The Women Who Changed War Reporting

George Packer in The Atlantic:

In 1966, a young American journalist named Frances FitzGerald began publishing articles from South Vietnam in leading magazines, including this one. She was the unlikeliest of war correspondents—born into immense privilege, a daughter of the high-WASP ascendancy. Her father, Desmond FitzGerald, was a top CIA official; her mother, Marietta Tree, a socialite and liberal activist. FitzGerald was raised with servants and horses, and she had to fend off advances from the likes of Adlai Stevenson (her mother’s lover) and Henry Kissinger. Her family contacts got her through the door of feature journalism in New York, but as a woman, she was denied the chance to pursue the serious work she wanted to do. She escaped this jeweled trap by making her own way to Saigon at age 25, just as the American war was escalating.

The Vietnam War had already produced some of the greatest journalism of the century and made the reputations of young reporters such as David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan (who died earlier this year), and Malcolm Browne. All of them were men. All focused their reporting on the fighting, and on the lies and failures of American officialdom. FitzGerald pursued a different story. Sheltered all her life, she was profoundly shocked by the suffering of the Vietnamese—not just the death, injury, and displacement, but the loss of identity under the crushing weight of the Americans. Rather than competing with her male colleagues, she spent time in hospitals, villages, and slums, and she became engrossed in the politics of Buddhist students, the tragedies of refugees, the strategy of the Viet Cong, the history and culture of Vietnam. It took a 20-something Radcliffe graduate with an appetite for French anthropology and immersive reporting to bring home the bad news that no officials and few journalists were telling Americans: The war was hopeless because the United States, ignorant of Vietnam, had taken over the colonialist role of the French.

More here.

The Joy of Condensed Matter

John Baez in Nautilus:

Everyone seems to be talking about the problems with physics: Peter Woit’s book Not Even Wrong, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, and Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math leap to mind, and they have started a wider conversation. But is all of physics really in trouble, or just some of it? If you actually read these books, you’ll see they’re about so-called “fundamental” physics. Some other parts of physics are doing just fine, and I want to tell you about one. It’s called “condensed matter physics,” and it’s the study of solids and liquids. We are living in the golden age of condensed matter physics.

But first, what is “fundamental” physics? It’s a tricky term. You might think any truly revolutionary development in physics counts as fundamental. But in fact physicists use this term in a more precise, narrowly delimited way. One of the goals of physics is to figure out some laws that, at least in principle, we could use to predict everything that can be predicted about the physical universe. The search for these laws is fundamental physics.

The fine print is crucial. First: “in principle.” In principle we can use the fundamental physics we know to calculate the boiling point of water to immense accuracy—but nobody has done it yet, because the calculation is hard. Second: “everything that can be predicted.” As far we can tell, quantum mechanics says there’s inherent randomness in things, which makes some predictions impossible, not just impractical, to carry out with certainty. And this inherent quantum randomness sometimes gets amplified over time, by a phenomenon called chaos. For this reason, even if we knew everything about the universe now, we couldn’t predict the weather precisely a year from now. So, even if fundamental physics succeeded perfectly, it would be far from giving the answer to all our questions about the physical world. But it’s important nonetheless, because it gives us the basic framework in which we can try to answer these questions.

More here.

Can humanity conquer the virus?

John Gray in New Statesman:

A mutating virus is destroying a world-view that has ruled governments, business and popular culture for a century or more. A model in which humankind was achieving ever higher levels of control over the planet has shaped much of modern thinking. Evolution has been understood as the ascent from primeval slime to unchallengeable human dominance over all other forms of life. Fundamentally at odds with the theory of natural selection, this was never more than pseudo-science. Yet from the late 19th century onwards it became a ruling paradigm, captivating generations of thinkers and inspiring world-changing political movements. Today the myth is crumbling. For the first time in history, using genomic sequencing, natural selection is being observed, in detail and real time, at the level of genes. Evolution is continuing, rapidly, with the virus as the chief protagonist.

