It Has to End Now: Dave Eggers interviewed

Rachel Krantz in The Millions:

Dave Eggers’s newest book, The Every, is about a near-future mega-monopoly clearly based on Amazon, Facebook, and Google. It’s his follow-up to The Circle, and follows a different protagonist, Delaney, who seeks to destroy the company from the inside.

Appropriately enough, Eggers has found a way to avoid Amazon during of The Every’s initial release. The hardcover edition will not be sold through the site. If you want a copy when The Every is released on October 5—with one of its 32 different covers—you’ll only be able to get it from independent booksellers.

The Millions spoke with Eggers about Amazon’s grip on the publishing industry, authorial self-censorship, public surveillance, and much more.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Betül Kaçar on Paleogenomics and Ancient Life

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

In the question to understand the biology of life, we are (so far) limited to what happened here on Earth. That includes the diversity of biological organisms today, but also its entire past history. Using modern genomic techniques, we can extrapolate backward to reconstruct the genomes of primitive organisms, both to learn about life’s early stages and to guide our ideas about life elsewhere. I talk with astrobiologist Betül Kaçar about paleogenomics and our prospects for finding (or creating!) life in the universe.

More here.

Thursday Poem

Natural World

…………… 1.

The earth is almost round. The seas
are curved and hug the earth, both
ends are crowned with ice.

The great Blue Whale swims near
this ice, his heart is warm
and weighs two thousand pounds,
his tongue weights twice as much;
he weighs one hundred tons.

There are so few of him left
he often can’t find a mate;
he drags his six-foot sex
through icy waters,
flukes spread crashing.
His brain is large enough
for a man to sleep in.

…………… 2.

On Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania
thousand upon thousands
upon thousands of hawks in migration
have been slaughtered for pleasure.
Drawn North and South in Spring and Fall:
Merlin and Kestrel, Peregrine, Gyrfalcon,
Marsh Hawk, Red-tailed, Sharp-tailed,
Sharp-shinned, Swainson’s Hawk,
Golden eagle and Osprey
slaughtered for pleasure.

by Jim Harrison
Selected and New Poems
Delacorte Press, 1982

Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship

Emma H. Zhang in the Hong Kong Review of Books:

“Leave? Certainly not. This Brit is staying” wrote journalist Stephen Vines in July 1997. Vines had given up his full-time position at the Observer in London to be stationed in Hong Kong on a part-time basis in 1987. At the time of the Handover, Vines had been living and working in Hong Kong as a journalist and businessman for ten years. He had faith in the people of Hong Kong, in the energy and audacity of the city. He believed that it was “foolish to jump before being pushed,” referring to those who had made plans to leave the city before the governance of the territory was returned to China. Vines kept his resolution and stayed in Hong Kong for another 24 years, constantly reporting on the business, finance, and politics of this city for a wide range of local and international media outlets. In 2021, he paid homage to the people of Hong Kong with his new book, Defying the Dragon: Hong Kong and the World’s Largest Dictatorship. In August, two months after the book’s publication, Vines ended his 34-year-long sojourn in the city and departed for London.

More here.

“To Repair This Imperfect World”

From Harvard Magazine:

“WORRYING SEEMS ABOUT as necessary as breathing these days,” President Lawrence J. Bacow remarked last Friday in his address at the tenth annual Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference. “Global challenges abound, and efforts to address them will have to be based in deep considerations of equity and justice, of community and humanity. How do we prepare our students to undertake that work? How can we do a better job as teachers, as scholars, as leaders, of putting our own work in as broad a context as possible?” These questions opened the conference, this year titled “Tackling Global Challenges from the Harvard Classroom and Beyond” and attended by more than 300 Harvard faculty members and academic leaders. The conference is designed to create a University-wide dialogue about teaching and learning innovation among Harvard’s professors, senior leaders, academic professionals, and students. (Read about the 2020 conference here.)

This year’s event—again conducted virtually via Zoom—encouraged Harvard educators to reflect on their experience teaching remotely during a pandemic that “exacerbated issues” like social and healthcare inequality “that have existed in society for many, many years,” said panelist and senior lecturer in molecular and cellular biology Alain Viel. Undergraduate courses have returned to in-person instruction, but “We can’t ignore what happened during the last 17 months,” said Bharat N. Anand, vice provost for advances in learning. Those 17 months—marked by the pandemic, remote teaching, protests against systemic racism and police brutality, and economic hardship for millions of people—made it clear to educators that their students will enter a changed world after graduation.

Graduate School of Education (HGSE) dean Bridget Terry Long noted that as students spread around the world into a wide variety of communities, Harvard was no longer “far removed in Cambridge in the ivory tower.” With both the state of the world and the global reach of remote teaching in mind, the conference posed one central question: “How can we best prepare students to address global challenges in thoughtful and creative ways?”

More here.

