A COVID Counterfactual for Europe

Yanis Varoufakis in Project Syndicate:

Imagine that the coronavirus pandemic, rather than undermining confidence in the European Union, had strengthened it. Imagine that COVID-19 had persuaded EU leaders to overcome years of acrimony and fragmentation. Imagine that it had catalyzed the emergence this year of a stronger, more integrated bloc to which the world looked for global leadership.

Imagine. It isn’t hard to do.

At the end of February 2020, two weeks before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the EU Council had already instructed the European Commission to coordinate Europe’s war against the coronavirus. Within days, the Commission compiled a list of essential gear in short supply across Europe, from protective equipment to intensive care units, and placed orders with manufacturers. It also convened Cov-Comm, a committee of top epidemiologists and representatives of EU public health systems to offer daily guidance. Liberated from the need to procure essential supplies and work out optimal travel and social distancing strategies, national governments concentrated on implementing the emergent EU plan.

More here.

How India’s ‘Mango Man’ Grew a Tree With 300 Flavors

Kalpana Sunder in Atlas Obscura:

Three varieties from Khan’s famous tree

It is a mango tree like no other. Standing tall in a nursery near Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, its massive canopy is large enough to seat 15 people for a picnic and its branches hang heavy with fruit. Unlike the young trees it towers over, though, the texture of the leaves on each branch is different: Some are dull green or olive green; others are glossy and vibrant. The mangoes on each branch look different too: round, oval, or kidney shaped, some green, some yellow, and others with hues of orange, pink, and purple. That’s because this magical mango tree grows more than 300 varieties.

Over a video call, Kalimullah Khan, 80, known as the “Mango Man,” introduces me to his creation. Stocky and bearded in a crisp, white kurta pyjama, he sits under its canopy and points out varieties, each identified by a tiny label on its green pedicle: Dasheri mangoes from a nearby village, Himsagar from West Bengal, Langra from Bihar. And of course the prized Alphonso mango, whose sweet, creamy, saffron-colored pulp is in high demand domestically and internationally.

More here.

Earthly Anecdotes

John Palattella in The Point:

A year ago, there was no snow on the ground, and I was thinking about icebergs. “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,” begins the first stanza of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Imaginary Iceberg,” and continues,

although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.

These lines came to me when I was reading, walking or cooking, was alone or sharing someone’s company, and they came in all kinds of weather. “The Imaginary Iceberg” is a poem that I love, although at the time I could not remember when I had last read it. Yet there it was, its first four lines on repeat in my mind’s ear, a phantom verse.

It was March and I was in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany. The nearest sea was 340 miles to the north; the nearest icebergs, at least 2,000 miles to the northwest. The nearest body of water was the river that meandered through my neighborhood and onward through fields of winter wheat. I lived in Jena for six months, and the only memorable bits of marble I saw there were the busts of Goethe, Schiller and Hegel perched atop columns on the university campus, where those men had once taught. Otherwise, Bishop’s lines reminded me of nothing I saw around me.

More here.  [Thanks to Holly Case.]

Wednesday Poem

Empty Souls

…… Tibetan prayer flags
…… flap in the wind
…… no one to talk to

Why Tower Air? I ask as my husband packs a suitcase to get ready to attend his
mother’s funeral. Because it’s a bargain, he says.

Wouldn’t you rather fly a major carrier?

I pull a card from my Tarot deck. Out of the 78 possibilities, it’s the Tower that shows
up. Flames shoot from the top of a crumbling brick tower while a couple with shock
imprinted on their faces falls through the air, crowns flying. There’s no soft landing
in sight.

I plead with my husband to book with another airline, but he says he’ll be fine. I
shouldn’t put such faith in divination. As I entertain a couple of acquaintances, the
phone rings. My husband’s voice sounds far away.

…… dusk signals the jasmine to release its scent

I’m at Kennedy. We had to make an emergency landing. While flames shot from the
engine, the pilot told us to put our heads in our laps and brace for impact. The silence
was so thick, no one could make a sound. I took my wallet from my jacket, placed it in
the seat pocket facing me, just in case my body couldn’t be identified. And then I saw
a newspaper headline which seemed so vivid and real—son dies in plane crash after
attending mother’s funeral.
It was the most bizarre experience. I thought my life was
over, that I’d never see you again. When we got off the plane, some people actually
kissed the ground. Everyone is shaken including the pilot’s wife. It was her husband’s
last flight before retirement.

