Weird dreams train our brains to be better learners

Jim Davies in Nautilus:

For many of us over the last year and more, our waking experience has, you might say, lost a bit of its variety. We spend more time with the same people, in our homes, and go to fewer places. Our stimuli these days, in other words, aren’t very stimulating. Too much day-to-day routine, too much familiarity, too much predictability. At the same time, our dreams have gotten more bizarre. More transformations, more unrealistic narratives. As a cognitive scientist who studies dreaming and the imagination, this intrigued me. Why might this be? Could the strangeness serve some purpose?

Maybe our brains are serving up weird dreams to, in a way, fight the tide of monotony. To break up bland regimented experiences with novelty. This has an adaptive logic: Animals that model patterns in their environment in too stringent a manner sacrifice the ability to generalize, to make sense of new experiences, to learn. AI researchers call this “overfitting,” fitting too well to a given dataset. A face-recognition algorithm, for example, trained too long on a dataset of pictures might start identifying individuals based on trees and other objects in the background. This is overfitting the data. One way to look at it is that, rather than learning the general rules that it should be learning—the various contours of the face regardless of expression or background information—it simply memorizes its experiences in the training set. Could it be that our minds are working harder, churning out stranger dreams, to stave off overfitting that might otherwise result from the learning we do about the world every day?

More here.

Georgia O’Keeffe Finally Arrives in Paris

Roxana Robinson at The New Yorker:

The works carry a metaphysical meaning, as well as a geographical one. With the skulls and antlers, bones and shells, O’Keeffe creates a secular iconography. For her, these subjects did not represent death but something vital and lasting. A bone found in the desert is like a shell found on the beach: both are forms defined by function, both are beautiful and enduring evidence of life. O’Keeffe’s images and juxtapositions are mysterious, but she wasn’t a member of the Surrealist movement, which deliberately juxtaposed objects without connections to one another. Her intention was quite different: these objects have a deep connection—one that we recognize on an intuitive level. “Pelvis with the Distance,” from 1943, shows a smooth, white bone, all curves and slopes and openings. It is suspended, high in the air, above a line of low, undulant blue hills. This physical juxtaposition—the celestial locus of the bone, the earth-hugging horizon below—creates a majestic sweep of space. O’Keeffe places the viewer aloft, level with the bone, high up in the empyrean. The supernatural height, the mystery, the hallucinatory beauty of the object—all combine to create a sense of the sublime.

more here.

Kashmir at the Crossroads

Owen Bennett-Jones at Literary Review:

With admirable clarity, Sumantra Bose’s Kashmir at the Crossroads helps to explain the tensions and the motives of the various parties involved in the intractable Kashmir conflict, including Chinese cartographers, Indian Hindu nationalists, Pakistani intelligence officers, violent jihadists and the group that barely gets a look in, the Kashmiris themselves. Landlocked and surrounded by three antagonistic nuclear powers with claims on their land, the Kashmiris are always the last ones to have a say over their own future.

Much of the book canters through the established history of the conflict. The problems began in 1846, when the British sold part of what is now Kashmir, including Muslim-majority areas, to a Hindu, Gulab Singh. After India’s partition in 1947, Gulab Singh’s descendant opted to unite Kashmir with India rather than Pakistan. Outraged Pakistani tribesmen went to fight for their Muslim brethren but found their way blocked by Indian soldiers.

more here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Wisława Szymborska on Learning to Write from Life

Wisława Szymborska in Literary Hub:

A young musician attends the conservatory, a young artist studies at the academy, but the young writer has nowhere to go. You view this as an injustice. Not so. Schools for musicians and painters provide first and foremost technical knowledge you’d be hard pressed to acquire on your own in relatively short order. What is the writer to learn at his institute? Any ordinary school is all it takes to push a pen across the page. Literature holds no technical secrets, or at least secrets that can’t be plumbed by a gifted amateur (since no diploma will help the talentless). It’s the least professional of all artistic callings. You may take up writing at twenty or seventy. You may be a professor or an autodidact. You may skip your high school diploma (like Thomas Mann) or receive honorary doctorates at multiple universities (again like Mann). The road to Parnassus is open to all. In principle at least, since genes have the final say.

