Jennifer Egan and Terese Svoboda on Ghosts, Genre, and ‘Dog on Fire’

Jennifer Egan at The Millions:

Terese Svoboda has been a powerhouse of literary production in recent years, publishing five books since 2018, and partaking of a formidable array of genres and approaches. Dog on Fire is structured as an oppositional narrative duet between two bereaved women—the sister and lover of a young man who struggled with epilepsy—who remember and imagine his life and speculate about his unexplained death. The brief novel also touches on ghosts, aliens, and the possibility of foul play, all testament to Svoboda’s inventive eclecticism. Svoboda was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Dog on Fire and her wide-ranging writing career.

More here.

The Computer Scientist Peering Inside AI’s Black Boxes

Allison Parshall in Quanta:

Machine learning models are incredibly powerful tools. They extract deeply hidden patterns in large data sets that our limited human brains can’t parse. These complex algorithms, then, need to be incomprehensible “black boxes,” because a model that we could crack open and understand would be useless. Right?

That’s all wrong, at least according to Cynthia Rudin, who studies interpretable machine learning at Duke University. She’s spent much of her career pushing for transparent but still accurate models to replace the black boxes favored by her field.

The stakes are high. These opaque models are becoming more common in situations where their decisions have real consequences, like the decision to biopsy a potential tumor, grant bail or approve a loan application. Today, at least 581 AI models involved in medical decisions have received authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Nearly 400 of them are aimed at helping radiologists detect abnormalities in medical imaging, like malignant tumors or signs of a stroke.

More here.

The Best Spy Movie Ever Isn’t James Bond — It’s This

Matthew Mosley in Collider:

Has anyone exerted as much influence over the spy genre as Ian Fleming? Examples of espionage fiction may have predated his transition from naval officer to novelist by well over a century, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the British Secret Service’s finest asset, James Bond, that it became a cultural phenomenon (a feeling strengthened by the character’s legendary reinvention as one of cinema’s greatest icons from 1962’s Dr. No onwards). The success of the 007 franchise was a watershed moment for the genre, establishing a framework that everything released since has either deliberately aped or purposefully avoided. Seventy years on, the formula has lost none of its appeal… but it has contributed to the false impression of what being a spy is actually like. Of course, Ian Fleming knew exactly what he was doing when he put entertainment on a higher pedestal than realism, but it should be obvious that life in the Secret Service isn’t laden with shootouts and car chases. Being a spy is not glamorous – if anything, it’s rather mundane – but it also has the potential to be a lonely and disheartening profession where innumerable lives are lost for negligible results. It’s this feeling at the heart of the 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows.

More here.

What Socrates’ ‘know nothing’ wisdom can teach a polarized America

J. W. Traphagan and John J. Kaag in The Conversation:

A common complaint in America today is that politics and even society as a whole are broken. Critics point out endless lists of what should be fixed: the complexity of the tax code, or immigration reform, or the inefficiency of government.

But each dilemma usually comes down to polarized deadlock between two competing visions and everyone’s conviction that theirs is the right one. Perhaps this white-knuckled insistence on being right is the root cause of the societal fissure – why everything seems so irreparably wrong.

As religion and philosophy scholars, we would argue that our apparent national impasse points to a lack of “epistemic humility,” or intellectual humility – that is, an inability to acknowledge, empathize with and ultimately compromise with opinions and perspectives different from one’s own. In other words, Americans have stopped listening.

So why is intellectual humility in such scarce supply?

More here.

Why the Brain’s Connections to the Body Are Crisscrossed

R Douglas Fields in Quanta Magazine:

Dazzling intricacies of brain structure are revealed every day, but one of the most obvious aspects of brain wiring eludes neuroscientists. The nervous system is cross-wired, so that the left side of the brain controls the right half of the body and vice versa. Every doctor relies upon this fact in performing neurological exams, but when I asked my doctor last week why this should be, all I got was a shrug. So I asked Catherine Carr, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, College Park. “No good answer,” she replied. I was surprised — such a fundamental aspect of how our brain and body are wired together, and no one knew why?

Nothing that we know of stops the right side of the brain from connecting with the right side of the body. That wiring scheme would seem much simpler and less prone to errors. In the embryonic brain, the crossing of the wires across the midline — an imaginary line dividing the right and left halves of the body — requires a kind of molecular “traffic cop” to somehow direct the growing nerve fibers to the right spot on the opposite side of the body. Far simpler just to keep things on the same side.

Yet this neural cross wiring is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom — even the neural connections in lowly nematode worms are wired with left-right reversal across the animal’s midline. And many of the traffic cop molecules that direct the growth of neurons in these worms do the same in humans. For evolution to have conserved this arrangement so doggedly, surely there’s some benefit to it, but biologists still aren’t certain what it is. An intriguing answer, however, has come from the world of mathematics.

More here.

