Mists, Mellow Fruitfulness, Spiders in Bedsheets—Enter Autumn

by David S. Greer

The table is set, dinner guests welcome….  Myles Clarke photo.

John Keats can be forgiven for overlooking the spiders in his ode “To Autumn”. Who can blame him for accentuating the positive, given the health issues that eventually overcame him, barely 25, in his rude room by the foot of the Spanish Steps?

My sometime island abode in the Salish Sea, the inland sea that touches Vancouver and Seattle and is home to the Canadian Gulf Islands and the American San Juans, is a long way from the Spanish Steps and a favorite haunt of spiders in autumn. Early on a late September morning on the cliff-edge path to Gowlland Point, dewdrops sparkle like diamonds in elaborate silken webs draped over long grasses with exquisite care. Spiders are to autumn as strawberries are to June. What’s not to like?

An older cabin in the woods is an invitation to wildlife invasion. Black-tailed deer content themselves with napping under the deck, and river otters make the quarter-mile trek from the ocean on rare occasions to investigate the crawl space as a potential den, but entering the interior of the cabin is the particular province of birds and bats (accidentally) and spiders (less so). Field mice would gladly join the parade, and have done so in the past, but for the time being are flummoxed by plugs of steel wool in every mouse-sized hole. Their tactical engineering squads are believed to be working on solutions every day. As for other invaders, live rescues are my preferred approach. Hummingbirds and wrens can be trapped in Tupperware containers, a sheet of cardboard slipped over the opening, and released outdoors. A juice glass will suffice for errant wasps and moths. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 63

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

The international academic conference circuit—for an amusing account of such circuits, one may read the British writer David Lodge’s novel Small World, which is second in his trilogy of campus novels, the first of which Changing Places is largely on Berkeley in the 1960’s—also brought me to some potentially hazardous situations. Once a reception given for us conference participants by the King of Spain indirectly helped me in what could have been a serious loss from a pickpocket in Madrid. The public reception hall was not far from the hotel where we were staying. I was walking there from the hotel with a fellow conference participant. I was busy explaining a particular point to her in conversation when I had a half-sense that two young women who brushed by seemed a bit too close, and I ignored that for a minute. The next minute I felt the inside of my jacket pocket and it was gone—a wallet containing not just money but a few important cards including credit cards (since then I have been careful not to put everything in the same wallet or pocket). So I excused myself from my companion and ran to a nearby policeman and told him about it. He brought out a whistle and made a signaling sound. Within 5 minutes another policeman from the opposite pavement came toward me with my wallet and asked me to check if everything was in place. Those two unlucky young women did not realize that as the King was to be there soon, the whole area was thick with plain-clothes policemen.

My conferences sometimes took place in cities where more violent robberies were quite frequent even in broad daylight. I remember the first day we were in our MacArthur network conference in Rio de Janeiro, at the lunch break we were told that the lunch would be in a restaurant just one block away. When we came out the building we saw that some giant commandos were guarding us all along the road as we were walking to the restaurant. I was told that this was part of the conference arrangement. I thought the organizers were over-doing it. But in the afternoon during the conference one woman in our group, who without telling anyone went to the store just next door to the hotel main gate, came back in tears saying that she was mugged. I faced a roughly similar situation in Nairobi and also in a couple of cities in South Africa; during the lunch break I thought I’d just go out for short walk around the big hotels where our conferences were, but the hotel guards would refuse to let us go out for the sake of our safety. I noted this situation might not be unrelated to the fact that in all those 3 countries, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, the level of inequality is extremely high. Read more »

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Mahsa Amini and the bravery of Iran’s anti-hijab protesters

Joanna Williams in Spiked:

The word ‘bravery’ is applied all too liberally nowadays. A posh actress tells the world she is non-binary and wants to be called ‘they / them’? How brave! An ageing television presenter comes out as gay? So brave! Footballers kneel for Black Lives Matter? Stunning and brave! But then, every so often, we are confronted with true bravery, with breathtaking acts of courage. And we find that the words we might once have reached for now seem woefully inadequate.

