Tabish Khair: What’s in a Word?

Tabish Khair in Berfrois:

At the core of Anton Chekov’s short story, ‘The Requiem’, there is a tussle over a word. Mass is just over in the small village church of Verhny Zaprudy. Andrey Andreyitch, a shopkeeper and an old inhabitant of the village, is angrily summoned by Father Gregory, still standing in his vestments by a door. He thrusts a small note at Andrey, demanding, “Was it you asked for prayers for the rest of Mariya’s soul?” In that small note is written, in big, “staggering” letters, “For the rest of the soul of the servant of God, the harlot Mariya.” Andrey readily acknowledges that he had sent the note.

Father Gregory is livid. It turns out that, unlike what the reader might have suspected, Father Gregory is not angry at being asked to pray for a ‘harlot.’ He is angry because Mariya is Andrey Andreyitch’s daughter. How dare you write such a note, he asks? Andrey fails to understand. For him, his daughter, who had become a well-known actress in Moscow, is a harlot in Biblical terms.

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Patricia S. Churchland: Hands On

Patricia S. Churchland at

Released from the silo of conventional philosophy, I found the neuroscientists at the medical school to be uniformly hospitable and curious about what I was up to. A human brain was indeed delivered to me in the anatomy lab, and holding it my hands, I felt an almost reverential humility toward this tissue that had embodied someone’s love and knowledge and skills. It looked so small, relative to what a human brain can do.

The world of neuroscience was opening up to me. At the clinicians’ weekly meeting—neurology rounds—a patient with unusual or puzzling symptoms would be presented and later discussed. To my everlasting gratitude, the clinicians invited me to join the rounds. One stroke patient was a dairy farmer who could no longer recognize faces—not those of his wife or children, or even his own face in a mirror. Particularly disappointing to him was his inability to recognize the faces of his beloved cows.

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In Covid’s grip, India gasps for air: ‘If there is an apocalypse, this has to be one’

Vikas Dandekar in Stat News:

In cities big and small, hospitals are too full to accept new patients and diagnostic centers take up to three days or more to do chest scans of those who might have Covid-19. Doctors and hospital staff are completely exhausted.

Social media is flooded with passionate pleas for oxygen cylinders and concentrators. WhatsApp groups are filled with messages as friends and families scramble to access oxygen, remdesivir, tocilizumab, steroids, and other therapies. In a country where drug regulatory oversight is suspect, indiscriminate sale of fake drugs is a huge problem.

As someone who has covered the pharmaceutical and health care industries for more than two decades, I get calls for help into the wee hours of the night from family members, friends, and even acquaintances. Fake therapies are something I constantly worry about as I try to use my contacts to help people looking for hospital beds, medicines, or oxygen cylinders. Sometimes I’ve been able to help, but the calls are so many and the problems so big that often I cannot.

More here.

Wednesday Poem


for Eavan Francis

Tryers of firesides,
twilights. There are no tears in these.

Instead, they begin the world again,
making the mountain ridges blue
and the rivers clear and the hero fearless—

and the outcome always undecided
so the next teller can say begin and
again and astonish children.

Our children are our legends.
You are mine. You have my name.
My hair was once like yours.

And the world
is less bitter to me
because you will re-tell the story.

Eavan Boland
Collected Poems
carcanet, 1995

Fusion & Magic

Andrew Blum in Lapham’s Quarterly:

The first extrasomatic energy source was fire, mastered by prehistoric societies 250,000 years ago. Pack animals provided ancient humans with an order of magnitude more energy. But not until waterwheels came into common use in the medieval era was there any common inanimate source to master. The Canadian historian Vaclav Smil notes that the Domesday Book records 5,624 water mills in southern and eastern England in the late eleventh century, one for every 350 people. Yet it would take another eight hundred years, into the Industrial Revolution, for their performance to be increased by another order of magnitude. Then things sped up. By the 1880s, the electrical system as we know it was recognizable, and crude oil began its rise to dominance for transportation. Ox by ox, water­wheel by waterwheel, engine by engine, the peak capacity of individual generating units rose approximately fifteen million times in ten thousand years, with more than 99 percent of that rise occurring during the twentieth century. Of those leaps, the most dramatic was nuclear fission, the breaking apart of atoms. Fission weapons shaped the century’s geopolitics; fission power plants still supply 10 percent of the world’s electricity.

Except now fission has run its course. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, society’s appetite for nuclear risk has diminished. The costs of engineering even greater safety make fission power less economically viable compared to the falling costs of renewable sources like wind and solar. Averting further climate catastrophe requires broad policy changes—and some key new technologies. A step-change improvement in energy storage would open up new ways of using renewable energy, like solar energy at night and wind energy on calm days. More efficient ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere, at scale, might help change the climate again.