More here.

In virtually every country that has closed nuclear plants, clean electricity has been replaced with dirty power

Ted Nordhaus in Foreign Policy:

The cooling tower at the Muelheim-Kaerlich nuclear power plant collapses during a controlled demolition near Koblenz, Germany, on Aug. 9, 2019. The plant was shut down on Sept. 9, 1988. THOMAS FREY/dpa/AFP via Getty Images

For years, the proponents of wind and solar energy have promised us a green future with electricity too cheap to meter, new energy infrastructure with little environmental impact on the land, and deep cuts in carbon emissions. But despite the rapid growth of renewable energy, that future has yet to materialize. Instead, many of the places that are furthest along in transitioning to renewable energy are today facing a crisis of power shortages, sky-high electricity prices, and flat or rising carbon emissions.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered companies owning backup diesel generators to operate them nonstop when electricity demand is high in order to avoid rolling blackouts. In Britain, exploding natural gas prices have shuttered factories, bankrupted power companies, and threaten to cause food shortages. Germany, meanwhile, is set for the biggest jump in greenhouse emissions in 30 years due to surging use of coal for power generation, which the country depends on to back up weather-dependent wind and solar energy and fill the hole left by its shuttered nuclear plants.

More here.

A Nobel Prize for the Credibility Revolution

Alex Tabarrok in Marginal Revolution:

The Nobel Prize goes to David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens. If you seek their monuments look around you. Almost all of the empirical work in economics that you read in the popular press (and plenty that doesn’t make the popular press) is due to analyzing natural experiments using techniques such as difference in differences, instrumental variables and regression discontinuity. The techniques are powerful but the ideas behind them are also understandable by the person in the street which has given economists a tremendous advantage when talking with the public. Take, for example, the famous minimum wage study of Card and Krueger (1994) (and here). The study is well known because of its paradoxical finding that New Jersey’s increase in the minimum wage in 1992 didn’t reduce employment at fast food restaurants and may even have increased employment. But what really made the paper great was the clarity of the methods that Card and Krueger used to study the problem.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Azza and I Share a Cup of Tea

We find a perfect piece of shade underneath the warm sun,
and Azza pours the tea before she speaks

Azza never looks the same.
Each time you get close enough, each time you think you know her,
she reveals another surface

If you don’t pay attention, you might almost miss it
the way her crisp white toub falls gracefully on her shoulders,
how the gold crescent in her nose accentuates her face tenderly

Azza is timid, but captures your attention
She is not a mere stop on your destination
So, plan to stay awhile.

Listen to the way she uses language to weave stories full of heart
Pay attention to how she sings songs of love
Count the scars and ask her how many battles she has fought

You will be surprised to learn how many of them she’s won.
Sip your tea slowly and know that she will offer you a place to stay
Let her soft voice trickle into your ears, and
Let the cool breeze touch your skin

No need for formalities,
Azza has no care for them
She has no need for ceremony nor procedure

She takes big leaps, wanders on the dangerous route
She fears nothing, and is ready to risk it all
She is fearless, but never reckless
Beautiful, but never boastful
Smart, and always dreaming

She paints pictures of hopes and what-ifs
See how her eyes light up when she talks of future
Notice when she smiles
Because it does not happen often

Savor the moment,
Ask her the questions
Listen to the answers
Sip your tea slowly

by Leena Badri
Pank Magazine, 2020

Paul McCartney Doesn’t Really Want to Stop the Show

David Remnick in The New Yorker:

Early evening in late summer, the golden hour in the village of East Hampton. The surf is rough and pounds its regular measure on the shore. At the last driveway on a road ending at the beach, a cortège of cars—S.U.V.s, jeeps, candy-colored roadsters—pull up to the gate, sand crunching pleasantly under the tires. And out they come, face after famous face, burnished, expensively moisturized: Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Buffett, Anjelica Huston, Julianne Moore, Stevie Van Zandt, Alec Baldwin, Jon Bon Jovi. They all wear expectant, delighted-to-be-invited expressions. Through the gate, they mount a flight of stairs to the front door and walk across a vaulted living room to a fragrant back yard, where a crowd is circulating under a tent in the familiar high-life way, regarding the territory, pausing now and then to accept refreshments from a tray.