Tip of the Iceberg: A litany of cliches

Michael Massing in The New York Times:

Ramped up, amped up, ratchet up, gin up, up the ante, double down, jump-start, be behind the curve, swim against the tide, go south, go belly up, level the playing field, open the floodgates, think outside the box, push the edge of the envelope, pull out all the stops, take the foot off the pedal, pump the brakes, grease the wheel, circle the wagons, charge full steam ahead, pass with flying colors, move the goal posts, pour gasoline on, add fuel to the fire, fly under the radar, add insult to injury, grow by leaps and bounds, only time will tell, go to hell in a handbasket, put the genie back in the bottle, throw the baby out with the bathwater, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, have your cake and eat it too, a taste of one’s own medicine, stick to one’s guns, above one’s pay grade, punch above one’s weight, lick one’s wounds, pack a punch, roll with the punches, come apart at the seams, throw a wrench into, caught in the cross hairs, cross the Rubicon, tempt fate, go ballistic, on tenterhooks, hit the nail on the head…

More here.

Sunday Poem

A Ball

It is going on inside a transparent ball
Above which God the Father, short, with a trimmed beard,
Sits with a book, enveloped in dark clouds.
He reads an incantation and things are called into being.
As soon as the earth emerges, it bears grasses and trees.
We are those to whom green hills have been offered
And for us this ray descends from opened mists.
Whose hand carries the ball? Probably the Son’s.
And the whole Earth is in it, Paradise and Hell.

by Czeslaw Milosz
Unattainable Earth
Ecco Press, 1986

What should the action be?

Greg Afinogenov in the LRB:

In summer​ 1876, Peter Kropotkin was given a pocket watch by a visiting relative. He was 33 years old, bore one of the Russian Empire’s oldest princely titles and had been a page de chambre to Tsar Alexander II. He was already famous in Russia for his scientific work on zoology and glaciation. Two years earlier, however, he had been arrested and imprisoned as a member of a revolutionary secret society. The watch was delivered to him in a prison hospital, to which he had been transferred after his health declined in the dungeons of the Peter and Paul Fortress. Concealed in the watch was a coded message detailing his role in an elaborate escape plan involving some two dozen comrades, many operating in disguise. The plan went off without a hitch; minutes after climbing into the waiting carriage, Kropotkin had changed his prison clothes for those of an aristocrat, blending in perfectly with the crowd on Nevsky Prospekt. While the imperial secret police fruitlessly combed the area, Kropotkin went out to dinner at a fashionable restaurant. After a few days lying low in nearby dachas, he was spirited away to Britain. He didn’t return to Russia until after the February Revolution of 1917.

In exile, Kropotkin drew on both his scientific and political interests to create the theoretical foundations of modern anarchism. His comrades in Russia, who were known as narodniki, or populists, shared many of his views but not all. Inspired by their liberation of Kropotkin and other daring feats, some of them embarked on a campaign of terrorism that culminated in the assassination of Alexander II in 1881.

More here.

The Politics of Disenchantment: On Wendy Brown’s “Nihilistic Times”

Kieran Setiya in the LA Review of Books:

IN NOVEMBER 1917, a group of left-leaning students at the University of Munich invited sociologist Max Weber to lecture on “Science as a Vocation.” They were troubled by the state of the academy in a time of increasing specialization, subject to distorting influences, both economic and political.

It’s hard to imagine that the students were uplifted by Weber’s lecture. His embrace of specialized knowledge—divorced from ethics, politics, and the search for meaning—portrays the advance of science as planned obsolescence. The scientist’s vocation lies in pursuing truth, knowing that the fate of her work is to be superseded. Weber’s advice to the would-be scientist was, more or less, “suck it up.”

Worse still, the upshot of technical progress is a disenchanted world. We no longer pray to spirits but “can in principle control everything by means of calculation.” And while science tells us how to achieve our ends, it does not tell us what our ends should be. For Weber, disenchantment lapses into nihilism:

And suppose that Tolstoy rises up in you once more and asks, “who if not science will answer the question: what then shall we do and how shall we organize our lives?” […] In that event, we must reply: only a prophet or a savior. […] [But] the prophet for whom so many of [us] yearn simply does not exist.

Since the scientist is not a prophet, “politics has no place in the lecture room.”

More here.

In defense of the dollar

Jay Newman and Meyrick Chapman in Politico:

There’s no question about it — the United States dollar is under attack.

Finance is prone to fads, and its latest mania is de-dollarization: the notion that the dollar will soon meet its demise as the world’s preeminent reserve currency.

Everyone seems to hate the greenback. China recently crowed about its “triumphant” purchase of an LNG cargo, which was paid for in yuan and traded through China’s Shanghai Petroleum & Natural Gas Exchange. And Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has called for development of a new currency for BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — to dethrone the dollar.

Such events attract media attention, of course, but they may just turn out to be sideshows. Of greater import are China’s arbitrary punishment of Deloitte for alleged audit failures, the summary arrest of the Mintz Group’s corporate due diligence team in Beijing and the political corruption that has long plagued Brazil.

In essence, the devil may be hated, but for all the chatter about its death, neither the numbers nor the stories support the hype. And while it’s true that the U.S. government does itself no favors by applying economic sanctions indiscriminately, spending profligately and printing money, in the immediate future, there’s no replacing the dollar and the institutions that go along with it.

More here.

