TM: The epigraph to your poem “Cotton Candy” is from John Donne: “To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.” In its original context, the line appears: “All their proportion’s lame, it sinks, it swells; / For of meridians and parallels / Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown / Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. / Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus / To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us. / We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content to obey our pace.” I love your epigraphic eye here. Who is Donne to you, as both poet and legacy? Why choose these lines in particular from his poem?
KA: He’s a titan. Sexy, ferocious. Magisterial. But what I’m really interested in, as it pertains to Pilgrim Bell, is Donne’s silence. Really all the metaphysical guys were great this way, Marvell and Herbert too. And Hopkins kind of tangentially. But the way Donne could get so bombastic, so loud. And how that volume created such a contrast to the silence immediately after.
Marshmallow-thick ski gloves. A pair strung from toddler sleeves. Lost mate waving from a puddle. The snapped rubber glove that splits open on the orthodontist’s hand. Ever had one break on you, dear? he sneers, his breath hot in my teen-girl ear.
II. Late Arrivals
The every-other-weekend father, daughter at the window practicing times tables on glass fogged with breath. In summer: the moon. In winter: the sun. The girl’s date, the one with a blown muffler and rough hands. The next month: her blood.
III. Things That Slide
Girl on the playground, the steel mirror-polished by the seat of her pants. Houses after pummeling rains. Tears. Unwelcome words about your breasts from men you pass. Years.
Ambiguity tugging the seams of Mona Lisa’s lips. Helen of Troy, for surely it wasn’t a scowl that launched a thousand ships. Smile more, say men, always men. But my mouth’s default is a grin. Classic American smile, proclaims my dentist. What does he mean? Unrestrained? Too much? Larger than life? When he says open wider, I want to bite.
In 2017, a German man who goes by the name Marco came across an article in a Berlin newspaper with a photograph of a professor he recognized from childhood. The first thing he noticed was the man’s lips. They were thin, almost nonexistent, a trait that Marco had always found repellent. He was surprised to read that the professor, Helmut Kentler, had been one of the most influential sexologists in Germany. The article described a new research report that had investigated what was called the “Kentler experiment.” Beginning in the late sixties, Kentler had placed neglected children in foster homes run by pedophiles. The experiment was authorized and financially supported by the Berlin Senate. In a report submitted to the Senate, in 1988, Kentler had described it as a “complete success.”
Marco had grown up in foster care, and his foster father had frequently taken him to Kentler’s home. Now he was thirty-four, with a one-year-old daughter, and her meals and naps structured his days. After he read the article, he said, “I just pushed it aside. I didn’t react emotionally. I did what I do every day: nothing, really. I sat around in front of the computer.”
Marco looks like a movie star—he is tanned, with a firm jaw, thick dark hair, and a long, symmetrical face. As an adult, he has cried only once. “If someone were to die in front of me, I would of course want to help them, but it wouldn’t affect me emotionally,” he told me. “I have a wall, and emotions just hit against it.” He lived with his girlfriend, a hairdresser, but they never discussed his childhood. He was unemployed. Once, he tried to work as a mailman, but after a few days he quit, because whenever a stranger made an expression that reminded him of his foster father, an engineer named Fritz Henkel, he had the sensation that he was not actually alive, that his heart had stopped beating, and that the color had drained from the world. When he tried to speak, it felt as if his voice didn’t belong to him.
Blaise Pascal was a renowned French polymath of the 17th century, scientist, philosopher, mathematician, inventor, and later in life a theologian. Among his many contributions was an attempt to prove by logical means the existence of God, which came to be known as Pascal’s Wager. Stated simply, Pascal reasoned that not believing in God, if there was one, would damn you to eternal suffering. Conversely, believing in God, if there wasn’t one, would cost you little in this life and nothing once you were dead. Therefore, the only sensible course of action was to believe in God.
Whether or not you find Pascal’s Wager to be theologically compelling, it turns out to be a very useful guide for making decisions under conditions of unresolvable uncertainty. And the major uncertainty that all of us are collectively facing right now is the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, responsible for COVID-19. The availability of a vaccine, several vaccines in fact, has brought all those uncertainties into focus.