Their hosts are Nancy Shevell, the scion of a New Jersey trucking family, and her husband, Paul McCartney, a bass player and singer-songwriter from Liverpool. A slender, regal woman in her early sixties, Shevell is talking in a confiding manner with Michael Bloomberg, who was the mayor of New York City when she served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Bloomberg nods gravely at whatever Shevell is saying, but he has his eyes fixed on a plate of exquisite little pizzas. Would he like one? He narrows his gaze, trying to decide; then, with executive dispatch, he declines.

McCartney greets his guests with the same twinkly smile and thumbs-up charm that once led him to be called “the cute Beatle.” Even in a crowd of the accomplished and abundantly self-satisfied, he is invariably the focus of attention. His fan base is the general population. There are myriad ways in which people betray their pleasure in encountering him—describing their favorite songs, asking for selfies and autographs, or losing their composure entirely.

This effect extends to friends and peers. Billy Joel, who has sold out Madison Square Garden more than a hundred times, has spent Hamptons afternoons over the years with McCartney. Still, Joel told me, “he’s a Beatle, so there’s an intimidation factor. You encounter someone like Paul and you wonder how close you can be to someone like that.”

More here.

Warning signs for dementia found in the blood

From Phys.Org:

Researchers at the DZNE and the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) have identified molecules in the blood that can indicate impending dementia. Their findings, which are presented in the scientific journal EMBO Molecular Medicine, are based on human studies and laboratory experiments. University hospitals across Germany were also involved in the investigations. The biomarker described by the team led by Prof. André Fischer is based on measuring levels of so-called microRNAs. The technique is not yet suitable for practical use; the scientists therefore aim to develop a simple blood test that can be applied in routine medical care to assess dementia risk. According to the study data, microRNAs could potentially also be targets for dementia therapy.

“When symptoms of dementia manifest, the brain has already been massively damaged. Presently, diagnosis happens far too late to even have a chance for effective treatment. If dementia is detected early, the odds of positively influencing the course of the disease increase,” says André Fischer, research group leader and spokesperson at the DZNE site in Göttingen and professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at UMG. “We need tests that ideally respond before the onset of dementia and reliably estimate the risk of later disease. In other words, tests that give an early warning. We are confident that our current study results pave the way for such tests.”

More here.

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Coupist’s Cookbook

by Michael Liss

Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog…

Mary Hoare, “The Three Witches from Macbeth: Double Double, Toil and Trouble,” Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

It could have worked. It almost did. It may in the future.

A lovely little coup attempt by Former President Trump and his posse. A little violence. A sprinkling of eager state and local “public servants” who planned to please the then-President by spinning gossamer tales of phantom voters and secret shredders. Brigades of lawyers, a few absolute kooks, but others both well-placed in government or in influential positions, and deadly serious. This last group included 17 State Attorneys General who looked in their mirrors each morning and saw “Future Really Important Republican Persons” staring back at them.

Let’s not back away from the obvious. January 6th wasn’t a single, isolated moment of acting-out by an angst-driven set of peaceful patriots driven mad by the loss of their idol. It was the punctuation mark on an intense stretch of unrelenting pressure by Trump and his allies to crush the democratic process. That the Ship of State eventually stayed afloat, that people, including many Republicans, pushed back enough to block Trump’s power grab, is to its and their credit. But, to quote Star Trek’s Scottie when the Enterprise was under assault, “I dannae if she can take any more, Captain!”

