Time Delay

by Angela Starita

Before I’d seen “Barbie,” my sister told me she’d liked it but hated the last scene, which she went on to describe. Oblivious to the concept of “spoiler alerts,” she spoke with considerable disgust about the lunacy of a doll who lived in a perfect world of clothes, sparkling beaches, and dance parties choosing to become a human woman. It didn’t make sense. And of all places to end this witty homage to MGM technicolor—a gynecologist’s office?! Such a disappointment, and utterly illogical. Mysterious even.

This was the tenor of her review, minor outrage on the part of a doll we’d both loved. Even though we’re eight years apart in age, we’d played with some of the same dolls when I had inherited hers, a brown-haired Barbie with a bouffant and a Francie doll, her small-breasted friend who sported a blond flip do. I got the white carrying case too and whatever clothes Jeanette had collected. Under my tenure, the Barbie world grew exponentially and entered the 1970s. I made a town for her in the space under the steps going into our basement. Its central feature was the three-story town house where my main doll, Malibu Barbie, a blond with a deep tan, lived. The others had various apartments around town and the gang would travel around the country in Barbie’s camper. I wasn’t allowed to have a Ken doll, so if a romantic plot line ensued, another Barbie would temporarily take the trouser role for a heated make-out scene.

When I did finally see the movie, I found it surprisingly moving, tearing up when Barbie realizes she has to leave Barbieland, that in fact, she’s stopped being a doll. I suppose that when she chose to end the movie at a doctor’s office, Greta Gerwig had in mind the start of adolescence and the painful end of childhood. But I also wonder if she had remembered a late scene in The Bell Jar when Esther gets fitted for a diaphragm. It’s a moment of power for a character who for much of the book feels utterly defenseless. For me, at least, the final scene of Barbie had much the same tone, the melancholy of saying goodbye.

So why my sister’s strong reaction to this moment of female manifestation? I’m torn between two theories, though I’d guess the answer is some combination. Read more »

Seriously, but not literally?

by Jeroen Bouterse

On November 22nd, a far-right party received almost a quarter of the vote in the Dutch national elections, making it by far the largest of the fifteen parties elected to our new Parliament. Whether it will actually get to govern depends on its capacity to form a coalition, but what is certain is that it will take 37 out of 150 seats in the legislature this week; twelve more than the second-largest party.

International media reporting on this landslide all noted what the party and its leader Geert Wilders represented over the last decades: his aggressive attacks on Islam and his slurs on minorities with Islamic country backgrounds, his softness on Putin’s Russia, his resistance to climate measures, and his calls for a ‘Nexit’, to name a few. While Dutch media and (to-be) opposition parties have certainly not ignored these points, they barely played a role in the campaign, and in the initial domestic interpretation of Wilders’ victory.

In that interpretation, the vote for Wilders has to be understood as an anti-establishment vote: the result of general dissatisfaction with a centrist coalition failing to address the problems of the people. The far right won not because of its promises to close mosques, arrange “fewer Moroccans”, cut support to Ukraine, withdraw from the Paris agreement and quit the EU, but more or less in spite of those promises; it won, rather, because of social issues such as a persistent housing crisis.

I will push back against this interpretation later, because I believe it lets the voter off the hook too easily. Aspects of it are clearly true, however. Read more »

Bridging The Hashbrown Divide

by Rafaël Newman

Zurich, main station, 2004 (photo: Ulrich Schuwey)

When I was eleven years old, Eva Kornpointner, my mother’s mother—our Grossmutti, as we were taught to call her—took me, together with all five of her other grandchildren, on a trip up the Rhine. Our ultimate, trans-Rhenish objective, after we had crossed the Swiss border at Basel, was Zurich and its hinterland, where Grossmutti had been born in 1906 into a family of German immigrants to Switzerland; along the way we visited other sites of personal importance to her in Germany, such as Munich, where she briefly attended university in the 1930s and where our grandfather had been born, and Coburg, in Upper Franconia, where her ancestors, according to family legend, had helped to build the famous castle. We were confounded by the enormous, filthy Cologne Cathedral, admired the more congenial Mainzer Dom, and goggled at the “devil’s footprint” in the Münchner Frauenkirche, the legendary vestige of a metaphysical architectural dispute. (Churches figured prominently on Grossmutti’s itinerary: surprising, given her lifelong commitment to atheism and progressive politics, but inextricable from German history.)

