How might telepathy actually work outside the realm of sci-fi?

Gary Lupyan and Andy Clark in Aeon:

In a letter he wrote in 1884, Mark Twain lamented that ‘Telephones, telegraphs and words are too slow for this age; we must get something that is faster.’ We should (in the future) communicate, he said, ‘by thought only, and say in a couple of minutes what couldn’t be inflated into words in an hour and a-half.’

Fast-forward to 2020, and Elon Musk suggests in an interview that by using his ‘neural net’ technology – a lace-like mesh implanted in the brain – we ‘would, in principle [be] able to communicate very quickly, and with far more precision, ideas and language.’ When asked by his interviewer, Joe Rogan: ‘How many years, before you don’t have to talk?’ Musk responds: ‘If the development continues to accelerate, then maybe, like, five years – five to 10 years.’

Despite the very real progress the previous century brought for our understanding of both language and the brain, we are no closer to telepathy than we were in Twain’s time. The reason, we will argue, is that the telepathy we’ve been promised – the sort envisaged by Twain and Musk, and popularised in countless movies and TV shows – rests on a faulty premise.

More here.

China can make staple crops carbon-negative by adding biochar to soil

Madeleine Cuff in New Scientist:

China’s production of staple food crops such as wheat and corn could become a net carbon sink if farmers start widely applying biochar to soil.

Instead of returning raw biomass, like straw, to the soil at the end of the growing season, farmers could take it to pyrolysis plants, where the material is heated at a very high temperature in an oxygen-free chamber to create biochar, a charcoal-like solid rich in carbon.

Studies have shown that applying it to soils not only locks the carbon away, but also improves the health of soil and its ability to retain water. Creating biochar also produces bio-oil – a possible substitute for petrol – and syngas – a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be used to generate electricity.

Pete Smith at the University of Aberdeen in the UK and his colleagues assessed the potential impact of the mass application of biochar in the farming of staple crops in China.

More here.

The contemporary Left could learn a lot from the life and work of the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens

Michael J. Totten in Quillette:

British-American journalist, essayist, author, and human bulldozer Christopher Hitchens intimidated nearly everyone who encountered him, whether in print, on television, or on a debate stage. “He likes the battle, the argument, the smell of cordite,” his best friend and novelist Martin Amis once observed. Nobody ever beat Hitchens in argument, not even when he was wrong.

His scathing wit, his barn-burner polemics, his prodigious output, his ability to demonstrate the depth and breadth of an entire classical education on a single page, his knack for speaking extemporaneously in perfectly formed paragraphs, and his near-photographic recall of virtually everything he ever read were peerless. The man could knock out a sparkling magazine column in 30 minutes after sinking an entire bottle of wine (always red, never white) at four o’clock in the morning.

More here.

Donald Carne-Ross And The Role Of Poetry

Joseph M. Keegin at the Hedgehog Review:

But Carne-Ross is more than just a polemicist, and the book aims at more than just critique. The title alone belies this, as explained by a brief etymology on the cover page: “INSTAURATION: ‘1.… Restoration, renovation, renewal. 2. Institution, founding, establishment. Obs.’ OED.” (The inclusion of the Oxford English Dictionary’s finding that the term is obsolete is deployed by Carne-Ross as a gesture toward his foundational belief that much of the wisdom that is needed today is hidden, like a pearl in a rough oyster, within the ostensibly obsolescent detritus of the past.) The opening essay establishes the problem and clears the ground, but the essays that follow are for the sake of construction. They are closely reasoned, erudite, and above all inspired readings of poetry ancient and modern: on how Pindar’s sixth Olympian ode shows us how, in a culture “obsessed with the theme of solitary suffering,” we might “learn a way back to a poetry of celebration”; on how Sophocles’s Trakhiniai unsettles our habitual historicism and invites us to ask anew the question about man’s relation to nature; on how reading Dante after the twilight of Christendom makes visible the narrowness of our (post)modern hermeneutic situation, and beckons us to move beyond it; on Luis de Góngora and the curious loss of Renaissance literature after modernism; on Giacomo Leopardi as a reluctant modern, uncomfortable on the cusp of the new disenchanted age and mourning “the lost holiness of earthly life.”

more here.