Capital’s Militant

Marco D’Eramo in Sidecar:

He’s not as rich as Jeff Bezos, not a social media star like Elon Musk, nor an icon like Bill Gates. Yet he is the most interesting of the Silicon Valley tycoons, for more than any other he embodies the new breed of capitalist ideologue. Rather than using politics to make money, he uses his billions for politics, in the hope of emancipating the rich from ‘the exploitation of the capitalists by the workers’. Peter Thiel (b. 1967): German by birth, American and South African by upbringing; according to Forbes, he is worth $4.2 billion. Equipped, in contrast to his peers, with a degree in philosophy and a doctorate in law, he likes to affect the posture of a philosopher king. In his most ambitious piece of writing, The Straussian Moment (2004), he sketches a kind of Geistes Weltgeschichte in light of 9/11, citing with carefully cultivated intellectual effrontery Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Pierre Manent, Roberto Calasso, and name-checking Machiavelli, Montaigne, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Nietzsche and Kojève.

Ever since his university days, Thiel has been devoted to a kind of impudence of position, always embracing the most conservative one possible (he has been an admirer of Reagan since high school). According to his biographer Max Chafkin, Thiel felt that ‘mainstream liberals had accepted communists, but conservatives were unable to bring themselves to associate with members of the far-right…He really wished the right would become more like the left’.

More here.


Clinton Caward at the Sydney Review of Books:

Yoga depicts Carrère’s third major depressive crisis. His first followed the success of his fifth novel, The Moustache (1986) from which he recovered by writing a biography of Phillip K Dick. His breakthrough work came in 1993 when he was drawn to the case of Jean-Claude Romand, who had pretended he was a doctor at the World Health Organisation for eighteen years, and on the cusp of having his fraud exposed, murdered his entire family. Carrère had no idea when he followed the journalistic throng to Romand’s little French village just how many years he’d spend trying to narrativize the murders in the style of Capote’s In Cold Blood. But how to do it? He didn’t want his intrusive ‘I’ to appear on the page, drawing attention to itself. Not yet, anyway. The author should be everywhere present but nowhere visible, Flaubert, one of his role models, had proclaimed. After seven years of bashing his head against Capote, he gave up and sought closure by writing a conversational letter to himself about all he’d been through.

This message to self about the Romand case, became The Adversary, (2000) a non-fiction book which launched Carrère’s use of himself as a character. The story, framed by his struggle to write the book, unexpectedly liberated his voice. ‘It’s the first time you hear my adult voice’, he told the Paris Review.

more here.

Maths And Literature

Rohan Silva at The Guardian:

“The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” That’s how Jorge Luis Borges starts The Library of Babel, beloved by maths geeks and book nerds alike for the way it toys with the mathematical concept of infinity.

I liked the short story so much I nicked its main idea when I started my Libreria bookshop, blanketing the store’s insides with mirrors to trick you into thinking you are in a “perhaps infinite” space. (The mirrors require a near infinite amount of cleaning, but there we go. As for maths professor Sarah Hart, she’s so enthralled by the ways her academic field has enriched the work of poets and novelists that it is the subject of her ebullient debut book. “By seeing mathematics and literature as complementary parts of the same quest to understand human life and our place in the universe, we immeasurably enrich both fields,” she writes.

more here.

Saturday Poem

Cartoon Physics, part 1

Children under, say, ten, shouldn’t know
that the universe is ever-expanding,
inexorably pushing into the vacuum, galaxies

swallowed by galaxies, whole

solar systems collapsing, all of it
acted out in silence. At ten we are still learning
the rules of cartoon animation,

that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries

will crash into the rock. Ten-year-olds
should stick with burning houses, car wrecks,
ships going down—earthbound, tangible

disasters, arenas

where they can be heroes. You can run
back into a burning house, sinking ships

have lifeboats, the trucks will come
with their ladders, if you jump

you will be saved. A child

places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows

the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

by Nick Flynn
from: Some Ether.
Graywolf Press, 2000


When Did Clothing Originate?

Ian Gilligan in Smithsonian:

Though many gaps in the story remain, the emerging evidence suggests clothing really had two origins: first for biological needs, then cultural. Archaeologists who study the Paleolithic or Stone Age tend to ignore clothing. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering not a single shred has survived from this ice age era between roughly 2.6 million and 12,000 years ago. Archaeologists are reluctant to look for something they will never find.

Stone Age clothing may be invisible to archaeology, but that does not mean Paleolithic clothing origins cannot be investigated scientifically. For instance, fossils show humans inhabited ice age Eurasia when the frigid windchill reduced safe exposure times to an hour or two. Clearly, those people had adequate clothes. And, fortunately, tools used to make clothing, such as sewing needles, provide some tangible—albeit indirect—evidence.

It’s also helpful to distinguish between simple and complex clothing. Simple clothes hang loose, such as capes, cloaks or loincloths. They can be warm—a drapey fur cloak, for instance—but simple clothes are prone to wind penetration. Complex clothes hug the body snuggly, usually with separate sleeves or pantlegs. Also, complex clothes may have multiple layers.

More here.