‘We risk being ruled by dangerous binaries’ – Mohsin Hamid on our increasing polarisation

Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:

In 2017, I published my fourth novel, Exit West, and bought a small notebook to jot down ideas for the next one. I thought it would be about technology. I came across an article by Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, discussing an experiment he and his colleague John Miller had conducted in that same year. They simulated cooperation and competition by machines over many generations, building these machines as computer models and setting them playing a game together. An interesting pattern emerged. Rather than constant trading for mutual benefit among equals, or never-ending fights to the death among foes, instead a particular type of machine became dominant, one that recognised and favoured copies of itself, and enormous prosperity ensued, built on ever-growing levels of cooperation. But eventually the minute differences that naturally occurred (or were, in the experiment, designed to occur) in the copying process, as they do in organisms when genes are passed on, became intolerable, and war among the machines resulted in near-complete devastation and a new beginning, after which the cycle repeated, over and over.

More here.

How the omicron subvariant BA.5 became a master of disguise – and what it means for the current COVID-19 surge

Suresh V. Kuchipudi in The Conversation:

The omicron variant did indeed become dominant early in 2022, and several sublineages, or subvariants, of omicron have since emerged: BA.1, BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5, among others. With the continued appearance of such highly transmissible variants, it is evident that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is effectively using classic techniques that viruses use to escape the immune system. These escape strategies range from changing the shape of key proteins recognized by your immune system’s protective antibodies to camouflaging its genetic material to fool human cells into considering it a part of themselves instead of an invader to attack.

I am a virologist who studies emerging viruses and viruses that jumped from animals to humans, such as SARS-CoV-2. My research group has been tracking the transmission and evolution of SARS-CoV-2, evaluating changes in how well the omicron subvariants evade the immune system and the severity of disease they cause after infection.

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Sheila Heti and The Fight for Art

Jonathan Baskin in Liberties:

On the fourth page of Pure Colour, the fourth and most recent novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, it is proposed that there are three kinds of beings on the face of the earth. They are each a different kind of “critic,” tasked with helping God to improve upon His “first draft” of the universe. There are birds who “consider the world as if from a distance” and are interested in beauty above all. There are fish who “critique from the middle” and are consumed by the “condition of the many.” And there are bears who “do not have a pragmatic way of thinking” and are “deeply consumed with their own.” The three main characters in the novel track with the three types: Mira, the art critic and main character, is a bird; Mira’s father, whose death takes up the middle part of the novel, is a bear; and Mira’s romantic interest and colleague at a school for art critics, Annie, is a fish.

The bird, the bear, and the fish are the basis for an inquiry into different value systems and the ways of perceiving the world that follow from them.

More here.

The Aging Student Debtors of America

Eleni Schirmer in The New Yorker:

Americans aged sixty-two and older are the fastest-growing demographic of student borrowers. Of the forty-five million Americans who hold student debt, one in five are over fifty years old. Between 2004 and 2018, student-loan balances for borrowers over fifty increased by five hundred and twelve per cent. Perhaps because policymakers have considered student debt as the burden of upwardly mobile young people, inaction has seemed a reasonable response, as if time itself will solve the problem. But, in an era of declining wages and rising debt, Americans are not aging out of their student loans—they are aging into them.

Credit supposes that which we cannot afford today will be able to be paid back by tomorrow’s wealthier self—a self who is wealthier because of riches leveraged by these debts. Perhaps no form of credit better embodies the myth of a future, richer self than student loans. Under the vision of the free-market economist Milton Friedman, student loans emerged in the nineteen-fifties as an outgrowth of “human capital” theory, which posits the self as, above all, a unit of investment.

More here.

Wounded Women: The feminism of vulnerability

Jessa Crispin in Boston Review:

Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born—yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another. I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity—and from the way pain became a polemic.

The campaign extended beyond Twitter. At online magazines such as ImposeThe Hairpin, and The Toast, writers from Emma Aylor to Roxane Gay told similar stories in 2,500 words rather than 140 characters. Suddenly women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma. Bestsellers such as Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams portrayed women as inherently vulnerable. The New York Times Book Review recently proclaimed “a moment” for the female personal essayist. No longer are the news or male commentators telling women they are at risk in the big, bad world, a decades-old manipulative ploy to keep us “safe” at home where we belong. Women are repeating this story for a different effect: women are a breed apart—unified in our experience and responses, distinct from those of men.

More here.

