The Lost Art of Staying Put

Lucy Ellmann in The Baffler:

NOT ALL THAT LONG AGO, air travel was a clear badge of elite cultural distinction, from the “jet set” to the Sinatra-mangling ad slogan, “Come Fly With Me.” Droit-de-seigneur sexual fantasies of stewardess life were memorialized in that elegantly titled sixties tell-all Coffee, Tea, or Me? People actually used to dress up to take a plane. But that’s all over. Now you need a bulletproof vest when dealing with the cabin crew.

Airlines seem to be competing for Jerk of the Year awards. When they’re not bumping people off, figuratively or literally, they’re frighteningly “reaching out” to the customers they abused, customers with “issues.” (The language is patronizing and predatory.) We’re all sorry United’s planes are so attractive to terrorists. The staff must be under constant strain. But so are the passengers, with whom these tin-pot dictators are increasingly strict, banning leggings on ten-year-olds and bodily removing people from the passenger manifests.

Delta recruited airport police to threaten a couple with jail and the confiscation of their children, all for refusing to give up seats they’d paid for on a flight from Hawaii to LA. An American Airlines flight attendant bullied a tired mother of twin babies over her stroller, and then readied himself to punch a passenger who rose to her defense. These companies seem very exacting about how their customers behave—while apparently giving staff (or airport-based security officials) full license to unleash their inner demons. In airplane disaster movies, the pilot’s always wrestling with the yoke, trying to get full throttle; now these exertions are directed towards throttling the yokels.

More here.

“I Have to Admit, I Have a Very Low Opinion of Human Beings”

Benjamin Ehrlich in Nautilus:

In 1914, when World War I broke out, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the most influential neuroscientist in the world—the man who discovered brain cells, later termed neurons— published only one article, by far his lowest output ever. “The horrendous European war of 1914 was for my scientific activity a very rude blow,” Cajal recalled. “It altered my health, already somewhat disturbed, and it cooled, for the first time, my enthusiasm for investigation.” Cajal’s tertulia, or café social circle, was “overwhelmed with horror and abomination, erasing the last relics of our youthful optimism.” Science was supposed to be universal, but now, as mail became unreliable, telegraph lines were cut, trenches were dug, and borders were almost constantly closed, scientists could not even share their work internationally.

…“I have to admit,” Cajal wrote in a new weekly newspaper, founded so that prominent intellectuals could share their views on the war, “I have a very low opinion of human beings.” As the “last hunter animal,” he wrote, we retain the “foul instincts” of beasts. “Our nerve cells continue to react in the same way as in the Neolithic Age,” he lamented. Because of “evolutionary resistance,” an “excruciating biological fact,” Cajal claimed that war will never be eradicated. All that civilization can hope to do is prolong the intervals of peace, but the “destructive phase” will always return, with each war becoming more horrifying. “In about twenty or thirty years, when the orphans of the present war will be men, the same stupendous massacre will be repeated,” he predicted with chilling accuracy. Suddenly, Cajal realized that the brain was not perfecting itself by evolution, as he had once believed. “Our descendants will be as putrid as we are,” he concluded.

More here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Hernan Diaz: “I Wouldn’t Be the Person I am Without Borges.”

Jane Ciabattari at Literary Hub:

When his first novel, In the Distance, was published, Hernán Diaz described the sense of “foreignness” he gained from his formative years. He was born in Argentina; his family moved to Stockholm when he was two, and he grew up with Swedish as his first language, then relocated to Argentina when he was nine. In his twenties, he lived in London, then settled in New York.

“Foreignness” is central to In the Distance, published by Coffee House Press in 2017, which follows Håkan Söderström as he leaves Sweden with his brother for New York during the Gold Rush. The brothers lose touch before sailing; Håkan ends up in San Francisco, and becomes determined to make his way east to find his brother. In this dangerous and challenging new land, Håkan becomes known as “The Hawk.” He is a massive fellow, apt, adventurous, solitary, ultimately legendary, able to survive no matter what threats he encounters in the frontier. Diaz’s eerie reinvention of the “Western”  was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and winner of the William Saroyan International Prize, the Cabell Award, the Prix Page America, and the New American Voices Award.