Given we are going to have a certain amount of uncertainty about all this for some time, we might resort to a Pascal-like strategy for making a decision. And right now there is no more important decision than whether or not to get vaccinated. As we know, many people in the United States and around the world are not ready to wager on a vaccination. To be fair, the uncertainty they face is due to simple misinformation, all too easily spread in the various forms of media. But much of the uncertainty is of legitimate concern.
“It feels qualitatively different this time.” There are few people I know in South Africa who don’t think this about the carnage now engulfing the nation. Violence was institutionalised during the years of apartheid. In the post-apartheid years, it has rarely been far from the surface – police violence, gangster violence, the violence of protest. What is being exposed now, however, is just how far the social contract that has held the nation together since the end of apartheid has eroded.
Many aspects of the disorder are peculiar to South Africa. There are also themes with wider resonance. Events in the country demonstrate in a particularly acute fashion a phenomenon we are witnessing in different ways and in different degrees of severity across the globe: the old order breaking down, with little to fill the void but sectarian movements or identity politics.
The immediate cause of the violence was the 15-month sentence imposed on former president Jacob Zuma for refusing to testify at a corruption inquiry. The protests in Zuma’s stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal have, however, morphed into something bigger and more menacing. A combination of people made desperate by poverty and hunger, gangsters seeking to profit from mayhem and political activists settling scores has brought unparalleled turmoil to the country.
How can data be biased? Isn’t it supposed to be an objective reflection of the real world? We all know that these are somewhat naive rhetorical questions, since data can easily inherit bias from the people who collect and analyze it, just as an algorithm can make biased suggestions if it’s trained on biased datasets. A better question is, how do biases creep in, and what can we do about them? Catherine D’Ignazio is an MIT professor who has studied how biases creep into our data and algorithms, and even into the expression of values that purport to protect objective analysis. We discuss examples of these processes and how to use data to make things better.
Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Paul Lewis, David Pegg,Sam Cutler,Nina Lakhani and Michael Safi in The Guardian:
Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, according to an investigation into a massive data leak.
The investigation by the Guardian and 16 other media organisations suggests widespread and continuing abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.
Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.
The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, it is believed, have been identified as those of people of interest by clients of NSO since 2016.
Byung-Chul Han tells us in The Disappearance of Rituals, that ‘symbolic perception, as recognition, is the perception of the permanent’. In a world that often seems to be determined by change, by transient experiences, names are an anomaly. They are stubborn things, pushing back against the relentless march of time. Ages change, job titles, citizenship, but names we carry with us. In defiance of a life in constant motion. When we name newborns, we are trying to locate them in the world by carving out their distinction from others, as absolute immutable entities. Some part of that distinction will follow them through the trajectory of their life. Names endure, names remain.
Yet our names function, first, as words spoken back to us. Our existence is shaped in part by the recognition of others, making the experience of naming a collaborative project. In some West African families, like my own, one can be named for another relative, in recognition of their unique heritage.
I’d like to set up an experiment to chart the sadness—try to find out where it comes from, where it goes—to trace it, in that melody (whichever variation) as it threads across Manhattan from the Lower East Side straight across the river, more or less west, into the suburbs of New Jersey and whatever lies beyond. This would require, I’m guessing, maybe a hundred saxophonists stationed along the route on tops of buildings, water towers, farther out on people’s porches (with permission), empty parking lots, at intervals determined by the limits of their mutual audibility under variable conditions in the middle of the night, so each would strain a bit to pick it up and pass it on in step until they’re going all at once and all strung out along this fraying thread of melody for hours, with relievers in reserve. There’s bound to be some drifting in and out of phase, attenuation of the tempo, of the sadness for that matter, of the waveform, what I think of as the waveform of the whole thing as it comes across the river losing amplitude and sharpness, rounding, flattening, and diffusing into neighborhoods where maybe it just sort of washes over people staying up to hear it or, awakened, wondering what is that out there so faint and faintly echoed, faintly sad but not so sad that you can’t close your eyes again and drift right back to sleep.
Memoria is a beautiful and mysterious movie, slow cinema that decelerates your heartbeat. For some, the andante tempo, with its glacially long silent takes, will exasperate – and opinions may divide on the extraordinary sci-fi epiphany ending. Even now I’m not sure what I think about it. But what originality and daring, the biggest ideas invoked with compelling zen humility. Weerasekathul is an artist who demands that you return your thoughts to the unsolved and unspoken mysteries of existence: that we are born, live, die and all without ever knowing why, or often even wanting to know. But he approaches these phenomena as calmly as he might questions of agriculture or engineering.