The Evolution of Malls

Katrina Gulliver in City Journal:

When I was 12, I went to the mall after school to look at a dress in the window at Laura Ashley. I pined after that dress. And Laura Ashley, unlike the fast-fashion outlets of today, kept the same dress in the window for weeks, its floral print illuminated by fluorescent lights.

Making people want things has always been part of mall design. In their ideal form, malls offer a smorgasbord of shopping options in a safe, climate-controlled environment. Around the next corner is another store, with another window, offering something new. Meantime, one finds places to eat, places to sit, and piped-in music to maintain the mood. What you want is not simply the object you shop for but to be at the mall. The “Gruen Transfer,” named for mall designer Victor Gruen, is defined as the point in time that mall-going ceases to be about running an errand and becomes about enjoying the visit itself.

As architecture critic Alexandra Lange notes in Meet Me By The Fountain, “People love to be in public with other people.” For the suburbs, malls offered this experience in the way that parks and town squares had in the past. Like railway stations and hotels before them, malls created a zone of public-private space: private property, yet open to the public to use within certain bounds. They are enjoyed by groups as diverse as white-haired walking groups, teenage truants, and representatives of fringe religions scouting for recruits.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Visiting the Oracle

It’s dark on purpose
so just listen.

Maybe I inhabit a jar, maybe a pot,
maybe nothing. Only this
loose end of a voice
rising to meet you.
It sounds like water.
Don’t think about that.

Let your servants climb back down the mountain
by themselves. I’ll listen.
I’ll tell you everything
I discover, but I can’t
say what it means.

Someone will always
assure you of the best of fortunes,
but you know better.

And keep this in mind: The answer
reveals itself in time
like the clue that fits
perfectly and explains everything
after the crime has been solved.

Then you will say: I should have known.
It was there all along
and never even concealed,
like the story of the letter
overlooked by the thief because
it had not been hidden.
That’s the trick, of course.

You didn’t need me.

by Lawrence Raab
The Collector of Cold Weather
Ecco Press, 1976

Pure Negation

Gregory Afinogenov in The Nation (illustration by Lily Qian):

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, the emerging Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin attended a literary conference in Munich. At the conference dinner, he raised a toast to Stalin—not as the victor of World War II or the hero of Soviet industrialization, but as “the creator of the repressive mechanism thanks to which I was able to succeed as a writer.”

Sorokin has always been the consummate troll, and it would be easy to write this episode off as an attempt to tweak the sensibilities of his Western colleagues. Yet in this case he was quite sincere. The regime he loathed had provided him a framework within which to operate, a system of tropes and signifiers he’d made it his mission to subvert. His reputation as an author—already considerable in avant-garde circles, though not yet the massive literary celebrity he would come to enjoy—rested on his mastery of Soviet ideological language but also the ruthlessness with which he undermined it. Their Four Hearts, written in 1991 and now released in Max Lawton’s lively translation by Dalkey Archive Press, represents the culmination of this literary project.

More here.

Beyond the Blob

Patrick Iber interviews Matt Duss in Dissent:

Since 2017, Matt Duss has served as the foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders. From that position, Duss, who has a background in U.S.–Middle East policy, has been able to draw attention to issues—such as how U.S.-supplied arms to Saudi Arabia are contributing to humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen—that often go unchallenged. But his path to his current position was an unusual one. In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talk about how his background informs his thinking, what the Biden administration is doing well and where it should be doing better, and how to build a more robust infrastructure for progressive foreign policy.

Patrick Iber: Why did you become interested in foreign policy?

Matt Duss: A few reasons. First, my father’s family are refugees from Ukraine. He was born in a [displaced persons] camp in Germany after the Second World War and came as a young child to the promised land of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I grew up in Nyack, New York, but I spent a lot of time down in Brooklyn with my grandparents. Interacting with the community of Polish and Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in Greenpoint, hearing the conversations that took place around the table even if I wasn’t aware of their full political scope, gave me an awareness and interest in the wider world. Then, when I was ten years old, our family spent a year living in the Philippines while my parents both worked in a processing center in Bataan for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, who were fleeing in the wake of the Vietnam War. It was a very interesting time to be in the Philippines. It was the Ferdinand Marcos era; I was there when [opposition leader Benigno] Aquino was assassinated. It was also interesting to observe the Cold War from that vantage point. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down [by the Soviet Air Forces] when I was there. Two global superpowers eyeing each other with their hands on their guns certainly feels different when you aren’t behind them. I think those experiences planted an interest in international affairs.