More here.

The New Science of Alt Intelligence

Gary Marcus in his Substack newsletter:

For many decades, part of the premise behind AI was that artificial intelligence should take inspiration from natural intelligence. John McCarthy, one of the co-founders of AI, wrote groundbreaking papers on why AI needed common sense; Marvin Minsky, another of the field’s co-founders of AI wrote a book scouring the human mind for inspiration, and clues for how to build a better AI. Herb Simon won a Nobel Prize for behavioral economics. One of his key books was called Models of Thought, which aimed to explain how “Newly developed computer languages express theories of mental processes, so that computers can then simulate the predicted human behavior.”

A large fraction of current AI researchers, or at least those currently in power, don’t (so far as I can tell) give a damn about any of this. Instead, the current focus is on what I will call (with thanks to Naveen Rao for the term) Alt Intelligence.

Alt Intelligence isn’t about building machines that solve problems in ways that have to do with human intelligence. It’s about using massive amounts of data – often derived from human behavior – as a substitute for intelligence.

More here.

American Restlessness: Why do good fortune and prosperity leave so many of us unhappy?

Matt Dinan in The Hedgehog Review:

I am trying, in reviewing Why We Are Restless, an excellent new book by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey, to keep myself out of it. My usual essayistic approach, I fear, will lead a reader to think that I object to the book’s diagnosis of what went wrong with the modern world more than I do. Besides, the tendency of critics to involve themselves in their reviews is irritating, and surely an example of the type of Montaignean introspection that may well be making us restless. But Why We Are Restless stands out among other books like it by answering the question implied by its title with rigor and charity, by (mostly) succeeding in presenting the view it contests “in terms of the most decent human aspirations.” Cataloguing one’s own restlessness, or subjecting readers to one’s bargain-bin Tocquevillian observations about the United States of America, would veer dangerously into the Montaignean territory here scrutinized. I will make an attempt (essai), in other words, to share some thoughts (pensées) about this fine book.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Cupboard

broken glass is held together
with bits and pieces
of an old yellowed newspaper

each rectangle
of the doorframe
is an assemblage

insecure setsquares of glass
jagged slivers thrusting down
precarious trapeziums

the cupboard is full
of shelf upon shelf
of gold gods in tiny rows

you can see the golden gods
beyond the strips
of stock exchange quotations

they look out at you
from behind slashed editorials
and promises of eternal youth

you see a hand of gold
behind opinion
stiff with starch

as one would expect
there is naturally
a lock upon the door

by Arun Kolatkar
New York Review Books, 1974

Very Cold People – chilly legacy of abuse

Lauren Elkin in The Guardian:

Sarah MangusoWell into a career that encompasses poetry, memoir and projects such as her 2017 collection of quotable fragments 300 Arguments, the American author Sarah Manguso has turned to the novel. Very Cold People is also composed of short sections, compiled like witness testimony by a young girl called Ruthie, as she grows up in the fictional town of Waitsfield, Massachusetts, somewhere near Boston. Ruthie and her family don’t belong there, she tells us in the first sentence; it is a town for people whose ancestors came over with the pilgrims to settle in that violently snowy part of the new world.

The very cold people of the title refers not only to the inhabitants of this icy region, but to Ruthie’s own parents. At the outset they seem merely bohemian and thrifty, buying her toys secondhand and her clothes at factory outlets, but then we hear about Ruthie’s mother dredging a fancy wristwatch catalogue out of the dump, ironing its crumpled cover and displaying it on the coffee table, “just askew […] as if someone had been reading it and carelessly put it down, and she corrected its angle when she walked by”. This is something more than parsimony and closer to a pathological need, in the face of material want, to be perceived in a certain way – as offhandedly rich, casual. Her mother, the victim in her youth of some unspecified assault, “was the protagonist of everything”; Ruthie recalls being told of her own birth: “the doctor said Oh she’s beautiful […] and my mother had thought he was talking about her”.