I could swear I was born in Cairo, breastfed from the Nile – look at my blood when I dance to sha3bi music, how it turns to river. After reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace of Desire, I wore blue eyeshadow & pink jalabiya & khilkhal. I married five men like Fifi Abdo & killed them all in my sleep then stepped into a cabaret, down the corner, to dance for the women my women, you are tabla & qanoun you are silver coins on my waist you are black hair smelling of sunsilk shampoo you are white tarboush & blue misbaha on the hands of one khalto starting the dabkeh & another praying to God. My women, I count your 99 names under my breath & dream of a city created in your image.
I know what you’ll tell me at midnight: Cairo is not the same & they’ve closed up the casinos. You’re right, a whole world, it’s changing maybe for the worse maybe not but yesterday, did we not dance to Souad Hosny on the rooftop, did you not see the young girls clap for their newly wed friend? Is Oum Kolthoum not bursting from the camps & cab drivers — have you heard Maryam Saleh’s song, didn’t you just want to love to it?
Morning will come & we will stitch rhinestones onto bras. You will hang your purple underwear to dry & wink at me like a secret right before the women, our women, tickle you to curl your small finger to migrating clouds, to move with them like birds in flight.
The Borg have landed — or, at least, researchers have discovered their counterparts here on Earth. Scientists analysing samples from muddy sites in the western United States have found novel DNA structures that seem to scavenge and ‘assimilate’ genes from microorganisms in their environment, much like the fictional Star Trek ‘Borg’ aliens who assimilate the knowledge and technology of other species. These extra-long DNA strands, which the scientists named in honour of the aliens, join a diverse collection of genetic structures — circular plasmids, for example — known as extrachromosomal elements (ECEs). Most microbes have one or two chromosomes that encode their primary genetic blueprint. But they can host, and often share between them, many distinct ECEs. These carry non-essential but useful genes, such as those for antibiotic resistance.
Borgs are a previously unknown, unique and “absolutely fascinating” type of ECE, says Jill Banfield, a geomicrobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley. She and her colleagues describe their discovery of the structures in a preprint posted to the server bioRxiv1. The work is yet to be peer-reviewed.
Unlike anything seen before
Borgs are DNA structures “not like any that’s been seen before”, says Brett Baker, a microbiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Other scientists agree that the find is exciting, but have questioned whether Borgs really are unique, noting similarities between them and other large ECEs. In recent years “people have become used to surprises in the field of ECEs”, says Huang Li, a microbiologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “However, the discovery of Borgs, which undoubtedly enriches the concept of ECEs, has fascinated many in the field.”
One morning a few weeks ago, I sent my friend a Proust text. It was a photo of a page from Swann’s Way, and it took several attempts for me to capture the near-page-length sentence in its entirety. Next to me, my 2-year-old daughter slowly guided a spoonful of oatmeal into her mouth, noticing my struggle. “Daddy, what are you doing?” she asked. The answer: being insufferable. My friend’s response shortly thereafter confirmed this: “It’s too early for me to follow this sentence.”
Proust’s work has many qualities that might recommend it for pandemic reading: the author’s concern with the protean nature of time, the transportive exploration of memory and the past, or simply the pleasure of immersing oneself in the richly detailed life of another. His novel cycle, In Search of Lost Time, also presents the attractive challenge of surmounting a massive text—multiple volumes, stretching between 3,000 and 4,000 pages, depending on the edition—and the subsequent entry into a rare and rather pretentious club of readers. All of it appealed; I wanted in. What I found was a novel so preoccupied with the minutiae of experience that I had no choice but to reappraise my own.
Before accepting that I was no different from everyone else sublimating their ambition into a “quar project,” my reading habits had changed naturally with the phases of the pandemic. Early in March, as New York City prepared for a shutdown, I felt a sense of adventure in ordering a stockpile of books along with black beans and toilet paper. My first batch included Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, works often cited for their distinctive styles of comedy (self-lacerating and wry, respectively). One night, the two novels happened to be stacked on top of each other beside my bed; I found myself haunted by the cryptic dispatch of their titles.