Over the past few days, women and men have been taking to the streets in towns and cities all over Iran, in protest against the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. Despite the risk of death, injury, arrest and social shaming, the demonstrations have gained momentum day by day. And while they were sparked by the treatment of Amini, they have now become a broader expression of anger with the Iranian regime.

Mahsa Amini personifies courage. Last week, Amini, a 22-year-old woman from Saqqez in Iranian Kurdistan, was stopped by police outside a metro station in Tehran, the Iranian capital. Amini had shown her hair in public. In Iran, this is a punishable offence. Under the regime’s strict Islamic laws, women must wear the hijab when in public and must make sure their arms and legs are covered by loose-fitting clothing. Amini’s refusal to comply led to her arrest by the Iranian state’s so-called morality police.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Your Data is Political

Your presence rises from scavenging: pages and words
and webs and signs. You’ve become a target but without
the old spy store gadgets. I’d like to know what you know,
not just your count. I click on you, then you click back,
precious darling surface. We add, poke, text.
On my iPhone, you’re called The Outlier.
Your profile pic of a yellow vase
is so allusory, so art, or your skirt flips up and you’re viral,
or someone else outs you as the double-crossing wife
because it’s the Old West open season on Facebook.
Pages ripple with alacrity, with betrayal and Outlook keeps
the other engine purring and sneaky. Two presences.
The real and the fable vanish before you and to them
within barcode, a cornucopia of insight
(a family’s fleecing, caravans of product, blurry pirated video).
I’ll play Sarah McLachlin over your visage, elegiac, or someone
will paste your face onto the porno performance artist
baptized with secretion. I’ll be the cultural anxiety,
and you can be the Luddite. We’ll be the perfect pairing
of antediluvian (the wine) and digital (the host).

by Carmen Gimenez Smith
Milk & Filth
University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 2013

Has Henry James Put Me in This Mood?

Donna Dennis in The Paris Review:

Ted and I saw one another off and on for about five years. In the spring of 1970, we lived together on Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village, until June, when Ted went to teach a course in Buffalo. I moved into the artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette’s loft on East Fourteenth Street while they summered in Maine. Ted stayed with me for a number of weekends that summer, and he proposed that we undertake a collaborative book. As I remember, I began the collaboration by making drawings with empty word balloons. I’m pretty sure Ted provided the project’s title at the outset. Ted would take the drawings—I think I made them in batches of four or five—back to Buffalo, where he began to fill in the words. We went back and forth this way, sometimes in person, sometimes by mail. I had forgotten all about this collaboration by the time Ted Berrigan’s youngest son, Eddie, contacted me in the summer of 2018. He wanted to bring me something his father and I had done together, which had recently turned up. As I looked at sixteen pages of my drawings and Ted’s handwritten words, the memories came back. These diaries describe some of them, along with the artistic milieu I was in in New York at that time—which included the painter Martha Diamond and the poets Bernadette Mayer, Michael Brownstein, Anne Waldman, and John Giorno.

More here.

Flooded with AI-generated images, some art communities ban them completely

Benj Edwards in Ars Technica:

The arrival of widely available image synthesis models such as Midjourney and Stable Diffusion has provoked an intense online battle between artists who view AI-assisted artwork as a form of theft (more on that below) and artists who enthusiastically embrace the new creative tools.

Established artist communities are at a tough crossroads because they fear non-AI artwork getting drowned out by an unlimited supply of AI-generated art, and yet the tools have also become notably popular among some of their members.

In banning art created through image synthesis in its Art Portal, Newgrounds wrote, “We want to keep the focus on art made by people and not have the Art Portal flooded with computer-generated art.”

More here.

Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll visualizes a mind-bending geometry that inspired many, from Einstein to Escher

Sean Carroll in Pioneer Works:

Of Euclid’s five postulates, which form the basis of Euclidean geometry, the fifth is the most controversial. Called the Parallel Postulate, it’s a pretty basic idea. Take a flat piece of paper, draw a line segment and then draw two lines that are perpendicular to it. The Parallel Postulate simply says that the lines will remain forever parallel, staying precisely the same distance apart even if we extend them to infinity on either side of the line segment.

For a long time mathematicians strived to prove the Parallel Postulate using the first four (more) basic postulates, and so elevate it from a postulated axiom to a proven theorem. It turns out that you can’t, and for good reason—the postulate isn’t true for all geometries. Euclidean geometry, represented by the flat piece of paper, and on which lines that start off parallel never intersect, is just one kind of geometry, but there are others. You can imagine replacing the Parallel Postulate with some alternative: maybe lines that are parallel initially draw closer together and touch eventually, or maybe they always move apart. The first option is the case with spherical geometry, which describes shapes drawn on the surface of a sphere (think of lines of longitude that start of parallel at the equator but converge at the poles), while the second defines hyperbolic geometry, which is more like the surface of a saddle or a Pringle’s potato chip.

These non-Euclidean alternatives weren’t noticed for millennia. Euclid himself flourished around 300 BCE, and the first alternatives to the Parallel Postulate were proposed in the early 1800s by Russian mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky and Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai. Interestingly, both studied the hyperbolic alternative to flat Euclidean geometry.

This raises two questions: First, why did it take so long? And second, why did the mathematicians study hyperbolic geometry before spherical? Everyone knew about spheres. How hard could it have been to imagine drawing some lines on them, and exploring the geometric consequences of doing so?

The questions share a common answer.

More here.

Janus’ GPT Wrangling

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten:

Janus (pseudonym by request) works at AI alignment startup Conjecture. Their hobby, which is suspiciously similar to their work, is getting GPT-3 to do interesting things.

For example, with the right prompts, you can get stories where the characters become gradually more aware that they are characters being written by some sort of fiction engine, speculate on what’s going on, and sometimes even make pretty good guesses about the nature of GPT-3 itself.

Janus says this happens most often when GPT makes a mistake – for example, writing a story set in the Victorian era, then having a character take out her cell phone. Then when it tries to predict the next part – when it’s looking at the text as if a human wrote it, and trying to determine why a human would have written a story about the Victorian era where characters have cell phones – it guesses that maybe it’s some kind of odd sci-fi/fantasy dream sequence or simulation or something. So the characters start talking about the inconsistencies in their world and whether it might be a dream or a simulation. Each step of this process is predictable and non-spooky, but the end result is pretty weird.

Can the characters work out that they are in GPT-3, specifically?

More here.

Time doesn’t flow like a river. So why do we feel swept along?

Nick Young in Psyche:

As you read this article, time will seem to pass. Right now, you are reading these words, but now you are reading these ones. What was present just an instant ago seems to have already slipped into the past. You will carry this feeling with you – as objects change and move, as thoughts run through your head, as feelings ebb and flow – until you fall asleep tonight. Heraclitus thought that time was like a river: ‘Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.’ Our experience of the world seems to back this up. It certainly feels as if time is sweeping us along. Yet, physicists and philosophers will tell you that Heraclitus was wrong. Time, they say, does not actually pass. In his book The Order of Time (2018), the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli writes:

What could be more universal and obvious than this flowing?

And yet things are somewhat more complicated than this. Reality is often very different from what it seems. The Earth appears to be flat but is in fact spherical. The Sun seems to revolve in the sky when it is really we who are spinning. Neither is the structure of time what it seems to be: it is different from this uniform, universal flowing.

So, what is the real structure of time? Well, it’s complicated.

