The Green Pickup, the Blue Little God, and the Unfinished Duet

by Michael Abraham

She used to roll up to my house late at night, in her green pickup truck, smoking a Parliament out the window and blasting The Strokes. I was seventeen. I would climb in, and we would drive through my neighborhood much too fast, her weak, amber headlights illuminating only the nearest spot of road. We would talk about the day, about our friends at Catholic school, about whatever. It wasn’t so much about the talking. Even then, at that early time in our friendship, it was about the being together, often the being together in silence. We grew up outside of Seattle, and so there were woods aplenty, and we would pull off on some country highway, and she would take out her straight-tube bong, and we would rip it while Julian Casablancas crooned, Some people think they’re always right. Others are quiet and uptight. Others, they seem so very nice-nice-nice, oh! Inside they might feel sad and wrong, oh, no! We liked that song, probably because inside we felt so sad and so wrong, so unfit as subjects in the world we inhabited. Two misfit kids in a green pickup truck in the dead of night. Then, she would start the truck back up, and we would drive listlessly through the dark vigil of the trees on either side of the road, winding this way and that, singing along or lapsing into thought. I would stare out the window and watch the shadows roll by, and I would feel, for a moment, impossible and effervescent. I fell in love with her on these long, circuitous drives through the night. I came to believe very strongly in her, in the vibrancy of her presence, in some curious and ineffable extra that she had to her which other people did not have. She was imposing, even then, as she is now—but gentle inside, just. 

For my birthday that year, she gave me a copy of Crush, Richard Siken’s first book of poetry. Years later, I would meet Siken at a signing in New York, and I would ask him to do something a bit odd, which was to sign the book, not on the title page, but under a poem called “Unfinished Duet.” He would ask why, and I would respond, “A dear friend gave me this book when I was seventeen, and I read ‘Unfinished Duet,’ and now I study poetry at NYU,” which was an entirely true genealogy. Siken smiled knowingly, and he wrote, beneath the poem, “I [illegible] like this [illegible] little poem. I couldn’t finish it so I wrote a whole ‘nother book. RS.” This was probably a gentle nudge to get me to buy the book for which the signing was being held, but I was a college student and broke, so I left with my newly signed copy of Crush and did not buy War of the Foxes until a long time after.  Read more »

Monday Poem

“The Thwaites Glacier is the widest on Earth at about 80 miles in width. But
as the planet continues to warm, its ice, like much of the sea ice around Earth’s
poles, is melting. The rapidly changing state of the glacier has alarmed scientists
for years because of the 
spinechilling” global implications of having so much
additional water added to the Earth’s oceans . . .”
  —CBS News

Thwaites Glacier

There’s an ice sheet at the bottom of the globe
quite large, the size of a continent;
actually, it sits upon a continent, covers it,
it’s that large, one part is large as the state of Florida
and extends into the sea beyond the edge of the continent,
but still, it rests upon the seabed below in its extension,
not floating, resting, waiting as sea and air warms,
waiting to fall apart as all things do as conditions command,
nothing’s eternal after all, at least in the ordinary scope of perception,
and, as things are (in the ordinary scope of perception),
the falling apart of things has repercussions that reach far and wee
because the arm of repercussion is long regardless
of the wishes of perceivers, in fact, the arm of repercussion
reaches to the ends of the earth and further,
is as long as the arm of God (if you want to put it that way),
an arm which, clenched at its business end is poised the fist of physics,
which packs a wallop as sure as the glove of Mohammad Ali,
or is as gentle as the open hand of wisdom,
whose strokes may be soft and sublime
depending upon how thoughts have been arranged—
depending upon how they’ve influenced
how particular atoms move.

Jim Culleny

Grumble In The Jungle

by Mike O’Brien

Another summer media detox successfully completed. I managed to spend the better part of five weeks in self-imposed (or self-gifted, depending on how you feel about connectivity) digital fasting, consuming only as much news as CBC Radio One deemed fit to announce at the top of the hour. It was glorious, and probably a boon for my mental health, both chemo-anatomically and in less tangible registers of experience. It’s not that I couldn’t have been as connected as I am in the city (or about half an hour outside of it, to be precise); I could have quite easily added some data to my phone plan and filled my days by the lake scrolling through alarming and depressing missives from The World. I don’t know why it makes sense to fill my October-May schedule with such soul-rending, hope-smothering news about which I can do nothing. In fact, I know quite well that it doesn’t make any sense at all, and yet I keep falling into a loop of terror consumption. But during the vacation months, a state of exception opens up in my habitual patterns that affords me some respite from informational self-mortification. If I had any spare willpower or future-oriented executive function, I might structure my “normal” life to avoid such useless brain flagellation and education-as-expiation. But I am still very, very tired, and not in the market for salvation yet.

