A Complex Man: Lincoln At The Lyceum

by Michael Liss

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. —Abraham Lincoln, departing Springfield, Illinois, for his Inauguration, February 11, 1861

Amphora depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes. Greek Classical Period. 450-440 B.C.

“A task greater than that which rested on Washington.” Lincoln as Oedipus? George Washington as Laius, to be slain by his son? There are a lot of myths that have sprung up around Lincoln. Some put him in the company of saints. Others, mostly coming from a Lost Cause perspective, place him a lot closer to Hades. Still, it seems a deep dive into myth to ascribe to a resentment of George Washington the life force that vaulted Lincoln from poverty and obscurity through sectional and then national prominence, then to the White House, and from there to winning the Civil War and freeing millions from bondage.

Yes, it’s the Oedipus myth, say a group of historians, including George Forgie, Dwight Anderson, and Charles Strozier. To Lincoln’s eternal damnation, he unquestionably had an Oedipus Complex, according to the renowned critic and essayist Edmund Wilson. Not so, forcefully, and even a little angrily, argue Richard M. Current, the “Dean of the Lincoln Scholars” (“Lincoln After 175 Years: The Myth of the Jealous Son”) and Garry Wills (Lincoln At Gettysburg).

The “source code” for this dispute largely derives from a speech given by Lincoln on January 27, 1838: “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. The “Young Men” part applies to Lincoln as well. He is just short of his 29th birthday, and a Member of the Illinois House of Representatives from Sangamon County. If anyone in his audience that day (besides, perhaps, Lincoln himself) thought that he might be a future President of the United States, that listener’s name is lost to history. Read more »

Quantum Field Theory, “Easier Than Easy”

by David Kordahl

The book under review.

I began reading Anthony Zee’s most famous book, Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, at Muncher’s Bakery in Lawrence, Kansas, where, as a would-be quantum field theorist in 2010, Zee’s book taught me to evaluate Gaussian integrals. Zee made it all seem almost trivial, but his fast style belied the true expectation that his book would be read slowly, pen in hand, the reader studiously working their way from one line to the next. You couldn’t escape the sense that Zee was a very clever man, if not a very sympathetic teacher. This was a book whose readers would select it. If they couldn’t proceed, well, who was really to blame?

I never did become a quantum field theorist, though that’s hardly Zee’s fault. (At that point, I barely had the patience to sit and eat a donut.) Thankfully, Zee has now published an even swifter book, Quantum Field Theory, As Simply as Possible, which readers of this column will be happy to know I actually finished.

On the first page, Zee comments wryly that popular physics books jumped straight from quantum mechanics to string theory—so this book fills the quantum field theory gap. Now, if you are not a physicist, you may not know what quantum field theory is. This review is for you. Unfortunately, Zee’s new book probably isn’t. For whom then, is QFT, as Simply as Possible (henceforth: QFT, ASAP) written? My own answer is that it’s perfect for a past version of myself, just way too late for that bakery. Read more »

Some thoughts on a School

by R. Passov

My founding partner, Jennifer, is right. Eventually I’ll run out of tricks and have to to start teaching math. Still the tricks are fun and, actually, they do help. The trick I brought to Sonia’s 3rd grade class in North Hampton, MA. is – truth be told – one I found in a math book for kids: I draw strange symbols on the board, get the class to agree to a consistent interpretation for the symbols then arrange the symbols in patterns that, run against the pre-agreed upon interpretations, become sentences in English.

As a group got near to the end of a correct deciphering, their squeals gave them away. What a privilege to watch.

Sonia suggested I arrive at the beginning of the day to watch the class settle. Each of the 22 or so students had a brown paper bag. They scrambled over one another while digging through their bags, all of which contained the same items: something made of dough wrapped in cellophane, that looked like a hot dog and something else, also wrapped in cellophane that I was unable to assign to any particular food category. At least half the students unwrapped packages only to play with the contents.

After breakfast, Sonia brought the students to a carpet at the front of the class. While she sat off to the the side, she began the day’s instructions: “Jayden, it’s your turn to choose the greeting.”

Jayden chose a peace sign. “Ok,” said Sonia, “give your greeting to Drea.”  “Peace,” said Jayden. “Peace and happiness.”  

