Adjunct Hell: The rise of a new kind of campus novel

Maggie Doherty in The Nation:

Not so long ago, there seemed to be something radical in rejecting the future. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. In the 1990s, history was over; the United States and capitalism had won. Strutting conservative televangelists and smug liberal technocrats took turns running the world. Globalization promised more of everything: more productivity, more innovation, more wealth. Economic prosperity and regressive moralism went hand in hand. The nuclear family was once again sacred, and non-normative sexuality remained stigmatized: Don’t ask, but also don’t tell. Conservatives—as well as some liberals—supported any policy that promised to protect children, born and unborn, so they might take advantage of the bright future that awaited them. Meritocracy was supposedly thriving, even as inequality prevailed everywhere.

In response, a reasonable nihilism emerged in the era’s counterculture. If conservatives, and even some liberals, were “pro-life” and “focused on the family,” all in the name of a bountiful future provided to us by the end of the Cold War, then what positions should radicals take?

More here.

Sean Carrol’s Mindscape Podcast: Niall Ferguson on Histories, Networks, and Catastrophes

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

The world has gone through a tough time with the COVID-19 pandemic. Every catastrophic event is unique, but there are certain commonalities to how such crises play out in our modern interconnected world. Historian Niall Ferguson wrote a book from a couple of years ago, The Square and the Tower, that considered how an interplay between networks and hierarchies has shaped the history of the world. This analysis is directly relevant to how we deal with large-scale catastrophes, which is the subject of his new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. We talk about global culture as a complex system, and what it means for our ability to respond to crisis.

More here.

Jeffrey Sachs: Share the Intellectual Property on COVID-19

Jeffrey D. Sachs in Project Syndicate:

The governments of South Africa, India, and dozens of other developing countries are calling for the rights on intellectual property (IP), including vaccine patents, to be waived to accelerate the worldwide production of supplies to fight COVID-19. They are absolutely correct. IP for fighting COVID-19 should be waived, and indeed actively shared among scientists, companies, and nations.

The pharmaceutical industry and the governments of several vaccine-producing countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Commission, have been resisting the IP waiver, while 150 public leaders and experts have sent an  to US President Joe Biden in support of it. There is no longer any question about who is right. Given the surge of COVID-19 in several regions, , the continuing emergence of new and deadly variants of the virus, and the inability of the current vaccine producers to keep pace with global needs, an IP waiver or its equivalent has become a practical urgent need as well as a moral imperative.

As a general principle, IP should not stand in the way of scaling up production to fight COVID-19 or any other public health emergency.

More here.

Persuading the Body to Regenerate Its Limbs

Matthew Hutson in The New Yorker:

Each year, researchers from around the world gather at Neural Information Processing Systems, an artificial-intelligence conference, to discuss automated translation software, self-driving cars, and abstract mathematical questions. It was odd, therefore, when Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University, gave a presentation at the 2018 conference, which was held in Montreal. Fifty-one, with light-green eyes and a dark beard that lend him a mischievous air, Levin studies how bodies grow, heal, and, in some cases, regenerate. He waited onstage while one of Facebook’s A.I. researchers introduced him, to a packed exhibition hall, as a specialist in “computation in the medium of living systems.”

Levin began his talk, and a drawing of a worm appeared on the screen behind him. Some of the most important discoveries of his career hinge on the planarian—a type of flatworm about two centimetres long that, under a microscope, resembles a cartoon of a cross-eyed phallus. Levin is interested in the planarian because, if you cut off its head, it grows a new one; simultaneously, its severed head grows a new tail. Researchers have discovered that no matter how many pieces you cut a planarian into—the record is two hundred and seventy-nine—you will get as many new worms. Somehow, each part knows what’s missing and builds it anew. What Levin showed his audience was something even more striking: a video of a two-headed planarian. He had cut off the worm’s tail, then persuaded the organism to grow a second head in its place. No matter how many times the extra head was cut off, it grew back.

The most astonishing part was that Levin hadn’t touched the planarian’s genome. Instead, he’d changed the electrical signals among the worm’s cells. Levin explained that, by altering this electric patterning, he’d revised the organism’s “memory” of what it was supposed to look like. In essence, he’d reprogrammed the worm’s body—and, if he wanted to, he could switch it back.

More here.

Angels of History

Andy Battle in Boston Review:

I remember the first time I ever saw a ghost. I was tiptoeing through the remnants of a burnt-out row house in Washington, D.C., in one of the neighborhoods where, in the 1990s, one could still discern the architectural scars from the urban rebellions meant to avenge the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., thirty years before.