In Switzerland, Grossmutti took us on a tour of the city of Bern, where we played chess with life-sized pieces on an outdoor board in the Rosengarten, Napoleon’s vantage point upon briefly occupying Switzerland, and sniffed wonderingly at what seemed to be chocolate-scented vapors emanating from manhole covers in the Altstadt. When we did finally arrive in Zurich we were treated to homemade plum tart by Fee Meyer, our mothers’ cousin and one of our last remaining local relatives. Fee also escorted us on a hike up the Uetliberg and a visit to the neighboring town of Rapperswil, the home of her aging mother, our great-aunt Käthe, Grossmutti’s eldest sister. Tante Käthe (whom her wizened aspect and lack of English, together with whispered family legend, had conspired to give a forbidding aura) had spent the war years in Germany, having returned to the family’s homeland in the 1930s along with one of her brothers; this latter had then stayed on, in what was to become East Germany, while Käthe and her daughter Fee made their way back to Switzerland in the late 1940s. Read more »

Just Safe Stories

by Marie Snyder

Will re-branding Covid help people start acting to protect themselves from it? Maybe we need an ad campaign to kick-start public health. Outside of judicial rulings and before marketing, we had religious leaders to remind us to the best ways to survive, and before that we had stories passed down for generations to help keep children safe from harm by altering their behaviour, like this one

“Our parents told us that if we went out without a hat, the northern lights are going to take your head off and use it as a soccer ball. We used to be so scared!”

Unfortunately, those types of stories are unlikely to work on media-savvy kids today. They also seem immune to stories about going out without a mask, and being cautioned that the invisible microbes are going to infect your brain and body until you can’t get out of bed anymore. They’re not scared at all. 

Except that one is true. 

We don’t need to live in fear, but we do need a healthy wariness of the dangers of frostbite, drowning, cars, and pathogens. We train our kids to be careful near the road and near water. We watch out for them. Unfortunately, we’ve largely stopped doing that with pathogens, and children are paying the price. 

We might think that stories of monsters won’t work, yet advertising is still able to convince us to want things we didn’t know existed five minutes ago. We need to market the virus differently.  Read more »

Wordkeys: Content (Scattered Crumbs of a Unified Theory, Part 1)

by Gus Mitchell

In Henry VI, Shakespeare seems to have coined the expression “heart’s content.” The phrasemaking of King Henry is telling: “Her grace in speech”, he says of his Queen, “makes me from wondering, fall to weeping joys. / Such is the fulness of my heart’s content.”

Juxtaposing “wondering” to the joyous “fullness” of “content”, he describes the process of joy as an escaping of the potentially infinite vagaries of thinking; it is held in the intuitive knowing of the heart. To feel content, then, is to rejoice in a feeling of fulness beyond the need for further words, for further inputs or outputs, a fulness which depends, implicitly, on the felt presence of a pre-inscribed limit –– a container –– beyond which no more wanting or needing is possible.

Content derives from the Latin contentus (contained; satisfied) and continere (to hold together/enclose) – from the root com (with, together) and tenere (to hold). Content is a noun, a verb, an adjective, but common to all of these is the sense of something held, kept together, contained. It is a symptom of our inverted times that content has now means something radically alien. Content as an attainable feeling vanishes as the content of the internet proliferates.

