Facts on the Ground

Alex Turnbull in Phenomenal World:

The energy system that underpins contemporary life is marked with blindspots. Take the fossil fuel sector. Facing simultaneous existential and geopolitical vulnerability—due to Russia invading Ukraine, advances in renewable energy, and the climate imperative—there is profound uncertainty about how demand for fossil fuels will transform over the next five to seven years, the time it takes to bring a new gas or offshore oil field online. On the supply side, that uncertainty is matched by the lack of knowledge and monitoring of physical flows of commodities—let alone the kind of detailed information needed to model the ways that geopolitical, climate, and technological disruptions may play out.

Climate campaigners aim for an end to fossil fuel extraction—the minimum requirement to reduce catastrophic and irreversible climatic harm. But with much built infrastructure still relying on fossil fuels, unexpected supply shocks roil households, firms, and governments. New analysis from Isabella Weber, Jesus Lara Jauegui, Lucas Teixeira, and Luiza Nassif Pires shows that energy—in particular petroleum, coal, and oil and gas extraction—are intrinsically more important to inflation than other prices.

What if policymakers could assess inflation with the knowledge that it is driven partly by geopolitical shocks with an unknown timeframe to resolution, and can be approached by policy tools, poured concrete, and steel? These micro considerations do not tend to filter up to the macro modelers whose work informs monetary and fiscal policy. The consequences are significant.

More here.

Starless Sky

Marco D’Eramo in Sidecar:

If the three wise men were to travel on their camels to the stable in Bethlehem this year, they would almost certainly get lost. Along vast tracts of their route, they would be unable to rely upon their guiding star, for the simple reason that it would not be visible. Baby Jesus would have to forego his gold, frankincense and myrrh.

A paradox characterises our society: we know more about the universe than ever before – we know why the stars shine, how they are born, how they grow old and die, can perceive the swirling motion of galaxies invisible to the naked eye, listen (so to speak) to the sounds of the origin of the universe emitted some 15 billion years ago. Yet for the first time in human history few adults can recognize even the brightest of stars, while most children have never witnessed a starry night. I say most because the majority of the world’s population today – now surpassing 4 billion – live in urban areas, where artificial light obscures the stars from view.

(This is a form of contradiction common to modern life. The moment we are able to satisfy our desire to fly across the world to exotic beaches and get a tan, the hole in the ozone layer makes the ultraviolet rays of the sun dangerous and carcinogenic. As soon as we realize our desire for cleanliness – see my previous article on eliminating odours – water becomes a limited resource, and so on.)

The awesome spectacle of the star-filled sky is quite unknown to most of us today.

More here.

Real Scary

David Kurnick in Bookforum:

The Ishiguro blurb (“The most exciting discovery I’ve made in fiction for some time”) might be designed to entice skittish readers of literary fiction into committing to six hundred pages of horror. Who better than the SF-dabbling Nobel laureate to assure us that we can indulge our genre pleasures and remain serious people? Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night, her first novel to be translated into English, comes well weighted with prestige-ballast: the novel won the 2019 Herralde Prize awarded by the Spanish publishing house Anagrama, and her second story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, was shortlisted for last year’s Booker. But Our Share of Night makes Ishiguro’s genre-gestures look hesitant and polite by comparison. Enriquez is unabashed about the camp-gothic trappings of her chosen genre, the kitschy nomenclature and the stomach-churning ceremonies and the bruised eroticism. You’ll get your meditation on Argentine history here, but you’ll also get the mysterious entity called the Darkness and the aristocratic Order that serves it—along with houses that eat little girls, sacred texts stored in a secret London library, mutilated infants held in underground dungeons, and an impossibly sexy “medium,” broken and dangerous as a young Brando. The novel’s most audacious gambit isn’t that it makes all this emotionally and intellectually powerful (it does), but that it never surrenders its trashy allure in doing so.

Enriquez takes her time disclosing the extent of her world’s departures from our own. The novel opens on a road trip in January 1981 from Buenos Aires to the northeastern province of Misiones, wedged between Paraguay and Brazil. Juan Peterson is driving his ten-year-old son Gaspar to the country mansion of his obscenely wealthy in-laws, the Reyes Bradfords. Something is atmospherically off-kilter in these early pages, but there are plenty of real-world explanations: the summer humidity is stifling; the military dictatorship that has controlled the country since 1974 is keeping “a brutal watch over the highways”; most important is the absence from the car of Rosario, Juan’s wife and Gaspar’s mother, killed a few months prior in a bus accident in the capital. It’s only when Gaspar calmly indicates that he can see a strange woman in their hotel room that the supernatural intrudes.

More here.

