In Praise of Bad Taste

Lindsay Soladz in Bookforum:

Tackiness, it would seem, has always been in the eye of the beholder—a disapproving audience, real or imagined, clicking their proverbial tongues. They usually judge from the other side of some perceived divide, whether cultural, socioeconomic, or generational. “I always thought of tacky as my mother’s word,” Rax King writes at the beginning of her spirited new essay collection .Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer (Vintage, $16). She can still describe with stinging clarity the first time her mother flung the insult at her: she was eight years old, dressed in a puff-painted and bedazzled T-shirt she’d made with a friend so that they’d have something to wear when performing a song-and-dance routine at the elementary school talent show. (The song? An unnamed jig by the ’90s Irish girl group B*Witched, naturally.) “It occurred to me that being tacky was, in some sense, the opposite of being right,” King writes, reconsidering that formative moment two decades later. But even then, beneath the shame triggered by her mother’s laughter, she felt the illicit, hedonistic allure of the tacky: “Why should I put all that work into being right when the alternative was so much more fun?”

More here.

The pandemic’s true death toll: millions more than official counts

David Adam in Nature:

Last year’s Day of the Dead marked a grim milestone. On 1 November, the global death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic passed 5 million, official data suggested. It has now reached 5.5 million. But that figure is a significant underestimate. Records of excess mortality — a metric that involves comparing all deaths recorded with those expected to occur — show many more people than this have died in the pandemic.

Working out how many more is a complex research challenge. It is not as simple as just counting up each country’s excess mortality figures. Some official data in this regard are flawed, scientists have found. And more than 100 countries do not collect reliable statistics on expected or actual deaths at all, or do not release them in a timely manner.

Demographers, data scientists and public-health experts are striving to narrow the uncertainties for a global estimate of pandemic deaths.

More here.

Viral Imperialism

Claire Chambers in Dawn:

I’ve been reading Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s ambitious debut monograph, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion and Terror 1817–2020. In it, the Pakistani-American scholar ranges over 200 years of history to argue that the West has long used the language of disease centrally in its methods of control.

What inspires Kolb’s thesis is Susan Sontag’s argument from Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors about a pervasive and dangerous entanglement of war imagery and medical diction. According to the renowned American critic, similes and metaphors, signs and signifiers act as misleading bridges between wars and pandemics.

Kolb extends Sontag’s ideas to talk about the way in which terror and insurgency are widely positioned as a “viruslike” epidemic. Such imagery of contagion has, she submits, been the defining trope of Islamophobic discourse among imperialists from the 1857 Indian Rebellion onwards.

More here.

On “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful”

Karen Wilkin at The New Criterion:

Her continued experimentation on paper notwithstanding, beginning in the late 1960s, Thomas seems to have concentrated on all-over paintings constructed with regular, rhythmic patches of color chained into vertical bands, concentric circles, or off-kilter “narratives,” such as the series of “Earth and Space Paintings,” made in the early 1970s and inspired by the space program. A catalogue essay notes, fashionably, that Thomas began to make her ambitious abstractions at a time when “environmentalism and environmental justice” were gaining attention. “While making no direct reference to either movement,” we are told, “her work nonetheless internalized—at a structural level—the tension between universal environmental values and community concerns.” It’s hard to reconcile this with Thomas’s frankness about having found triggers for paintings in the exploration of outer space or with her frequent citation of the contrasting rings of color in formal flower beds as the source of her own dotted rings (which are impossible not to associate, as well, with Noland’s circle paintings).

more here.

The courage of Christopher Hitchens

Oliver Kamm in Prospect Magazine:

“There’s always the lingering thought, left in the air, of whether this is goodbye,” said Christopher Hitchens as we sat in his Washington apartment one bright winter’s afternoon. And for us, I knew that it was. There was no question about it. Christopher had advanced cancer of the oesophagus—a peculiarly cruel fate for one known for, literally and metaphorically, his voice. “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be,” he had written in Vanity Fair in 2010, “I have very abruptly become a finalist.” He departed life on 15th December 2011, aged 62, with much still left to say.

Like many others, for he was a man of gregariousness and boundless conviviality, I had the privilege of counting him a friend. In the decade since his death, scarcely a day has passed when I haven’t thought of him and wondered what the peerless polemicist would have said about these dark times. The abominable crimes of Presidents Assad and Putin, the debasement of American democracy and civic life by President Trump, the follies of English nativism, and Beijing’s financial imperialism and repression of Uighur Muslims would all have elicited his furious eloquence.

More here.

