A Search For The Soul Of Naples

Claudia Roth Pierpont at The New Yorker:

One day a few years ago, an Englishman walked into a tourist shop on the ground floor of a Neapolitan palazzo and told a woman he encountered there that he was searching for the soul of Naples. The building, named Palazzo del Panormita, for an obscure fifteenth-century author of erotic Latin epigrams, stands near a small piazza named for the River Nile, recalling the Egyptian traders who once lived in a mini-quarter within the city center’s ancient Greek grid. (There was a Greek settlement there before the Parthenon was built.) Today, that grid runs into a thoroughfare cut by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, when the Kingdom of Naples was under their imperial control. Named Via Toledo by the Spanish, the street became Via Roma three centuries later, when Naples, at last free of a series of foreign overlords, joined a unified Italy. And yet for many Neapolitans the idea of being governed from Rome was apparently as abhorrent as Spanish dominion: the name Via Roma aroused so much resentment that, in the nineteen-eighties, the city brought the old Spanish name back into official use. Even now, Neapolitans differ sharply on what their central commercial street should be called.

more here.

Friday, September 23, 2022

On Ted Berrigan’s Exuberant And Idiosyncratic Prose

Jordan Davis at Poetry Magazine:

Though there is less of Berrigan’s prose than his poetry, the best of it—his early journals, the collaged “interview” with John Cage from 1966, the Chicago Report and the Boston journal—has been crying out to be collected for decades. With the publication of Get the Money!: Collected Prose 1961-1983 (City Lights, 2022), edited by Berrigan’s widow, Alice Notley, their sons Edmund and Anselm Berrigan, and scholar Nick Sturm, readers already familiar with the pleasures of the self-made poet have a new, single-volume resource to consult. This great book stands alongside Berrigan’s Collected Poems (2007); On the Level Everyday (1997), his collected lectures; and Talking in Tranquility (1991), his collected interviews. The book may not teach readers how to interpret or analyze poetry in a way that will impress comparative literature professors, but every page offers a sense of what a living, noninstitutional poetry community looks and sounds like. Over the book’s more than 20-year span, we see when that community is doing well—attracting new recruits, producing new poetic forms—and when it’s under strain as consensus emerges and chance intervenes to support some members but not others, and money and attention accumulate at a slower rate.

more here.

Wolfgang Tillmans Changed What Photos Look Like

Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

Over the course of his 36-year career, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has created what I think of as a new sublime. His work conveys that the bigness of it all is no longer in God, the ceilings of the Renaissance, the grandeur of nature, or the allover fields of the Abstract Expressionists. Tillmans intuited that the sublime had shifted, had alighted on us. It’s in an overhead shot of friends wearing camo and military garb sprawled on the beach in a frondlike configuration and cradling one another — becoming a single organism with tentacles. It’s in a man holding a naked woman’s legs apart and looking below her exposed bush to the grassy dunes beyond. The people we see are often Tillmans’s friends: artists, musicians, designers, dancers. But these aren’t the usual club-kid, gay-bar, grunge-life photos. The rhapsodic rapport Tillmans has with his subjects gives his work a tenderness that seems almost sacred.

more here.

Mark Zuckerberg’s latest iteration of his virtual world has been derided as aesthetically primitive – but is that the point?

Justin E. H. Smith in The New Statesman:

In October 2021, Meta Platforms, Inc, released a “trailer”, hosted by the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, to give a visual tour of its recent expansion into the Metaverse – the immersive, virtual-reality world that is expected to be the next great iteration of our internet technologies.

It was a curious piece of work. The trailer began with Zuckerberg standing in a living room with a fireplace, a stunning mountain view, and other conventional signifiers of wealth. The Zuckerberg who first greets us appears to be the real one; he quickly proceeds to summon up a nearly life-size digital avatar of himself, and then runs through a sequence of possible costumes to dress his Meta-self in ahead of a virtual meeting with his Meta colleagues (or, more accurately, is yea-saying underlings). He briefly considers some more outlandish outfits before deciding on one that exactly matches what he, the real Zuckerberg, is already wearing: an unassuming anti-fashion ensemble for which he has long been known for, consisting of a black shirt and black trousers. This comedic set-up reveals something about the mentality behind the dismal aesthetics of the Metaverse as we have seen it so far.

More here.

AlphaFold developers win US$3-million Breakthrough Prize

Zeeya Merali in Nature:

The researchers behind the AlphaFold artificial-intelligence (AI) system have won one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough prizes — the most lucrative awards in science. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both at DeepMind in London, were recognized for creating the tool that has predicted the 3D structures of almost every known protein on the planet.

“Few discoveries so dramatically alter a field, so rapidly,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi, a computational biologist at Columbia University in New York City. “It’s really changed the practice of structural biology, both computational and experimental.”