Sonia turned to Drea: “Give your greeting to Mikel.” And so it went, each student gleefully obeying as Sonia orchestrated one greeting then another. After the greetings, Sonia selected a student to be the crew leader. Mikel, a tall, skinny boy, walked over to artwork hanging on the inside of an open closet door. Read more »

Twenty Years Later

by Akim Reinhardt

Jan. 18, 1991 - Operation Desert Storm - Skies over Baghdad (AP)
Operation Desert Storm bombing of Baghdad, 1991 (AP)

Last week marked the 20th anniversary to the start of America’s recently concluded second Gulf War. It’s also been nearly 33 years since the much shorter first Gulf War, a.k.a. Desert Storm (1990–91). Unlike the “great” wars, these haven’t merited Roman numerals.

My own Roman numerals now begin with an L. I am oldish. One of the advantages is that I can conjure fairly clear, adult memories of things that happened quite a while ago. Not just the fragmented, highly impressionistic snapshots leftover from childhood, but recollections of complex interactions and evolving ideas. As a professional historian, I know that some healthy skepticism is called for; such memories are not always reliable and cry out for corroboration. However, as we look back on the Gulf Wars, I’m not interested in reciting history so much as thinking about what they have meant to me. Me: a lifelong American who has never been in the military, but has friends who served in both Gulf Wars, some of whom still struggle with it; me as someone who felt mildly conflicted about the first Gulf War and opposed it meekly, but who spoke out more stridently against the second one.

I was 22 years old when George Bush the elder cast his thousand points of light over Baghdad. I used that war as an excuse not to dodge the draft (there was none), but to dodge work. When the bombs began falling, I called the hospital where I clerked the midnight shift hanging x-rays on alternators, and told them I was taking a personal day, or rather a night, to stay home and watch the news; I had family in Israel, against whom Saddam Hussein was launching batteries of SCUD missiles. It was barely the truth. I do have some very distant family in Israel, but they migrated there from Poland a century ago, I’ve never communicated with any of them, and know nothing of them other than the surname they share with my mother’s family. I used them as an excuse to stay home and watch television, like most Americans. Read more »

Ciao Carpaccio

by Leanne Ogasawara

I was nineteen when I first saw Venice. My college boyfriend and I had taken an overnight train from Vienna and arrived in the mist of early morning. It was late summer. This was at the tail end of almost three months in India, where I saw my fill of glorious wonders. Still, nothing could have prepared me for my first glimpse of the fabled city. First of all, I hadn’t expected the Grand Canal to be right outside the train station. Boarding a vaporetto, I sat speechless. The canal was shimmering like a vision from a dream. Church bells could be heard just above the loud din of the boats, and everywhere I looked: marble palaces stood crumbling into the water. I vividly remember my heart racing as I looked around, not believing the place was real.

“A wonder of the world,” my boyfriend called it on the train from Vienna.

And when I at last found my voice, I asked, “Why does anyone live anywhere else?”

He just laughed.

That was in 1990.

Then as now, traveling to Venice meant being able to view the work of the dazzling trio of Venetian artists that Henry James claimed would “form part of your life in Venice.” Giovanni Bellini and Tintoretto, as well as the great Carpaccio, said James “shall illuminate your view of the universe.” James was hinting at the way that these painters’ works exert an overwhelming power, not only over the way we see Venice, but over our vision of the world. And this is especially true when the great pictures are viewed in situ, in the palaces and churches for which they were originally created. Read more »

Keeping The Books

by Rafaël Newman

My favorite bookstore closed this month. Well, my favorite bookstore in Zurich, where I live. Also it hasn’t actually closed, it’s only changing hands. But Pile of Books, opened in 2007 by Daniel Nufer and run by him and his wife, Verena Nufer-Huber, until two weeks ago, has been such an expression of Dani’s character that it is hard to imagine the form it will take in his absence.