John Mellencamp’s Mortal Reckoning

Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker:

In 2012, the singer and songwriter John Mellencamp was given the John Steinbeck Award, presented annually to an artist, thinker, activist, or writer whose work exemplifies, among other virtues, Steinbeck’s “belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes.” The grace of the marginalized is a long-standing theme of Mellencamp’s writing. The musician, who comes from Indiana and began releasing records in the late nineteen-seventies, is known as a populist soothsayer, an irascible and unpretentious spokesman for hardworking, rural-born folks. Yet Mellencamp has also bristled at this characterization, which is largely rooted in fantasy: men gazing wistfully out the windows of vintage pickup trucks, watching dust blow by, listening to some parched and distant radio station. The image of such “real,” non-coastal Americans has become a useful cudgel for conservatives looking to depict their opponents as élitist buffoons; Mellencamp finds this grotesque. “Let’s address the ‘voice of the heartland’ thing,” he told Paul Rees, whose satisfying biography, “Mellencamp,” came out last year. “Indiana is a red state. And you’re looking at the most liberal motherfucker you know. I am for the total overthrow of the capitalist system. Let’s get all those motherfuckers out of here.”

more here.

Modeling how cells choose their fates

Lori Dajose in Phys.Org:

It may seem hard to believe, but each one of us began as a single cell that proliferated into the trillions of cells that make up our bodies. Though each of our cells has the exact same genetic information, each also performs a specialized function: neurons govern our thoughts and behaviors, for example, while immune cells learn to recognize and fight off disease, skin cells protect us from the outside world, muscle cells enable movement, and so on.

All of these  have a common origin as so-called . Full of possibility,  are like a blank slate that can become any type of cell. As an analogy, think of how a child grows into an adult and chooses a career and life path. How stem  choose their careers depends on complicated chains of reactions within a cell’s genome (its DNA), called . Now, researchers in the laboratory of Caltech’s Michael Elowitz, professor of biology and bioengineering and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, have developed a synthetic genetic circuit that demonstrates how cells could choose their fates.

More here.

Friday Poem

The Invention of the Saxophone

It was Adolph Sax, remember,
not Saxo Grammaticus, who gets the ovation.
And by the time he had brought all the components
together—the serpentine shape, the single reed,
the fit of the fingers,
the upward tilt of the golden bell—
it was already 1842, and one gets the feeling
that it was also very late at night.

There is something nocturnal about the sound,
something literally horny,
as some may have noticed on the historic date
when the first odd notes wobbled out of his studio
into the small, darkened town,

summoning the insomniacs (who were up
waiting for the invention of jazz) to their windows,
but leaving sleepers undisturbed,
even deepening and warming the waters of their dreams.

For this is not the valved instrument of waking,
more the smoky voice of longing and loss,
the porpoise cry of the unconscious.
No one would ever think of blowing reveille
on a tenor without irony.
The men would only lie in their metal bunks,
fingers twined behind their heads,
afloat in pools of memory and desire.

And when the time has come to rouse the dead,
you will not see Gabriel clipping an alto
around his numinous neck.
An angel playing the world’s last song
on a glistening saxophone might be enough
to lift them back into the light of earth,
but really no further.

Once resurrected, they would only lie down
in the long cemetery grass
or lean alone against a lugubrious yew
and let the music do the ascending—
curling snakes charmed from their baskets—
while they wait for the shrill trumpet solo,
that will blow them all to kingdom come.

by Billy Collins
The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburg Press, 1995

Lessons From a Flawed Genius

Julian Baggini in Persuasion:

David Hume (1711–1776) is justly considered to be one of the greatest philosophers that Western civilization has produced. His legacy, however, is a strange one: The works for which he was most celebrated in his lifetime are now largely ignored, while those that had the smallest impact have fared better over time.

His greatest success while alive was his six-volume History of England (1754-61), which earned him the sobriquet “Tacitus of Scotland” (after the Roman historian), and the geographically and politically incorrect “English Tacitus” from his French admirers. Today, it is his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), which is considered his magnum opus, even though Hume felt it “fell dead-born from the presses.” This reversal would have seemed bizarre to Hume—akin to declaring the minor works of Bob Dylan masterpieces and dismissing albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as juvenilia.

Hume’s Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1758) were second only to his histories in popularity in his day. But few are read or taught in universities now.

More here.

Batteries get hyped, but pumped hydro provides the vast majority of long-term energy storage essential for renewable power

Andrew Blakers, Bin Lu, and Matthew Stocks in The Conversation:

Wind and solar power vary over the course of a day, so energy storage is essential to provide a continuous flow of electricity. But today’s batteries are typically quite small and store enough energy for only a few hours of electricity. To rely more on wind and solar power, the U.S. will need more overnight and longer-term storage as well.

While battery innovations get a lot of attention, there’s a simple, proven long-term storage technique that’s been used in the U.S. since the 1920s.

It’s called pumped hydro energy storage. It involves pumping water uphill from one reservoir to another at a higher elevation for storage, then, when power is needed, releasing the water to flow downhill through turbines, generating electricity on its way to the lower reservoir.

More here.