When Taste and Smell Disappear for Good

Sara Novak in Discover:

In 2018, Jennifer Culverson was at home in Charleston, South Carolina, when she was violently assaulted by her then-boyfriend. (Culverson’s name has been changed to protect her identity.) Her attacker overpowered her and battered her head against the floor with such force that it caused a traumatic brain injury. In the weeks and months that followed, Culverson couldn’t walk or get out of bed. She had trouble putting words together and her speech was slurred.

It took months for the most immediate of her wounds to heal and for Culverson to completely assess the damage done to her brain. But when all was said and done, she noticed another painful outcome of the assault: She had lost all sense of taste and smell. In the moments after the initial assault, it wasn’t the first thing on her mind. As time passed, however, Culverson came to realize that something as simple as enjoying a nice meal with friends was about more than just the food. “Today, when I go out for dinner with friends, I have them describe what their meal tastes like because I don’t want to completely miss the experience,” she says.

More here.

The Scout Mindset

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

Reading between the lines, I think she learned pretty much the same thing a lot of the rest of us learned during the grim years of the last decade. Of the fifty-odd biases discovered by Kahneman, Tversky, and their successors, forty-nine are cute quirks, and one is destroying civilization. This last one is confirmation bias – our tendency to interpret evidence as confirming our pre-existing beliefs instead of changing our minds. This is the bias that explains why your political opponents continue to be your political opponents, instead of converting to your obviously superior beliefs. And so on to religion, pseudoscience, and all the other scourges of the intellectual world.

But she also learned that just telling people “Hey, avoid confirmation bias!” doesn’t work, even if you explain things very well and give lots of examples. What does work?

More here.

Kafka, the Artist

Nicholas Sawicki at the LARB:

The author of some of the most acclaimed works of the modern literary canon, including The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and The Metamorphosis (1915), was drawing and sketching extensively before he published a single word. Brod, Kafka’s closest friend and literary executor, held on to as many of the drawings as he could. When Kafka died in 1924, Brod famously disregarded the author’s instructions that everything was “to be burned, completely and unread.” He spent the rest of his life publishing and promoting Kafka’s work, and when he fled the Nazi occupation of Prague in 1939 for Palestine, he took Kafka’s papers and drawings with him. He published a small selection of the pictures in his biographical writings on Kafka and sold two of them to the Albertina in Vienna. Others appeared in Kafka’s diaries, today at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which Brod edited for publication in 1948. This is all the world has known until now of Kafka’s art — scarcely 40 or so drawings and sketches from what was once a far larger corpus, much of it lost or destroyed, and the rest mostly invisible to the public until this year.

more here.

The Rise and Fall of WASPs

Thomas Blaikie at Literary Review:

Michael Knox Beran begins his exploration brutally by telling us that the WASPs are finished, quite dead. Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s muses, was the last desperate gasp of the WASPs, reduced to being brought to prominence (of a kind) by someone from Pittsburgh and then cruelly abandoned. She died of a drug overdose in 1971. Her father, Fuzzy, was bad enough, removing himself to California, where he turned his vast private estate into a version of the Playboy Mansion. The book goes backwards from there but things don’t get any better. Early on comes this extraordinary sentence: ‘There is … great difficulty in writing about people whose time has passed, who were bathed in the lukewarm bath of snobbery, who, with flashes of insight, were largely mediocre.’

Mediocre, but racked and strange. In the 1880s, John Jay Chapman, descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, struck a friend in an argument about a woman. He went home and thrust his hand into the fire. He kept it there until it was burned away.

more here.

Mathematical Analysis of Fruit Fly Wings Hints at Evolution’s Limits

Elena Renken in Quanta:

Two years ago, to prepare for an unusual photo shoot, a team of scientists plucked the wings from thousands of fruit flies and pressed each flake of iridescent tissue between glass plates. As often as not, the wing tore or folded, or an air pocket or errant piece of dust got trapped along with it, ruining the sample. Fly wings are “not like Saran wrap,” said Madhav Mani, an applied mathematician and engineer at Northwestern University who led the project. They’re fragile, he said, “like gold leaf foil.”

Persevering until they had perfectly mounted about 2,000 pairs, the scientists then photographed the wings in high resolution and systematically compared the photos in 30,000 places.

This was no mere exercise in taxonomy. Rather, the study, which was recently published in the journal eLife, has offered an exceptionally detailed look at the variation that can exist within a species. The results begin to resolve a long-standing tension in biology.

More here.