There have been other bookstores in my life, of greater or lesser importance to me depending on my phase of development. There was for instance the gift shop on Saint Catherine Street, in Montreal, the city of my birth, where my grandparents took me in the mid-1970s to pick out a Passover present (actually my ransom for finding the afikomen), and I, in an early gesture of perversity, chose a glossy album commemorating the Tutankhamun exhibition. Then there was Britnell’s, at Yonge and Bloor in Toronto, the city in which I came of age following our move from Quebec in the wake of the Révolution tranquille—a shop now long gone but in the late 1970s an invitingly Dickensian emporium, and the site of my first agonized Christmas gift-buying with an embryonic disposable income. Later, after my departure from Canada, there was Micawber Books, the explicitly Dickensian shop in Nassau Street, in Princeton, New Jersey, where I had my copy of Time’s Arrow signed by its author, Martin Amis, who was in town to give a coruscating talk on American socio-politics and to reminisce about his childhood on campus when his father lectured at Princeton in the 1950s. Read more »

From “Kubla Khan” through GPT and beyond

by Bill Benzon

Portrait of Kublai Khan by artist Araniko, drawn shortly after Kublai’s death in 1294. His white robes reflect his desired symbolic role as a religious Mongol shaman.

I became hooked on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in the Spring of 1969, my last semester as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. Three years later “Kubla Khan” had become the standard against which I measured my understanding of the human mind. That is why I am about to tell a story about how my interest in the mind has evolved through “Kubla Khan” to include, most recently, ChatGPT. Strange as it may seem, that poem is the vehicle through which I am coming to terms with this new technology and arriving at a sense of its potential.

There is a sense in which the story of that great poem can be traced back to the 11th century invasion of Britain by the Norman French, for that’s what gave rise to the English language. Some centuries later that story encountered a tale born of an encounter between an Italian merchant, Marco Polo, and a Mongolian warlord, Kubla Khan, which, when enlivened by the East India Company’s trade in opium, set fire to the mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We need not trace that trajectory in any detail. I mention it only to give a sense of the scope of this 54-line poem, which is one of the best-known poems in the English language, and is perhaps unique in the annals of Western literature. It has made its mark on popular culture, from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, where it names Kane’s estate, Xanadu, thereby establishing the matrix for the whole film, to a hit song and film by Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu, and even provided that most vulgar of real-estate barons, Donald Trump, with the name for the nightclub, Xanadu, in his now defunct Atlantic City casino. Read more »

On the Road Again, at Last

by Bill Murray

Zambia is home to a near-blind species of Ansell’s mole-rats that can sense magnetic fields with their eyes. It is part home to the world’s largest artificial lake by volume, and home to the world’s largest curtain of falling water. But that’s not why I want to go to Zambia. I want to go to Zambia because it is at the far end of an eighteen hundred kilometer railway halfway across the middle of Africa called the Mukuba Express, leaving every Friday from Dar es Salaam.

via Tazara website

Neither a luxury Rovos Rail-type train for well-heeled retirees, nor a people-on-top desperation ride, the Mukuba Express is what I understand to be an ordinary, working means of transport African style, chugging across the Tanzanian plain from the coast and into the Zambian hills, offering third, second and first classes, restaurant cars between classes and a bar car.

If similar experience holds, the Mukuba Express will set out across the savannah triumphant and hopeful, restaurants and lounge bursting with goodwill and chilled beverages. The goodwill will remain as the cold boxes lose their vigor, their contents seeking room temperature. This has yet to be seen and will be reported further, but I believe it to be likely true.

This is a Tazara train, “ta” as in Tanzania, “za” as in Zambia “ra” as in railway, run by the Tanzania-Zambia Railway authority. The express route approaches 42 hours if the trains run on time, which they do not. The ordinary service “stops at every serviceable railway station in the respective regions of Tanzania and Zambia” and takes about two days. Read more »

Looking for the Enlightened

by Marie Snyder

The season finale of The Last of Us sets up a great deontological v. teleological conundrum with the big question (tiny spoiler), which ends up being an episode-long trolley problem: Is it right to kill one person if doing so could save multitudes?

In a utilitarian view, of course we should sacrifice one person to potentially save all of humanity. It would be absurd not to see this and ensure the safety of all! But it doesn’t pass the categorical imperative sniff test. We can’t support intentional harm coming to people, any people, no matter how few, even if it will help many others. 

Kant’s famous rule: “I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law, so killing a person to help others is necessarily wrong. It’s not a numbers game since “the moral worth of an action does not lie in the effect expected.” And we have to treat each person as an end in themselves, never as a means to an end. 