More here.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

A Fierce, Fragile Utopia: A Conversation with Ajit A. George

David M. Higgins talks to Ajit George in LA Review of Books:

JOURNEYS THROUGH THE RADIANT CITADEL is the first Dungeons & Dragons product of its kind in the game’s nearly 50-year history written entirely by authors of color. In addition to the 16 Black and Brown writers who contributed to this groundbreaking adventure anthology, other people of color who contributed to the book include the co–art director, two rules developers, one editor, the marketing director, a multitude of consultants and researchers, and two-thirds of all the artists (including both cover artists).

The visionary behind this project is Ajit A. George, who served as creator, co–project lead, and co-writer for the book. Outside the gaming world, George is the director of operations for the international nonprofit the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. He has spoken for TEDx, the International Monetary Fund, and NPR on topics including education, gender equality, community development, and poverty alleviation. As a game creator, he graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and he has written for a variety of gaming companies such as Bully Pulpit, Thorny Games, and Monte Cook Games. He has also organized international collaborative live-action role-playing events, and he is an energetic diversity consultant, speaker, and activist.

More here.

Servants No Longer: On Civic Friendship

From a conservative but unorthodox side of the spectrum, Chris Griswold in American Compass:

Aristotle uses the term “civic friendship” to describe the bonds that emerge from a sense of common purpose in a shared political project. “Citizens are civic friends,” the Aristotelian philosopher Paul Ludwig writes, “when they share an agreement about important practical matters: preeminently, they agree about the regime, their political system.” Communal commitment to a common endeavour results in a kind of general goodwill of citizens toward one another—the seeds of civic friendship. It is what allows a society to remain whole and undivided rather than fragmenting into warring subcommunities. It is also a good description of what American life so conspicuously lacks.

How, though, does a society ensure that its members do believe themselves to be in it together, with common goals and shared outcomes? In December 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered remarks to the Fourth AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention in Miami Beach, and attempted to answer that question.

King was stepping into a heated and challenging situation. The AFL-CIO was plagued by internal acrimony and public hesitation regarding civil rights. King chose to address the tension directly. He told the assembled delegates that the civil rights and labor movements had to work together, because their aims were inseparable. Democracy was not complete and could not remain stable without a working public empowered to fully participate in the nation’s economic life. A voice at the ballot box represented only incomplete equality without a collective voice in the workplace.

More here.

The Genizah of the Self

Marco Roth in Tablet:

Over a year ago—it was last Tisha B’Av—I found myself moving house for the third time since 2019. This move was the big one, resulting from the sale of the apartment in Philadelphia that my wife and I had bought together, renovated together, and had lived in for six mostly happy years and three mostly difficult ones. From the spring of 2020, we’d rented it out, furnished, once we began the final unraveling of our common life. Moves bring inevitable reckonings, moves like these exceptionally so.

Amid the furniture, the books, the rugs, and various objects—both those I’d acquired independently and those passed down from ancestors—I kept five boxes, two of them equal parts tape and cardboard, containing an archive of my mental life, or at least my professional mental life. There was a box full of contracts for various articles and my book contract, drafts of that first and so far only book with copy-editor marks. Here were all the college and grad school syllabi and papers; notebooks from 10 years of higher education; xeroxed articles from course packets and research; graded tests; graded papers with comments; drafts of early, never-completed stories on legal notepads; drafts of my never-completed Ph.D. dissertation; there was my undergraduate thesis on Proust; my first semester graduate school paper on Benjamin’s Arcades Project; all the worksheets and tests for the “Italian for Reading Knowledge” summer intensive course I’d needed to pass my last language requirement; there was that undergrad paper with a professor’s telling remark, “brilliant but self-defeating,” a memento from a riskier and more insightful era of student-teacher relations.

How could I possibly hold on to all this stuff? What purpose did I think it served? It’s not as if I intended to return to my Ph.D. research at this point in my life, although all of it was in there, somewhere.

More here.

Saul Kripke, Philosopher Who Found Truths in Semantics, Dies at 81

Sam Roberts in the New York Times:

Saul Kripke, a math prodigy and pioneering logician whose revolutionary theories on language qualified him as one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers, died on Sept. 15 in Plainsboro, N.J. He was 81.

