A new book ventures to the farthest reaches of the Marvel Universe and returns with stories to spare

Daniel Felsenthal in The Village Voice:

In a utopia, there’d be an issue for everyone. For me, it was Uncanny X-Men No. 414, which I read on the floor of a Pine Sol–scented Barnes and Noble when I was 11. Seated pretzel-legged in one of the aisles, I found something unexpectedly weighty in the Marvel comic: Abused by his father, a boy literally explodes. A lapsed superhero named Northstar discovers him in his home’s rubble. Northstar is gay, we know, because Professor Xavier, founder of a school for “gifted youngsters” with mutant powers they need to learn how to control, wants to hire the flying, ultrafast Canadian; he’d like to diversify his teaching staff so that his students have homosexual role models.

“Huh?” I thought, dropped from the drab retailer into a friendlier dimension. I’d never read anything so frankly queer before. The year was 2002, and I only knew gayness as the butt of jokes. Studio films were smattered with swishy stereotypes for comic relief, while the lyrics of Top 40 hitmakers like Eminem and DMX made mincemeat of homosexuals.

More here.

What Hot Dogs Can Teach Us About Number Theory

Patrick Honner in Quanta:

If you’ve ever had to buy hot dogs for a cookout, you might have found yourself solving a math problem involving least common multiples. Setting aside the age-old question of why hot dogs usually come in packs of 10 while buns come in packs of eight (you can read what the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council has to say about it here), let’s stick to the math that gets our hot dogs to match our buns. A simple solution is to buy eight packs of hot dogs and 10 packs of buns, but who needs 80 hot dogs? Can you buy fewer packs and still make the numbers match?

Let’s list how many of each item you get by purchasing multiple packs.

There’s a 40 on each list because 40 is the least common multiple (LCM) of 10 and 8 — it’s the smallest number that is evenly divisible by both numbers. If you buy four packs of hot dogs and five packs of buns, the 40 hot dogs will match up perfectly with the 40 buns.

But what if the hot dogs instead came in packs of five (maybe your friends and family like an artisanal brand that comes in prime-numbered packs), and even 40 is more than you need? Can you do better than the simple solution of buying eight packs of hot dogs and five packs of buns?

More here.

Deaths of despair: the unrecognized tragedy of working class immiseration

David Introcaso in Stat News:

The term deaths of despair comes from Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who set out to understand what accounted for falling U.S. life expectancies. They learned that the fastest rising death rates among Americans were from drug overdoses, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease. Deaths from these causes have increased between 56% and 387%, depending on the age cohort, over the past two decades, averaging 70,000 per year.

Case and Deaton learned that these deaths disproportionately occurred in white men who had not earned college degrees. In their 2020 book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” they argued that a key driver of these deaths is economic misery.

More here.

Mir Imran of Rani Therapeutics: I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream

Chef Vicky Colas in Authority Magazine:

More here.

Ketamine Therapy Is Going Mainstream. Are We Ready?

Emily Witt in The New Yorker:

In the fall of 1972, a psychiatrist named Salvador Roquet travelled from his home in Mexico City to the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, an institution largely funded by the United States government, to give a presentation on an ongoing experiment. For several years, Roquet had been running a series of group-therapy sessions: over the course of eight or nine hours, his staff would administer psilocybin mushrooms, morning-glory seeds, peyote cacti, and the herb datura to small groups of patients. He would then orchestrate what he called a “sensory overload show,” with lights, sounds, and images from violent or erotic movies. The idea was to push the patients through an extreme experience to a psycho-spiritual rebirth. One of the participants, an American psychology professor, described the session as a “descent into hell.” But Roquet wanted to give his patients smooth landings, and so, eventually, he added a common hospital anesthetic called ketamine hydrochloride. He found that, given as the other drugs were wearing off, it alleviated the anxiety brought on by these punishing ordeals.

Clinicians at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center had been studying LSD and other psychedelics since the early nineteen-fifties, beginning at a related institution, the Spring Grove Hospital Center. But ketamine was new: it was first synthesized in 1962, by a researcher named Calvin Stevens, who did consulting work for the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis. (Stevens had been looking for a less volatile alternative to phencyclidine, better known as PCP.) Two years later, a doctor named Edward Domino conducted the first human trials of ketamine, with men incarcerated at Jackson State Prison, in Michigan, serving as his subjects. At higher doses, Domino noticed, ketamine knocked people out, but at lower ones it produced odd psychoactive effects on otherwise lucid patients. Parke-Davis wanted to avoid characterizing the drug as psychedelic, and Domino’s wife suggested the term “dissociative anesthetic” to describe the way it seemed to separate the mind from the body even as the mind retained consciousness. The F.D.A. approved ketamine as an anesthetic in 1970, and Parke-Davis began marketing it under the brand name Ketalar. It was widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and remains a standard anesthetic in emergency rooms around the world.