The award was one of five Breakthrough prizes — awarded for achievements in life sciences, physics and mathematics — announced on 22 September.

More here.

Switching to renewable energy could save trillions

Jonah Fisher at the BBC:

Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy could save the world as much as $12tn (£10.2tn) by 2050, an Oxford University study says.

The report said it was wrong and pessimistic to claim that moving quickly towards cleaner energy sources was expensive.

Gas prices have soared on mounting concerns over energy supplies.

But the researchers say that going green now makes economic sense because of the falling cost of renewables.

“Even if you’re a climate denier, you should be on board with what we’re advocating,” Prof Doyne Farmer from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School told BBC News.

“Our central conclusion is that we should go full speed ahead with the green energy transition because it’s going to save us money,” he said.

More here.

Friday Poem

My Quaker-Atheist Friend, Who Has Come to This Meeting-House since 1913
Smokes & Looks Out over the Rawthey to Holme Fell

what do you do
anything for?

you do it
for what the mediaevals would call
something like
the Glory of God

doing it for the money
that doesn’t do it;

doing it for vanity,
that doesn’t do it;

doing it to justify a disorderly life,
that doesn’t do it

Look at Briggflatts here . . .

it represents the best
that the people were able to do

they didn’t do it for gain;
in fact, they must have
taken a loss

whether it is stone next to stone
or a word next to a word,
it is the glory
the simple craft of it

and money and sex aren’t worth
bugger-all, not

solid, common, vulgar words

the ones you can touch,
the ones that yield

and a respect for the music . . .

what else can you tell ‘em?

by Jonathan Williams
The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat
University of North Carolina Press, 1994

The controversial embryo tests that promise a better baby

Max Kozlov in Nature:

“She has her mother’s eyes,” begins the advertisement, “but will she also inherit her breast cancer diagnosis?” The smooth voice in the video is promoting the services of Genomic Prediction, a US company that says it can help prospective parents to answer this question by testing the genetics of embryos during fertility treatment. For Nathan Treff, the company’s chief scientific officer, this mission is personal. At 24, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — a disease that cost his grandfather his leg. If Treff had it his way, no child would be born with a high risk for the condition.

His company, in North Brunswick, New Jersey, offers tests based on a decade of research into ‘polygenic risk scores’, which calculate someone’s likelihood of getting a disease on the basis of the genetic contributions of hundreds, thousands or even millions of single DNA letter changes in the genome.

Genomic Prediction and some other companies have been using these scores to test embryos generated by in vitro fertilization (IVF), allowing prospective parents to choose those with the lowest risk for diseases such as diabetes or certain cancers. A co-founder of Genomic Prediction has said, controversially, that people might eventually be able to select for traits that are unrelated to disease, such as intelligence.

More here.

Was Rudy Giuliani Always So Awful?

Louis Menand in The New Yorker:

Mayor of New York City is famously a dead-end job. The last New York mayor to win higher office was John T. Hoffman, and that was in 1868. He became governor. Every mayor since then has found the way up barred. And, for some, the way up turned into the way down.

The mayors are often a little surprised by this reversal of fortune. The assumption seems to be: If I can govern there, I can govern anywhere. This may or may not be true. What is true is that New York City’s mayors have had a hard time getting non-New Yorkers to vote for them. After all, you’re not likely to be elected President of the United States by promising to make the country more like New York. You basically have to run against your own home town.

When John V. Lindsay, who was elected mayor in 1965 and became one of the country’s highest-profile politicians, ran for President, in 1972, he was forced to drop out after finishing fifth in the Florida primary, where he had counted on getting the votes of retired New Yorkers. He quit politics after a 1980 New York Senate bid, joined two law firms, and made regular appearances on “Good Morning America,” but health problems and the collapse of both firms nearly wiped him out. In 1996, an ally on the City Council arranged for this once charismatic and commanding figure to be given two essentially ceremonial appointments in city government just so he could have health insurance.

More here.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Will Artificial Intelligence Kill College Writing?

Jeff Schatten in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The web-based GPT-3 software program, which was developed by an Elon Musk-backed nonprofit called OpenAI, is a kind of omniscient Siri or Alexa that can turn any prompt into prose. You type in a query — say, a list of ingredients (what can I make with eggs, garlic, mushrooms, butter, and feta cheese?) or a genre and prompt (write an inspiring TED Talk on the ways in which authentic leaders can change the world) — and GPT-3 spits out a written response. These outputs can be astonishingly specific and tailored. When asked to write “a song protesting inhumane treatment of animals in the style of Bob Dylan,” the program clearly draws on themes from Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind:”

How many more creatures must suffer?
How many more must die?
Before we open up our eyes
And see the harm we’re causing?