The disintegration of a near-ubiquitous world-view presents a curious spectacle. While science is providing a clearer picture of evolution at work than ever before, the impact of the pandemic is to reinforce archetypal fantasies in which evils and misfortunes are blamed on hidden forces and secret cabals. If there is evolution in ideas, it works to propagate some of the worst human beings have conceived. With the aid of growing scientific knowledge, human beings can protect themselves from the virus and renew a reasonably secure way of life. Heroic dedication by doctors, nurses and other defenders of public health has been vitally important in coping with the pandemic. But adjusting to the irreversible changes the pandemic brings will demand clear-headed realism. Clinging to a cod-scientific view of evolution is a hindrance to the task ahead, which is adjusting to a world in which the virus is endemic.

More here.

Talking (and reading) about Bitcoin

Adam Tooze over at Substack:

I was forced to talk about bitcoin this week. On a podcast (in German).

The discussion was triggered by the remarkable surge in bitcoin’s value – the second great surge in the Ur-crypto’s turbulent history since it’s launch on 3 January 2009.

Lisa Splanemann, the journalist with whom I do the podcast, has been pushing the topic for a while. I was reluctant.

Money talk is political talk. We should be selective in the political talk we engage in. I don’t like the politics of crypto/bitcoin.

Money is an expression of social power. In particular, it is an amalgam of the power and confidence leveraged by the state and capital. All actual monies, whatever form they are cast in, have an element of “fiat” about them.

As the Merriman-Webster dictionary helpfully explains: “fiat: a command or act of will that creates something without or as if without further effort. According to the Bible, the world was created by fiat.”

The fiat money world is the world that we have inhabited since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system between 1971 and 1973. It is normally contrasted to the gold standard world that preceded it. But are gold and “fiat” really that different? To back a currency with gold is a political choice too, anchored in structures of expectation on the part of creditors, debtors and investors, on systems for gold production, storage, relationships between banks and central banks, in other words structures of power.

More here.

China’s Inequality Will Lead It to a Stark Choice

Branko Milanovic in Foreign Affairs:

China’s model of political capitalism has produced staggering growth and lifted millions from poverty—but not without widening the gap between the country’s rich and poor. Inequality has become the Chinese system’s Achilles’ heel, belying the government’s nominally socialist tenets and undermining the implicit contract between the rulers and the ruled. Inequality erodes the trust that Confucius thought even more essential for good government than food (or, in today’s terms, material prosperity).

Addressing this problem requires understanding its sources and its reach. In China, the task is not always a simple one. China’s inequality looks at first glance like the predictable product of rapid growth and urbanization. But aspects of the country’s distribution of wealth and income are more particular. They rise from the nexus of economic and political power within the Chinese system, and they suggest that the country’s leadership faces a difficult choice as to how, and whether, to restrain the growing power of a new elite.

More here.

Said by Said

Jane Hu in Bookforum:

THE FIGURE OF EDWARD SAID might not appear to need much rescuing. Seventeen years after his untimely death from leukemia, almost all his books remain in print. His groundbreaking Orientalism (1978), considered the founding text of postcolonial studies, has been translated into over thirty languages. More than forty books have been written on Said, not to mention the one memoir, Out of Place (1999), written by Said himself. New reflections on his work are published each year, ranging from tributes to critiques, in academic journals and mainstream outlets alike. Meanwhile, Said’s concepts have become so canonical that they appear almost intuitive. Terms like “Orientalism,” “worldliness,” and “secular criticism” are now indelibly associated with Said’s name. Given his eminent political status during life, and his immanent cultural presence in death, to talk about Said these days is to risk contending with how much has already been said.

Said’s momentous influence has to do with how broadly his ideas circulated as well as how often they were denounced. A Palestinian exile who spent most of his life in America, Said straddled many worlds, as an academic, teaching literature at Columbia University, and as a public intellectual, writing on topics ranging from classical music to US foreign policy. It was his remarks on the Middle East, however, and Palestinian-Israeli relations especially, that drew the most ire, and often from all sides.

More here.

