Humans have long wondered why we sleep. A well-rested prehistoric mind probably pondered the question, long before Galileo thought to predict the period of the pendulum or to understand how fast objects fall. Why must we put ourselves into this potentially endangering state, one that consumes about a third of our adult lives and even more of our childhood? And we don’t do it grudgingly – why do we, along with dogs, lions and virtually every other animal, apparently enjoy it? Unlike measuring the period of the pendulum, scientists would have to wait much longer to obtain reliable answers, since it’s not so easy to sleep while strangers watch. Doing so involves building sleep disorder clinics for humans and elaborate structures such as platypusariums to observe the REM (rapid eye movement) repose of platypuses.
Over the past few decades, huge amounts of data about the duration of sleep states have been gathered across species, as well as from birth to adulthood in humans. These findings have also been tallied with potential correlates such as melatonin, brain size, metabolic rate, lifespan, and sleep-promoting genes and neurons. Even so, until very recently we’ve lacked a quantitative theory that can predict, for example, why mice sleep roughly 10 times more per day than whales; why baby humans sleep roughly twice as long as adults; why REM and total sleep times change much faster as a baby grows in size than they do with similar size differences across species; and why temperature affects sleep times in cold-blooded animals such as fruit flies.
It’s not often that a shotgun-wielding thief and killer comes to be seen as possessing a moral core. But then it’s not often that you have a character like Omar Little. Or an actor like Michael K Williams to bring him to life. Or a TV series like The Wire that allowed both character and actor to breathe.
The death last week of Williams, possibly of a drugs overdose, has robbed us of one of the most subtle, supple actors of our time. He was outstanding in a number of roles, from Boardwalk Empire to Bessie, from The Night Of to The Road. But it was his portrayal of Omar Little that truly lives in the memory.
The Wire was one of those TV shows that broke the rules of what TV should be, in terms of tone, narrative and pacing, “a television show that thinks it’s a novel”, as the New York Times suggested. But it was much more than that. There are few works in any medium that have more successfully burrowed beneath the skin of our age, exposing that spot where race, class, power and despair coalesce to entrap the human spirit and curdle the American Dream.
When I left Stanford to join Google as an AI research scientist, I “went across the street,” as the saying went. I had been a young assistant professor, first at Georgia Tech and then at Stanford, doing research that was partially funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). At one point, I brought up the ethical issues of researching surveillance technology with the DARPA program manager, but frankly, raising ethical concerns in such a competitive environment felt a bit like labeling myself a troublemaker.
I was ready to move away from defense work, get recognized for software development, and—yes—make enough money to move out of my small, spider-infested apartment on Alma that shook every time the Caltrain went by.
Since then, I’ve learned that digging deeply into public records—combined with a modicum of data science—can lead to greater accountability and transparency.
In 2018, news broke that Google was secretly helping the Pentagon build artificial intelligence to ramp up its drone surveillance program through “Project Maven.” My instinct was that it would be hypocritical for me to complain, given that DARPA had partly funded my previous job.
For almost two decades, I have been attempting to understand the origins and drivers of the culture war that has now engulfed the West. Many paint it as a continuation of the age-old conflict between left and right. But that is misleading. If anything, today’s cultural conflicts, be they arguments over statues or gender identity, coincide with the erosion of traditional ideological differences. Indeed, we have capitalists today who no longer defend capitalism, and an identity politics-obsessed left that is thoroughly hostile towards the working class – especially those who have white skin. The categories of left and right simply do not mean what they used to. And they certainly do not help us make sense of the culture war.
One reason why the culture war is so difficult to understand is that its main protagonists rarely lay out their cause systematically. There is no explicit philosophy or ideology of culture war. Indeed, as I argue in my new book, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture War Over Socialisation, the culture war is driven by an ideology without a name. That is what I set out to explore – the historical origins and main objectives of this nameless ideology.
As I soon discovered, this ideology originated in the late 19th century in the most unlikely of places – namely, the nursery. The first clash in the culture war took place over the question of how children should be raised and educated. And it was this conflict over the socialisation of young people over 100 years ago that unleashed the forces that have led to today’s battles over identity and cultural values.
The Irish writer Colm Tóibín is a busy man. Since he published his first novel, “The South,” at thirty-five, in 1990, he has written eleven more books of fiction. He has also published three reported books, three collections of essays, dozens of introductions to other writers’ work, prefaces to art catalogues, an opera libretto, plays, poems, and so many reviews that it’s surprising when a week goes by and he hasn’t been in at least one of the New York, London, or Dublin papers. When I asked Tóibín—the name is pronounced “cuh-lem toe-bean”—how many articles he had written, he could only guess. “I suppose thousands might be accurate,” he said, adding that his level of output used to be more common among writers: “Anthony Burgess, whom I knew slightly, used to write a thousand words a day. He produced a great amount of literary journalism, as well as the novels.” But, unlike Burgess, Tóibín gravitates to assignments demanding considerable diligence. Reviewing a recent biography of Fernando Pessoa, by Richard Zenith, Tóibín read the eleven-hundred-page text and three translations of Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet.” Tóibín sometimes assimilates his subject to the point that the writer in question begins to sound like one of his own characters. His Pessoa essay, published in August in the London Review of Books, begins, “As he grew older, Fernando Pessoa became less visible, as though he were inexorably being subsumed by dreams and shadows.”