We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists. —Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1801
Inauguration Day, 1801. John Adams may have beat it out of town on the 4:00 a.m. stage to Baltimore, but the podium filled with dignitaries, none more impressive than the man taking the Oath of Office. Thomas Jefferson, Poet Laureate of the American Revolution, former Secretary of State, outgoing Vice President, was standing there in all his charismatic glory.
As politicians have done, presumably from time immemorial, he pronounced himself awed by the challenge (“I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking”), imperfect (“I shall often go wrong through defect of judgment”), and an obedient servant (“[r]elying, then, on the patronage of your good will…”). He made the obligatory bow to George Washington (Adams being absent both corporally and in Jefferson’s spoken thoughts), and called upon the love of country that stemmed from shared experience: “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.”
How very Jeffersonian. Inspiring, embracing, collaborative, worthy of his fellow citizens’ admiration and even love. Looking back over 200 years, allowing for the archaic language, and even the sense that this was not his best work, you can still hear in it the echoes of what drew people to him.
Jefferson was more than a symbolic change in direction from the Adams (and Washington) years. He was the physical embodiment of what he later came to describe as the Second American Revolution. The public had cast aside the old Federalism, stultifying and crabbed, with a narrow vision of what democracy meant, and had chosen to move towards the bright light of freedom.
You have to love the story. It fits with an image of Jefferson that many have clung to over the decades. Jefferson was more than a stick figure of stiffly posed portraits, policies, and speeches. He was a full-blooded, passionate person: Jefferson the gourmand; Jefferson the suave raconteur; Jefferson having a grand old time in Paris and at Monticello. He was the courtier abroad, and the master of house and estate at home—his days filled with fine wine, good conversation, books, music, and enchanting women. Read more »
Ninety percent cancers diagnosed at Stage I are cured. Ninety percent diagnosed at Stage IV are not. Early detection saves lives. Unfortunately, more than a third of the patients already have advanced disease at diagnosis. Most die. We can, and must, do better. But why be satisfied with diagnosing Stage I disease that also requires disfiguring and invasive treatments? Why not aim higher and track down the origin of cancer? The First Cell. To do so, cancer must be caught at birth. This remains a challenging problem for researchers.
Cancer is a silent killer. To sight its diverse neonatal guises and behavior, we need to get more creative. Maybe change direction and look for the earliest stages of carcinogenesis in people who don’t have cancer yet but are at high risk of developing it. But what should we be looking for? Among many possibilities, one answer is Giant cells. This installment of the series on cancer is devoted to how, when and why these weird distended, strikingly abnormal looking gigantic cells appear in tumors and in the blood of cancer patients.
Giant cells: Hiding in plain sight
First identified in 1838 by Muller, and described with beautiful accompanying illustrations by Virchow in 1858, bloated giant cancer cells with many nuclei, have been regularly seen in tumors and labeled as dying or degenerating cells, incapable of dividing, and therefore of no importance. Besides, in fully formed cancers, they are extremely rare, close to negligible. Their number increases during relapse of cancer after treatment has destroyed the majority of tumor cells. Giant cells appear when there are no other cancer cells and disappear when cancer cells reappear.
A pair of coincidental happenings led me to conclude that cancer might originate in two cells that fuse and cooperate for mutual benefit, forming a Giant cell. Most likely, an exaggerated response to stress in the organ (infection, toxic exposure?). Read more »
[This is the eleventh in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. The previous part is here.]
In the beginning, the god of the Biblical creation myths makes the Earth and sky. Over the next several days, he makes the sun, moon, and stars, grasses and fruit trees, most of the animals, and rain. Then, scooping up a bit of fresh mud, he molds a being who looks much like himself, a man, and into this homunculus he breathes life. As a dwelling place for this newborn Adam, he plants a lavishly abundant garden, filling it with beautiful and delicious plants. The creator tells Adam, “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Then, realizing that Adam might feel lonely, the deity gives him cattle, fowl, and all the “beasts of the field.” Yet none of these quite seems a suitable companion, so from one of Adam’s ribs, god fashions a woman.