Steven Pinker: Be Rational

Steven Pinker in Quillette:

Rationality is uncool. To describe someone with a slang word for the cerebral, like nerd, wonk, geek, or brainiac, is to imply they are terminally challenged in hipness. For decades, Hollywood screenplays and rock-song lyrics have equated joy and freedom with an escape from reason. “A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free,” said Zorba the Greek. “Stop Making Sense,” advised Talking Heads; “Let’s go crazy,” adjured the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory (not to be confused with critical thinking) hold that reason, truth, and objectivity are social constructions that justify the privilege of dominant groups. These movements have an air of sophistication about them, implying that Western philosophy and science are provincial, old-fashioned, naïve to the diversity of ways of knowing found across periods and cultures. To be sure, not far from where I live in downtown Boston there is a splendid turquoise and gold mosaic that proclaims, “Follow reason.” But it is affixed to the Grand Lodge of the Masons, the fez- and apron-sporting fraternal organization that is the answer to the question “What’s the opposite of hip?”

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Fall Cleaning

gold wreckage and more and more
as the leaves fall no wind today
not even a breeze just a letting go
when each leave decides it’s had enough

I close my eyes and see falling
one by one about my chair
desires I no longer desire thoughts
I no longer have to think

and mind grateful for the extra
space leans back and puts
its feet up on the newly liberated
desk smiles

by Nils Petreson
All the Marvelous Stuff
Caesura Editions, Poetry Center San José, 2019

The National Weather Service Began as a Crowdsourcing Experiment

Eric Holthaus in Smithsonian:

For centuries, humans complained about the weather. In 1848, the Smithsonian Institution decided to do something about it. Weather conditions had been considered to be either God’s will or explainable only by homespun nostrums like “Clear moon, frost soon” or by observing, say, the behavior of ants, which don’t like rain. The Farmer’s Almanac promised readers more accurate forecasts when it debuted in 1818, but even those predictions were determined by a “secret formula.” And still are.

Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, tried something new: crowdsourcing. The Institution handed out weather monitoring equipment such as thermometers, barometers and rain gauges to 150 volunteer observers across the country. Each day their localized reports arrived by telegraph, and the Smithsonian generated a national weather map that it displayed on the National Mall. The map became a popular attraction. Tourists who viewed it, Henry noted, “appear to be specially interested in knowing the condition of weather to which their friends at home are subjected at the time.”

More here.

Daniel Kahneman: How Companies Can Improve Their Hiring Process

Daniel Akst in the Wall Street Journal:

As a young lieutenant, Daniel Kahneman was asked to improve the Israeli army’s haphazard process of assessing capabilities among combat-eligible recruits.

Armed with a psychology degree and infantry experience, he brashly made up some criteria, developed questions to elicit relevant facts, and insisted interviewers ask only what he specified. Each recruit would be given a score on each criterion, and the overall “Kahneman score” would be used in deciding how demanding a role was suitable.

His structured system worked. In the decades ahead, he reports, the army determined that the system really did result in better assignments. With the benefit of the structured scoring system, the interviewers also got better at predicting success with their more intuitive evaluations.

That was back in the 1950s. Dr. Kahneman has spent the decades since researching and writing on decision making—producing a body of work that has had wide influence in the business world. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his psychological research into economics.

More here.

A daily pill to treat COVID could be just months away

JoNel Aleccia at PBS:

The medications, developed to treat and prevent viral infections in people and animals, work differently depending on the type. But they can be engineered to boost the immune system to fight infection, block receptors so viruses can’t enter healthy cells, or lower the amount of active virus in the body.

At least three promising antivirals for COVID are being tested in clinical trials, with results expected as soon as late fall or winter, said Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is overseeing antiviral development.

More here.

Why DNA Is No Key to Social Equality: On Kathryn Paige Harden’s “The Genetic Lottery”

Brenna M. Henn, Emily Klancher Merchant, Anne O’Connor, and Tina Rulli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

DNA plays a major role, indeed a starring role, in generating socioeconomic inequality in the United States, according to Kathryn Paige Harden, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Texas. In her provocative new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, she contends that our genes predispose us to getting more or less education, which then largely determines our place in the social order. This argument isn’t new. It has appeared perhaps most notoriously in Arthur Jensen’s infamous 1969 article in the Harvard Educational Review (“How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?”) and in The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, published in 1994. Harden updates the argument in three ways. First, she grounds her claims in cutting-edge genomic research utilizing a technique called genome-wide association. Second, she explicitly rejects the racist claims made by Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray, arguing that genetic differences account only for socioeconomic inequality between individuals within racially defined groups, not between racially defined groups. Third, she argues that attributing socioeconomic inequality to “nature” rather than “nurture” does not absolve society from ameliorating it.

More here.

Art And Culture In Schorske’s Century

Thomas Bender at Public Books:

Carl Schorske—the famed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1979 Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture—rejected merely thinking about history. Instead, he argued for something else. “Thinking with history,” Schorske explained in 1998, “implies the employment of the materials of the past and the configurations in which we organize and comprehend them to orient ourselves in the living present.”1

It is no surprise, then, that Fin-de-Siècle Vienna is not a conventional historical narrative. Rather, Schorske captured a moment: roughly a quarter century of creativity that ended with World War I, situated in a particular place. Vienna at that moment would be one of the key sites that would jolt Western art and culture forward into high modernity.

more here.