Life In Lists

by Mary Hrovat

Image of columnar basalt at Devils Postpile National Monument, California
Columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument, California. Photo by Eric T. Gunther; shared under a Creative Commons license.

The other day I was looking up an anthropological discovery I’d seen mentioned online someplace. The discovery seemed a little dodgy upon closer inspection, but in my search I found the Wikipedia page List of places with columnar jointed volcanics. I wasn’t looking for information about volcanic rocks that have undergone columnar jointing, but I was happy that this wonderfully browsable list exists. 

When I hear the word lists, I tend to think of the kind that are perhaps necessary but rarely enjoyable: the shopping list (often incomplete, seldom structured well with regard to the layout of the grocery store) or the to-do list (possibly a bad idea altogether). There are also lists that make me feel like I’m being forced down the neck of a narrow funnel with small benefit to myself: anything that begins “Your application must contain the following” or “You may be eligible for this tax credit if any two of the following are true (but see also the table on page 129).” 

I’m also not fond of the lists encountered when seeking healthcare, although on rare occasions I’ve found them mildly entertaining. Once I was going down a list of symptoms to identify the ones I’ve experienced, and I asked my companion the difference between anxiety and nervousness. “If you have to ask…,” he said, smiling. “Oh yes, I’m going to check both boxes,” I said. “I was just curious.” A little further down the list, we puzzled over whether “dry mough” meant dry mouth or dry cough. In short, this list seemed a bit slapdash. Technical checklists should be the clearest and least ambiguous of all lists, but at least this one’s ambiguity was amusing. (Besides, it was an eye doctor’s office; if they really cared about my mough, they would have corrected that error long ago.) Read more »


Ron Amir. Bisharah and Anwar’s Tree, 2015. From the exhibition titled Doing Time in Holot.

C print.

“The work of Israeli artist Ron Amir exposes complex social situations that tend to stay outside our field of vision. Between 2014 and 2016, Amir photographed African asylum seekers living in the Holot Detention Center in the Negev, and this important project of politically engaged photography was the subject of his first solo exhibition at the Israel Museum. The publication accompanying the exhibition presents an album of Amir’s images and an analysis of his work by curator Noam Gal. Texts by Reut Michaeli of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Israel and by the eminent social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai extend the discussion to address the project’s national and global aspects.”

More here and here.

Fish’s Grief

by Mike Bendzela

The greatest of stories has no proper beginning, at least none that we can yet discern, but proceeds from a warm, shallow shore some 375 million years ago.

There a lobe-finned fish found a way to use its bony limbs to stand up under water. It was thus able to lift its head out of the murk and gaze upon new shores that its descendants would populate.

Down through seemingly endless iterations of change, these fins were further exapted for such tasks as slogging through mud, scurrying through grass, clambering up trees, plucking fruit, scribbling letters.

The story continues on a cool, northern island, in a place called Downe, in June of the year 1858. There one of this fish’s descendants, Charles Darwin–a travel-weary, physically ill, gentleman scientist–holds in his hand an envelope addressed from the island of Ternate in Indonesia. The enclosed missive will change his world–and everyone’s–forever.

Darwin is not ready for this blow. His infant son, Charles Waring Darwin, born with Down syndrome, is not doing well: the boy is infected with the bacterium that causes scarlet fever, the same disease that killed his older sister seven years ago.

After this girl, Anne, had finally succumbed to the disease, Darwin wrote that his wife Emma and he had buried “the joy of the household,” and he settled into a long sadness.

And now it is happening again. Read more »

“Your Ideals are a Luxury”?: Right-Wing Anti-Establishmentism in a mass society

by Mindy Clegg

There is an XKCD for almost every occasion!

In recent years, some of the most powerful people in our society have claimed to be beleaguered outsiders. The former president is just one of the many powerful, wealthy, privileged people who declared themselves victims of a society out to destroy them and their way of life, which we’re meant to understand represents that of “real” Americans. Despite experiencing an incredibly privileged life, they claim to be the ones who are victims of jackbooted leftist thugs. There seems to be a whole cottage industry of people who rake in money by the bucketload while claiming to speak truth to the oppressive liberal/marxist power structure. They claim to be the authentic voice of the American working class, unlike the coastal elites who have no understanding of “real” life, but of course, despite their obvious privilege, they do understand the struggles of the common man. How did we get here, where men who benefit most from our social structures, position themselves as the little guy? This comes from a longer history of political shifts in America and of the rise of mass cultural consumption as a means of political expression. As culture came to stand in for political rebellion, the far right sought to weaponize mass culture to sneak in far right, reactionary ideology via the back door. But their ability to embrace an outsider status is evidence of their own privilege, as being an outsider has a strong cultural cache in our current mass mediated environment. Read more »

Dreams, Stories, and Self-Revelation

by John Allen Paulos

Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s new book, I’ve Been Thinking, just came out, and I was reminded of a party game he’s written about. A variant of the child’s game of twenty questions, it is relevant to an increasingly pressing question: How do different social bubbles, media subcultures, or cults develop. Let me start with the game, generalized versions of which are ubiquitous. It’s probably one of Dennett’s most compelling intuition pumps; that is, thought experiments with made-up, but plausible outcomes.