Google “What is Content?” and you will encounter an infinitude of web pages explaining the concept of content marketing; the indispensability of superior content for your brand; how to use content strategically, on and on. The word itself is a blank: “Most businesses already engage in content marketing in some form by creating consumable content that is published on a public platform to generate brand awareness.” Read more »

Aye Aye, Cap’n! Investing in AI is like buying shares in a whaling voyage captained by a man who knows all about ships and little about whales

by William Benzon

That title reads like I have doubts about the current state of affairs in the world of artificial intelligence. And I do – who doesn’t? – but explicating that analogy is tricky, so I fear I’ll have to leave our hapless captain hanging while I set some conceptual equipment in place.

First, I am going to take quick look at how I responded to GPT-3 back in 2020. Then I talk about programs and language, who understands what, and present some Steven Pinker’s reservations about large language models (LLMs) and correlative beliefs in their prepotency. Next, I explain the whaling analogy (six paragraphs worth) followed by my observations on some of the more imaginative ideas of Geoffrey Hinton and Ilya Sutskever. I return to whaling for the conclusion: “we’re on a Nantucket sleighride.” All of us.

This is going to take a while. Perhaps you should gnaw on some hardtack, draw a mug of grog, and light a whale oil lamp to ease the strain on your eyes.

Scrimshaw in Space

What I Said in 2020: Here be Dragons

GPT-3 was released on June 11 for limited beta testing. I didn’t have access myself, but I was able to play around with it a bit through a friend, Phil Mohun. I was impressed. Here’s how I began paper I wrote at the time:

GPT-3 is a significant achievement.

But I fear the community that has created it may, like other communities have done before – machine translation in the mid-1960s, symbolic computing in the mid-1980s, triumphantly walk over the edge of a cliff and find itself standing proudly in mid-air.

This is not necessary and certainly not inevitable.

A great deal has been written about GPTs and transformers more generally, both in the technical literature and in commentary of various levels of sophistication. I have read only a small portion of this. But nothing I have read indicates any interest in the nature of language or mind. Interest seems relegated to the GPT engine itself. And yet the product of that engine, a language model, is opaque. I believe that, if we are to move to a level of accomplishment beyond what has been exhibited to date, we must understand what that engine is doing so that we may gain control over it. We must think about the nature of language and of the mind.

I still believe that. Read more »

On the Road: Ukraine’s Progress

by Bill Murray

Petro Oliynik in Honka House

Petro Oliynik wore a flag draped around his shoulders like a cape and didn’t speak. If it wasn’t an act, it was at least a presentation. You don’t often meet a man as unusual as Petro Oliynyk and the truth is, I haven’t really met him either. Maybe better to say I once accompanied him on his daily rounds.

Oliynik’s legend describes him as a simple stallholder in a market in Lviv who was drawn in the pursuit of democracy to the Maidan in Kyiv’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity. In the noble pursuit of righteousness, the story goes, he found his calling at a mansion outside Kyiv, and never left.

Four years ago Petro Oliynyk escorted three of us on a tour through that building north of Kyiv, popularly known as the Honka House. They call it that because the contractor was a Finnish builder of log homes called Honka, but that’s not why you tour it. You tour it because it’s a monument to inveterate corruption and bad taste – to everything Ukraine has been trying to leave behind.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a real human tragedy, doubly so because of where Kyiv was headed. I visited Kyiv twice these last ten years, in 2013 and 2019, and the differences between the first and second trips tell a story. Read more »

On Brahms, John Kennedy, and Music

by Nils Peterson

I went to graduate school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers had a fine University Chorus that sang one concert a year with a New York Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and one concert a year with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Though my scholarly friends scoffed at such a waste of time, I had the chance to sing with some of the great conductors, Eric Leinsdorf, for instance, and, of course, Eugene Ormandy.

My last semester in New Jersey, we sang the Brahms German Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a transcendent thrill. I had loved the piece as a listener, but now I had the chance to go so deeply inside it as a singer (and spend a long weekend in Philadelphia to boot). Not long after our last performance, I got married and set out across country for California and my first full-time teaching job at San Jose State, not yet a university. The year was 1963.