Stepping gingerly over charred beams, scanning the scattered furniture, my eye landed on a toy—a doll, lying relatively unscathed amidst the debris. In an instant I saw the house as it had been, in its unburnt serenity. A family had lived there. Children grew up there. Psyches, fortunes, relationships germinated in this place. Fortunes that were not mine, lives given their shape by the monstrous hammers of class and race in America. The image I saw—the past I made—awakened questions. What happened to these people? Where had they gone? Why were there so many houses like this one, abandoned and empty in a city where so many lacked homes? That was probably the day I decided to become a historian.

Historians live a good deal of their lives in the past. In doing so, one realizes how many ways there are to inhabit it. The past can serve variously as wellspring, shelter, or cage. There are many pasts to live, as well—personal pasts and political pasts, individual and collective ones. Oftentimes we live them all at once.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Sunday School Circa 1950

“Who made you?” was always
The question
The answer was always
Well, there we stood
Tree feet high
Head bowed
Leaning into

I no longer recall
The Catechism
Or brood on the genesis
Of life

I ponder the exchange
And salvage mostly
the leaning.

by Alice Walker
Her Blue Body Everything we Know
Harvest Books, 1991

Memories of Murder: In the Killing Jar

Ed Park at The Current:

In September 2019, about halfway between claiming the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May and earning multiple Oscar nominations in January 2020, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was briefly upstaged by a movie from the director’s past. His second feature, Memories of Murder (2003), had grappled with South Korea’s most chilling cold case: a spree in which ten women and girls were raped and murdered near Hwaseong, about twenty-six miles south of Seoul. (Song Kang Ho, a star of Parasite, plays one of the police detectives obsessed with nabbing the culprit.) According to a May 2020 CNN story, “About 226,000 people lived in the area, scattered among a number of villages between forested hills and rice paddies,” in a region that previously had reported “no real crime to speak of.” The slaughter began in 1986 and continued for five years. A suspect was jailed for one of the crimes in 1989 and released on parole in 2009; the others, however, went unanswered. The specter of what have been called Korea’s first serial killings profoundly spooked the nation: Police investigated over 20,000 people, some even after the statute of limitations expired in 2006. Over two million “man-days” were devoted to the case—nearly 5,500 years, longer by a millennium than Korea itself has been around. You could think of the investigation as an entire civilization built around a singular depravity.

more here.

Animals On Trial

Jeffrey Kastner at Cabinet Magazine:

The history of animals in the legal system sketched by Evans is rich and resonant; it provokes profound questions about the evolution of jurisprudential procedure, social and religious organization and notions of culpability and punishment, and fundamental philosophical questions regarding the place of man within the natural order. In Evans’s narrative, all creatures great and small have their moment before the bench. Grasshoppers and mice; flies and caterpillars; roosters, weevils, sheep, horses, turtle doves—each takes its turn in the dock, in many cases represented by counsel; each meets a fate in accordance with precedent, delivered by a duly appointed official.2 Yet for all the import (both practical and metaphysical) of the issues on which they touch, in their details the tales Evans spins often seem to suggest nothing so much as a series of lost Monty Python sketches—from the story of the distinguished 16th-century French jurist Bartholomew Chassenée, who was said to have made his not inconsiderable reputation for creative argument and persistent advocacy on the strength of his representation of “some rats, which had been put on trial before the ecclesiastical court of Autun on the charge of having feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley crop of that province,”3 to the 1750 trial in Vanvres of a “she-ass, taken in the act of coition” with one Jacques Ferron. In the latter case, the unfortunate quadruped was sentenced to death along with her seducer and appeared headed for the gallows until a last minute reprieve was issued on behalf of the parish priest and citizenry of the village, who had “signed a certificate stating that they had known the said she-ass for four years, and that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to anyone…” Nudge, nudge; say no more.

more here.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Projected Mind: What Is It Like To Be Hubert?

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Hubert, the author’s cheerful plush ladybug flatmate.

Meet Hubert. For going on ten years now, Hubert has shared a living space with my wife and me. He’s a generally cheerful fellow, optimistic to a fault, occasionally prone to a little mischief; in fact, my wife, upon seeing the picture, remarked that he looked inordinately well-behaved. He’s fond of chocolate and watching TV, which may be the reason why his chief dwelling place is our couch, where most of the TV-watching and chocolate-eating transpires. He also likes to dance, is curious, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm.