Roquet found other uses for it. After his lecture in Maryland, he offered experiential training to the clinicians there. “I was introduced to the strangest psychoactive substance I have ever experienced in the 50 years of my consciousness research,” the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof recalls in “The Ketamine Papers,” a book edited by the psychiatrist Phil Wolfson and the researcher Glenn Hartelius.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Syed Tasnim Raza)

Friday Poem

All years come to an end. What then? —Toshi Suzuki

Since Anchoring to the San Francisco Dock, 1945

Before lifted
onto a gurney,
folded into plastic,
& zipped in a bag,
my grandpa says
his goodbyes
in Tagalog
8,000 miles
from where his brother
is a banana leaf
or sampaguita
or whatever
he became
of earth after
the imperial army

by Troy Osaki
Pank Magazine

Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah And Zanzibar

Sameer Rahim at Prospect Magazine:

When Abdulrazak Gurnah was growing up in the 1950s in Zanzibar, a small island off the east African coast, he could not imagine a career as a writer. Though there were poets and storytellers, there were no literary publishers. At school he was taught the English canon. “You realise, in that literature, you’re completely and totally absent,” he tells me, “or present in some kind of diminished form.” But after moving to Britain in 1968, he did become a writer and, across 10 novels, has drawn on his island’s rich history to fill in those absences. In October, this quietly spoken man—always respected but hardly a household name—won the Nobel Prize in literature.

The decision delighted me, but I must admit a bias. My father also grew up in Zanzibar in the 1950s and I have read Gurnah’s work as much to learn about my family history as for its literary merit.

more here.

The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe

Stathis N Kalyvas at Literary Review:

The year 2021 was meant to be special for Greece: an opportunity to celebrate the bicentenary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, which led to the birth of modern Greece. It was also supposed to be an occasion to mark the country’s slow and painful, yet also real and tangible, emergence from a vicious and protracted economic crisis that had brought it to its knees. The festivities were to be orchestrated by Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the woman who single-handedly brought the Olympic Games to Athens in 2004 and ran them successfully, to general acclaim. Alas, it was not to be. The coronavirus thwarted Greece’s grand plans.

This unfortunate intervention might have been a blessing in disguise – and not because national celebrations belong to the past. As long as nation-states continue to exist, they will naturally want to commemorate these milestones. 

more here.

Why does a sport like boxing still exist?

Gordon Marino in The Common Reader:

On Saturday, September 11, Evander Holyfield, who turned 59 in October, was knocked out in the first round by the 44-year old former UFC champion, Vitor Belfort, in a commission sanctioned bout in Florida.

If the promoters or the people who lined their pockets working this event or, for that matter, the viewers who shelled out fifty dollars to watch the degrading spectacle, had read Tris Dixon’s Damage, maybe they would have passed on this so-called fight. Then again, I doubt it.

For all the hand-wringing about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the NFL, there has been scant media mention or public concern about brain trauma in boxing. And yet, as one of Dixon’s interviewees framed it, “Boxing is American football head injuries on steroids.”

More here.

Observing Evolution: Peppered Moths And The Discovery Of Parallel Melanism

Leon Vlieger in The Inquisitive Biologist:

Every student of evolution will be familiar with the peppered moth, Biston betularia. It is right up there with the Galápagos finches as an example of evolution happening right under our noses. The story of the rapid spread of dark moths in response to the soot deposition that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and the reversal of this pattern when air pollution abated, is iconic. Yet, as Emeritus Professor of biology Bruce S. Grant shows, there are a lot more subtleties to it than my one-liner suggests. Observing Evolution details research by himself and many others, and along the way addresses criticism – legitimate and otherwise – levelled at some of the earlier research. Eminently readable, this is a personal story of the rise, fall, and ultimate redemption of one of the most famous textbook examples of evolution in action.

More here.

Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy

Richard Hanania in his Substack newsletter:

Ever since I started studying IR, I had a gnawing feeling that something about the whole enterprise was off. As I read more history, and also in other fields like economics, anthropology and psychology, I came to the conclusion that the ways in which we talk about international relations and foreign policy are simply wrong. The whole reason that IR is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. And although many IR scholars do look at things like psychology and state-specific factors to explain foreign policy, they generally don’t take the critique of the unitary actor model far enough. The more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

That’s pretty abstract, so let’s make it concrete. Think about the most consequential foreign policy decision of the last half century. Why did America invade Iraq in 2003?

More here.

Thursday Poem

We Talk About Spanish

Not in Spanish
Dream with dictionaries
Marrying out to whites
Damn good black beans
But so what?
Damn good politics
But so what?
Oh there were times
like in the orange groves
Outside Phoenix
My task was to mark charts
To ask the Guatemaltecas
When was your last period?
And so on as they lined up
To see a doctor in a trailer
And there was that night
In Harvard Yard
When a North Vietnamese
Soldier-poet tested
Spanish he learned in Cuba
It worked
We found a third way
His voice a high-wire
I crossed over to him
Fearless as a spider
If we didn’t know a word
We filled in the blank
With a star
It was a light
That years later
I try not to curse

by Demetria Martinez
El Coro
University of Massachusetts Press, 1997

Fernando Pessoa’s Invented Community Of Writers

Sasha Frere-Jones at Bookforum:

WHAT’S COMMONLY KNOWN ABOUT THE PORTUGUESE WRITER FERNANDO PESSOA is that he died young-ish at the age of forty-seven in 1935, drank heavily, and assigned authorship of his work to over a hundred “heteronyms,” pen names that carry more biographical heft than the average alias. Pessoa died having published only one book of poetry in Portuguese (Mensagem) and two self-published chapbooks of English-language poetry. The lion’s share of his work was found in a trunk containing about 25,000 pages of writings. Without much of a public record of his life as he lived it, celebrating Pessoa and researching Pessoa have always been roughly the same thing. Few have done as much of that work as Richard Zenith, an American who has translated a chunk of the Pessoa oeuvre and put in more than ten years writing an extremely definitive biography of a shape-shifting weirdo his country adores. When I was in Lisbon in 2018, a cab driver, unprompted, recited one of his poems to me on our way to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a museum and historical site. More officially, Pessoa’s face was on the 100 escudo note before the euro fully replaced it in 2002. His mutating nationalism might be what made him a candidate for Portuguese pride, though his politics were hardly consistent.

more here.

On Lice

AK Blakemore at Granta:

With all due respect, lice and fleas have changed the world more than you ever have, or will, reader. They are part of the unwitting ensemble cast of human history, like Alexander the Great’s Bucephalus, or Karl Lagerfeld’s Choupette. This is because they are now understood to be ‘vectors of disease’, making other bodies’ business your own. But even before this was properly understood, their reputation wasn’t great.

Galileo was probably the first person to see into a flea’s face. While modifying the compound telescope that would situate humanity in a universe that frankly didn’t care for it very much, he fucked around and invented a compound microscope as well. ‘I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration’, he wrote, ‘among which the flea is quite horrible’.

more here.

Webb telescope blasts off successfully — launching a new era in astronomy

Alexandra Witze in Nature:

The James Webb Space Telescope — humanity’s biggest gamble yet in its quest to probe the Universe — soared into space on 25 December, marking the culmination of decades of work by astronomers around the world. But for Webb to begin a new era in astronomy, as many scientists hope it will, hundreds of complex engineering steps will have to go off without a hitch in the coming days and weeks. “Now the hard part starts,” says John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist and former astronaut and head of science for NASA.

The US$10-billion Webb is the most complicated and expensive space observatory in history, and the successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which has studied the Universe since 1990. Following its launch, Webb will now embark on the riskiest part of its mission — deploying all the parts required for its enormous mirror to peer deep into the cosmos, back towards the dawn of time.

Not until all the equipment works and the first scientific observations have been made, likely in July, will astronomers be able to relax. Until then, “there’s going to be a lot of nervousness”, says Heidi Hammel, an interdisciplinary scientist for Webb and vice-president for science at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington DC. The NASA-built Webb launched at 9:20 a.m. local time from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 rocket provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The project’s third international partner is the Canadian Space Agency.

More here.

It’s Time for Some Game Theory

Caroline Wazer in Lapham’s Quarterly:

In March 2021 the American Historical Review included three video games in its review section, a first for the self-proclaimed “journal of record for the historical profession in the United States.” All three games selected for review are installments of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which takes as its central conceit a centuries-long struggle between two shadowy organizations: the Templars, who seek to control and manipulate humanity for their own ends, and the Assassins, who champion human freedom and creativity and are usually (though not always) cast as morally superior. Throughout the franchise players are tapped by one or both factions to hunt for powerful artifacts called Pieces of Eden, each of which was hidden or lost long ago. Finding these artifacts requires accessing the past by means of a fictional technology called the Animus, which generates lifelike, interactive virtual-reality worlds from ancient DNA samples taken from the remains of long-dead witnesses to the Pieces of Eden’s fates.

Despite the fantastic silliness of the in-game time-travel logistics, the promise of historical accuracy has been a major selling point of Assassin’s Creed since the eponymous first installment in 2007; since then Ubisoft, its publisher, reports having sold more than 155 million units of the franchise, which has grown to include a total of twelve main games (the most recent being 2020’s Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, which takes place mostly in Viking-age England). “Assassin’s Creed is steeped in historical fact,” a video-game reviewer for IGN writes of the first game in the series, which is set primarily in the twelfth-century Holy Land. “Were it not for the ‘anomalies’ that flitter around characters”—part of the sci-fi wrapping—“you would have little reason to ever question that this is indeed what these cities and people looked like centuries ago.”

In the first of the AHR reviews, historian of early America Michael D. Hattem gives a positive assessment of Assassin’s Creed III (2012), praising the verisimilitude of its Revolutionary War–era colonial American setting as well as the way the game emphasizes social history. “The attention paid by the game developers and their historical consultants to details of both the actual and social geography of these urban settings,” he writes, “produced one of the most authentic depictions of eighteenth-century life in popular culture”—far more historically accurate, he adds, than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton. Video games like this, Hattem concludes, are “ideally situated as a cultural form to tell the kind of complex story of the Revolution reflected in recent academic scholarship.”

More here.