But the greatest potential for innovation—the closest thing to a technological silver bullet—remains fusion. Fusion is what powers the sun: a self-sustaining reaction in which isotopes of hydrogen at tens of millions of degrees fuse to form helium, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. Fusion carries none of fission’s catastrophic risks. Its raw materials are abundant and safe, derived primarily from seawater. Its waste is minimally radioactive—more like what’s produced by hospitals than fission power plants. And there is no risk of meltdowns: when a fusion reactor’s power is shut off, its reaction stops.

More here.

Beware Of Humans: We — not animals — are the coronavirus carriers now

Maggie Koerth in FiveThirtyEight:

“In North America we pose a far greater risk to our bats than they do to us,” said O’Keefe, a bat ecologist and professor of environmental science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, an illness that jumped from animal hosts to humans. But disease transfer isn’t just a one-way street. It takes only a bit of evolutionary bad luck to turn a bat’s head cold into a human’s killer. But it takes only a little more for the same virus to jump from humans to other animals. Zoonosis begets reverse zoonosis, which can, in turn, come back around to zoonosis again. A virus we give to a bat could, someday, come back around to reinfect us. Animals’ health is ours, ours is theirs, theirs is ours.

For North American bats, contracting this new virus carried the risk of absolute annihilation. Unlike Old World bats, they aren’t natural reservoirs for the branch of the coronavirus family that includes SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of the novel coronavirus), so they have no preexisting immunity to it. And spring was a crucial time. COVID-19 reached the U.S. just as bats were waking from winter hibernation and humans were gearing up for bat research season. The people on that March conference call knew that, within weeks, human researchers would begin catching bats — weighing them, measuring them, literally breathing directly into their tiny faces. We barely knew where COVID-19 had come from, and already we had to think about what it might spread to next.

The bats weren’t — and still aren’t — the only animals of concern. Even now, a year later, researchers are still working to figure out which animals, in which places, are most at risk. It’s a question that has consequences for both animals and people. Every new species that becomes a host for COVID-19 is also a population where the virus can change, mutate, and boomerang back to us. Bats are a bellwether, an example of how our relationships with animals can threaten both our health and theirs.

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Robert Polidori: Photographer

Robert Polidori with Jean Dykstra at The Brooklyn Rail:

Polidori: Well, America is a Protestant country. Protestants don’t take so well to pathos, so they think that I’m a reactionary, because I am making misery look beautiful. And so because of this, I am minimizing the plight of the victims. I only get this in Anglo-Saxon countries, the rest of the world doesn’t think that way.

Rail: Right. And so what’s your answer to that criticism?

Polidori: My punk answer is, “Well, if I made it ugly, would you look at it more?” And my more serious answer is, this is a problem created by wanting to fix political blame as the cause of events. In America, the prevalent culture says that if things go bad, it’s your own fault. Therefore pathos is problematic. In art history, with Ruskin, there’s the notion of the “pathetic fallacy.” You know, it’s like when they say in English, “Gee, that’s pathetic,” and it’s actually a contre-sens; it’s an ironic statement. For them pathos or being pathetic means kitsch. It’s below consideration. And this is also why they call what I do “ruin porn.” But it doesn’t have much to do with pornography at all. It’s about death. So that’s why some of my work is not always appreciated in America.

more here.

The Sonic Extremes of the MaerzMusik Festival

Alex Ross at The New Yorker:

On the stage of an empty concert hall, the Austrian-born composer Peter Ablinger sits in a chair and begins to tell the time. “At the third stroke, it will be twenty o’clock precisely,” he says, adhering to the hallowed formula of the BBC’s Speaking Clock. He accompanies himself with a simple C-minor sequence on a keyboard. After continuing in this vein for twenty minutes, Ablinger cedes the floor to the young German actress Salome Manyak, who speaks over an atmospherically bleeping soundtrack by the Finnish experimental musician Olli Aarni. The ritual goes on for nearly twenty-seven hours, with an ever-changing team of artists, curators, composers, singers, and d.j.s announcing the time in German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Oromo, Mandarin, and twelve other languages. A rotating assortment of prerecorded tracks, usually electronic, provide accompaniment. Most of the reciters maintain a crisp, cool demeanor, even when their Web sites lead one to expect something more uproarious. The Swedish dancer and costume designer Björn Ivan Ekemark, for example, gives no sign that he also performs under the name Ivanka Tramp and leads a “sticky and visceral cake-sitting performance group,” called analkollaps.

more here.