I arrived in San Jose dead broke. My wife and I had money for one night in a hotel (all night long, the same noisy cars circled round and round) and then we had to find a place to rent the next day or we would have had to use part of our month-in-advance rent money. Incredibly, we found a cottage on a rich man’s estate overlooking the valley. We were allowed to use the swimming pool in the yard. The one in his living room was for his family alone. We had also gotten our first credit card, a Bank America one with a $200 limit. (Well, my pay was $6,600 a year.)  We maxed it out on a $195 hi-fi set.

I found that I enjoyed teaching even though I had three sections of composition. My fourth class was a survey of English Literature. Originally, I was scheduled to have 4 composition classes, but the new head of the department took pity on me and split one of the senior professor’s class. In gratitude, I think I tried to squeeze a graduate seminar into each class, but the students seemed to like it and me.

One November morning, bright and shiny like the November morning I’m typing this in, I walked out of my English Lit class to the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Read more »

Rumi’s Jerusalem: The Far Mosque

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Masjid Al Aqsa, or The Far Mosque of Jerusalem, as the Quran calls it, is emblematic of the spirit of compassion and transcendence for Mevlana Rumi. “A heart sanctuary,” in the words of Rumi in his poem “The Far Mosque,” Al Aqsa represents a conquest over the egoistical desires of dominance, greed, vanity, violence and supremacy. It is held together by the sacred energy of merciful love, even “the carpet bows to the broom/the door knocker and the door swing together/like musicians.”

There is an expansiveness in Rumi’s poem that mirrors the place. I recall the embrace of the silent hours as I sat on the russet prayer carpets of Al Aqsa a few years ago– the wide doors, stained-glass windows, voices of children braided with the rhythmic recitation of the Qura’n, the scrawny birds covered in holy dust, stones sculpted by mythic time. I also recall stepping out of one of the fifteen gates of Al Aqsa, into a scene from a war movie, IDF soldiers with guns in all the storied alleys, and all the thresholds of sacred sites.

Jerusalem is no heart sanctuary. It is “the bitterness of two hundred winter-bare olive trees fallen/in the distance,” as a line from a poem by the Palestinian-American poet Deema Shehabi says. Her poem “In the Dome of the Rock” haunts me; it reflects the soul of Palestine, the soul of Al Aqsa, the guardian that has given this site of ascension its very blood. Shehabi continues with the unforgettable persona: “her exhausted/scars will gleam across her overly kissed forehead. She will ask you to come closer, and when you do,/ she will lift the sea of her arms from the furls/ of her chest and say: this is the dim sky I have/ loved ever since I was a child.” Read more »

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Sunday Poem

West Kennet Long Barrow

A cow rubs her ear against an oak tree
near the mouth of the Kennet River.
I am tired but Catrin takes me by my arm
up to the long barrow on the path winding
between fields of wheat. We stand where over
and over for a thousand years bones were placed
and then taken away. I have read that people
who know they will die in days sing differently
from those who will die in weeks. We know little
of these people whose bones rested here—how they hunted
with yew bows as long as themselves the animals
which were also their gods; or if they stopped
in their running, mouths open, gasping for breath
because of love; or sang in a particular way
close to death every day of their lives.

by Margaret Lloyd
Open Field; Poems from Group 18
Open Field Press, Northampton Press, 2011

When I Met the Pope

Patricia Lockwood in the London Review of Books:

The invitation​ said ‘black dress for Ladies’. ‘You’re not allowed to be whiter than him,’ my husband, Jason, instructs. ‘He has to be the whitest. And you cannot wear a hat because that is his thing.’