When asked to treat the same issue in the style of Shakespeare, it produces stanzas of iambic tetrameter in appropriately archaic English:

By all the gods that guide this Earth
By all the stars that fill the sky
I swear to end this wretched dearth
This blight of blood and butchery.

GPT-3 can write essays, op-eds, Tweets, jokes (admittedly just dad jokes for now), dialogue, advertisements, text messages, and restaurant reviews, to give just a few examples.

More here.  [Free registration required.]

‘Breakthrough’ finding shows how modern humans grow more brain cells than Neanderthals

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega in Science:

We humans are proud of our big brains, which are responsible for our ability to plan ahead, communicate, and create. Inside our skulls, we pack, on average, 86 billion neurons—up to three times more than those of our primate cousins. For years, researchers have tried to figure out how we manage to develop so many brain cells. Now, they’ve come a step closer: A new study shows a single amino acid change in a metabolic gene helps our brains develop more neurons than other mammals—and more than our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals.

The finding “is really a breakthrough,” says Brigitte Malgrange, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of Liège who was not involved in the study. “A single amino acid change is really, really important and gives rise to incredible consequences regarding the brain.”

More here.

Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece

Christopher Sandford in The Hedgehog Review:

Kevin Birmingham prefaces his account of the tortured progress of the writing of Crime and Punishment with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s terse summation of his novel’s plot: “There’s an evil spirit here.” It’s a statement Birmingham invites us to ponder throughout his masterly book. Can we be disturbed but not necessarily repulsed by the actions of a particularly heinous criminal? Might such a character actually engage our sympathies? In The Sinner and the Saint, Birmingham sets himself the task of revealing the soul of an author, shattered and nearly sunk by the cumulative blows of life, struggling to get close to a murderer’s mind—and he succeeds brilliantly.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday, December 22, 1849, the twenty-eight-year-old Dostoevsky stood on a black-draped scaffold erected on the drilling ground at Semyonovsky Square in his native St. Petersburg, and prepared to die at the hands of a firing squad.

More here.

Issey Miyake (1938–2022)

Lisa Robertson at Artforum:

THOUGH I DIDN’T CRY FOR BOWIE, I cried for Issey the way I cried for Leonard Cohen. My best friend wore Issey’s perfume, which bottled the sensation of water on skin. I have a few of his Pleats Please garments, harvested from eBay, and there is a thrifted, asymmetrical, gray ribbed heavy wool pullover sweater that I still regret giving away. It was from the early ’80s, like the raw silk, pleated madder-red smock I still treasure for its color and drape. His garments tend to stay with you. My ninety-six-year-old Parisian mother-in-law recalls an Issey jacket she bought decades ago. It was a green wool—the color of a traveling cloak, she says—unlined, light but warm, with a quality she describes as enveloping, raising her hands as she says this as if to grasp a generous collar to shelter her neck and face against a piercing wind, or an unwelcome glance. This feeling of envelopment, both calming and freeing, is at the heart of Issey Miyake’s oeuvre. You experience the garment as shelter at the same time as its interiority liberates an emotional and expressive pleasure. My mother-in-law’s gestural enactment of her remembered Issey jacket defines the designer’s paradoxical lyricism. His garments wrap you in lightness. There is a kind of phantom smock hidden in everything he made.

more here.

The Meaning Of Life

Helena de Bres at The Point:

Analytic philosophers avoided the subject of meaning in life till relatively recently. The standard explanation is that they associated it with the meaning of life question they considered bankrupt. But it’s surely also because the subject conflicts with some of the core tendencies of the analytic tradition. “What gives point to life?” is a sweeping question that invites the synoptic approach associated with continental philosophy, not the divide-and-conquer method favored by Anglo-Americans. The question also wears its angst on its sleeve, making it an awkward fit with the dispassionate mode employed in the mainstream academy.

But over the past couple of decades we analytics have turned to the question, with the result that we now have a sharply laid-out set of takes on the matter.

more here.

Thursday Poem

The Writing of That Poem

I knew the poem on Stalin was coming. For so long Osip
was silent. But standing next to him I could feel the
tremors running through his body. Heat rose off his
head and darkness filled his eyes: the poems were rising
within him. Soon they would erupt. This was a natural
course and I never thought of stopping it any more than
I would have attempted to stop the coming season.
These poems would destroy our lives. But how could I
blame him? When a mountain explodes it does not say
“my lava will burn the village below.” Years ago he took
an oath, one hand on The Divine Comedy the other on a
blank piece of paper. Arrest, interrogation and whatever
followed were not his concern. And so we were villagers
living under the volcano.We knew the power of his
poetry, the strength of our straw huts.

by Aaron Rafi
from Surviving the Censor
Sarafim Editions, Hamilton Ontario, 2006

Osip Mandelstam