Jazz Is Freedom

Paul Grimstad in The Baffler:

ON MARCH 12, 1955, Charlie Parker collapsed in the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s Upper East Side apartment after a three-day booze binge. The improviser of superhuman poise was dead at thirty-four, eliciting solemn observance from musicians and fans, particularly those who’d been hanging around Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem where, in the early 1940s, a new kind of music called bebop had been invented. “Bird has disintegrated into pure sound!” is said to have been overheard somewhere near the Five Spot on Cooper Square, the Beat tavern where much bad poetry was recited, and where some great musicians nightly turned the style that came out of Harlem into ever more febrile and kinked contortions. Part of the Bird enigma was the impossible fusion of musical angel and reptilian addict, a miraculously graceful artist who might steal your horn and pawn it for smack.

Four months after Bird’s death, his one-time personal assistant Miles Davis seduced everyone at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing a tune called “Round Midnight,” written by someone who had been part of the Minton’s scene but was still an underground figure: Thelonious Monk, who had only a handful of records under his belt and, then approaching forty, was still playing on other people’s dates. Indeed, he was the pianist behind Miles for the Newport performance, which would help the younger musician sign with Columbia records, putting him on the road to stardom. An oft-told anecdote has the two sharing a car back to New York. “You weren’t playing the tune right,” Monk says, to which Miles replies that he is just jealous, at which point Monk orders the car to pull over and takes the ferry to the city alone

More here.

Saturday Poem

How to End a Year

Your silhouette arched on the railing
of the balcony takes stock of space and time,
the world so far-flung and your eyes so far-
reaching you mistake yourself for God,
though your hands are full of holes, fault

lines riddling the tract of a life you would
gladly exchange for another. But now is not
the time for penance but for the savor of grace
in the air. The city alive at your feet, pulsing

blend of sound and light, a wild stallion
broken for you. How in the house the boombox
breathes in tandem with the tangos of those
you love, who beam like characters at the end

of a fairy tale. Isn’t this lilting world shaped
as an open door? You can walk through it
and never come back. Overhead, the dusky sky

bursts into a fit of colors, fire flowers blooming
from an orchard of mirth, and a time flows
into another like a dazzling river beckoning you

to drink.

by Samuel A. Betiku
from Poets Respond
December 31, 2022

My money or your life: the bank robbers of Beirut

Wendell Steavenson in More Intelligent Life:

On August 11th an unemployed 42-year-old grabbed his shotgun and a large jerry can of petrol. Dressed in a T-shirt and flip-flops, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein walked into a Beirut branch of the Federal Bank of Lebanon, intending to carry out a heist. As he entered, he slammed the heavy metal gate behind him with all his force. “It sounded like an explosion,” he told me. Inside the bank were seven or eight employees, two male customers and a woman who slumped to the floor at the sight of the armed man, begging to be spared. Hussein stopped her from banging her head and let her leave. “I was not rash,” he told me. “I was very calculated. I was calm.”

He sloshed petrol over the desks and an oily, pungent smell rose up. Employees complained it was suffocating them. Hussein grabbed the manager by the collar of his suit jacket and propelled him into a room at the rear. He jabbed the rifle into his back and told him to open the vault. The bank manager complied.

Inside were tall stacks of Lebanese pounds, as well as a small pile of dollars, amounting to around $3,500. The manager counted out four $100 bills.

“Are you fucking stupid or what?” said Hussein.

The manager offered him all the dollars.

“Call your bosses and tell them I want all of my $210,000 right now!”

More here.

A Queer Coming-of-Age in Corona, Queens

May-Lee Chai in The New York Times:

Bushra Rehman’s stunningly beautiful coming-of-age novel “Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion” is set in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, which was enshrined in pop culture by Paul Simon’s 1972 hit “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Rehman’s exuberant young protagonist, Razia, knows the song well, although it puzzles her. “Why would Paul Simon be singing about Corona?” she muses. “I didn’t see many white people there unless they were policemen or firemen, and I didn’t think Paul Simon had ever been one of those.”

In the late 1980s, Razia’s Corona is home to a growing Pakistani Muslim community, along with Dominican and Korean immigrants. The earlier, largely Jewish and Italian, immigrant residents of Simon’s day have moved on to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Rehman evokes time and place like a poet, with descriptions both precise and lyrical, making the streets of this working-class neighborhood come alive on the page. One house has so many roses that “they grew up and over, through the fence like they were some kind of convicts trying to scale the walls”; during the evening call to prayer, she writes, “everyone in the neighborhood tilted their heads and listened. Out of basement apartments and sixth-floor walk-ups, Muslim men started walking toward the sound, pulling their topis out of the back seats of their pockets.”

More here.

