris Review:

If the Australian writer and critic Thelma Forshaw is remembered for anything today, it’s most likely the hatchet job that she gave Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1972. Of the many reviews the book received, Forshaw’s—published in the Age, a newspaper based in Greer’s own hometown of Melbourne—was by far the most disdainful: “King Kong is back. The exploits of the outsized gorilla may have been banned as too scary for kids, but who’s to shield us cowering adults? To increase the terror, the creature now rampaging is a kind of female—a female eunuch. It’s Germ Greer, with a tiny male in her hairy paw (no depilatories) who has been storming round the world knocking over the Empire State Building, scrunching up Big Ben and is now bent on ripping the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylons and drinking up the Yarra.” Understandably, Forshaw’s slam piece caused quite a stir, and it was reprinted in a number of papers across the country, often alongside carefully chosen photographs of Greer looking suitably unkempt.

more here.

Mad MAGA Men

Rafia Zakaria in Baffler:

THE MONDAY AFTER Joe Biden was projected as the winner of the 2020 presidential election was a dismal one for the right-wing talk show circuit. Rush Limbaugh, the venerated elder of the realm, sounded dejected. The president needed to appoint an “election czar,” he intoned repeatedly. Then he reminded viewers that the coming week was a “treatment week” for him. Not only had the election been lost, one of the most legendary conservative talk show hosts in the country was going to be out of commission as he coped with his advanced case of lung cancer. The bad news kept coming. On The Dan Bongino Show, the host—a former NYPD officer and Secret Service agent—bellowed that the result should not be accepted by his listeners. More militant than Limbaugh, who was still interested in evidence that he hoped an election czar would produce, Bongino wanted to keep the Trump base riled up with his “No Surrender” tagline. On Monday, he outlined the “path to victory,” which depended in part on the Arizona count flipping the state for Trump. “We don’t owe the quitter caucus squat,” he said. There is nothing to concede. Donate to Trump’s campaign and legal funds, he urged. On Tuesday, Bongino made mention of his on his own cancer treatment. He needed to have a port installed in his neck for the administration of chemotherapy for his lymphoma; he would record the show prior to his early morning surgery anyway.

Together they set a macabre mood (with an uncomfortable smattering of Shakespearean symbolisms) for the first days of post-Trump talk shows. It was also surprising to hear how little of the Sturm und Drang material they had to activate the base. Perhaps my expectations had been overblown or perhaps the fact that I had never had the stomach to actually listen to either Bongino or Limbaugh erased the context that I needed to truly understand their individual forms of disseminating ire. Despite all of this, the relative reserve was startling. After all, Trump was broadcasting his victory in all caps from his official Twitter account and his talk-show trolls did not seem to be echoing the certainty he had won in quite such explicit terms. Since those first days of devastated hopes, the lot of them have come up with a playlist for keeping things going when nothing is going right for you.

More here.

Can a Computer Devise a Theory of Everything?

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

Once upon a time, Albert Einstein described scientific theories as “free inventions of the human mind.” But in 1980, Stephen Hawking, the renowned Cambridge University cosmologist, had another thought. In a lecture that year, he argued that the so-called Theory of Everything might be achievable, but that the final touches on it were likely to be done by computers. “The end might not be in sight for theoretical physics,” he said. “But it might be in sight for theoretical physicists.” The Theory of Everything is still not in sight, but with computers taking over many of the chores in life — translating languages, recognizing faces, driving cars, recommending whom to date — it is not so crazy to imagine them taking over from the Hawkings and the Einsteins of the world.

Computer programs like DeepMind’s AlphaGo keep discovering new ways to beat humans at games like Go and chess, which have been studied and played for centuries. Why couldn’t one of these marvelous learning machines, let loose on an enormous astronomical catalog or the petabytes of data compiled by the Large Hadron Collider, discern a set of new fundamental particles or discover a wormhole to another galaxy in the outer solar system, like the one in the movie “Interstellar”? At least that’s the dream. To think otherwise is to engage in what the physicist Max Tegmark calls “carbon chauvinism.” In November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Dr. Tegmark is a professor, cashed a check from the National Science Foundation, and opened the metaphorical doors of the new Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions.

More here.

