Why Some People Find It Harder To Be Happy

Jolanta Burke in IFL Science:

The self-help industry is booming, fuelled by research on positive psychology – the scientific study of what makes people flourish. At the same time, the rates of anxietydepression and self-harm continue to soar worldwide. So are we doomed to be unhappy, despite these advances in psychology?

According to an influential article published in Review of General Psychology in 2005, 50% of people’s happiness is determined by their genes, 10% depends on their circumstances and 40% on “intentional activity” (mainly, whether you’re positive or not). This so-called happiness pie put positive-psychology acolytes in the driving seat, allowing them to decide on their happiness trajectory. (Although, the unspoken message is that if you are unhappy, it’s your own fault.) The happiness pie was widely critiqued because it was based on assumptions about genetics that have become discredited. For decades, behavioural genetics researchers carried out studies with twins and established that between 40% and 50% of the variance in their happiness was explained by genetics, which is why the percentage appeared in the happiness pie.

Behavioural geneticists use a statistical technique to estimate the genetic and environmental components based on people’s familial relatedness, hence the use of twins in their studies. But these figures assumed that both identical and fraternal twins experience the same environment when growing up together – an assumption that doesn’t really hold water. In response to the criticism about the 2005 paper, the same authors wrote a paper in 2019 that introduced a more nuanced approach on the effect of genes on happiness, which recognised the interactions between our genetics and our environment.

Nature and nurture are not independent of each other. On the contrary, molecular genetics, the study of the structure and function of genes at the molecular level, shows that they constantly influence one another. Genes influence the behaviour that helps people choose their environment.

More here.

Who Said Science and Art Were Two Cultures?

Kevin Berger in Nautilus:

On a May evening in 1959, C.P. Snow, a popular novelist and former research scientist, gave a lecture before a gathering of dons and students at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater. He called his talk “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Snow declared that a gulf of mutual incomprehension divided literary intellectuals and scientists.

“The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition,” Snow said. “On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.”

Snow didn’t expect much of his talk. “I thought I might be listened to in some restricted circles,” he said. “Then the effect would soon die down.” It didn’t. Snow tapped a cultural fault line that continues to rumble to this day. In his 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote that “Snow’s argument seems prescient.” The “disdain for reason, science, humanism and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture.”

More here.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Cleaning Francis Bacon

Christopher Turner at Cabinet Magazine:

Several years ago, I met Francis Bacon’s cleaning lady. Bacon’s amanuensis, the art critic David Sylvester, referred me to her, as he had her to Bacon. Jean Ward, who had her grey hair swept back into a thin ponytail like a pirate’s, welcomed me to her flat on a housing estate in Tooting Beck, South London. In a raspy voice she told me about her decade working for the painter whose legendarily messy studio—layer upon layer of dust, paint, discarded imagery, champagne bottles, and other detritus—would not have provided her much of a recommendation for future jobs.

“I wasn’t daunted,” she said when recalling her first visit to 7 Reece Mews in the early 1980s, “because I had read certain things about how some artists have tidy studios and some don’t—so I wasn’t really shocked. I just looked at the nice colors on the door that he used to try out paint on.”

more here.

On Yukio Mishima’s Sun and Steel

Brain Patrick Eha at The Point:

He poses on the cover of my old Grove Press edition in the aspect of a warrior, stripped to the waist, forehead bound in a hachimaki, looking out from under heavy brows. His shadowed gaze is intent, unnerving. His left cheekbone and the strong bridge of his nose catch the light. (A humanizing touch: his ears stick out slightly too far.) In a suit he might seem ordinary, at best of average build, but shirtless he is a panther ready to spring. His forearms are unusually furry for a Japanese man, his concave stomach bifurcated by a line of black hair. His triceps resemble warm marble. Superimposed on this fierce portrait are the concentric rings of a red target, as though Mishima were about to be feathered with arrows like St. Sebastian—a picture of whose “white and matchless nudity” moves the frail narrator of Mishima’s novel Confessions of a Mask to his first ejaculation. In the center of this target, his grim mouth forms the bull’s-eye; the outer rings drape his shoulders and pectoral muscles like a mantle of blood. His right hand is drawing out of its sheath, upward into the frame, the naked blade of a samurai sword.

more here.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Anti-Erotic Masterpiece