More here.

Your Bosses Could Have a File on You, and They May Misinterpret It

Sarah Scoles in The New York Times:

Are you an “insider threat?”

The company you work for may want to know. Some corporate employers fear that employees could leak information, allow access to confidential files, contact clients inappropriately or, in the extreme, bring a gun to the office. To address these fears, some companies subject employees to semi-automated, near-constant assessments of perceived trustworthiness, at times using behavioral science tools like psychology. Many employers are now concerned about retaining workers in the face of what has been called the Great Resignation. But in spite of worries that workers might be, reasonably, put off by a feeling that technology and surveillance are invading yet another sphere of their lives, employers want to know which clock-punchers may harm their organizations.

The language around this sort of worker-watching often mirrors that which is used within the government, where public agencies assess workers who receive security clearances to handle sensitive information related to intelligence collection or national security. Organizations that produce monitoring software and behavioral analysis for the feds also may offer conceptually similar tools to private companies, either independently or packaged with broader cybersecurity tools.

“When you think about insider risk in general, it probably emerges out of the government, and then makes its way into the private sector and commercial industry,” said Tom Miller, chief executive of Clearforce, which sells insider threat services to private clients.

More here.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Physicists and Fugues: A Well-Tempered Pairing

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Sergei Rachmaninoff and John Wheeler were both masters of their art, equally at home with details and wild speculation, both seeing their disciplines as holistic ones encompassing all of human experience and the universe

As someone who has been interested in both classical music and the history of physics for a long time, I have been intrigued by comparison of the styles between the two art forms. I use the term “art form” for physics styles deliberately since most of the best physics that has been done represents high art.

Just like with classical music, physics has been populated by architects and dreamers, careful workmen and inspired explorers, bursts of geniuses and sustained acts of creativity. It is worth spending some time discussing what the word “style” might even mean in a supposedly objective, quantitative field like physics where truth is divined through precise measurements and austere theories. The word style simply means a way of thinking, calculation and experiment, an idiosyncratic method that lends itself individually or collectively to figuring out the facts of nature. The fact is that there is no one style of doing physics, just like there is no one style of doing classical music. Physics has blossomed when it has benefited from an unpredictable diversity of styles; it has stagnated when a particular style hardened into the status quo. And just like classical music goes through periods of convention and experimentation, deaths and rebirths, so has physics.

If we take the three great eras of classical music – baroque, classical and romantic – and the leading composers pioneering these styles, it’s instructive to find parallels with the styles of some great physicists of yore. Johann Sebastian Bach who is my favorite classical musician was known for his precise, almost mathematical fugues, variations and concertos. Read more »

Happy Birthday, King Friday XIII

by Jonathan Kujawa

King Friday XIII and friend.

On Friday before sunrise, I walked across campus with our dog, Lola. Summers in Oklahoma are unpleasantly hot. If you can manage, it is best to be out early. Besides, Lola is an early riser. It is hard to stay in bed when you can hear the pacing of impatient paws.

While crossing campus I stopped to enjoy the view of Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn sprinkled in a line across the eastern sky. A conjunction of thoughts joined together in my mind. I had a 3QD essay due this weekend, it was Friday the 13th, and it is surprising but true that the 13th of the month is more likely to be on a Friday than any other day.

My former colleague Ralf Schmidt was the one who first told me this startling fact and why it’s true. I thought it would be a pleasant diversion in these turbulent times to talk about something which matters not at all. Why is it that the 13th more often lands on a Friday?

As far as I know, this curiosity was first observed by B. H. Brown at Dartmouth College in the 1930s. In any case, he was the one to pose this as a problem in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1933. Read more »

Assessing Military Edge with Lanchester’s Square Law

by John Allen Paulos

Lanchester’s square law was formulated during World War I and has been taught in the military ever since. It is marginally relevant to the war in Ukraine, particularly the balance between the quantity and quality of the two armies’ weapon systems.

Although more accurately expressed in terms of differential equations, Lanchester’s square law can be roughly paraphrased as follows: “The strength of a military unit – planes, artillery, tanks, or just soldiers with rifles – is proportional not to the size of the unit, but to the square of its size.”