While my guests stuff themselves on tacos and guacamole, I try to regain composure.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, they tell me. Get over it. Move on. Come eat. I want to
throw them both out but instead I bite my tongue until it aches. I count the minutes
until they’re out of my space.

…… the cat brings home a screech owl

I sense disappointment in my brother-in-law’s voice. Had there been a fatal accident,
he’d inherit all of the mother’s estate. I so need to vent, but my next-door neighbor,
who caught a blip about it on the news, is nonchalant.

During break in qi gong class, my husband tries to tell a classmate about the incident,
but the instructor glares at him as if to say, keep your sad stories to yourself.

…… The taste
…… of loneliness
…… evening meal

by Alexis Rotella
from Rattle #70, Winter 2020

‘First Person Singular’ delves into lost love and strange happenings

Terry Hong in The Christian Science Monitor:

The announcement of a new Haruki Murakami title inspires gleeful anticipation: Will there be music (classical, jazz, Beatles – yes), baseball (certainly), local watering holes (take a seat), thwarted young love (indubitably), the impossible made ordinary (naturally), and … cats (meow)? The Japanese writer doesn’t disappoint in his latest collection to arrive stateside, “First Person Singular,” a phrase that also succinctly summarizes his preferred writing style: The eight stories are each revealed by a contemplative “I”-narrator. Over the 40-plus years Murakami has produced novels, short stories, nonfiction, and personal essays, he’s first and foremost a remarkably accessible storyteller. His books are an intimate invitation to revel in his perpetually unpredictable, yet remarkably convincing, imagination.

Take, for example, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” – the title already signals a willingness to suspend reality as monkeys don’t talk, much less confess. The plot outline could verge on the nonsensical: A traveler at a rural inn with hot springs; a low-voiced monkey offering back-scrubbing assistance; an evening sharing drinks, snacks, secrets; the narrator’s meeting five years later with an editor whose sudden inability to remember her own name confirms the lovelorn Shinagawa Monkey’s penchant for stealing women’s identities. Dubious …? And yet Murakami writes with such assurance as to turn the implausible credible, the outlandish engrossing.

More here.

Gaia, the Scientist: What if the first woman scientist was simply the first woman?

Hope Jahren in Nautilus:

There exists a social hierarchy within science that strikes people who are not mixed up in it as ridiculous. It goes like this: Mathematicians are superior to Physicists, who are, in turn, superior to Chemists, who are of course, superior to Biologists. There’s also a pecking order within each of these disciplines. Take biology, for example: Geneticists are superior to Biochemists, who are superior to Ecologists. The system breaks down when we come to sociology, psychology, and anthropology and devolves into a debate as to whether the social sciences are really Sciences after all. Scientists arguing about whether a science qualifies as Science is more common than you might think. Zoom in, and you’ll see scientists arguing about who does (and doesn’t) qualify as a Scientist. Within the last five decades or so, it is generally accepted that more and more women have become Scientists, which implies that if we look back in time, there were fewer and fewer. This ultimately begs the question: Who was the first Woman Scientist?

Was it Marie Curie? She discovered the element radium, and later polonium, near the end of the 19th century. Does she count? After all, she viewed herself as more of an Artist: “The scientific history of radium is beautiful. And this is proof that scientific work must be done for itself, for the beauty of science,” she wrote in 1921. Was it Émilie du Châtelet? She formulated the existence of infrared energy. Does she count? She apologized often for not knowing how to say what she wanted to say. “I use everyday words here in contravention with propriety but cannot avoid the too-frequent return of the same word because, technically, there are both things and not-things that we call Fire,” reads a footnote on the very first page of her dissertation, written in 1758.

Was it Hypatia of Alexandria? She developed the mathematical technique of long division, which was cutting-technology during the fifth century A.D. Does she count? Hypatia taught men of great influence and highest government, and was eventually stripped, stoned, torn to pieces, and burnt to ashes for her trouble. Suidas, the 10th-century author of the first encyclopedia, devoted most of Hypatia’s entry to the debate over whether she died a virgin.

Was it the Neanderthal female whose name has been lost to time?

More here.