More here.

Saturday Poem

What Kind of Times Are These

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meetinghouse abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

by Adrienne Rich
from Collected Poems: 1950-2010
W. W. Norton & Company

MBS: despot in the desert

Nicolas Pelham in New Statesman:

No one wanted to play football with Muhammad bin Salman. Sure, the boy was a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, but so were 15,000 other people. His classmates preferred the company of his cousins, who were higher up the assumed order of succession, a childhood acquaintance recalls. As for the isolated child who would one day become crown prince, a family friend recounts hearing him called “little Saddam”.

Home life was tricky for bin Salman, too (he is now more commonly known by his initials, mbs). His father, Salman, already had five sons with his first wife, an educated woman from an elite urban family. mbs’s mother, Salman’s third wife, was a tribeswoman. When mbs visited the palace where his father lived with his first wife, his older half-brothers mocked him as the “son of a Bedouin”. Later, his elder brothers and cousins were sent to universities in America and Britain. The Bedouin offspring of Prince Salman stayed in Riyadh to attend King Saud University.

More here.

How do you organize your books?

Nora Krug in The Washington Post:

My bookshelves are a mess. It’s not just that I have too many books and too little space. I’m also simply disorganized. It wasn’t always so. Shelves I put together years ago, pre-children, remain generally intact: a full bookcase of poetry, alphabetized by author, and several jam-packed bookcases of fiction, also by authors’ last names. These shelves now serve primarily as decoration or reference or as a lending library for guests. But there’s more, much more: the tumbling pile on my desk — propping up the computer I am typing on — and the volumes stuffed frantically in the bookcase in my bedroom and stacked in towers on and around my nightstand. These are the books that are part of my daily life — for work, for pleasure, sometimes both. There is no rhyme or reason to how I arrange them, but as I read in one of the books I consulted (then discarded) to help deal with my little problem: “If it’s where you meant it to be, then it’s organized.” I am adopting that as my book-organizing principle. Don’t tell my kids.

More here.

Seamus Heaney on Dictionaries

David-Antoine Williams in The Life of Words:

In the summer of 2012 Seamus Heaney wrote to me on some questions I had sent him about dictionaries and words and etymologies. Bits of what he had to say made it into a couple of talks I did around that time, but I recently rediscovered the original text, and thought it should see the light of daySo here’s a very lightly edited rendition of our exchange:

D-AW: An anecdote in ‘Feeling into Words’ describes having grammatical and lexical facts recited to you in the form of rhymes as a child. Do you have any early memories of consulting dictionaries?

SH: I cannot remember the words of my mother’s rhyme, but it was a chant that somehow incorporated the links to be found between Latin and English vocabularies. The first dictionary I remember was a red-backed old Chambers in the Mossbawn house. I must have been eleven or twelve when I used it – if I used it.  The physical book and the authority that was lodged in and around it are what stay with me most.

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Supercharged biotech rice yields 40% more grain

Erik Stokstad in Science:

By giving a Chinese rice variety a second copy of one of its own genes, researchers have boosted its yield by up to 40%. The change helps the plant absorb more fertilizer, boosts photosynthesis, and accelerates flowering, all of which could contribute to larger harvests, the group reports today in Science.

The yield gain from a single gene coordinating these multiple effects is “really impressive,” says Matthew Paul, a plant geneticist at Rothamsted Research who was not involved in the work. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that before.” The approach could be tried in other crops, too, he adds; the new study reports preliminary findings in wheat.

More here.

Stuck Between Climate Doom and Denial

Roger Pielke, Jr. in The New Atlantis:

In a recent interview in New York Times Magazine, energy expert and polymath Vaclav Smil found himself being pressured by his interviewer to acknowledge that climate change was either a catastrophe or not a problem. The famously cantankerous Smil bristled at the framing: “I cannot tell you that we don’t have a problem because we do have a problem. But I cannot tell you it’s the end of the world by next Monday because it is not the end of the world by next Monday. What’s the point of you pressing me to belong to one of these groups?”

For well over a decade, the American debate over climate change has largely been a battle between two extremes: those who view climate change apocalyptically, and those castigated as deniers of climate science. In institutions of science and in the mainstream media, we see the celebration of the catastrophists and the denigration of the deniers. Predictably, the categories map neatly onto the extremes of left-versus-right politics.

More here.