Let me illustrate this with a schematic conflict between two armies, one denoted QN (for numerical or quantitative) and the other QT (for technological or qualitative), each of which has 500 pieces of artillery. (The exposition is abstract, the numbers used are arbitrary, and QN and QT are not to be understood as Russia and Ukraine.)

Further assume that the two armies’ artilleries are more or less equivalent in effectiveness and are capable of destroying each other at a rate of, say, 9% per month. This assumption suggests that after one month each side will have 91% of what it had the month before. Neither side has an advantage, but let’s alter the balance of power in a way similar to an example put forward by Derrick Niederman and David Boyum in their book, What the Numbers Say.

Specifically, let’s see what happens if we assume that army QN can increase its artillery to 1,500 pieces, 3 times as many as army QT has? Read more »

Monday Poem

“Gas stations at night can sometimes be weird places.”
…………………………………………………. —Ruchira Paul, 5/7/22

Gas Stations Can Sometimes Be Weird at Night: Circa 1958

While in HS I pumped gas at a station in town
owned by an amiable, but besotted old Italian guy
who sat in his desk-chair next to the register,
feet crossed upon a case of oil,
supine as the chair would allow,
head back, gazing at the ceiling’s tin tiles
through smoke of intermittent puffs
from the butt of a Chesterfield
daintily held between finger and thumb,
elbow on armrest, forearm plumb as a column,
smoke circling his bald head,
ears tuned to radio: opera
cranked up

Louie, lead tenor, belting bourbon-tinged arias
at full volume between drags,
warbling Puccini for all he was worth,
swathed in perfumes of grease and oil
in splendor on the stage of the Met,
gazing in glory at a full house
while I pumped gas, checked oil,
and ran squeegees across windshields
waiting for the night’s curtain to drop
to a chorus of imagined bravos
bellowed from the street
amongst deafening applause

Yes, gas stations at night
can be weird sometimes—
and beautiful

Me? I liked rock and roll
and sang with Elvis
in my car

Louie and I?
We got along just fine

Jim Culleny

Is it Ironic that Life is Absurd?

by Tim Sommers

In “Shower of Gold” by Donald Barthelme, Peterson, a sculptor who welds radiators together, applies to be on a TV show called Who Am I? – strictly for the money. In the ensuing interview, he asks the interviewer, Miss Arbor, what the show is about.

“‘Let me answer your question with another question,’ Miss Arbor said. ‘Mr. Peterson, are you absurd…’

“’I beg your pardon?’

“‘Do you encounter your existence as gratuitous? Do you feel de trop? Is there nausea?’

‘‘’I have enlarged liver,’ Peterson offered.’

“‘That’s excellent!’…Who Am I? tries, Mr. Peterson, to discover what people really are…Why have we been thrown here, and abandoned? …alone in a featureless, anonymous landscape, in fear and trembling and sickness unto death. God is dead. Nothingness everywhere. Dread. Estrangement. Finitude. Who Am I? approaches these problems in a root radical way.’”

“‘On television?’”

“Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually,” writes Thomas Nagel.

What does “absurd” mean? Various dictionaries say, unreasonable, inappropriate, incongruous, laughable; from the Latin “absurdus”, which literally means “out of tune”. Nagel says the absurd involves “a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality.” “This is what you want. This is what you get,” as the song goes (“The Order of Death,” Public Image Ltd).

Here are Nagel’s examples of absurd events. “Someone gives a complicated speech in support of a motion that has already been passed; a notorious criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation [or the United States]; …as you are being knighted, your pants fall down.”

But it’s one thing to say that particular events in our lives are absurd, it’s another to say, as Nagel and Camus (among others) do, that life on the whole, life overall, is absurd. Read more »

On Regret

by Nicola Sayers

I regret not having children younger. Like, much younger. I was thirty-six when my first child, now four, was born; thirty-eight when my second was born. I wish I had done it when I was in my early twenties. This is an unpopular perspective. I know this because when I’ve raised this feeling with friends, many of whom had children similarly late in life, I’ve been met with a strong resistance. It’s not just that they don’t share my feelings, that their experience of having children later in life is different to mine, it’s that they somehow mind me feeling the way that I do. They think that I am wrong – mistaken – to feel this way. It upsets them. 