Imagine a group of people at a party who choose one person and ask him (throughout, or her) to leave the room. The “victim” is told that while he is out of the room one of the other partygoers will relate a recent dream to the group. He is also told that on his return to the party, he must try, asking Yes or No questions only, to do two things: describe the dream and possibly figure out whose dream it was.

The big reveal is that no one relates any dream. The party-goers decide to respond either Yes or No to the victim’s questions according to chance or, perhaps, according to some arbitrary rule. Any rule will do and may be supplemented by a non‑contradiction requirement so that no answer directly contradicts an earlier one.

What might happen is that the victim, impelled by his own obsessions, constructs a phantasmagoric, or at least a, weird dream in response to the random answers he elicits. He may even think he knows whose dream it was, but then the trick is revealed to him. The dream, of course, has no author, but in a sense the victim himself is. His preoccupations dictate his questions, which even if answered negatively at first, frequently receive a positive response when slightly reformulated. These positive responses are then pursued. Read more »

Poetry in Translation

To the Palestinian Arabs

after Iqbal (1877-1938)

Sir Mohammad or Allama Iqbal, a giant of South Asian poetry in the 20 th Century writing in Urdu, attended in 1931 the General Islamic Conference in Jerusalem. Iqbal’s message to the Arab world was: “. . .not have any trust in the West and the League of Nations,” the earlier incarnation of the UN, which was headquartered in Geneva.

Neither Geneva nor London will honor your claim
because Arabs haven’t yet learnt to manipulate

the West which is still impassive
to the passion igniting your soul.

History shows, people with unyielding spirit
themselves free from occupation.

Translated from the original Urdu by Rafiq Kathwari

My Drug Problem

by Richard Farr

Part one: A mere analogy

You’ve always dreamed of foreign travel and you’re aware that there’s a long history of people doing it, and benefiting from it. But you live under a regime that closed the borders a couple of generations ago, at the same time criminalizing the act of researching potential destinations. (Many countries were dangerous, they said, and some tourists were coming home with tie-dyed shirts and peculiar ideas.) To protect the vulnerable, a War on Travel was announced. In the years since, you have grown up with little more than rumors of other cultures, climates, cuisines. 

Change is afoot, however: members of a professional group, the globiatrists, are pushing back. They have looked into the history of travel and they agree it’s fraught with peril. But there’s evidence that some destinations may be the best way to treat Immobility Syndrome (IS), a condition involving chronic inability to be happy with never going anywhere. Drugs have been developed that sometimes help IS sufferers think about something else, but more and more globiatrists say that “for treatment-resistant patients travel may be a risk worth taking, so long as they are chaperoned. By one of us.”

In due course things do loosen up. Amid concern that unwise people might attempt to travel alone (or are already doing so illegally), permits are issued for some IS patients to take “trips.” 

Unfortunately, even seeing a globiatrist and being tested for IS is too expensive for many people. Also the diagnosis may be negative, in which case you have to go to a different globiatrist and try again.  Read more »

Sunday, November 19, 2023

What the Doomsayers Get Wrong About Deepfakes

Daniel Immerwahr in The New Yorker:
There’s a video of Gal Gadot having sex with her stepbrother on the internet.” With that sentence, written by the journalist Samantha Cole for the tech site Motherboard in December, 2017, a queasy new chapter in our cultural history opened. A programmer calling himself “deepfakes” told Cole that he’d used artificial intelligence to insert Gadot’s face into a pornographic video. And he’d made others: clips altered to feature Aubrey Plaza, Scarlett Johansson, Maisie Williams, and Taylor Swift.

The Astonishing Behavior of Recursive Sequences

Alex Stone in Quanta Magazine:

In mathematics, simple rules can unlock universes of complexity and beauty. Take the famous Fibonacci sequence, which is defined as follows: It begins with 1 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. The first few numbers are:

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 …

Simple, yes, but this unassuming recipe gives rise to a pattern of far-reaching significance, one that appears to be woven into the very fabric of the natural world. It’s seen in the whorls of nautilus shells, the bones in our fingers, and the arrangement of leaves on tree branches. Its mathematical reach extends to geometry, algebra and probability, among other areas. Eight centuries since the sequence was introduced to the West — Indian mathematicians studied it long before Fibonacci — the numbers continue to attract the interest of researchers, a testament to how much mathematical depth can underlie even the most elementary number sequence.

More here.

Sunday Poem

How I was Put to Bed

It was in the small dark apartment,
its long hall leading to a dark
metal door which opened to yet
another hallway, then a corridor

down to the lit stage of a street—
wide noise, a day, the squint of it,
then darkness again, and
I am kissed and lowered onto

a bed with two pillows, boulders
covered by a forest green cotton spread.
Down I go into that field, that river
and green sky. The bed smells good

and quickly I inhale and fall
into sleep, into nothing, then my father,
hours later, carries me limp to
the gray velveteen couch so he and

my mother have somewhere to sleep.
I never woke under transport,
never knew how a day was manufactured—
my arms, legs, and eyes open to the living

room of yet another morning. So must it
have been with Eve waking in that
voluptuous garden, stunned, back
where she never remembered having started.

by Genie Zeiger
Open Field
Open Field Press, 2011

Leading novelists on how AI could rewrite the future

Jeanette Winterson [and others] in The Guardian:

In my book of essays about life with AI – moving from Mary Shelley’s 1818 vision of a man-made humanoid to the possibilities of the metaverse – I describe AI not as artificial intelligence but alternative intelligence.