Talbot Brewer in The Hedgehog Review:

A blurb on the cover of my copy of Lolita calls the novel “the only convincing love story of our century.”1 In the 1986 Vanity Fair essay from which this endorsement was drawn, the author—novelist Gregor von Rezzori—goes on to describe Vladimir Nabokov’s incendiary work as “a deeply touching story of unfulfillable longing, of suffering through love, love of such ardor that though it concentrated on its subject monomaniacally, it actually aimed beyond it, until it flowed back into the great Eros that had called it into being.”2 The publisher’s own back-cover description echoes Rezzori’s assessment: “Most of all,” the prospective reader is told, Lolita is “a meditation on love—love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.”

I feel I am on safe ground when I say that this is false advertising. Lolita is not a story of love.

More here.

Outsmarting the Virus

John Hewitt in Inference:

Variants in the SARS-CoV-2 virus control infectivity, severity, and immunity by changing tissue tropism, innate responses, and adaptive antibody generation. Although the emergence of escape mutations can see the virus spread rapidly, regardless of vaccination or antibody status, new combination therapies that strike at its heart will complement vaccinations and provide a defense the virus cannot outsmart.

One of the first treatments developed for patients severely affected with COVID-19 involved the administration of convalescent plasma. This treatment did not progress past the testing phase after a clinical trial in the US demonstrated that there was little evidence of any impact on the virus.1 The antibody spectrum of plasma may be diverse, but it is also complicated and, in many situations, dangerous to administer. In its stead, researchers are developing man-made monoclonal antibodies to target the virus with pinpoint accuracy. While still in experimental form, they can often be administered under an emergency use authorization.

Combination antibody therapies, such as the pairing of bamlanivimab and etesevimab, have been shown to wield considerable power against the virus. But they are already becoming obsolete in the face of escape variants conjured up by new strains. These treatments will remain part of the clinical arsenal, but a demonstrated lack of in-vitro activity against a threatening B.1.351 strain indicates that we have arrived at a new stage of viral warfare.

More here.

The Sectarian Resurgence in the Post-American Middle East

Vali Nasr in Foreign Affairs:

The Biden administration’s mantra for the Middle East is simple: “end the ‘forever wars.’” The White House is preoccupied with managing the challenge posed by China and aims to disentangle the United States from the Middle East’s seemingly endless and unwinnable conflicts. But the United States’ disengagement threatens to leave a political vacuum that will be filled by sectarian rivalries, paving the way for a more violent and unstable region.

The struggle for geopolitical primacy between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the countries led by Sunni Arabs and, more recently, Sunni Turkey is stoking conflict across the region—eroding social compacts, worsening state dysfunction, and catalyzing extremist movements. Both sides have weaponized religious identity for their own purposes, using it to rally partisans and bolster their influence across the region. As a result, the broader Middle East remains a tinderbox.

More here.

Friday Poem

Q & A  with my therapist

do you do that often, think about death?

he couldn’t hold me in one piece i always came undone so he left     my brother did that once

that wasn’t the question

we only know how to come back     never how to stay

how does that make you feel?

once when i was three he threw a key at her because she didn’t listen it fell next to my leg
i saw the whole thing

who did that?

once my grandmother had thick black hair you see they always leave even if they stay they take you
with them

that wasn’t the question

i didn’t want to become her so i left

i thought he was the one who left

there are many ways to leave besides leaving you know

how many times did you leave?

my mother says the evil eye is making me age but i don’t believe that

why is that?

i was like this before anyone looked at me    

by Lameese Badr
Pank Magazine

What Does Black Lives Matter Want?

Robin Kelley in Boston Review:

On August 1 the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of over sixty organizations, rolled out “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice,” an ambitious document described by the press as the first signs of what young black activists “really want.” It lays out six demands aimed at ending all forms of violence and injustice endured by black people; redirecting resources from prisons and the military to education, health, and safety; creating a just, democratically controlled economy; and securing black political power within a genuinely inclusive democracy. Backing the demands are forty separate proposals and thirty-four policy briefs, replete with data, context, and legislative recommendations.