But just think of all the life experiences you’ve been able to have, they say. But you weren’t with Jarad yet, they say. But you wouldn’t have been ready, they say. 

There are, I think, several different beliefs, values, lending force to their pushback. The first is the notion that your own enjoyment, but also personal development, is paramount. Related is the presumption that you need to have many years to pursue that development with a singular focus, and, indeed, that having multiple long term relationships is an important part of that development – without which you might not be the relationship expert that those of us with that backlog of experience presumably are.  Read more »

A Nostos

by Ethan Seavey

The dandelion is thousands of miles from home. It has been in America learning about the world beyond and perhaps it wants to return. It has lived thousands of sad lives. Finally after 300 years, a seed clings to an old man’s jacket as he boards a plane, and happens to land in a small patch of dirt right by the Charles de Gaulle airport; the dandelion is welcomed home graciously, and they share the stories of what has happened in its absence. They notice little differences to him. He has mutated slightly; the increased sun in America has made his petals more yellow; the lawn mowers have made him shorter; the pesticides have made him stronger. They don’t talk to him about the sun or the lawn mowers or the pesticides, though. They talk about their shared home in France. 

Tu me manques. The French have a different construction to mean “I miss you,” which more directly translates to “you are missing from me.” it’s weaker in the sense that the I is doing nothing but feeling unfulfilled in the person’s absence. English implies an active agony; French implies a passive fractured self. I think before coming abroad that I would’ve said English is more accurate to the idea of missing someone. But now I’ve lived in Paris while the man I love lived in Tel Aviv and my family lived in Chicago and Denver and LA and I find the truth is somewhere in the middle, closer to the French side. I miss /you/ are missing from me. Day to day, it’s not active. Missing lies dormant in your body and makes the day a little darker, a little colder. It makes you feel guilty for letting the pain be so tiny, so unnoticeable. But it also rushes in and drowns you some days and you feel a longing for melodrama, which is never satisfied with a text or a phone call. Read more »

Out of Focus

by Chris Horner

There’s a widespread belief that the world is really run by dark forces, or hidden actors we cannot see or know, but which operate like puppet masters somehow ‘behind the scenes’. On this view, only by a painstaking piecing together can we arrive at the truth about what is really going on. So we get conspiracy theories about New World Orders, Illuminati, Qanon and so on. Yet things are quite otherwise. Most of what you need to know is hidden in plain sight: all the conspiracies are open ones and the way the world runs is open to our gaze. The problem is that they are in front of us, but out of focus.

There are some things we know, and somethings we don’t know. Some things we see and acknowledge, and some things that remain hidden. But strangest of all are the things we see and know, yet somehow cannot see. We unsee them [1]. Obvious, commonplace things, like objects too close to a lens that are out of focus. Staring us in the face, they sit in plain view, but still unseen. They are disavowed along the logic of ‘I know this very well, but still, I do not know it’. Read more »

Varieties of Churchgoing: Part II

by David Oates

Halfway through a pilgrimage, it’s a good thing to remember why you’re on it – where you hope it’s taking you. I’m following a plan to consider the strangely numerous churches of this little Portland neighborhood, just a half-mile square but crowded with varieties of religiosity.

And what is it I want? To walk towards more light. If I speak honestly, without pretended coolness . . . to breathe better, to see people more charitably. And see myself that way too. An essay is a privacy working itself into visibility. So is a walk in the neighborhood.

And so is churchgoing, where you see people in the embarrassing posture of spiritual aspiration. As if one day a week the bones of reality might show through, and prove to be something about love and justice. And possibly beauty.

Meanwhile Russians are blowing up Ukrainians on their shared Orthodox Easter. I can’t reason my way through it – it’s the human condition. So I walk and I observe, feeling for a pathway. Read more »