Botticelli’s Secret

Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian:

It is not unknown for tourists to faint in front of Botticelli’s 1486 masterpiece The Birth of Venus. Such swoons of delight have been labelled “Stendhal syndrome” after the French novelist, who first reported feeling overwhelmed by the art and monuments of Florence in 1817. Those who emerge today from the Uffizi Gallery needing a lie-down explain that it is because of the sheer beauty of Botticelli’s strawberry-blond goddess, arriving on land in her giant scallop shell. The image, at once fleshy and refined, luscious and bookish, is the perfect picture of an earthly paradise.

All of which makes it strange that, for centuries, Botticelli was a forgotten name. Or, if he was remembered at all, it was as a minor painter whose synthetic charm represented everything that was glib and superficial about Renaissance art.

more here.

In Praise Of Failure

Jennifer Szalai at the NYT:

Failure, as Costica Bradatan puts it in his bracing new book, is good for you, but not for the reasons you might think. “In Praise of Failure” is maddening, disturbing, exasperating, seductive — I found myself turned around at so many points that even as I was closing in on the last chapter I wasn’t quite sure where I would land at the end.

This isn’t because the writing is convoluted; Bradatan, a philosopher, writes with elegance and wit, his every thought and sentence slipping smoothly into the next. But this very ease is what makes “In Praise of Failure” a wild ride. There you are, taking in what Bradatan is telling you, accepting his introductory promises of “failure-based therapy” and a “journey of self-realization,” when before you know it you are so startled out of your expectations that you have to ask, What did he just do?

It all starts out innocently enough, with Bradatan saying we need to “take failure seriously.”

more here.

Do you have a duty to tell people they’re wrong about carrots?

Giulia Terzian in Psyche:

You might worry about offending someone, or lack the time to articulate your disagreement. You may even find yourself in a conversational context so polarised that introducing an objection will likely backfire.

But sometimes there are better and stronger reasons for voicing our disagreements with others. Sometimes we have an outright obligation to do so. You probably should correct your friend, even if speaking up strains your relationship, when they claim that Pinochet was brought to power in 1973 by a democratic election, rather than a US-backed coup d’état. And you probably should risk alienating your nextdoor neighbour when she recounts advising her family members against vaccination because she thinks that a vaccine developed at ‘warp speed’ is dangerous. But how do we decide, in any given situation, whether to pipe up or instead let a false, unwarranted, misleading assertion pass?

More here.

Mrs. Bridge Is a Perfect Novel. But How Does It Work?

Emily Temple in Lit Hub:

For years, I resisted Mrs. Bridge. I remember picking up the 50th-anniversary edition from a display of staff picks at McNally-Jackson; someone had just been gushing to me about how great it was, and at least one staff member seemed to agree: the suggestion card was crammed with cramped praise. But I was turned off by the cover, which seemed altogether too misty and domestic, an impression that the description did nothing to disabuse: this was a Classic American Novel, a slice-of-life “family story” about a wealthy woman living in Kansas City between the First and Second World Wars. It was the 1959 debut novel of a writer I’d never heard of otherwise, a white guy named Evan S. Connell. Meh, I thought.

I finally read it for the first time this year, after what must have been the hundredth recommendation from someone I trusted. It only took me about ten pages to realize what an idiot I had been. Meh, indeed. This novel is glorious.

But even as I read, enthralled, once and then a second time, I couldn’t quite figure out why. There’s no obvious reason Mrs. Bridge should be so good, especially if like me, you’re officially bored by the broad thematic strokes outlined above.

More here.

Consortium to map senescent cells and their effect on aging and human health

Mark Wanner in Phys.Org:

Multiple researchers at the Jackson Laboratory (JAX) are taking part in an ambitious research program spanning several top research institutions to study senescent cells. Senescent cells stop dividing in response to stressors and seemingly have a role to play in human health and the aging process. Recent research with mice suggests that clearing senescent cells delays the onset of age-related dysfunction and disease as well as all-cause mortality.

Could therapies that remove —called senotherapeutics—also improve the health of humans as we age? Answering this question and more has the potential to significantly advance , and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched an extensive research initiative for this very purpose. The SenNet Consortium, a collaboration of institutions from throughout the United States, was initially launched in 2021 with centers established to gather and analyze human data. The researchers will collect and analyze 18 tissues from healthy humans across lifespan to discern the full scope of senescent cells and how they may contribute to the .

More here.