The Ideology of Social Scientists: A Complex Balance

by Pranab Bardhan

Many decades back when I was teaching at MIT, a senior colleague of mine, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, a famous development economist, asked me at the beginning of our many long conversations what my politics was like. I said “Left of center, though many Americans may consider it too far left while several of my Marxist friends in India do not consider it left enough”. As someone from ‘old Europe’ he understood, and immediately put his hand on his heart and said “My heart too is located slightly left of center”. A 2015 study by psychologist Jose Duarte and his co-authors found that 58 to 66 per cent of social scientists in the US are ‘liberal’ (an American word, which unlike in Europe or India, may often mean ‘left of center’), and only 5 to 8 per cent are conservative. If anything, social scientists in the rest of the world are on average probably somewhat to the left of their American counterparts. If that is the case, for the world in general social democracy is likely to be an important, though not always decisive, ingredient of their ideology. In European politics and intellectual circles there was a time when social democrats were considered the main enemy of the communists, at least in their rivalry to get the attention of working classes, but now with the fading away of old-style communists, social democrats have a larger tent, which includes some socialists of yesteryear as well as liberals, besieged as they both now are by right-wing populists.

In an earlier column on “Prospects of Social Democracy in a Post-Pandemic World” I have discussed how in general the actual or potential strength of social democratic parties may change with the constraints and opportunities of such a world. In this article I go beyond the modalities of actually functioning political parties to a somewhat deeper analysis of the social democratic idea as a balance between some conflicting but also potentially complementary social values, and how this balance may be shifting in our complex world and difficult time, and how that influences the ideological positions of social scientists.

Let us go beyond the over-simple and amorphous left-right distinction (historically originating in particular ways of seating in the French National Assembly) which over the years has become quite misleading, particularly in failing to capture the multi-dimensionality of ideological positions. Let us instead start with the old-style foundational values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The old simple categorization used to be that those who particularly emphasize the primacy of liberty as a social value were called liberals; socialists used to be associated with belief in the primacy of equality or ‘social justice’; and belief in the primacy of fraternity or community solidarity lent to the description of one’s being a communitarian. But things get complicated as there are multiple layers in that trinity of social values, and people, particularly social scientists, in their belief system usually mix the different ingredients of all the three in markedly varying proportions to concoct a smorgasbord that passes for their ideology. Read more »

Birds and Frogs in Physics

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Isaac Newton- Bird King

I shamelessly borrow the title of this essay from my mentor and friend Freeman Dyson’s marvelous talk on birds and frogs in mathematics. Birds are thinkers who look at the big picture and survey the landscape from a great height. Frogs are thinkers who love playing around in the mud of specific problems, delighting in finding gems and then polishing them so that they become part of the superstructure that birds survey. Einstein was a bird, Hubble was a frog. Science needs both birds and frogs for its progress, but there are cases in which one kind of creature is more important than another.

Most of the great thinkers in physics of ancient times were birds. They went by the name of natural philosophers. The fact that they were birds speaks both to the raw state of scientific knowledge at that time and the attitude that these thinkers had toward what we call science, an attitude that we should resurrect. Aristotle, Plato, Newton and Kepler saw science as a seamless part of a worldview that included religion. Many of them were alchemists and astrologers. Unlike many scientists today, they saw no conflict between science and mysticism and believed both to be created by God for man to study. Newton was a supreme bird, seeing Nature as a book written by God, a puzzle whose solutions had room for both calculus and alchemy, both gravitation and an Arian rejection of the Holy Trinity. Newton kept his Arian convictions secret for fear of persecution, but there is no doubt in his own mind that they were as legitimate as his scientific inquiries. At the beginning of the third volume of his famous Principia, Newton said, “It remains that, from the same principles, I now demonstrate the system of the world”, leaving no doubt either about his ambition or his grand birdlike worldview.

Even before Newton, Francis Bacon who can rightly be called the father of the modern scientific method of fact-finding and theorizing was a superb frog. Bacon rejected the Aristotelian theorizing that had characterized much of the history of science before him and said, “All depends on keeping the eye fixed upon the facts of Nature, for God forbid that we may give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.” Read more »

Monday Poem

Everything passes and everything changes,
just do what you think you should do

…………………………………….… —Bob Dylan

Flux You, Heraclitus!