Against Intelligence, On Earth and in Outer Space

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

I often think about George Berkeley’s observation (without recalling quite where he offered it) that when we think we are imagining to ourselves the heat of the sun, what we are really imagining is the heat of a stove or a similar familiar source of mundane household warmth. A stove is already hot enough to reduce my hand to ash fairly quickly. And without a hand left, without any nerve endings to give me any report at all on the external world, I’m hardly in a position to note the difference between 300 degrees Fahrenheit and 5,700 degrees Kelvin. Both, Berkeley thinks, are just too darn hot.

It strikes me that a good deal of our representation of the world around us is like this, not just of qualitative degrees of difference, but also, or perhaps especially, of quantitative differences of scale. For example (to return to one of my favorite themes), we systematically misrepresent the relative proportions of biomass on Earth according to phenomenological salience in human social reality (plants are around 265 times more present than all animals combined, and by far the most animal mass is made up by insects). And similarly, although I grew up with Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” echoing in my head, if you were to ask me on the spot how many stars there are, a large part of me still wants to respond: “About 500 or so?”

More here.

How Maxwell’s Demon Continues to Startle Scientists

Jonathan O’Callaghan in Quanta:

The universe bets on disorder. Imagine, for example, dropping a thimbleful of red dye into a swimming pool. All of those dye molecules are going to slowly spread throughout the water. Physicists quantify this tendency to spread by counting the number of possible ways the dye molecules can be arranged. There’s one possible state where the molecules are crowded into the thimble. There’s another where, say, the molecules settle in a tidy clump at the pool’s bottom. But there are uncountable billions of permutations where the molecules spread out in different ways throughout the water. If the universe chooses from all the possible states at random, you can bet that it’s going to end up with one of the vast set of disordered possibilities.

Seen in this way, the inexorable rise in entropy, or disorder, as quantified by the second law of thermodynamics, takes on an almost mathematical certainty. So of course physicists are constantly trying to break it.

One almost did. A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits.

More here.

By Canceling Richard Dawkins, the American Humanist Association Has Betrayed Its Values

Robby Soave in Reason:

Last week, the American Humanist Association (AHA) stripped British author Richard Dawkins of his 1996 Humanist of the Year award after he made a comment on Twitter that offended some in the transgender community.

“Regrettably, Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values,” said the AHA. “His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient.”

This is nonsense: Dawkins had raised a point that it is perfectly worthy of discussion, in accordance with the rationalist philosophy of the humanist movement. But it would also have been ridiculous for the organization to punish Dawkins even if the remark had been offensive, given that many of its past awardees have espoused controversial views, and even said insensitive things on Twitter.

More here.

Human Life As Technology From Greek Mythology To Frankenstein

Adrienne Mayor at Lapham’s Quarterly:

How long have we been imagining artificial life? A remarkable set of ancient Greek myths and art shows that more than 2,500 years ago, people envisioned how one might fabricate automatons and self-moving devices, long before the technology existed. Essentially some of the earliest-ever science fictions, these myths imagined making life through what could be called biotechne, from the Greek words for life (bio) and craft (techne). Stories about the bronze automaton Talos, the artificial woman Pandora, and other animated beings allowed people of antiquity to ponder what awesome results might be achieved if only one possessed divine craftsmanship. One of the most compelling examples of an ancient biotechne myth is Prometheus’ construction of the first humans.

Prometheus was first introduced in Hesiod’s poems, written between 750 and 650 bc, and about two dozen Greek and Latin writers retold and embellished his story. From earliest times Prometheus was seen as the benefactor of primitive humankind.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Your Logic Frightens Me Mandela

Your logic frightens me, Mandela,
Your logic frightens me. Those years
Of dreams, of time accelerated in
Visionary hopes, of savouring the task anew,
The call, the tempo primed
To burst in supernovae round a “brave new world”!
Then stillness. Silence. The world closes round
Your sole reality; the rest is… dreams?

Your logic frightens me.
How coldly you disdain legerdemains!
“Open Sesame” and—two decades’ rust on hinges
Peels at touch of a conjurer’s wand?
White magic, ivory-topped black magic wand,
One moment wand, one moment riot club
Electric cattle prod and club or sjambok
Tearing flesh and spilling blood and brain?
This bag of tricks, whose silk streamers
Turn knotted cords to crush dark temples?
A rabbit punch sneaked beneath the rabbit?
Doves metamorphosed in milk-white talons?
Not for you the olive branch that sprouts
Gun muzzles, barbed-wire garlands, tangled thorns
To wreathe the brows of black, unwilling christs.