But the document quickly came under attack for its statement on Palestine, which calls Israel an apartheid state and characterizes the ongoing war in Gaza and the West Bank as genocide. Dozens of publications and media outlets devoted extensive coverage to the controversy around this single aspect of the platform, including The Guardian, the Washington PostThe Times of IsraelHaaretz, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Of course, M4BL is not the first to argue that Israeli policies meet the UN definitions of apartheid. (The 1965 International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the 1975 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid define it as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”) Nor is M4BL the first group to use the term “genocide” to describe the plight of Palestinians under occupation and settlement. The renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, for example, wrote of the war on Gaza in 2014 as “incremental genocide.” That Israel’s actions in Gaza correspond with the UN definition of genocide to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by causing “serious bodily or mental harm” to group members is a legitimate argument to make.

More here.

Forest Fight

Gabriel Popkin in Science:

Last summer, Friederike and Jörg von Beyme stood on a bramble-covered, Sun-blasted slope outside this small town in eastern Germany. Just 4 years ago, the hillside, part of a nearly 500-hectare forest the couple bought in 2002, was green and shady, covered in tall, neatly arranged Norway spruce trees the couple planned to cut and sell. During January 2018, however, a powerful storm felled many of the trees. Then, over the next 3 years, a record drought hit Germany and much of Central Europe, stressing the spruces that still stood. The back-to-back disasters enabled bark-boring beetles that had been munching on dead trees to jump to drought-weakened ones. Beetle populations exploded. In just 3 weeks, towering spruces that had seemed healthy were dead.

The von Beymes salvaged what they could, rushing to log and sell the dead and diseased trees. But thousands of other forest owners did the same, causing the timber market to collapse. The couple’s piles of logs were worth less than what it had cost to cut and stack them. Now, they don’t expect to earn a profit from logging spruces for 20 years. “We have a big forest now with big problems,” Jörg von Beyme says. The von Beymes are far from alone. Since 2018, more than 300,000 hectares of Germany’s trees—more than 2.5% of the country’s total forest area—have died because of beetles and drought fueled by a warming climate. The massive dieback has shocked the public. And it has raised hard questions about how a country renowned for inventing “scientific” forestry more than 3 centuries ago should manage forests so they can continue to produce wood and protect ecosystems in the face of destablizing climate shifts.

Everyone agrees that new approaches are needed, but no one, it seems, can agree on what those should be. Some advocates want Germany’s government and forest industry to stop promoting the widespread planting of commercially valuable trees such as Norway spruces, and instead encourage landowners to allow forests to regenerate on their own. Others say that to meet economic, environmental, and climate goals, Germany must double down on tree planting—but using more resilient varieties, including some barely known in Germany today. The stakes are high: Germany’s forest products sector generates some €170 billion annually and employs more than 1.1 million people. If its wood supplies dwindle, pressure could grow to log forests elsewhere around the world. Declining forests could also imperil efforts to replace building materials that generate huge emissions of greenhouse gases, such as concrete and steel, with potentially climate-friendlier wood.

More here.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Poetry and the Grotesque: Daniel Borzutzky’s Bedtime Stories for the End of the World

Éric Morales-Franceschini in Agni:

Daniel Borzutzky’s poetry is not an easy, elegant read: trauma, prisons, torture, murders, and arresting phrases like “rotten carcass economy” and “the blankest of times” recur ad nauseam. To read Borzutzky is, in other words, to reckon with the “grotesque.”

But this states the case a bit too morbidly, if not pathologically. There is a rigor and logic—even, dare I say, a dark humor and rebellious enjoyment—to what Borzutzky offers. He exposes the reader not just to naked power (the police, prisons etc.) but also to the bureaucratized violence of finance capital. The reader thereby reckons not just with the spectacular violence of massacres, but also that of administrative and silent deaths—akin to the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), famously described.

Or, better yet, like the “shock doctrine” Naomi Klein has written about, a doctrine that Borzutzky’s family would recognize. The fact that the Jewish Chilean American poet now calls Chicago home is no small irony. It was the notorious “Chicago boys” (economists trained by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago) who formulated the economic policies for Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile (1974-1990), a reign that inaugurated what we now call “neoliberalism.”

More here.