…. —for Brian

Another lifelong friend has died
part of me again has vanished too

We were young together building things, partners,
carpenters in sync we drove spikes through joists
hammering steel to steel. You once exclaimed,
laughing when a shifty wind came up
snatching a sheet of ply from grips,
 “Flux you, Heraclitus!”
………………………..……… and here
that philosopher’s hard truth is word
slipping through my lips

Now I want to run my car
down the narrow sloped cleft of Main again,
windows open wide, slow roll in low
coasting as a hawk on thermals might,
to hear it’s muffler throb, hear its stutter
bouncing off stone façades
and plate glass storefronts,
shattering silence in the dark,
racket-making louder than
mere mutter

Jim Culleny

On the Origin of Evolution; Tracing “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” from Aristotle to DNA

by Paul Braterman

On the Origin of Evolution, John and Mary Gribbin, William Collins, November 2020; HB, pp 267, £20

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The authors have read widely and deeply over an enormous range of topics, and blended their insights into a coherent unified account covering subjects as diverse as genetics, stratigraphy, and the fine details of chemical bonding. The result is an overview stretching from ancient foreshadowings, through Enlightenment era explorations, to the crucial developments of the mid-19th and early 20th-centuries, which gave us evolution science in something very close to its present form, and beyond that to the 20th-century discoveries of the molecular basis of inheritance, and the more recent discoveries made possible by genome sequencing. Throughout, complex topics are clearly explained to a high level of technical accuracy, without oversimplification or obscurantism. The work is enlivened throughout with well-judged quotations from the scientists involved in these discoveries, including contributions often overlooked. I found two small errors1, but these are of no importance to the narrative. I also had problems with the title and emphasis of the final chapter, The New Lamarkism; more on this later.

The authors will already be familiar to many readers. John Gribbin holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Cambridge, where he was part of Fred Hoyle’s research group. He is a prolific and highly successful writer on scientific topics, with In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat and its successor, Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality among his best-known works. He and his wife Mary are both Visiting Fellows at the University of Sussex, and have written several books together regarding the history of science, including The Fellowship and Out of the Shadow of a Giant. Those last two both feature Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, who also make short appearances here.

Evolution is a fact. Those are the, to me, very welcome first words of the Introduction. Later in the paragraph, the authors state their view that the most successful theory of evolution is that of natural selection. I prefer to refer to our understanding of evolution, avoiding the blanket expression “theory of evolution” altogether. This is not just because the word “theory” can bring with it a suggestion of uncertainty, but because there are many partial theories, including notably neutral drift in addition to natural selection, and because evolution intersects with so many other different topics, as the book itself makes clear, from molecular biology to Earth sciences. Read more »

Come Sail Away

by Mike O’Brien

I’m disappointed in my columns so far. Not to say that they’ve been completely without value; I’ve managed to turn out some decent pieces and some kind readers have taken the time to tell me as much. But, taken together, my output exhibits a fault that I had sought to avoid from the outset. It has been far too occasional, too reactive, too of the moment in an extended, torturous moment of which I very much do not wish to be. There are exculpatory circumstances, of course. These are difficult times, and we are weak and vulnerable beings, and I am nothing if not an entrenched doom-scroller with a tendency for global anxiety. This is not an apology, because a core tenet of my approach to writing is a complete disregard for my audience. You’re all lovely people, I’m sure, but in order to write I have to provisionally discount your existence. This is, rather, a confession to the only person whose opinion matters to me as a writer. And that would be myself.

I’m qualified to critique my own work because I know what it is supposed to be, and I know when it falls short because I can’t be arsed to invest more effort into it. I have the great misfortune of being able to skate by on style. I know some people enjoy fluffy exercises in style; I rather enjoy such exploits myself, and my favourite writers are all great stylists. But I had set out to do more with these columns, and so far that goal is largely unmet. I can blame the general state of emergency that has engulfed this year, for robbing me of focus and constancy, for frustrating my earnest intentions to rise above immediacy and reaction. But I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that I lacked focus and constancy long before Covid showed up, and if this was a “normal” (i.e. less obviously and acutely disastrous) year, I’d have to come up with some other excuse for the same failures. Read more »

Do Nudges Really Work?

by Fabio Tollon

I have always been deeply impressed by the way behavioural nudges can promote socially desirable outcomes. From “opt-out” retirement plans, flies in urinals, and speed camera lotteries, nudges big and small can be a force for good. But not all nudges are created equal. Nudge theory has taken the world by storm (with organizations and governments using these techniques), and so you might be forgiven for thinking that these behavioural interventions get it right most of the time. Well, as is often the case, things do in fact go wrong in the world of nudging. Thankfully, however, things going wrong is a wonderful opportunity for us to learn and improve upon our theories.