The new genomics of sexuality moves us beyond ‘born this way’

Joanna Wuest in Psyche:

The gay gene has loomed large in our social imagination since first coming out nearly three decades ago. In a 1993 issue of Science, the cancer researcher-turned-sexologist Dean Hamer employed cutting-edge genomic technologies in an attempt to reveal what it means to be queer. Though novel in its genetic claims, Hamer’s study joined a growing cohort of bio-driven theories including Simon LeVay’s work on neuroanatomical causes (ie, the ‘gay brain’ hypothesis) and similar searches for hormonal ones. Flush with funding from the Human Genome Project’s boosters, many others probed strands of DNA in the hopes of elucidating the nature of human identity and social life. Just as a range of traits from IQ to alcoholism were being pinned down to discrete genomic markers, so too was sexual orientation deemed a desire encoded deep within one’s biological makeup.

There are overtly political reasons for the production and popularisation of this brand of sexual science. Since the 1950s, when the first national gay and lesbian rights organisations formed across the United States, LGBTQ+ advocates have worked closely alongside sympathetic researchers to assist in conducting and promoting such work. In recent years, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National LGBTQ Task Force have even begun to marshal neuroanatomical research concerning the nature of gender identity – ie, a ‘trans brain’ hypothesis – in challenges to discriminatory bathroom policies.

This political investment in sexology has paid dividends for equal rights. Though the studies themselves have been at times vigorously contested, the ‘born this way’ sentiment has thrived.

More here.

Richard Wollheim’s Memoir of Life-Changing Illness

Marco Roth at Bookforum:

AMONG THE MANY ENTRIES in Edwin Frank’s increasingly encyclopedic New York Review Books Classics series is a genre of postwar European memoir: informed by psychoanalysis, ironic in tone or form, and of subject matter that’s both bourgeois and aristocratic—or at the intersections where upwardly moving middle classes and downwardly mobile inherited scions most resemble each other. Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels: these books record their authors’ efforts to collect the pieces and resolve mysteries of their childhoods and adolescence—a task often complicated by the shattering impact of the Second World War—and have also become documents in their own right, testaments not only to a bygone world but to a bygone way of reckoning with privilege, secrets, desire, belonging, and money. Richard Wollheim’s Germs, first published posthumously in 2004, hits all these notes: his parents’ somewhat open marriage, his lower-class granny, his immersion in a milieu of genuine artists, appreciators, and pompous hucksters and hustlers, sometimes united in the same person. Wollheim was still fine-tuning the manuscript when he died in 2003, at eighty, and what we have is mostly organized around the childhood and adolescent years before he arrived at Oxford, though with occasional associative leaps forward and backward in time.

more here.

The Very Brief Friendship of Maxim Gorky and Mark Twain

Edward Sorel at the New York Times:

In April 1906, Czar Nicholas caved in to protests from around the world, and released Maxim Gorky from the prison into which he had thrown him. Mark Twain and other writers, hearing that the celebrated author of “The Lower Depths” had been freed, invited him to New York City, and Gorky, still harassed by the secret police, accepted. With him on the voyage was the actress Maria Andreyeva.

Docking in Hoboken, Gorky was cheered by thousands of Russian immigrants, and a day later he was the guest of honor at a white-tie dinner arranged by Twain. Gorky, who spoke no English, came with an interpreter. Through him, he implored the guests to donate money to aid his Bolshevik comrades in overthrowing the czar.

more here.

‘It is the question of the century’: will tech solve the climate crisis – or make it worse?

Jonathan Watts in The Guardian:

Elizabeth Kolbert’s favourite movie is the end-of-the-world comedy Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. For those who need a quick recap, this cold war film features a deranged US air force general who orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union using weapons developed by a mad Nazi scientist played by Peter Sellers. A last-minute glitch almost forestalls an apocalyptic war, but a gung-ho B-52 pilot has other ideas. He opens the bomb doors and mounts the H-bomb as if it were a horse, waving his hat and whooping as he rides the missile towards the world’s oblivion. No heroism could be more misguided. No movie could end with a blunter message: how on Earth can we humans trust ourselves with planet-altering technology?

The same absurdly serious question lies at the heart of Kolbert’s new book, Under a White Sky. The Sixth Extinction, her previous book, won a Pulitzer prize for its investigation into how mankind has devastated the natural world. Now she has widened her gaze to whether we can remedy this with ingenious technological fixes – or make things worse. “There was definitely a question left hanging: now we have become such a dominant force on planet Earth, and created so many problems through our intervention, what happens next?”, she says.