Of course, you might want to object: Hubert is neither of these things. He doesn’t genuinely like anything, he doesn’t have any desire for chocolate, he can’t dance, much less enjoy doing so. Hubert, indeed, is afflicted by a grave handicap: he isn’t real. He can only like what I claim he likes; he only dances if I (or my wife) animate him; he can’t really eat chocolate, or watch TV. But Hubert is an intrepid, indomitable spirit: he won’t let such a minor setback as his own non-existence stop him from having a good time.

And indeed, the matter, once considered, is not necessarily that simple. Hubert’s beliefs and desires are not my beliefs and desires: I don’t always like the same shows, and I’m not much for dancing (although I confess we’re well-aligned in our fondness of chocolate). The question is, then, whom these beliefs and desires belong to. Are they pretend-beliefs, beliefs falsely attributed? Are they beliefs without a believer? Or, for a more radical option, does the existence of these beliefs imply the existence of some entity holding them? Read more »

Surveillance Capitalism: How Big Tech went Rogue

by Martin Butler

Shoshona Zuboff’s “The age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of Powergives an impressive and comprehensive account of how the big tech companies gained their economic dominance, and why this is a problem.[1] We hear much about how these companies fail to pay their fair share of taxes, how they have become monopolies, and how they enable online abuse.[2] Zuboff’s concerns, however, are with a less obvious problem but one that is perhaps more insidious.

The main companies she has in mind are Google and Facebook, although the methods they have discovered are, she claims, spreading throughout the capitalist economy and giving rise to a new form of capitalism altogether, which she identifies as surveillance capitalism. This, she argues, is something so different from anything we have experienced before that we are completely unprepared to deal with it, and it has arisen so quickly and come to dominate so much about our lives that we are still like rabbits caught in the head-lights. Zuboff reminds us of a pivotal truth, easily forgotten, that despite the disingenuously user-friendly message they assiduously promote, these two companies are in essence platforms for advertising and this more than anything else determines what they do. Read more »

Monday Poem

Burning Bush

At twenty I danced the tops of wallsBurning Bush
Najinsky of the double top plate

bent in-two like an onion shoot
unbending up through an earthen gate

lifting sticks to be put in place
nailing their tails held against my boot

walking the wires of gravity’s net
as a spider commands the filament web

hung in the crotch of the jamb of a door
between one post and its lintel head

From the crow’s nest of my wall-top perch
poised to get the next piece set

in air as clear as a baby’s thoughts
surveying homes unlived-in yet

fresh-footed, balanced, without a clue
assessing my recent work and worth:

the shadows of studs plumb and true
lying like bars over up-turned earth

Sweatskin slickkening in the light
breath as sure as the bellows of god

biceps built by the truth of weight,
muscles doing their natural jobs:

arms of sinew, bone and grit
reaching to haul the next board up

to be lifted and laid wall to ridge
and fixed by hammer blows on steel

fueled by blasts of the burning bush
in the orchard of god that has ever spun

like the fire that made big Moses reel
the burning bush we call the sun

Jim Culleny

The Mysteries of Dr. James Barry and the Life-and-Death Surgery Women are Refusing

by Godfrey Onime

Life and death surgery

Short and snappy, the smooth-faced lieutenant-colonel who had been appointed deputy inspector-general of hospitals for the British army would butt heads with non-other than the chaste, indefatigable Florence Nightingale. A heroine of Victorian England who was celebrated as the pioneer of nursing during the Crimean War, Nightingale wrote to her sister about their clash, “He behaved like a brute… the most hardened creature I have ever met.”

His name was Dr. James Miranda Barry.  Obsessed with hygiene, when inspecting his troops he would bark, “Dirty beasts! Go and clean yourselves!” The standards of even ‘the lady of the lamp’ Nightingale were not high enough for Dr. Barry, and I can just imagine the  differential Nightingale trying not to show her fuming as the doctor berated her in front of her subordinates. Unlikely as it may seem, this short-tempered “brute” turned out to be the champion of women, or more specifically, of pregnant woman – a reason that became more understandable only after his death. Read more »

Too Often, “Personal Responsibility” is a Cop-Out

by Joseph Shieber

You can’t start training them too early.

Optimism about the miraculous speed with which researchers were able to develop and test extremely effective anti-Covid vaccines is beginning to sour as vaccination rates slow down. These slowing rates raise worries about whether the United States will be able fully to defeat Covid-19, since a full return to normalcy would require high levels of vaccine compliance — much higher levels than we’re currently witnessing.