Failed behavioural interventions are actually quite widespread, but as with nudges themselves, not all failures are created equal. While it is far beyond the scope of this article for me to go into each way behavioural interventions may fail, I will highlight a few. My reason for doing so is that better appreciation of how things go wrong can be used to better understand the relevant causal features of behavioural interventions, leading to the systematic improvement of such interventions. Read more »

On Letters: The Presence of Absence

by Joan Harvey

Ariana Reines and Terry Tempest Williams, writers one would never expect to be buddies, but who bonded at Harvard Divinity School, are having a public Zoom discussion in order to sell books. It’s a lovely, friendly discussion, but I’m shocked, shocked to hear that they send each other AUDIO letters. Audio letters? When they are so good at writing? When they have the chance to write to each other? Though, okay, why not? Henry James famously dictated his novels. Reines is amazingly articulate talking off the top of her head. Still, how is the pleasure the same? Williams does mention loving to actually write letters, so perhaps I shouldn’t judge.

I think it extraordinary that letters are called letters, the name of that small denomination with which we build our words.

Mary Ruefle (in a lecture on letters that she first wrote, then spoke, and finally published in written form).

Of course there exist letters that talk of letters:

Many thanks for both letters, which arrived two days running, a tremendous treat for Kalamata, a town nobody writes to. I think people are subconsciously repelled by the letter K. It’s the reverse of the letter X, which always goes to people’s heads. Perhaps if sex were spelt seks or segs there wouldn’t be half so much fuss about it: nothing very glamorous about seks kittens or seksual intercourse but write ‘sex killer slays six’ and you’re in business.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, to his former mistress, Ricki Huston. So probably he was thinking of sex (or seks).

Most writers like to write letters. Or used to. Possibly not today. I too have been lured by texting’s immediacy. But for many of us older folks, there is still something seductive about addressing a particular person and sensibility on the other end whom you try to entertain and yet remain yourself as often as possible, and doing this at some length. And then, of course, the pleasure of getting something different but similar in return. Reciprocity. Response. There is also something enticing about the way you can put everything in, including the kitchen sink, and the clog in it, and the dog, and okay, maybe the Trogs. As well as the wind and the snow, and the election, and wish you were here. You can even complain about your bills and your health, as long as your complaining doesn’t have a demand. Read more »

Learning to see the future, or, why I am no longer a conservative

by N. Gabriel Martin

When I was younger, I gravitated to conservatism’s deference to the actual. In my suspicion towards the progressive preference for ideas over what just is, it took me a long time to understand that conservatism misunderstands the future and therefore what it is attempting to achieve. Conservatism’s purported ambition to preserve the present and its roots in tradition are also efforts to bring about a different future, and therefore to change the world to suit its designs. However, it took me a long time to understand this self-contradiction at its heart.

In college I had a running argument with my friend Sky about Damien Hirst, the artist most famous at the time for suspending a great white shark in a tank of formaldehyde. Hirst was never my favourite artist (I actually like him more now than I did then), but I defended him because Sky’s dismissal appalled me. In my youth I embraced the culture as if it were a stately home I’d been welcomed into. While I was not uncritical, for me criticism had to come from a well of reverence for what was already there. It was the sanctity of established culture, tradition, and history that made criticising it worthwhile, and so criticism could never undermine that sacredness. Sky, however, criticised Hirst because she preferred a culture without him and what he was doing to it. I never understood that in my twenties, because I couldn’t understand the future.

At that time, the only way to respond to the world that made sense to me was to accept it and affirm it as it was, and comment on it as a passionate, but disinterested, observer. It wasn’t just that I revered tradition, I was also sceptical towards what I saw as the arrogance of progressivism; that it wants to improve upon things and believes it can. Read more »