Nikolai Gogol in The Twilight of Empire

Jennifer Wilson at The Nation:

In a new collection of Gogol’s short stories, translated by Susanne Fusso, a professor of Russian studies at Wesleyan University, readers are reintroduced to the familiar cast of characters—identified by their rank, of course—that populate many of the Ukrainian author’s most celebrated works, including “The Nose” and “The Overcoat.” There are the titular councillors, the collegiate assessors, the section heads of unnamed departments, the recently promoted (and thus insufferable). In short, the book’s stories cover nearly all manner of pompous, status-obsessed, careerist bureaucrats. It could be said that the Table of Ranks defined Gogol’s narrative landscape, but what is also true is that Gogol in turn redefined the Table of Ranks for his readers, then and now. As the scholar Irina Reyfman notes, “To a large degree, the way people now think of the world of state service is determined by Gogol’s portrayal of it in his fiction.”

more here.

The Kinetographic Charms of Rudolf von Laban

Christopher Turner at Cabinet Magazine:

To the untrained eye, Kinetography looks esoteric and occult, but to the few who can read it the complex strips of hieroglyphs allow them to recreate dances much as their original choreographers imagined them. Dance notation was invented in seventeenth-century France to score court dances and classical ballet, but it recorded only formal footsteps and by Laban’s time it was largely forgotten. Laban’s dream was to create a “universally applicable” notation that could capture the frenzy and nuance of modern dance, and he developed a system of 1,421 abstract symbols to record the dancer’s every movement in space, as well as the energy level and timing with which they were made. He hoped that his code would elevate dance to its rightful place in the hierarchy of arts, “alongside literature and music,” and that one day everyone would be able to read it fluently.

more here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Notes Towards a Philosophy of Proper Names, Adequate to the Complexity and Wonder of Its Subject

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

One of the most intriguing moments in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s magisterial Tristes Tropiques of 1955 arrives when the anthropologist is playing with a group of Nambikwara children deep in Brazil’s interior. All of a sudden:

… a girl who had been struck by one of her playmates took refuge by my side and, with a very mysterious air, began to whisper something into my ear. As I did not understand and was obliged to ask her to repeat it several times, her enemy realized what was going on and, obviously very angry, also came over to confide what seemed to be a solemn secret. After some hesitation and questioning, the meaning of the incident became clear. Out of revenge, the first little girl had come to tell me the name of her enemy, and the latter, on becoming aware of this, had retaliated by confiding to me the other’s name… After which, having created a certain atmosphere of complicity, I had little difficulty in getting them to tell me the names of the adults.

But why, now, should the Nambikwara, who otherwise seem to be perfectly at ease with this anthropologist in their midst, seek to keep their “real” names secret? Why should a person not have a single all-purpose name for others to learn upon making their acquaintance? Is it not the essential purpose of names to enable us to refer to things and people correctly?

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Charlie Jane Anders on Stories and How to Write Them

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Telling a story seems like the most natural, human thing in the world. We all do it, all the time. And who amongst us doesn’t think we could be a fairly competent novelist, if we just bothered to take the time? But storytelling is a craft like any other, with its own secret techniques and best practices. Charlie Jane Anders is a multiple-award-winning novelist and story writer, but also someone who has thought carefully about all the ingredients of a good story, from plot and conflict to characters and relationships. This will be a useful conversation for anyone who tells stories, reads books, or watches movies. Maybe you’ll be inspired to finally write that novel.

More here.

It’s Time to Take Bernard-Henri Lévy Seriously

Blake Smith in Foreign Policy:

For nearly half a century, Lévy has been one of the most visible public intellectuals in France and a master at manipulating philosophical and political controversy. With his good looks and outsized ego, Lévy is a compelling performer. He is also an irresistible target for critics from the left, right, and center. The inaccuracies and incoherencies of his voluminous body of work have been exposed in a number of unflattering biographies, of which the best is Philippe Cohen’s 2005 book BHL. The media’s tendency to thus refer to Lévy by his initials, BHL, suggests that he is, like LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), an iconic national brand—and perhaps nothing more than a label. Since the earliest days of Lévy’s career, rivals have denounced him as a cynical, vacuous pseudo-philosopher who puts intellectual culture in the service of self-aggrandizing spectacle.

More here.

Are you into productivity porn or yak shaving?

From 1843 Magazine:

Efficient folk have come up with a range of productivity techniques. Benjamin Franklin was an early advocate of the modern to-do list. Each morning America’s Founding Father jotted down tasks and asked himself: “What good shall I do this day?” Office grunts take a less virtuous approach to planning. Some practise the Pomodoro technique, a strategy of slicing your day into 25-minute chunks of intense focus with five-minute breaks in between. Many people use a task-management app as a “second brain”, storing their thoughts in the cloud for safekeeping. Productivity tools can also have the opposite effect. You may spend so long managing your time that you never get to the work itself. “Yak shaving” is a term for tasks that lead on to further tasks which distract you from your original goal. If you want to become a time-management master, don’t go anywhere near a yak with a razor.