Frank Wilczek: Quanta of the Third Kind

Frank Wilczek in Inference:

Quantum mechanics is nearly one hundred years old, and yet the challenge it presents to the imagination is so great that scientists are still coming to terms with some of its most basic implications. Here I will describe some theoretical insights and recent experimental results that are leading physicists to revise and expand their ideas about what quantum-mechanical particles are and how they behave. These new ideas are centered around a topic traditionally known as quantum statistics. The name is misleading: the basic physical phenomena do not involve statistics in the usual sense. A better title might have been the quantum mechanics of identity, but the new developments make that name obsolete too. A more accurate description would be the quantum mechanics of world-line topology. Since that is quite a mouthful, most researchers now simply refer to anyon physics.

More here.

Yanis Varoufakis: The West’s Wasted Crisis

Yanis Varoufakis at Project Syndicate:

Last week, in its financial stability review, the European Central Bank issued an angst-ridden warning: Europe is facing a self-perpetuating debt-fueled real estate bubble. What makes the report noteworthy is that the ECB knows who is causing the bubble: the ECB itself, through its policy of quantitative easing (QE) – a polite term for creating money on behalf of financiers. It is akin to your doctors alerting you that the medicine they have prescribed may be killing you.

The scariest part is that it is not the ECB’s fault. The official excuse for QE is that once interest rates had fallen below zero, there was no other way to counter the deflation menacing Europe. But the hidden purpose of QE was to roll over the unsustainable debt of large loss-making corporations and, even more so, of key eurozone member states (like Italy).

Once Europe’s political leaders chose, at the beginning of the euro crisis a decade ago, to remain in denial about massive unsustainable debts, they were bound to throw this hot potato into the central bank’s lap. Ever since, the ECB has pursued a strategy best described as perpetual bankruptcy concealment.

More here.

White Gods

Anna Della Subin in The Paris Review:

“We were superior to the god who had created us,” Adam recalled not long before he died, age seven hundred. According to The Apocalypse of Adam, a Coptic text from the late first century CE, discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945, Adam told his son Seth that he and Eve had moved as a single magnificent being: “I went about with her in glory.” The fall was a plunge from unity into human difference. “God angrily divided us,” Adam recounted. “And after that we grew dim in our minds…” Paradise was a lost sense of self, and it was also a place that would appear on maps, wistfully imagined by generations of Adam’s descendants. In the fifteenth century, European charts located Eden to the east, where the sun rises—an island ringed by a wall of fire. With the coordinates in their minds, Europe’s explorers could envisage a return to wholeness, to transcendence, to the godhood that had once belonged to man.

Every time he stepped off the ship’s rowboat and onto the soft sand, exploring places later known as Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas, Columbus seemed to walk on the clouds. On December 13, he wrote that a chieftain had informed a crowd of two thousand fearful, trembling kinsmen that “the Christians were from heaven.” The people put their hands on their heads, in “a sign of great reverence,” and made offerings of yams and fish. Approached by an envoy of hundreds of islanders several days later, Columbus again recorded their belief in his celestial status, although he noted that the chief and his advisers “were very sorry that they could not understand me, nor I them. However,” he continued, “I knew that they said that, if I wanted anything, the whole island was at my disposal.” Conquest followed apotheosis: every island he found, filled with people allegedly mistaking him for divine, the mariner took possession of for Spain. He would read an indecipherable declaration, then pause for a refusal that could not occur. “No opposition was offered to me,” Columbus wrote.

More here.

The magical miniature worlds of terrariums

Franco and Robson in BBC:

The roots of the modern terrarium can be traced to a 19th Century experiment by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor who also studied botany and entomology. Ward’s interest seems to have arisen from a journey to Jamaica as a 13-year-old boy, when he fell in love with the exotic plant life. Growing up, he developed a large collection of specimens, but he was disappointed to find that many species – particularly the ferns and mosses – failed to thrive in his east London garden, thanks, in large part, to the air pollution of the city. The UK was, after all, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, meaning that his house was “surrounded by, and enveloped in, the smoke of numerous manufacturies”, which brought coal, ash and other toxic chemicals into contact with his precious plants.

The solution came in 1829 from one of Ward’s entomological experiments. He had been trying to hatch the chrysalis of a sphinx moth, buried in some moist mould within a covered bottle. The water, he noticed, would evaporate and then condense on the side, before returning to the mould – seemingly recreating the basic flow of the Earth’s weather systems. After a few days, Ward was surprised to find a tiny fern had begun to grow in the sealed ecosystem.

More here.