We are discussing the pope, who has woken one morning, at the age of 86, with a sudden craving to meet artists. An event has been proposed: a celebration in the Sistine Chapel on 23 June with the pope and two hundred honoured guests, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the contemporary and modern art collection at the Vatican Museums. I am somehow one of these two hundred; either that, or it is a trap. ‘I think if you’re invited to meet the pope, you go,’ Jason tells me. ‘It will make a perfect ending.’ For what?

Uneasily, I pack a suitcase.

More here.

Google AI and robots join forces to build new materials

Mark Peplow in Nature:

An autonomous system that combines robotics with artificial intelligence (AI) to create entirely new materials has released its first trove of discoveries. The system, known as the A-Lab, devises recipes for materials, including some that might find uses in batteries or solar cells. Then, it carries out the synthesis and analyses the products — all without human intervention. Meanwhile, another AI system has predicted the existence of hundreds of thousands of stable materials, giving the A-Lab plenty of candidates to strive for in future.

Together, these advances promise to dramatically accelerate the discovery of materials for clean-energy technologies, next-generation electronics and a host of other applications.

More here.

Rediscovering the metaphysics of subsidiarity

Andrew Willard Jones in The Hedgehog Review:

The political right is in a state of upheaval. The old alliances have crumbled, and long-held truths have become empty truisms. The postwar conservatism of the Reagan administration and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” is dead. All of this is so obvious that it hardly merits pointing out. Those who favor the status quo—the neoconservatives and neoliberals, to paint with broad strokes—are largely defecting to what passes for the center-left, leaving populists, nationalists, postliberals, neopagan Nietzscheans, and even the occasional libertarian to hash out the future of the “New Right.” An increasingly common thread among those factions is a rejection of old conservative commitments to the free market and the concomitant distinction between the public and private realms. We find ourselves in a place where it is just as valid to assert that everything is politics as it is to say that everything is economics or that everything is religion—or propaganda or marketing. The old categorical distinctions won’t hold.

What is missing is an awareness of real alternatives to our dominant political-economic order. Yet alternatives do exist, and here I propose that we consider—or more accurately, reconsider—one that is called subsidiarity as a source of concepts for building a viable economic and political theory that would in turn underwrite a genuine conservatism.

More here.

Bill Gates: How I Invest My Money in a Warming World

Bill Gates in the New York Times:

As we head into COP28, the annual global meeting on climate change underway in Dubai, there are two dominating schools of thought, both of which are wrong. One says the future is hopeless and our grandchildren are doomed to suffer on a burning planet. The other says we’re all going to be fine because we already have everything we need to solve climate change.

We’re not doomed, nor do we have all the solutions. What we do have is human ingenuity, our greatest asset. But to overcome climate change, we need rich individuals, companies and countries to step up to ensure green technologies are affordable for everyone, everywhere — including less wealthy countries that are large emitters, like China, India and Brazil.

Let’s start with what rich individuals, like me, can do to help.

More here.

The Inside Story of Microsoft’s Partnership with OpenAI

Charles Duhigg in The New Yorker:

At around 11:30 a.m. on the Friday before Thanksgiving, Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, was having his weekly meeting with senior leaders when a panicked colleague told him to pick up the phone. An executive from OpenAI, an artificial-intelligence startup into which Microsoft had invested a reported thirteen billion dollars, was calling to explain that within the next twenty minutes the company’s board would announce that it had fired Sam Altman, OpenAI’s C.E.O. and co-founder. It was the start of a five-day crisis that some people at Microsoft began calling the Turkey-Shoot Clusterfuck.

Nadella has an easygoing demeanor, but he was so flabbergasted that for a moment he didn’t know what to say. He’d worked closely with Altman for more than four years and had grown to admire and trust him. Moreover, their collaboration had just led to Microsoft’s biggest rollout in a decade: a fleet of cutting-edge A.I. assistants that had been built on top of OpenAI’s technology and integrated into Microsoft’s core productivity programs, such as Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint. These assistants—essentially specialized and more powerful versions of OpenAI’s heralded ChatGPT—were known as the Office Copilots.

More here.