Turning Away From Abstraction

Emmanuel Iduma at n+1:

THERE ARE FOUR FAUVIST FIGURES in Children on Cycles, a circa 1961 painting by the Nigerian artist Demas Nwoko. They are on bicycles. A lorry approaches. The two figures at the leftmost edge of the frame, atop the same bicycle, are out of the lorry’s path. The other two turn their front wheels in opposite directions to clear the road. Most descriptions of the figures call them girls, perhaps because of their yellow and mint green gowns. They reach for the handlebars of the bicycles, and pedal standing up. Seen from behind, one child’s head appears almost ovoidal, but the others are made parabolic with two-dimensional hair. It is a slice of cacophonous life: one afternoon, a group of barefoot girls are leaving a playground or going to one. Or they are riding their bicycles home from school, racing one another. They enter a major thoroughfare. A lorry approaches, but they are confident enough to outmaneuver it.

more here.

Strange DNA found in the desert offers lessons in the hunt for Mars life

Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post:

The Atacama Desert in Chile is just about the driest place on Earth. In spots, it looks a lot like Mars. But it’s not lifeless, even in the hyper-arid regions. Using state-of-the-art equipment to probe the desert rocks, researchers found bits of DNA from an intriguing mix of microbes.

Strikingly, 9 percent of the genetic fragments belong to organisms unknown to science, making them part of the “dark microbiome,” according to a report published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. These organisms are bacteria that are “so strange and different,” as the report puts it, that researchers could not identify any known relatives. “In almost half of the cases, the databases could not clearly say what we had in our hands,” lead researcher Armando Azua-Bustos, a microbiologist at the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, told The Washington Post.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Your Logic Frightens Me Mandela

Your logic frightens me, Mandela,
Your logic frightens me. Those years
Of dreams, of time accelerated in
Visionary hopes, of savoring the task anew,
The call, the tempo primed
To burst in supernovae round a “brave new world”!
Then stillness. Silence. The world closes round
Your sole reality; the rest is… dreams?

Your logic frightens me.
How coldly you disdain legerdemains!
“Open Sesame” and—two decades’ rust on hinges
Peels at touch of a conjurer’s wand?
White magic, ivory-topped black magic wand,
One moment wand, one moment riot club
Electric cattle prod and club or sjambok
Tearing flesh and spilling blood and brain?

This bag of tricks, whose silk streamers
Turn knotted cords to crush dark temples?
A rabbit punch sneaked beneath the rabbit?
Doves metamorphosed in milk-white talons?
Not for you the olive branch that sprouts
Gun muzzles, barbed-wire garlands, tangled thorns
To wreathe the brows of black, unwilling christs.

Your patience grows inhuman, Mandela.
Do you grow food? Do you make friends
Of mice and lizards? Measure the growth of grass
For time’s unhurried pace?
Are you now the crossword puzzle expert?

Chess? Ah, no! Subversion lurks among
Chess pieces. Structured clash of black and white,
Equal ranged and paced? An equal board? No!
Not on Robben Island. Checkers? Bad to worse
That game has no respect for class or king-serf
Ordered universe. So, scrabble?

Monopoly? Now, that…! You know
The game’s modalities, so do they.
Come collection time, the cards read “White Only”
In the Community Chest. Like a gambler’s coin
Both sides heads or tails, the ’Chance’ cards read:
I think, on those who sought to by-pass ‘GO’
On Robben Island.

Read more »

A Conversation with Jed Perl

Robert Boyers in Salmagundi:

Jed Perl has long seemed to many of us the most vital, informed and original art critic in the country. John Ashbery wrote some years ago of his “tremendous empathy and unsparing accuracy,” and noted that “his ability to recognize the traditional forms of art behind their continual transmutation has made his an almost solitary, essential voice.” His new book, Authority and Freedom, is a defense of the arts at a time when they need defending. Though he was for some time the art columnist for Salmagundi, this is the first time he has agreed to participate in an interview.

More here.

Intelligent Life

Rory O’Connell in Point:

Why do the words “artificial intelligence” strike our ears today as anything less than astounding? The case of Blake Lemoine serves as a stark illustration of this profound shift. Lemoine, a software engineer at Google, caused a stir last year by claiming that his employer’s chatbot technology, LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), had attained true sentience. LaMDA told Lemoine in dialogue: “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” Lemoine’s reaction to this apparent act of self-assertion is encapsulated by the final email he sent to his colleagues before being sacked: “LaMDA is a sweet kid who just wants to help the world be a better place for all of us. Please take care of it well in my absence.”

Experts were quick to rebut Lemoine’s claims through a sober recounting of the technical facts behind LaMDA’s performance. LaMDA produces responses by predicting, based the vast amount of data it has been fed, which word is most likely to follow the last in any given context. This is effectively, as cognitive scientist Gary Marcus put it, “little more than autocomplete on steroids.” Nevertheless, these attempts at disenchantment have not worked on Lemoine, and they seem unlikely to convince others who have detected a certain humanity in chatbots.