I am not thrilled with where Homo sapiens has landed us, and I believe we are at the point where we evolve or wipe out ourselves, and the planet. There is no reason to believe that the last 300,000 years mark us out as a species that is fully evolved. Our behaviour suggests the opposite. I would like to see a transhuman, eventually a post-human, future where intelligence and consciousness are no longer exclusively housed in a substrate made of meat. After all, that has been the promise of every world religion.

I was brought up in a strict religious household, and it intrigues me that for the first time since the Enlightenment, science and religion are asking the same question: is consciousness obliged to materiality? Religion has always said no. Scientific materialism has said yes. And now? It’s getting interesting.

More here.

On the Magic of Magnetic Force

Roma Agrawal at Literary Hub:

We have been through a radical shift in technology across just three generations of my family, and each step of the way has changed our lives dramatically, just as they did for society as a whole: allowing us to communicate with our loved ones, creating the world of instant news, changing the way we work, and altering the way we entertain and are entertained. But while a video call may seem a far cry from the telegram, all these forms of modern communication are based on the science of signals being sent from one distant point to another, almost instantaneously. And our ability to do that centers around magnets.

More here.

George Scialabba’s Prejudice for Progress

Sam Adler-Bell at Commonweal:

In an essay on the voluble New York intellectual Dwight Macdonald, George Scialabba cites Lionel Trilling’s assessment of Orwell, who, for Trilling, exemplified “the virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”

Much the same could be said of George Scialabba. For forty-four years, he has made a gift of his “direct, undeceived intelligence”—I would not say “simple”—to those fortunate readers who, as Richard Rorty once recommended, “stay on the lookout for [his] byline.”

Scialabba’s new collection, Only a Voice, contains twenty-eight previously published essays, the earliest from 1984, the latest (from this magazine) in 2021. They’re gathered here with a new introduction that takes up a perennial question for Scialabba—“What are intellectuals good for?”—and an apposite epigraph from Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”

More here.

The humble pocket has changed the way we equip ourselves to face the world

Virginia Postrel at Quillette:

Like printed books, perspective drawing, and double-entry bookkeeping, pockets were heralds of the modern era. In most times and places, people have either carried their money, combs, papers, and other small items in bags separate from their garments or tucked them into belts or sleeves. Integrated pockets are a product of European tailoring, which dates back only to the 14th century. They emerged when men’s breeches ballooned in the mid-1500s.

Early pockets were bags sewn to the inside of the waistband and otherwise hanging loose. They were significantly larger than modern pockets—a rare surviving example from 1567 is a foot deep—and sometimes included drawstrings. Regardless of size, the critical change was that the pocket became part of the clothing and thus a more secure and intimate extension of the wearer.

More here.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Call to Political Geography

Quinn Slobodian in New German Critique:

The 1990s were salad days for All Things German in North America. Scenes of cheerful anarchy as the wall fell were followed by the mass introspection of Schindler’s List (1993) and the wave of Holocaust memory. Weimar lived. The third section of Madonna’s 1992 Girlie Show tour was “Weimar Cabaret.” Sam Mendes directed a remake of Cabaret, starring Alan Cumming as a twee dead ringer for Otto Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden. Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990) introduced Caligari aesthetics to a younger generation with the protagonist’s haircut borrowed from the Cure’s Robert Smith, whose Wish went platinum in 1992. My college roommate bought two oversize posters that she adorned our house with, one of the Cure, the other of The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. A capstone was placed on the decade with the construction of the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, a moodier museum facing the Met, begun in 1996 and completed in 2001. Finally, you could LARP fin de siècle Vienna without leaving the New World. Newspapers were on sticks, and George Grosz paintings grimaced, mugged, and drooled from the gallery walls.

But the seeds of the fall were already on late-night television. When I stayed over at my grandmother’s, I could stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live. In a series of skits our Canadian hero, Mike Myers, hit the mystique of Germany with a laser-guided missile. In a recurring segment he was the host of a “West German television” show called Sprockets with a monkey called Klaus, a fake Kandinsky backdrop, and two authentic-looking Wassily chairs. He introduced Woody Harrelson in an asymmetrical haircut as the “irritant-in-residence at the Bremen Gallery of Modern Art.”1 There was a bit called Germany’s “Most Disturbing Home Videos” and a dream sequence in which Myers was seduced by a leather-clad and Nazi-capped dominatrix named Exclamation Point. At each segment’s end Myers’s barked announcement that it “was the time on Sprockets that we dance” triggered expressionless turtlenecked gyrations in caricature of Egon Schiele—and, by extension, of Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

More here.