The more we learn, the worse it gets. Let’s start with 45. I don’t know whether Donald Trump actually believes much of what he says, but, late in life, he’s found a role he can play where accountability doesn’t exist. He knows his followers love a good show. He knows the media, even the so-called liberal media, would rather cover someone colorful and newsworthy than old, boring Joe Biden. And, through all of it, it doesn’t matter what the 1/6 Committee, or investigative reporters, or state prosecutors might find. He knows he’s untouchable. Others may pay a price, but not Trump. Read more »

Giambattista Vico enters the classroom

by Jeroen Bouterse

It’s my favorite topic of the year, I tell the kids, before scanning my conscience for signs that I have just lied to them. No, this feels about right, and in any case, they didn’t need my reassurance: after a dry unit about ratios, at my mention of the word “probability” I can practically hear the sound of neurons firing. Whether they know of any contexts in which chance turns up? Boy, do they. My twelve-year old students inform me about dice, cards, spinners, lotteries, casinos, about your chances of survival in Squid Game, about unearthing rare minerals in Minecraft, and about whether the stuff you want to buy is actually in stock because sometimes they run out and there’s no telling in advance when. Also the weather.

I love introducing them to the math of probability precisely because it is a topic that they have already thought about so much, but that I know many of them have incoherent intuitions about. Not that I don’t, of course, but I am a little bit ahead of them and I know from experience what I am working with. Somebody will opine that the chance that it’s going to rain next month is “fifty-fifty” because it either will or it won’t. Somebody will say that there is a 1/7 chance that someone’s favorite day of the week is Thursday. Somebody will reason that since the highest sum you can roll with two D6-dice is a 12, the chance you roll a 10 is 1 in 12, which…

Oh wait, is it? Anyway, you get the point: the process feels properly Socratic, taking slightly muddled concepts that students already feel strongly about, and providing the right nudges to make them reconsider some of those concepts and make others click together. It is a significant source of satisfaction every year to see just how fast ‘the group’ moves from guessing that a sequence of three coin flips has six possible outcomes (unless it can land on its side, which they also unerringly point out), to calculating the number of four-digit pin codes where all the digits have to be different.

It’s also becoming a little predictable, now that I teach this level for the third time. Though I was surprised to learn that this cohort of young teenagers had already binged Squid Game, I don’t generally expect them to say anything unexpected about mathematics. Until, last week, we were classifying certain things according to likelihood. I always include an apodictic claim like “1 + 1 = 2” in the mix, and students usually say that its probability is, indeed, 1. This time, I wondered out loud why we are so sure of this. Read more »

On No Longer Liking Allen Ginsberg

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

I am sitting at a coffee shop downtown. It’s a nice Friday morning, not too hot and not too cool, not quite autumn and not quite summer. I have eaten, so I am no longer dreaming. And, I am reading “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg for the first time in at least half a decade.

I realize about halfway through the poem’s first long section that I don’t like this poem very much. Or, I don’t like this poem very much anymore. It’s a little bit racist, a little bit whiny, a little bit full of itself. It is profound; don’t get me wrong. It is epochal, in its way. But, it is not for me anymore. In his introduction to Howl and Other Poems, William Carlos Williams writes that “Howl” is “a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience” (a sentence if ever there was one). Perhaps this is what I no longer like, this defeat, this sense that only in the abject is one to find the truth. The gambit of “Howl” is to think the marginal—the madman, the homosexual, the drug addict—as the site of visionary consciousness. Normally, this is a gambit for which I would be entirely down. But, contrary to Williams’s notion that, in the poem, “the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the strength and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist,” there is a kind of showmanship in the poem that does not sit well with me, a glorying in the abject that never quite reaches the eternal pronunciation of the Truth-with-a-capital-T that it explicitly declares as its intent. “Howl” is an exposé of the marginalized life, and it reads, to me at least, as imbued at every moment with the same kind of sensationalism on which the exposé thrives. A perfect example of this is the third section to Carl Solomon, in which Ginsberg declares as his refrain, “I’m with you in Rockland,” the psychiatric institute. While Ginsberg and Solomon did meet in a psychiatric institute, and while Solomon was in and out of them throughout his life, he was never in Rockland, and this bothered him. He also generally took issue with his representation in the poem, feeling it was not historically accurate and feeling, one imagines, sensationalized, reduced to his psychological afflictions to serve Ginsberg’s aesthetic aims. This is not to say that there is not gentleness in “Howl” at certain points, that Ginsberg did not belong to and care for the community he describes. But, “Howl” revels in a pain that I would seek to ameliorate rather than to celebrate. It takes too much pride in the total destruction of its protagonists and does not display enough worry for them.