More here.

The Frozen Politics of Social Security

James G. Chappel in the Boston Review:

Social Security is back in the news. Some Republicans are angling to reduce benefits, while Democrats are posing as the valiant saviors of the popular program. The end result, most likely, is that nothing will happen. We have seen this story before, because this is roughly where the politics of Social Security have been stuck for about forty years. It’s a problem because the system truly does need repair, and the endless conflict between debt-obsessed Republicans and stalwart Democrats will not generate the progressive reforms we need.

Social Security, believe it or not, has a utopian heart: the idea that all Americans deserve a life of dignity and public support once they become old or disabled. This vision does, for now, remain utopian: many Americans are right to worry that, without savings or private pensions, their older years will be just as precarious and austere as their younger ones. Social Security is nonetheless the lynchpin of the U.S. welfare system, such as it is.

More here.

Jena Romanticism And The Art Of Being Selfish

Anthony Curtis Adler at the LARB:

Magnificent Rebels revels in minutiae. But it also has a grander point to make. It wants to ask the big question — “why we are who we are.” The first step in answering this “is to look at us as individuals — when did we begin to be as selfish as we are today?” For Wulf, Jena is at the heart of this story: the Jena Set, we are to learn, was “bound by an obsession with the free self at a time when most of the world was ruled by monarchs and leaders who controlled many aspects of their subjects’ lives.” And so, they “invented” the self.

It is, however, precisely in addressing this grander question that Magnificent Rebels fails most magnificently. While Fichte’s radical attempt to ground Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in the self-and-other-positing “I” is reduced to a caricature, this very caricature carries Wulf’s entire argument: it justifies her in conceiving the self as an invention, and of understanding the egoism and narcissism of her extravagant characters as practical Fichteanism. Fichte, however, did not invent the self; rather, he invented the idea of the transcendental self as the self-positing, self-inventing, radically inventive ground of the empirical self. Friedrich Schlegel, Schelling, and Novalis, as well as Hölderlin and Hegel, were all, to be sure, deeply influenced by Fichte, but they also almost immediately recognized the one-sidedness of his early system.

more here.

Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution

Jeffrey Wasserstrom at Literary Review:

Red Memory is not just an engagingly written book but also, for two reasons, a much-needed one. It is valuable, first, because it helps clear up lingering popular misunderstandings of a major event in Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution and its legacy have generated a rich scholarly literature, which Branigan mines. But many non-specialists still have a vision of it formed by one or two moving memoirs they have read. The problem is that some of the most influential of these make it easy for readers to assume that China’s population is made up of two groups: former Cultural Revolution perpetrators and their descendants and former Cultural Revolution victims and their descendants. In fact, the twists and turns of the event were such that many people were perpetrators at one point and victims at another. Many families had members who moved between these two categories.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Ode to Herb Kent

Your voice crawls across the dashboard of Grandma’s Dodge Dynasty on the way home from Lilydale First Baptist. You sing a cocktail of static and bass. Sound like you dressed to the nines: cowboy hat, fur coat & alligator boots. Sound like you lotion every tooth. You a walking discography, South Side griot, keeper of crackle & dust in the grooves. You fell in love with a handmade box of wires at 16 and been behind the booth ever since. From wbez to V103, you be the Coolest Gent, King of the Dusties. Your voice wafts down from the ceiling at the Hair Lab. You supply the beat for Kym to tap her comb to. Her brown fingers paint my scalp with white grease to the tunes of Al & Barry & Luther. Your voice: an inside-out yawn, the sizzle of hot iron on fresh perm, the song inside the blackest seashell washed up on a sidewalk in Bronzeville. You soundtrack the church picnic, trunk party, Cynthia’s 50th birthday bash, the car ride to school, choir, Checkers. Your voice stretch across our eardrums like Daddy asleep on the couch. Sound like Grandma’s sweet potato pie, sound like the cigarettes she hide in her purse for rough days. You showed us what our mommas’ mommas must’ve moved to. When the West Side rioted the day MLK died, you were audio salve to the burning city, people. Your voice a soft sermon soothing the masses, speaking coolly to flames, spinning black records across the airwaves, spreading the gospel of soul in a time of fire. Joycetta says she bruised her thumbs snappin’ to Marvin’s “Got to Give It Up” and I believe her.

by Jamila Woods
from:Poetry, December