In each soul, thousands of lives are imprisoned— only one escapes, .. but it would have been nice …… if a few more could have gotten away — maybe the actor who would have played an uncut Hamlet or the fondler of the true grain of good wood or the pianist who loved music enough to practice.
It would have been good if the whiner had not gotten away, the one so besotted by the moment … that its consequence toward the next is forgotten.
by Nils Peterson from The Dear Time of Our Talking Frog On The Moon Press, 2020
Ten years ago today, on September 17, 2011, a small band of anarchists, artists, and anti-poverty organizers convened themselves in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, steps from the New York Stock Exchange. They were there to challenge the power of Wall Street and also to try something new in the annals of modern American protest movements: to be a democratic assembly of all who wanted to participate in deciding how and what they would do next. On their first night together that Saturday, perhaps 100 or 200 at best camped out under the park’s 55 honey locust trees.
At first, they were tolerated by the police, since they had stumbled by good fortune into a safe harbor—a privately owned public park that legally allowed people to remain there 24 hours a day. And they were ignored, or derided, by the media, which had seen many Wall Street protests come and go. Over the next few days, their numbers grew modestly while they established working groups for everything from food and health care to a people’s library and scrambled to spread their own messages through the internet. Five days after the Zuccotti occupation began, a nearby protest against the execution of Troy Davis, a Black man in Georgia, brought hundreds of new and somewhat more diverse faces down to the plaza. But it wasn’t until the next Saturday, when the police attacked a column of marchers and one white-shirted deputy was caught on video viciously pepper-spraying a group of women who were already detained, that support for Occupy in New York started to surge.
Mariana Mazzucato, Rainer Kattel, and Josh Ryan-Collins over at Boston Review:
When President Joe Biden campaigned last year under the slogan “build back better,” he signaled a break with decades of economic thinking that prescribed a limited government role in the economy. As the New York Times put it in April, Biden’s proposal to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 is “perhaps the greatest bet in recent American history on what economists call industrial policy, the idea that the government can steer the development of jobs and industries in the economy.”
The United States is not alone. Countries throughout Europe and elsewhere are increasingly turning to the view that governments should use industrial policy to tackle grand challenges. Recognizing this trend, the International Monetary Fund issued a report in 2019 called “The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy.”
Why could this policy “not be named”? The short answer is that industrial policy was one of the many casualties of an international shift in economic policy that began in the 1980s and flourished under the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. The emergent sensibility—what we now call neoliberalism—was codified in 1989 in the Washington Consensus, which championed privatization, deregulation, and free trade. Along with these central pillars came an emphasis on low budget deficits, independent central banks focused on low inflation, and the liberalization of trade and foreign direct investment. This outlook was deeply confident in markets and deeply skeptical of government action, beyond the state’s limited role in enforcing property rules and investing in education and defense. “On the basis of an exhaustive review of the experience of developing economies during the last thirty years,” the World Bank summed up in the early 1990s, “attempts to guide resource allocation with nonmarket mechanisms have generally failed to improve economic performance.”
Today it is precisely those “market mechanisms” that appear not to have delivered on their promise.
Francesco Pacifico in Sidecar (photo by Erling Mandelmann):
Roberto Calasso died this summer at the age of eighty. Among the unpindownable Italian erudites – Eco, Calvino, Pasolini – the author of the international bestseller The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988), a hybrid meditation on the enduring relevance of Greek myth, is perhaps the hardest to figure out. The Marriage was the second chapter of a hazy, complex and confounding project – Calasso called it an ‘opera’ and would never explain much further – that might be described as a sustained effort to unlock the mystical potential of literature. Extending to eleven volumes with La tavoletta dei destini (2020), it ranges across world history and geography, freely connecting Kafka and Baudelaire, the Vedas and the Bible, Tiepolo and Talleyrand, Mesopotamian and Greek mythology. Of the first installment, The Ruin of Kasch (1983) – whose wandering, eclectically citational reflections on ancient ritual and the nature of the modern established his procedure – Calasso wrote that he wanted to steer clear of the essay form as it had become ‘sclerotized’. ‘From aphorism to brief poem, from cogent analysis of some specific issue to narrated scene’, the book he’d written was rather ‘a whole host of forms…’
Calasso’s hybrids gained worldwide traction in the cosmopolitan eighties and nineties, touted by stars of international letters like Brodsky and Rushdie – the latter praising the erudition and mix of novelistic and essayistic in his book on Vedic theology, Ka (1996). Not perceived as part of a cohort or scene (in contrast to Pasolini and Nuovi Argomenti, or Eco and the Gruppo 63), Calasso was never characterised as particularly Italian, and this always inhibited popular understanding of his work.