In Under a White Sky she examines cutting-edge scientific advances: how much hope can we place in gene-modification, geoengineering and assisted evolution? To what extent can we repair the mess we have made? Thanks to humans, the planet is heating dangerously fast, there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in millions of years, the extinction rate of other species is hundreds, maybe thousands, of times above natural levels, and just about every planetary warning gauge is heading further into the red. Are there mega-solutions out there for these mega-problems?

More here.

Saturday Poem

Poignant Moment, listening to “Lakes” played by
the Pat Metheny Group, Sunset Beach, Summer,

The song comes over me like a wheat field, my face
brushed by golden stalks

My spirit moves forward like a blind one and when
things touch me… I see them

How could I know there was so much tenderness
hidden in things, in my flesh?

How could I know the love for the white paint for
the porch of the house where it clings
and flakes? How could I know my daughter
would come back?

How could I know about the air or the inquiring,
efficient blood, returning to the cells?

I see the love of the pale blue wind for our clothes,
blown out from the line,

The wind loves our house, whistling through tiny
cracks, blowing steadily toward us.

There is something in me that listens and stirs.
Everything flows, grasping. Everything is
a kind of attachment, a music; time aching
through us.

It is too much to feel. I put down my pad. Even
breathing is a kind of ceaseless music.

I see we cannot rest, ever. We seek for love,
continually, carried along like dust, swept
across lakes. How did I ever come to be
here, to know these people, to love them?

Our need for love exceeds us, reaching ahead,
dark hair blowing like a torch in the halls
of the old castle. It goes ahead, looking
foe signs, listening, searching.

And then the wind catches it suddenly and lifts it,
swift and beautiful, carries it far out over
the lakes- sail without a boat, banner
of our incorrigible longings.

by Lou Lipsitz

How ‘Lolita’ Escaped Obscenity Laws and Cancel Culture

Emily Mortimer in the New York Times:

I’d read “Lolita” in college, and I was too lazy to bother to read it again when preparing for my part in “The Bookshop.” I was already a huge fan of Nabokov’s — I had bought copies of his memoir, “Speak, Memory,” in bulk to hand out to my friends at college, and I had worn thin his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” which are as withering as they are brilliant. (I’ll never forget my shocked delight at his excoriation of Dostoyevsky as “a mediocre writer with wastelands of literary platitudes.”)

But I’d been talking so knowledgeably about “Lolita” to the press that I was overcome with a kind of sheepish compulsion to read it again, after the fact. I bought a copy and I read it, and I realized as I did that I had absolutely and for certain never read it before. I can’t have done. Any expertise I’d claimed to have on the subject of “Lolita” was invented. All I knew must have come only from SparkNotes, plot summaries and crib sheets, and maybe from watching the movie. Because if I had ever read “Lolita,” I would have certainly remembered the experience.

More here.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s “singleton hypothesis” predicts the future of human societies

Paul Ratner in Big Think:

Does history have a goal? Is it possible that all the human societies that existed are ultimately a prelude to establishing a system where one entity will govern everything the world over? The Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom proposes the “singleton hypothesis,” maintaining that intelligent life on Earth will at some point organize itself into a so-called “singleton” – one organization that will take the form of either a world government, a super-intelligent machine (an AI) or, regrettably, a dictatorship that would control all affairs.

Other forms of a singleton may exist, and, ultimately, Bostrom believes one of them will come into existence. The philosopher argues that historically there’s been a trend for our societies to converge in “higher levels of social organization”. We went from bands of hunter gatherers to chiefdoms, city-states, nation states and now multi-national corporations, the United Nations and so forth, all the way to globalization – one of President Donald Trump’s favorite targets for attack.

More here.

What It’s Like To Treat Opioid Addiction in Appalachia

Nick Gillespie in Reason:

Why did prescription opioids bring so much misery to the small towns of postindustrial America?

The standard narrative puts the blame on OxyContin, a powerful painkiller supposedly pushed on rural Americans by the profiteers at Purdue Pharma, which ended up filing for bankruptcy and settling criminal charges with the federal government for $8.3 billion. In this telling, the opioid epidemic is a morality tale of capitalism run amok and regulations made toothless by anti-government zealots.