Or, as the great Mitchell & Webb make clear, killing some to save others is just plain wrong “because it’s offensive and evil.” 

And people will do absolutely anything to save the children they love if they turn out to be the sacrificial lambs in question. 

Fortunately, the current issues facing us don’t force us to choose. We can help our children and the world at once, so that should be easy, right?!? Unfortunately, our drive to protect our kids is often short sighted. Life is not as cut and dried as a good zombie-like show. We often want our children to be happy today even if it means they end up suffering later. Read more »

AI and the Future of Literary Studies

Andrew Dean in the Sydney Review of Books:

Compare the following two paragraphs. One is a mission statement for a university in regional Australia. The other is generated by AI from the prompt ‘write a mission statement for university based in Australia, with a regional focus’.

    1. Our innovation and excellence in both education and research generate ideas that transform lives and communities. We will be the region’s most progressive and responsive university, leading in blending digital capability with our distinctive campus precincts. We will leverage strong partnerships to maximise the social, cultural and economic impact we deliver regionally, nationally, and globally.
    2. Our university is dedicated to providing quality education with a regional focus. We strive to prepare our students to become responsible citizens who positively impact their communities, while also fostering a sense of global awareness. Our goal is to produce graduates who are well-rounded, critical thinkers with the skills necessary to succeed in an ever-changing world.

Which was written by AI, and which by humans?

More here.

Mathematicians have finally discovered an elusive ‘einstein’ tile

Emily Conover in Science News:

A 13-sided shape known as “the hat” has mathematicians tipping their caps.

It’s the first true example of an “einstein,” a single shape that forms a special tiling of a plane: Like bathroom floor tile, it can cover an entire surface with no gaps or overlaps but only with a pattern that never repeats.

“Everybody is astonished and is delighted, both,” says mathematician Marjorie Senechal of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who was not involved with the discovery. Mathematicians had been searching for such a shape for half a century. “It wasn’t even clear that such a thing could exist,” Senechal says.

Although the name “einstein” conjures up the iconic physicist, it comes from the German ein Stein, meaning “one stone,” referring to the single tile.

More here.

Family policing is deeply unjust, and the nuclear family is too

Will Holub-Moorman in the Boston Review:

The specter of parental neglect no longer orders U.S. politics as it did in the late twentieth century. But as indispensable recent books by sociologists Lynne Haney and Dorothy Roberts demonstrate, the knotty legal infrastructures and punitive policies inspired by this rhetoric have endured, with devastating consequences for poor families. These books focus on different areas of U.S. family policy—Haney writes about child support enforcement, Roberts about child protective services—but together they expose the state’s massive and creeping apparatus for surveilling and disciplining parents.

Through extensive interviews and firsthand observation of family courts, both authors show how parents are subjected to an array of humiliating burdens at the ever-blurrier boundaries between the welfare state and the criminal justice system.

More here.

David Baddiel: ‘Football fills a God-shaped hole’

Sam Leith in The Guardian:

David Baddiel was six years old when his mother told him death was like a long sleep from which you never wake up. “I think from that point,” he says, “I never really wanted to go to sleep again.” That night, he lay on the top bunk of his bed, fervently praying – “probably” the first and last time he has prayed with any sincerity – that “my life as it was in Dollis Hill in 1971 would still somehow continue after death”.

More than half a century later Baddiel is still an insomniac, and he’s still terrified by the prospect of dying. “I don’t quite believe anyone who says they’re not,” he says. That childhood memory, and that conviction, is what kicks off his latest book, The God Desire, which delivers in a brisk 110-odd pages what Baddiel considers “an absolutely slam-dunk argument” against the existence of God.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Some Days

I put the people in their places at the table,
bend their legs at the knees,
if they come with that feature,
and fix them into tiny wooden chairs.

All afternoon they face one another,
the man in the brown suit,
the woman in the blue dress,
perfectly motionless, perfectly behaved.

But other days, I am the one
who is lifted up by the ribs,
then lowered into the dining room of a dollhouse
to sit with the others at the long table.

Very funny,
but how would you like it
if you never knew from one day to the next
if you were going to spend it

striding around like a vivid god,
or sitting down there amidst the wallpaper,
staring straight ahead with your little plastic face?

by Billy Colllins
Sailing Alone Around the Room
Random House, 21002