However, as I read, I am taken back in time to a very different period in my life: sixteen and a fag, caught in the suburbs and dreaming of Manhattan, stumbling through sex and hopelessly in love with every boy, gay or straight or inbetween, who would bear his cock to me, tumbling over myself with hormones and earnestness and a flamelike desire to mean, to write. I found Ginsberg sometime around then. “Howl” consumed me like a dream. Read more »

Memoria: Journeys with Weerasethakul, Swinton, Sebald

by Danielle Spencer

Memoria - film posterLast night I (Danielle Spencer) went to the New York Film Festival screening of Memoria (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) in Alice Tully hall at Lincoln Center. I last joined a large gathering 19 months ago, in March of 2020.

The film opens a soundscape, memoryscape, landscape—and a bodyscape, all of us in the vast hall sloping gently down towards the screen like a nighttime jungle floor. The opening scene is still, close and quiet, and then there is a very loud sound, which startles me. It also startles Jessica (Tilda Swinton) who awakens in surprise. I am anxious that there will be more surprising loud sounds. Then Jessica rises and sits in a room of the house. She looks at what in my memory is a small bright aquarium in front of the windows, warmly lit with orange fish. The space and sound around the aquarium are dark and oceanic.

In the opening passages of Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald) the narrator travels by train to Antwerp. He finds his way to the zoo and sits beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about, and then visits the Nocturama, peering at the creatures in their enclosures, leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. He returns to the waiting room of the Centraal Station, remarking that it ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses, and crocodiles, just as some zoos, conversely, have little railway trains in which you can, so to speak, travel to the farthest corners of the earth. As the sun sets and the light dims in the station waiting room, he sees the waiting travelers in miniature, as the dwarf creatures in the Nocturama.

When I was ten my father and I spent the spring in Budapest, where he proved theorems at the Institute of Mathematics and I was enrolled in the Kodály music school. Our small apartment building was near the top of a hill on the hilly western Buda side of the city, home to several mathematicians and their families. Some nights we went up the street to eat schnitzel at the restaurant on the corner. Read more »

Representations of Dissent

by Eric J. Weiner

Ghazal: India’s Season of Dissent by Karthika Naïr[1]

This year, this night, this hour, rise to salute the season of dissent.
Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims—Indians, all—seek their nation of dissent.

We the people of…they chant: the mantra that birthed a republic.
Even my distant eyes echo flares from this beacon of dissent.

Kolkata, Kasargod, Kanpur, Nagpur, Tripura… watch it spread,
tip to tricoloured tip, then soar: the winged horizon of dissent.

Dibrugarh: five hundred students face the CAA and lathiwielding
cops with Tagore’s song—an age-old tradition of dissent.

Kaagaz nahin dikhayenge… Sab Kuch Yaad Rakha Jayega…
Poetry, once more, stands tall, the Grand Central Station of dissent.

Aamir Aziz, Kausar Munir, Varun Grover, Bisaralli…
Your words, in many tongues, score the sky: first citizens of dissent.

We shall see/ Surely, we too shall see. Faiz-saab, we see your greatness
scanned for “anti-Hindu sentiment”, for the treason of dissent.

Delhi, North-East: death flanks the anthem of a once-secular land
where police now maim Muslims with Sing and die, poison of dissent.