Twenty Years Later, Guantánamo Is Everywhere

Baher Azmy in the Boston Review:

Years of litigation and reporting leave no doubt about Guantánamo’s function. The plans for the prison were formulated in the months following Congress’s 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which became law a week after the September 11 attacks and remains in effect today. In December that year, Department of Justice lawyers John Yoo and Patrick Philbin sent a memo to Department of Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes II identifying Guantánamo as a promising detention location because it likely could evade the habeas corpus jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts.

Shamelessly providing cover for Defense Department official to act without judicial scrutiny, Yoo and Philbin observed that evasion was necessary in order to avoid the “jurisdiction of U.S. courts” and the risk of triggering protections such as those codified in the Geneva Conventions and thus of disrupting “the system that has been developed to address the detainment and trial of enemy aliens.”

More here.

Thursday Poem

Some Final Words

I cannot leave you without saying this:
the past is nothing,
a nonmemory, a phantom,
a soundproof closet in which Johann Strauss
is composing another waltz no one can hear.

It is a fabrication, best forgotten,
a wellspring of sorrow
that waters a field of bitter vegetation.

Leave it behind.
Take your head out of your hands
and arise from the couch of melancholy
where the window light falls against you face
and the sun rides across the autumn sky,
steely behind the bare trees,
glorious as the high strains of violins.

But forget Strauss.
And forget his younger brother,
the poor bastard who was killed in a fall
from a podium while conducting a symphony.

Forget the past,
forget the stunned audience on its feet,
the absurdity of their formal clothes
in the face of sudden death,
forget their collective gasp,
the murmur and huddle over the body,
the creaking of thee lowered curtain.

Forget Strauss
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than 500 finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythm of my stepping—
a man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
just me,
a thin reed blowing in the night.

by Billy Collins
from The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburg Press, 1995

The Timeless Journey of the Möbius Strip

Serena Alagappan in Scientific American:

If you were to trace both “sides” of a Möbius strip, you would never have to lift your finger. A single-sided surface with no boundaries, the strip is an artist’s reverie and a mathematician’s feat. A typical thought experiment to demonstrate how the three-dimensional strip operates involves imagining an ant on an adventure. Picture the insect traversing the Möbius band. One apparent loop would land the ant not where it started but upside down, only halfway through a full circuit. After two loops, the ant would be back at the beginning—but dizzy.

The figurative and narrative implications of the Möbius strip are rich: when you try to go forward, you ring sideways, when you try to circle in, you find yourself outside. It’s an apt allegory for losing control. We might ask ourselves after 2020, where are we? Have we spun around after so much chaos, and found our position stagnated, back where we started? Or are we at a new beginning?

The continuum of crossing a Möbius strip is emblematic of how we experience time in a nonlinear way.

More here.

The Interpretation of Screens

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft at Bookforum:

Psychoanalysis might be the science of the soul, but it has never been the science of the disembodied soul. Freud was a medical researcher and clinician, and arrived at his method by attending to the bodies in the consulting room. He knew that voice and hearing were bodily affordances, and that technological aids and prostheses were part of daily life, not to be sneered at. In his 1913 essay “On Beginning the Treatment,” Freud describes how he arrived at his most important technological signature, the couch. Tired of his patients staring at him all day, he decided to have them recline, facing away from him. But he also noted that the arrangement in which a patient lies on a couch while the analyst sits behind them, out of sight, “has a historical basis; it is the remnant of the hypnotic method out of which psycho-analysis was evolved.” Freud went on: “I insist on this procedure . . . to isolate the transference and to allow it to come forward in due course sharply defined as a resistance.”

more here.

Twisted Nostalgia: Chris Isaak in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Tim Greiving at The Current:

Lynch’s adoration of musicians has been a constant, and he’s often blurred the line between musical and on-screen performance. In Blue Velvet (a film named after a 1950 ballad), Frank Booth is almost driven mad by the beauty of Roy Orbison’s 1963 song “In Dreams,” as lip-synced by Dean Stockwell’s character. Composer Angelo Badalamenti has played an outsized emotional role in every Lynch project since Blue Velvet, where he also appears in-world as Dorothy’s pianist. Lynch loved “Mysteries of Love” singer Julee Cruise so much that, after making an entire album with her, he planted her among the residents of Twin Peaks as a performer at the Roadhouse. Twin Peaks’ James Hurley (James Marshall) is a would-be Chris Isaak, a sentimental singer with a guitar, a motorcycle, and a heart of gold. Lynch also frequently uses musicians as actors, as he did with Sting in Dune, Henry Rollins in Lost Highway, Chrysta Bell in Twin Peaks: The Return—and David Bowie, who appears alongside Isaak in Fire Walk with Me. “Musicians are very close to actors,” Lynch told me, simply. “They go in front of people on a stage, and they have really no problem being in public, just like being in front of a camera. And they perform.”

more here.