Le blurring
The mixing of work and personal life (noun)
Even the French are losing their work-life balance

The French view workaholism as an unfortunate Anglo-Saxon invention. They are proud of their 35-hour work-week and all-of-August holidays. (As one French saying goes: “They live to work, we work to live”.) Despite this, French workers are more productive than British ones, on average. Now these traditions are under threat. The French are suffering from le blurring – a slipping of the once-sacred work-life boundary. The shift started with smartphones. Suddenly your boss could contact you when you were at home stirring your soup, or even on holiday. Workers “remain attached by a kind of electronic leash, like a dog,” one French politician moaned.

More here.

The genetic mistakes that could shape our species

Zaria Gorvett in BBC:

He Jiankui seemed nervous. At the time, he was an obscure researcher working at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. But he had been working on a top-secret project for the last two years – and he was about to take to the podium at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing to announce the results. There was a general buzz of excitement in the air. The audience looked on anxiously. People started filming on their phones. Jiankui had made the first genetically modified babies in the history of humankind. After 3.7 billion years of continuous, undisturbed evolution by natural selection, a life form had taken its innate biology into its own hands. The result was twin baby girls who were born with altered copies of a gene known as CCR5, which the scientist hoped would make them immune to HIV.

But things were not as they seemed.

…It turns out that the babies involved, Lulu and Nana, have not been gifted with neatly edited genes after all. Not only are they not necessarily immune to HIV, they have been accidentally endowed with versions of CCR5 that are entirely made up – they likely do not exist in any other human genome on the planet. And yet, such changes are heritable – they might be passed on to their children, and children’s children, and so on. In fact, there have been no shortage of surprises in the field. From the rabbits altered to be leaner that inexplicably ended up with much longer tongues to the cattle tweaked to lack horns that were unintentionally endowed with a long stretch of bacterial DNA in their genomes (including some genes that confer antibiotic resistance, no less) – its past is riddled with errors and misunderstandings.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

This is Not a Small Voice

This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Darryl. Shaquille.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river

This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet
with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the
water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history
where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron
and lace.
This is a love initialed Black

This is nor a small voice
you hear.

By Sonia Sanchez
from Wounded in the House of a Friend
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 1995

To Put It Simply: DMX Sang The Blues

Blair McClendon at n+1:

DMX CLOSES OUT HIS SONG “Look Thru My Eyes” with the words “Feel the pain, feel the joy / Of a man, who was never a boy.” This, in two lines, is his entire career, as well as his autobiography. DMX’s music was intoxicating and horrifying. He barks after those closing lines, and somehow the bark, which showed up a lot, never felt like a gimmick. It could be vicious, it could be wounded, but it was never false. That kind of thing is hard to pull off in a genre built on presenting fiction as fact.

I don’t mean that as an insult. I love when rappers lie to me. To hear them tell it they’re all killers, dons, money long, pushing something foreign they’re going to put up in a twelve-car garage. I don’t think anybody should have a garage that big, but it sounds good. If a rapper has real charisma they’ll have you repeating the lies and undermining your own station in life.

more here.

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

Munro Price at Literary Review:

This 5 May will mark the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on St Helena. The occasion will no doubt be marked, as was the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo six years ago, by a flood of new books about the emperor, adding yet more to the estimated 200,000 already written. Given this saturation, one wonders if there is anything left to say. This fascinating book proves that there is. It does so by focusing on a crucial yet neglected aspect of Napoleon’s rule: his bitter, decade-long confrontation with Pope Pius VII. This marked an important step both in the emperor’s decline and fall, and in the evolution of the Catholic Church.

It is a dramatic story. Napoleon came to power determined to heal the most gaping wound left by the French Revolution, its schism with the Church, which for almost ten years had fuelled persecutions, peasant risings and civil war across large areas of France. As a partner in this task, he was lucky enough to find Barnaba Chiaramonti, recently elected as Pope Pius VII. The result of this collaboration was a remarkable achievement, the Concordat of 1801, which settled the respective limits of ecclesiastical and civil power in post-revolutionary France and outlived Napoleon by almost a century.

more here.