The challenge, as I’ve pointed out before, is that pandemics force us to recognize that our behaviors have implications beyond our own lives. Without sufficient vaccine uptake, we won’t be able to return to work, school and leisure activities with the same maskless nonchalance with which we pursued them in 2019.

This fact gives the lie to the framing of the vaccine on some media sites, framing that suggests that vaccine deniers are simply exercising their “personal freedom” in choosing not to get vaccinated. In a very real sense, my freedoms — my freedom not to have to wear a mask when I lecture in the classroom, to be able to send my children to school in an environment in which they don’t have only 10 minutes in which to eat lunch … no talking allowed! — depend on others’ willingness to get vaccinated. Read more »

Not Even Wrong #11: My Small-Town Southern Couple

by Jackson Arn

To ease the days’ constipation, I tried exercise. At first I jogged, but jogging was less interesting than the park I was supposed to jog through. I did pushups. These also proved less interesting than I had hoped. Sit-ups were an okay compromise between ignoring my phone and giving it my full attention, but after a while, say fifteen minutes, giving would take revenge on ignoring and the days would be re-constipate themselves and my apartment would feel smaller than ever.

I was smart enough to recognize that the problem was me. When I was in middle school, the object of my earliest non-nocturnal boner inspired me to get my dad’s barbells out of the basement. This went on for maybe three days. Apart from that, I’d never exercised on purpose. My powers of concentration are too weak. They’re the kind that inspire long articles about why America is doomed and there’s nothing we can do. My mom used to play me jazz and opera. Neither took. So it followed that I couldn’t exercise until I had become a different kind of person, and since that seemed unlikely it also followed that I was unlikely to exercise much. I concluded this in between refreshing my Bitcoin page. If civilization goes boom I won’t be able to outrun my neighbors but at least I’ll be a billionaire.

A few days later, I realized there might be a loophole. I was checking my Bitcoins at the time, and the rectangle of my laptop filled with an almost-as-big rectangle. It was a pop-up for a workout class. The face of the class was a man called Dave, or a “man” called Dave, or a man called “Dave,” or a “man” “called” “Dave.” Dave, as I’ll call him, resembled a hard worker, but he never sweated. Whenever I got a look at his whole body it had that post-greenroom glibness, like it moved because some offstage somebody said so and not because Dave’s muscles clenched.

I didn’t go for the class since all my savings were tied up in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, but the basic idea of the ad seemed correct to me. My concentration was weak, but even I could stand in my apartment and imitate someone else’s exercise, even if they weren’t really in my apartment. Read more »

‘The Unthinkable’ Is a Strangely Lyrical Swedish Disaster Movie

by Alexander C. Kafka

Jesper Barkselius and Christoffer Nordenrot as father and son, Björn and Alex, in ‘The Unthinkable’

A lyrical disaster movie? That sounds like a contradiction in terms, yet the Swedish collective Crazy Films delivered just that in 2018 with The Unthinkable, and it is arriving on American platforms this month.

The picture is a hybrid of Swedish family drama and low-budget but well-executed calamity, as though a late-career Ingmar Bergman decided to make a contemporary apocalyptic film with Roland Emmerich as an advisor. It’s toward the milder end of perpetual Hollywood bombast, which only makes it more effective because its moments of terror swoop in hawk-like and leave you dazed, just like the film’s protagonists. 

Crazy Films is five guys who have been making movies together since they were kids. Their previous works were shorts on YouTube, so the sustained, polished handling of on-set, model, and CGI mayhem here is really remarkable, as is the existential subtext and the unapologetically dour nature of its hero. Read more »

How to Pair Music with Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Wine and music pairing is becoming increasingly popular, and the effectiveness of using music to enhance a wine tasting experience has received substantial empirical confirmation. (I summarized this data and the aesthetic significance of wine and music pairing last month on this site.) But to my knowledge there is no guide to how one should go about wine and music pairing. Are there pairing rules similar to the rules for pairing food and wine? Is there expertise involved that requires practice and experience?

In fact, there are no rules for pairing food and wine. Every so-called rule is subject to so many exceptions, it is misleading to think of these guidelines as rules. Yes, white wine often goes well with seafood but not always, and there are some red wines that are enjoyable with seafood. The same is true when pairing music with wine. There are general guidelines with many exceptions. Thus, like food and wine pairing, experience is important, and some expertise can be helpful. Below I describe my own process for generating wine and music pairings and the generalizations that can be drawn from it. Read more »