Friday Poem

Author’s note: This poem refers to Ishi, the last Native American who lived as Native Americans lived before the arrival of Europeans. Ishi was a member of the Yahi, a tribe of the Yana nation. After gold was discovered in California and the gold rush begun, the entire Yana nation of 9,000 people was systematically exterminated in the span of one year. Ishi, and about a dozen Yahi, managed to hide and survive for about forty years on what remained of their mountainous land. After everyone died he continued to live in solitude for three years. He was found, nearly starved to death, on a farm in Oroville, California in 1911, where he had wandered from what appeared to be sheer loneliness. Ishi was placed in a jail cell for two weeks because they did not know what to do with him. A professor of anthropology took him under his care. He was placed in a museum of anthropology as a living artifact, where he lived for four and a half years until his death from tuberculosis.


just a quick note, Ishi

I took my son to the Museum of Natural History
we looked for your long black hair
in the black encasements of mothballed worlds
we listened for the clacking speech of your bones
among the fossils of grandfather-whales
who still sing their ancient songs
into the awestruck eyes of children

we did not find you amid the white
tan-painted mannequins dressed
like powwow tourists in sacred clothes

nor where you one of the Melanesians
Africans or Aboriginals standing stiffly
and dusty like taxidermic trophies

there were no Vikings or Druids
making human sacrifices . . . pillaging
the corners of a yet undying world
which leads me to wonder
who would exclude themselves . . . Ishi

we did not find weaving
baskets or chipping arrowheads
stored among silk plants and crowds
too noisy to hear the wind
caressing the mountains of your Yana tomb
so we left saddened

because even here . . . among the trophy cases
the strand of web that wove your people
was cut from the fabric of this torn world
secretly . . . we were glad not to find you
frozen there . . . still weaving and carving
looking like Spider Woman cocooned
in her own web

by Edgar Silex
from Poetry Like Bread
Curbstone Press, 1994

On “Edward Hopper’s New York” at the Whitney Museum of American Art

James Panero in New Criterion:

Edward Hopper (1882–1967) was the painter of small-town America. This we know. That his small town happened to be New York City, his home for nearly sixty years, we may not know. “Edward Hopper’s New York,” now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, tells the hometown story of an artist we thought we knew all along in a novel and illuminating way.1

It is certainly an achievement when an exhibition of a famous artist is able to surprise. When such an exhibition can also instruct and delight—and do so without resorting to the clichés of contemporary theory—this is a rare triumph. And when the subject is a dead white male painter—a conservative, anti–New Deal Republican, no less, who rejected every school and trend to look to the loneliness of the human condition—here is a show that must be seen to be believed. “Edward Hopper’s New York” is such an exhibition and will open many eyes to this artist’s elegiac vision.

More here.

The rise of Archaeologists Anonymous

Stone Age Herbalist at UnHerd:

In a quiet group chat in an obscure part of the internet, a small number of anonymous accounts are swapping references from academic publications and feverishly poring over complex graphs of DNA analysis. These are not your average trolls, but scholars, researchers and students who have come together online to discuss the latest findings in archaeology. Why would established academics not be having these conversations in a conference hall or a lecture theatre? The answer might surprise you.

The equation of anonymity on the internet with deviance, mischief and hate has become a central plank in the global war on “misinformation”. But for many of us, anonymity has allowed us to pursue our passion for scholarly research in a way that is simply impossible within the censorious confines of modern academia. And so, in these hidden places, professional geneticists, bioarchaeologists and physical anthropologists have created a network of counter-research.

More here.

AI alignment is distinct from its near-term applications

Paul Christiano at Less Wrong:

I work on AI alignment, by which I mean the technical problem of building AI systems that are trying to do what their designer wants them to do.

There are many different reasons that someone could care about this technical problem.

To me the single most important reason is that without AI alignment, AI systems are reasonably likely to cause an irreversible catastrophe like human extinction. I think most people can agree that this would be bad, though there’s a lot of reasonable debate about whether it’s likely. I believe the total risk is around 10–20%, which is high enough to obsess over.

Existing AI systems aren’t yet able to take over the world, but they are misaligned in the sense that they will often do things their designers didn’t want.

More here.

The old human flaws in their shiny, new guise

David Bosworth in The Hedgehog Review:

That we often are not the masters of our own machines, and can even become their witless lackeys, is a cautionary claim as old as the Hebrew prophet Isaiah and as urgent as the latest bogus newsfeed on Dr. Fauci’s evil ways. (Instead of saving lives, he’s been busy, don’t you know, torturing puppies, rendering impotent our patriotic men, and implanting surveillance chips in our brains: accusations all conveyed via apps relentlessly surveilled by Facebook, Apple, Google, and their like.) As a species gifted with inventive minds and opposable thumbs, we are ever about the business of generating new tools and techniques that will, we are certain, better our lives. Time after time, though, those new methods and machines also prove to change our public spaces and private selves in radical ways we fail to foresee and come to regret.

The pace of such progress, with its hidden discontents, increased exponentially in the twentieth century. Take radio as an example.

More here.