Your patience grows inhuman, Mandela.
Do you grow food? Do you make friends
Of mice and lizards? Measure the growth of grass
For time’s unhurried pace?
Are you now the crossword puzzle expert?

Read more »

The Grace of Teffi

Robert Chandler at The Paris Review:

Born in 1872, Teffi was a contemporary of Alexander Blok and other leading Russian Symbolists. Her own poetry is derivative, but in her prose she shows a remarkable gift for grounding Symbolist themes and imagery in the everyday world. “The Heart” is entirely realistic and at times even gossipy—yet the story is permeated throughout with Christian symbolism relating to fish. In “A Quiet Backwater,” she achieves a still more successful synthesis of the heavenly and the earthly. Toward the end of this seven-page story a laundress gives a long disquisition on the name days of various birds, insects, and animals. The mare, the bee, the glowworm—she tells a young visitor—all have their name days. And so does the earth herself: “And the Feast of the Holy Ghost is the name day of the earth herself. On this day, no one dairnst disturb the earth. No diggin, or sowin—not even flower pickin, or owt. No buryin t’ dead. Great sin it is, to upset the earth on ’er name day. Aye, even beasts understand. On that day, they dairnst lay a claw, nor a hoof, nor a paw on the earth. Great sin, yer see.” In a key poem—almost a manifesto—of French Symbolism, Charles Baudelaire interprets the whole world as a web of mystical “correspondences.” In a less grandiose way, Teffi conveys a similar vision. She was, I imagine, delighted by the paradox of the earth’s name day being the Feast of the Holy Spirit—not, as one might expect, the feast of a saint associated with some activity like plowing.

more here.

The Challenges of Animal Translation

Philip Ball in The New Yorker:

Disney’s 2019 remake of its 1994 classic “The Lion King” was a box-office success, grossing more than one and a half billion dollars. But it was also, in some ways, a failed experiment. The film’s photo-realistic, computer-generated animals spoke with the rich, complex voices of actors such as Donald Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor—and many viewers found it hard to reconcile the complex intonations of those voices with the feline gazes on the screen. In giving such persuasively nonhuman animals human personalities and thoughts, the film created a kind of cognitive dissonance. It had been easier to imagine the interiority of the stylized beasts in the original film. Disney’s filmmakers had stumbled onto an issue that has long fascinated philosophers and zoologists: the gap between animal minds and our own. The dream of bridging that divide, perhaps by speaking with and understanding animals, goes back to antiquity. Solomon was said to have possessed a ring that gave him the power to converse with beasts—a legend that furnished the title of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s pioneering book on animal psychology, “King Solomon’s Ring,” from 1949. Many animal lovers look upon the prospect of such communication with hope: they think that, if only we could converse with other creatures, we might be inspired to protect and conserve them properly. But others warn that, whenever we attempt to communicate with animals, we risk projecting our ideas and preconceptions onto them. We might do this simply through the act of translation: any human language constrains the repertoire of things that can be said, or perhaps even thought, for those using it.

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published a seminal paper called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Bat life, Nagel argued, is so profoundly different from human life that we can never truly know the answer to that question. Our understandings are shaped by our human concepts; the only way to know what it is like to be a bat is to be a bat, and to have bat concepts. Even if we don’t or can’t know exactly what it’s like to be a bat, we can have some understanding of how bat minds work; we can understand that bat life is lived aloft, sometimes upside down, and partly through echolocation. Still, in Nagel’s view, something is left out: the experience itself. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously put it, if a lion could talk, we could not understand him—our human minds would not share the sensory and conceptual landscape that lion-talk would express.

More here.

Large-scale origami locks into place under pressure

Sigrid Adriaenssens in Nature:

It might seem surprising that origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, is an integral part of engineering. However, origami structures can be folded up compactly and deployed at the nano- and macroscales seemingly without effort. They are therefore well suited for a wide range of applications, including robotics1, arrays of solar panels2 and engineered structures known as metamaterials3Writing in Nature, Melancon et al.4 report triangular origami facets that snap into 3D shapes when filled with a pressurized fluid. The authors’ work provides a new method for designing large origami enclosures that can be deployed and locked into shape through inflation.

In engineering, a deployable structure is one that can change shape in a way that greatly alters its size — large-scale examples include scissor lifts and bouncy castles. Conventional deployable structures are transformed into a larger shape through the extension of linkages (as in scissor lifts) or by inflation (bouncy castles). Both types of structure are then secured into their new shape by an external agent: a lock and the sustained application of air pressure, respectively. However, neither can secure themselves.

More here.