In a coolly furious essay published in book form in 1968, Hugh Trevor-Roper singled out Kim Philby’s “truly extraordinary egotism and complacency” as forces that seemed to the historian “to have dominated Philby’s character and determined his lonely and difficult course”. Trevor-Roper knew whereof he spoke, for he had served with the British Secret Intelligence Service during the war and saw much of Philby during those years. His observations on his former friend are shrewd. Only a man who believed in himself utterly could have given himself utterly to a cause, as Philby did.
Yet he was no fanatic; anything but. John le Carré – who, incidentally, Trevor-Roper strongly attacks in his Philby monograph – pointed out that in the depths of the “fanatic heart” there lurks a doubt, and doubt, in such a heart, is a fatal weakness.
“The world had enough novels,” Richard Powers wrote in “Galatea 2.2,” his semi-autobiographical and arguably best novel, published in 1995. “Certain writers were best paid to keep their fields out of production.”
Among those writers, a quarter of a century later, may be Powers himself. His new one, “Bewilderment,” is so meek, saccharine and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the mind.
“Bewilderment” is the follow-up to “The Overstory” (2018), his beloved novel about trees, the importance of maintaining forests and people, in that order. It won a Pulitzer Prize and made Powers something close to a secular saint. Let no one say it was overrated.
All my friends are finding new beliefs. This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees. In a highly literary and hitherto religiously-indifferent Jew God whomps on like a genetic generator. Paleo, Keto, Zone, South Beach, Bourbon. Exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine. One man married a woman twenty years younger and twice in one brunch used the word verdant; another’s brick-fisted belligerence gentles into dementia, and one, after a decade of finical feints and teases like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea, decides to die. Priesthoods and beasthoods, sombers and glees, high-styles renunciations and avocations of dirt, sobrieties, satieties, pilgrimages to the very bowels of being … All my friends are finding new beliefs and I am finding it harder and harder to keep track of the new gods and the new loves, and the old gods and the old loves, and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives, and the planet’s turning faster in the blackness, and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends, my beautiful, credible friends.
A team of researchers with biotechnology corporation Genentech Inc., has developed a new way to capture the origins and early adaptive processes that are involved in therapy responses to cancer treatments. In their paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the group describes how their new system can be used to help treat resistant types of cancer.
As the researchers note, the current approach to treating patients with cancer is to give them therapies that their doctor believes are best suited to the kind of cancer they have and then watching to see how well it works—and then modifying the approach if the outcome is less than hoped due to resistance. To improve the process, the team has developed a system that is able to take into account pre-existing features of cancer cells and the changes that might have come about because of them that could lead to treatment resistance. The new system, called TraCe-seq involves analyzing clonal responses to various treatments applied to mutated lung cancer cells—using a single-cell RNA sequencing method. As part of its development, the researchers used EGFR-targeting therapies, which included kinase inhibitors that have been shown to disrupt enzyme binding.
The researchers note that the system is reliant on combinations of different cellular barcoding along with sequential single-cell sequencing. The bar-coding, they further note, allows for using clonal fitness with untreated cells along with those that are exposed to a variety of different therapies.
In his writings, Wells conveyed a plethora of futuristic prophecies, from space travel to genetic engineering, from the atomic bomb to the world wide web. There was no other fiction writer who saw into the future of humankind as clearly and boldly as he did.
Were he to have been alive at the very end of the 20th century, what would he have made of that world? I am especially curious to know what he would have thought about the unbridled optimism characteristic of the era, an optimism shared by liberal politicians, political scientists and Silicon Valley alike. The rosy conviction that western democracy had triumphed once and for all and that, thanks to the proliferation of digital technologies, the whole world would, sooner or later, become one big democratic global village. The naive expectation that, if you could only spread information freely beyond borders, people would become informed citizens, and thus make the right choices at the right time. If history is by definition linear and progressive – if there is no viable alternative to liberal democracy – why should you worry about the future of human rights, or rule of law, or freedom of speech or media diversity? The western world was regarded as safe, solid, stable. Democracy, once achieved, could not be disintegrated. How could anyone who had tasted the freedoms of democracy ever agree to discard it to the winds?
Fast forward, and today this dualistic way of seeing the world is shattered. The ground beneath our feet does not feel that solid any more. We have entered the Age of Angst. Ours is the age of pessimism. Ours is a world that is hurting. If Wells were alive today, what would he think of this new century with its increasing polarisation, rising populist authoritarianism, and the bewildering pace of consumption – including consumption of misinformation – all of which are exacerbated by digital technologies?
In 1920, after failing five times to find a publisher for his newly finished book, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein consoled himself in a letter to Bertrand Russell:
Either my piece is a work of the highest rank, or it is not a work of the highest rank. In the latter (and more probable) case I myself am in favour of it not being printed. And in the former case it’s a matter of indifference whether it’s printed twenty or a hundred years sooner or later. After all, who asks whether the Critique of Pure Reason… was written in 17x or y.
The following year the book finally found a publisher. The 100th anniversary of its publication this year is being celebrated all over the world by exhibitions, conferences, radio programmes and articles, all of which attest to its recognition as “a work of the highest rank”.