His death, at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center, was caused by pancreatic cancer, according to Romina Padro, director of the Saul Kripke Center at the City University of New York, where Professor Kripke had been a distinguished professor of philosophy and computer science since 2003 and had capped a career exploring how people communicate.

Professor Kripke’s classic work, “Naming and Necessity,” first published in 1972 and drawn from three lectures he delivered at Princeton University in 1970 before he was 30, was considered one of the century’s most evocative philosophical books.

“Kripke challenged the notion that anyone who uses terms, especially proper names, must be able to correctly identify what the terms refer to,” said Michael Devitt, a distinguished professor of philosophy who recruited Professor Kripke to the City University Graduate Center in Manhattan.

“Rather, people can use terms like ‘Einstein,’ ‘springbok,’ perhaps even ‘computer,’ despite being too ignorant or wrong to provide identifying descriptions of their referents,” Professor Devitt said. “We can use terms successfully not because we know much about the referent but because we’re linked to the referent by a great social chain of communication.”

More here.

The Power of Positive Declassifying

Anand Giridharadas in The New Yorker:

“There doesn’t have to be a process, as I understand it. . . . If you’re the President of the United States, you can declassify just by saying it’s declassified, even by thinking about it.”

Donald Trump

There is a secret. And that secret is how to make top-secret secrets not secret anymore using only your mind. All that stands between you and doing this is embracing the power of positive declassifying. Let others submit formal written declassification requests to the proper agencies. You are special. You are powerful. You are going to jail. The first step is gratitude. Close your eyes—but also maybe keep one open for the F.B.I.—and say meaningful thank-yous to those whose service you will be betraying.

Picture each spy in your mind and thank them for their heroic and unsung work—whether it was long years spent pretending to be Vladimir Putin’s “sports masseuse” or a terrifying night in an Iranian nuclear facility spent replacing uranium with a slurry of crushed Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Then, with your heart full of appreciation, hum—more of a flat “mm” here, as “om” is now considered a little appropriative—and visualize each agent you may be sending to an untimely death. Now chant, in your mind, I declassify, I declassify, with my mind, I declassify.

More here.

I measure every Grief I meet

Emily Dickinson in Poets.org:

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, eyes – 
I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long – 
Or did it just begin – 
I could not tell the Date of Mine – 
It feels so old a pain – 

I wonder if it hurts to live – 
And if They have to try – 
And whether – could They choose between – 
It would not be – to die – 

More here.

Saturday Poem


Trees know these things –
how to survive by bending with the wind
stretching roots to quench thirst.

When branches break from winter’s wet snow,
trees know how to heal wounds
make do with what remains.

They even know how to die with grace, rotting back to soft earth,
offering themselves for what comes next.

If I could today
I would become that tree,
poised in front of this green metal chair
where I sit this early spring afternoon.

Empty of color,
its branches wait patiently for their blossoming
as months from now they will accept their dying back to grey.

Clinging to this craggy hillside
it stands tall, crooked, framed by endless sky above,
steadfast ground beneath.

If I could today
I would borrow this tree’s belonging in the world.

Stephanie Shafran
from the
Bouttelle-Day Poetry Center
Smith College, Northampton Ma.

‘Life Is Hard’ By Kieran Setiya

Anil Gomes at The Guardian:

Philosophy’s role here is not primarily analytical. We cannot be argued into coping with suffering. Instead, Setiya’s book is guided by an insight from Iris Murdoch: that philosophical progress often consists of finding new and better ways to describe some stretch of our experience. This kind of progress is not won by logic. It requires careful attention, precise thinking and the ability to draw distinctions that cast light on that which is of value. Setiya is at his best when he has something or someone clearly in view – for example in his account of living with chronic pain, or his discussion of the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil.

And if the prescriptions sometimes seem a little pat, that is a danger inherent to the project. Setiya’s targets are the infirmities of human life in general, but many of the problems that bedevil us are as individual as we are.

more here.