Sally Satel, a practicing psychiatrist who works at a methadone clinic in Washington, D.C., has a more complicated story to tell. In 2018, she moved to Ironton, Ohio, an economically depressed town in Appalachia, where she worked with patients and social service providers. Satel doesn’t stint on criticism of drug makers, but she says that the opioid crisis is an outgrowth of a century-old tradition of medicating pain as a way of tending to the broken bodies of the region’s laborers.

More here.

On Mykola Bazhan’s Early Poetry

Uilleam Blacker at the LARB:

Despite his stature as a giant of Soviet Ukrainian literature, Bazhan remains all but unknown outside Ukraine. His work is formally sophisticated, his language rich, his subject matter multilayered. Translating him is, thus, no mean feat. But on top of that, for much of the 20th century, Bazhan’s pre-Party existence, and thus much of his best work, was unknown or inaccessible to potential translators. It is fitting, then, that the editors of this new volume of Bazhan’s work, Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnia, have turned to the poet’s earlier poetry. The volume takes us through selections from Bazhan’s first three books, published in the giddy experimental atmosphere of the 1920s, before tackling some longer and more formally, thematically, and politically complex works from the early 1930s. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way it reveals the tension between Bazhan’s mercurial, untrammeled poetic genius and the creeping ideological strictures of Stalinism.

more here.

On Meteorology and Camus

Laura Marris at The Point:

It’s a little-known fact that Camus worked briefly as a meteorologist. For almost a year, from 1937-38, he wore a lab coat at the Algiers Geophysics Institute and catalogued measurements of atmospheric pressure from hundreds of weather stations across North Africa. The data had been piling up, and despite the arrogance of their imperial ambitions, the men who ran the Institute couldn’t attract enough funding. They didn’t have the money to hire a scientist trained for this “exacting and, in effect, stupefying task.”3 Nonetheless, Camus’s supervisor, Lucien Petitjean, was pleased with his work. By the end of his time at the Institute, Camus had plotted curves for 27 years of barometric pressures from 121 weather stations. He also made calculations, averaging monthly meteorological data. This work must have given him a granular picture of the weather, one that was so dry and clinical it was at odds with his experience of the natural world. “Like in all sciences of description (statistics—which collects facts—) the biggest problem in meteorology is a practical problem: that of replacing missing observations,” he wrote in his notebook. “Temperature varies from one minute to the next,” he clarified. “This experiment shifts too much to be stabilized into mathematical concepts. Observation here represents an arbitrary slice of reality.”

more here.

How Democrats are already letting Republicans win in 2022

Amanda Marcotte in Salon:

It’s early, but Republicans have already seized on their strategy for winning the 2022 and 2024 elections. Of course, it does not depend on mundane tactics like “running on their record” or “making robust arguments about how their policies are better than their opponents.” The GOP is instead returning to the well that has, time and again, paid off handsomely: feigning umbrage over culture war flashpoints, usually ones wholly invented by the right or propped up with lies, to distract from substantive policy debates that actually impact American lives.

And it will probably work — again— because Democrats, hamstrung by their own inability to end the Senate filibuster, will not be able to pass substantive legislation they can tout as accomplishments in future campaigns. And so the election will come down to the Great Potato Head and Dr. Seuss Wars of 2022. Even more unfortunate, truly vulnerable people — like those who are part of the trans community — are also in the crosshairs, as the favored target for the culture wars that Republicans want to wage ahead of the next election. For those of you blissly unaware of what some 20th century children’s artifacts — Dr. Seuss and Potato Head — have to do with politics, well, let me briefly explain.

Conservatives are fanning out on Fox News and other right-wing media, as well as in the hallowed chambers of Congress, to spread lies about these childhood mainstays being “canceled” due to imaginary liberal censorship. It’s not true, of course, but that’s never stopped the right-wing noise machine before and it won’t now.

With Dr. Seuss, the issue comes down to the children’s book author’s estate deciding not to continue publishing some of the more obscure titles because they include racist imagery that runs against the childrens’ author’s own lifelong commitment to progressive politics. Importantly, most of his titles, especially the ones that are most beloved by the public, such as “Green Eggs and Ham” and “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” will continue to be published. But conservatives took this nugget as an excuse to go buck wild with lies about Dr. Seuss being “canceled.”

More here.