Quite pleased with his handiwork, the divinity instructs his new humans on how to live. He tells them they must increase their population. They must also replenish the Earth, and in doing so, subdue it and exercise dominion over all its living things. The almighty then leaves the newlyweds alone to get on with their business of eating, procreating, replenishing, and dominating, which they apparently take to just fine. Indeed, neither of the pair has any memorable comment on their situation, until the day Serpent piques Eve’s curiosity, telling her that if she and Adam were to eat from the one forbidden tree, rather than die, “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” Now Eve takes new notice of this tree, understanding that it could make her “wise.” Enticed, she picks a fruit and munches it. Whatever she discovers then—new knowledge or wisdom or just fine flavor—is simply too good not to share with her husband and, despite their creator’s clear injunction to him, Adam follows his wife’s lead. Yet soon the hapless couple realize that this new state they find themselves in—their eyes having been opened—is indeed problematic. They seem to have transgressed some cosmic order and find themselves possessed now of a discomfiting self-awareness, of moral judgments and political motives, just like the god who made them—and distinctly unlike the beasts they lived among. Read more »
In long plane journeys I do not sleep well. But some years back in one such journey I was tired and fell fast asleep. When I woke up, I saw a little note on my lap. It was from the captain in charge of the plane. It said, “I did not want to disturb you, but from our computer log I could see that your total travel so far with our airlines group just crossed 3 million miles. So congratulations! It seems you travel almost as much as I do.” I made a quick calculation, 3 million miles is like 6 return trips from the earth to the moon. With a deep sigh I chanted to myself, as our plane was hurtling through the night sky, a word from an ancient Sanskrit hymn: Charaiveti (keep moving!)
There was a time when, for me as a young boy, a rare trip from one part of my city to another was a breathless adventure. I grew up in the mean streets of Kolkata (then known to others as Calcutta), spending much of my boyhood and youth in a cramped rented house on a narrow by‐lane of north Kolkata, with no running water or flush toilet, and all the rooms packed with refugee relatives from East Bengal, recently displaced by the violent Partition of India. My father, as an educator, was not very poor by Indian standards, but for a time he had to support most of those relatives. He had no savings as whatever was left of his paltry income he spent on good food and books. Very early in my childhood he instilled in me an appetite for both, and also the habit of rational, irreverent thinking and a deep sense of irony. Read more »
The day is a collision of the body with itself, of the body with the space in which it finds itself, of the body against the sunlight which only ever heralds bad news in a mind like mine. Restlessness seizes all four limbs (an inconsistent phenomenon, brought on today by antipsychotics and an iced coffee), and anxiety churns in the stomach, in the empty spaces of the chest. The eyes look but don’t see; the eyes rush around, from this corner of the room to that corner of the room. The floor is mopped, the bathroom scrubbed. But there is the kitchen to do and a pile of laundry on the bedroom floor. These are little matters. These should not bother so much, I tell myself: “You should breathe. You should listen to your father and refuse to sweat the small stuff.” But, the day is a collision. There is no past to this day, nor is there any future in it. There is only the day, its imbalance, its summertime mad feeling, its ennui. I try sleeping in late to run the clock down, but I don’t sleep. I try to watch a movie to block out the brightness outside, but my toes just tap-tap the floor. I walk the dog, and I feed the cat. I lie down again. But, the body collides with the body, twists and folds and tenses. This is summertime.
You have had days of collision, I’m sure. They’re silly, really, on the other side of them. There is nothing silly about them as they happen however, and there is nothing silly about having the kind of brain which experiences collision less as a matter of the day as it does a matter of the season. I decide finally that what I’ll do is hit the daylight head on, that when it reaches late afternoon, and the day is at its hottest, I’ll go to the pool, Thomas Jefferson Pool on E 112th, in the park. My husband says he would rather nap, and secretly this is good: his day is not a collision; it has the normal dose of future and past in it, the normal dribblings of good cheer. “Why not go by yourself and get it out of your system?” he asks. When he says this, I know he means: get the desire to swim out of your system. I take it differently though. Out of the system, yes; something begs to be expurgated from the system. As I walk to the gas station to buy my summer padlock (you’ve got to have a padlock for the pool, and I lose mine every fall), in my husband’s Nike slides and cute trunks, a Dragonball Z t-shirt and bright pink knock-off Ray Bans, I recognize a kind of pilgrim feeling inside myself, the gentle hush that comes over those who march somewhere sacred. How funny to feel like the public pool is a shrine. I told you: days of collision are silly. Read more »