A government of the people, by the people, for the people,
has let slip the dogs of carnage for swift excision of dissent.

Name her, Ka, name her. Umme Habeeba, mere-weeks-old, braves frost and
fascism from Shaheen Bagh: our oldest, finest reason for dissent.

As democracies wither and die throughout the world, Karthika Naïr’s ghazal is a passionate and timely celebration of dissent. The places, peoples, and languages of India dance, crack, bleed, demand, and sing their dissent. Soaring through and beyond the borders of India’s post-colonial history, dissent is the oxygen of freedom, scoring the sky with “words, in many tongues.” The “winged horizon of dissent” delineates “what is” from what should be; it is a practice of the radical imagination, an articulation of audacious hope in the long shadows of broken promises and paralyzing fatalism. As the malcontent’s muse, dissent drives the radical desires of dissident artists and intellectuals, the pedagogues of utopic possibilities at a time in which, as Naïr pointedly says,

…there are no small freedoms…I think that India is unfortunately right now living proof for anybody who wants to see the chronicle of an ascension of totalitarianism. This is the chronology: the loss of greater freedoms comes in the slipstream of the denial of perceived “smaller” freedoms. It’s an incremental approach. First, almost always, they come for the books, the art, the movies, the seemingly frivolous things. I would trace it all the way back to the first book banned in independent India, whatever the reason. Because if you can police the imagination, control the freedom of the mind, then everything else will fall in line. There can never be adequate protection for, or vigilance over, these.

Naïr’s poem is also a warning that without dissenting voices, bodies, and minds the promises—explicit and implied—of democracy, like the bones of a malnourished child, will break. Its demise is barely audible against the pitch of rage spewing from the mouths of autocrats and their sycophants throughout the world. These “dogs of carnage” are unleashed, roaming urban streets and dusty squares, rabidly tearing the flesh of hope from the bones of people who have the audacity to dissent. Read more »

Stories Of Wealth And Distribution

by Usha Alexander

[This is the thirteenth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]

In the world of Star Trek, no one ever goes hungry or lacks access to healthcare. No one wants for housing, education, social inclusion or any other basic need. In fact, no citizen of the United Federation of Planets is ever seen to pay for everyday goods or services, only for gambling or special entertainments. The Federation suffers no scarcity of any kind. All waste is presumably fed into the replicators and turned into fresh food or new clothes or whatever is needed. Yet despite ample social safety nets, there’s no end to internecine politicking, human foibles and failures, corruption and vanity, charisma and venality. The world of Star Trek appeals so widely, I think, because it presents us with something colorfully short of a utopia, a flawed human attempt toward a just, caring, and individually enabling social order. It imagines a society based on a shared set of human values—fairness, cooperation, political and economic egalitarianism—where basic human needs are equitably answered so that no one has to compete for basic subsistence and wellbeing. As the venerable Captain Picard has put it, “We’ve overcome hunger and greed, and we’re no longer interested in the accumulation of things.” Some Libertarian Trekkies have been scandalized to realize that Star Trek actually depicts a post-capitalist vision of society.

But Star Trek’s world is premised upon the existence of a cheap, concentrated, and non-polluting source of effectively infinite energy. Obviously, no such energy source has ever been discovered (solar-paneled dreamscapes notwithstanding). And the replicator, which eliminates both material waste and scarcity, is a magical technology. The Star Trek vision is also a picture of human chauvinism and hubris, presuming H. Sapiens as the only relevant form of Earthly life. So it falls short of a vivid and plausible imagining of an ecologically sustainable, technologically advanced, and egalitarian human civilization.

It is, of course, too much to expect the creators of Star Trek, by themselves, to fully and flawlessly reimagine our global human society. Indeed, it’s become an aphorism of our age that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Yet, though this might sound like a joke, at this point the matter is all too serious, and reimagining human civilization is a project we all must engage with, to whatever extent we’re able. Read more »