I always intend to do much more during my cottage sabbaticals than I end up accomplishing. “I will read books! Especially important ones!”; “I will plan out a productive life!”; “I will write!”. I suppose it still does some good to say these things, even when I know they are almost certainly false. Maybe I fail a little less each time. Maybe I’m approaching a phase shift. Maybe I am already playing the long game.
Read more »

God(ard) is dead. Long live Godard.

by Ada Bronowski

On the 13th September 2022, Jean-Luc Godard, the Franco-Swiss film-director, film-poet, film-philosopher, died at the age of 91. One of the most imaginative, rebellious, truly courageous artists on this planet whose existence, in more ways than can be enumerated in language, changed the face of our modernity, decided to end his life through assisted suicide, which is a legal practice in Switzerland, the country he had been living in since 1976, and in which he had spent his youth. He was not ill, ‘but exhausted’. In addition to everything else, his last action resonates with a magnitude that is as powerful as a political stand as it is as a last demonstration of a personal ethics which can be summarised as: moral integrity or nothing. A moral integrity, which he brought to bear indefatigably over the course of a lifetime in pursuit of freedom, resolution and independence – at whatever price.

His decision has opened the floodgates to an open debate for a reappraisal of the right to assisted suicide across Western European media, and renewed pressure on institutions. Death, the possibility of suicide, the preparation for and incorporation of death in life have been constant companions throughout a body of work that spans over sixty years of filmmaking, and around 130 films as credited on Godard’s IMDB page, though word on the street is that it is more like 140 – scholars and archivists have their work cut out for them, and we can at least look forward to a great deal of publications and releases of material that was kept unseen or undistributed for a myriad of reasons, one of them being that Godard did not consider them of interest. He was a perfectionist, and therefore regarded everything once done, practically a failure and everything yet to do, a necessary call to continue working. Making a film is like cooking, he said once in a conversation with the great French novelist Marguerite Duras, (and incidentally author of a rare and refined cookbook), you can’t pretend your soggy noodles are a success. Read more »

People Who Look Like Me

by Rebecca Baumgartner

There’s a pervasive idea that there must be works of art and culture that contain “people who look like me,” where “looking like” is usually scanned as race, ethnicity, sex, or gender expression. This clique-ish attitude masquerades as liberalism and can twist your head in knots if you let it: rather than encouraging and reveling in different perspectives, we want a coterie of authors, creators, and fictional characters that can fill out a census form in precisely the same way that we do. No one is so foolish as to come right out and say, “I only want to read about people who have lives similar to my own,” but this is the unstated purpose of wanting books with more people who “look like me.”

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

There are a couple of problems with this idea, right off the bat. First, and maybe simplest, is: Get over yourself. There are as many stories as there are people on Earth, and then some. We all contain multitudes. Even someone exactly like you on paper will have a different perspective and different story – quite possibly not one you would agree with or find palatable. Second, you must believe there is an immutable essence to being or looking a certain way, otherwise what would be the point of insisting on having more of it? Author Jia Tolentino, in her essay “Pure Heroines,” says: 

“…my white friends would be able to fantasy-cast their own biopic from an endless cereal aisle of nearly identical celebrities…while I would have no one to choose from except about three actresses who’d probably all had minor roles in some movie five years back. In most contemporary novels, women who looked like me would pop up only occasionally, as a piece of set decoration on the subway or at a dinner party, as a character whose Asian ethnicity would be noted by the white author as diligently as the whiteness of his or her unmarked protagonist was not.”

There’s a lot here to sort through, but my initial thought is about narcissism. Does someone need to share visible, tangible attributes with us before we can identify with them, sympathize with them, like them? What about their non-visible, non-tangible attributes? If a character shares our race but not our generation, how much do we really have in common? If they share our biological sex but come from a different social class, how far can we identify with them? Read more »

A Balancing Act: Wealth Creation and Equality

by Joseph Shieber

Paul Klee, “Tightrope Walker” (1923) Cleveland Museum of Art

In his (1930) essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes suggests that the stage has been set to alleviate the threat of material uncertainty for large portions of the world population. “The course of affairs will simply be,” Keynes writes, “that there will be ever larger and larger classes and groups of people from whom problems of economic necessity have been practically removed.”

The reasons Keynes cites for this blissful state are twofold: “the power of compound interest” and “technical improvements in manufacture and transport.” Keynes writes “Economic Possibilities” recognizing that his readers will likely see his prognostication of future material comforts for all (or most) as bordering on fantasy. For Keynes, however, the more bewildering fact seems not the explosion of growth that occurred beginning in the second half of the 19th century, but rather the LACK of growth that preceded that period.

“From the earliest times of which we have record,” Keynes notes, “back, say, to two thousand years before Christ – down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was no very great change in the standard of life of the average man living in the civilised centres of the earth. Ups and downs certainly. Visitations of plague, famine, and war. Golden intervals. But no progressive, violent change. Some periods perhaps. So 1 per cent better than others – at the utmost 1.00 per cent better – in the four thousand years which ended (say) in A. D. 1700.” Keynes continues with the observation that the “absence of important technical inventions between the prehistoric age and comparatively modern times is truly remarkable. Read more »

Never Mind: Straw Arguments Against Panpsychism

by Jochen Szangolies

The only thing worse than a good argument contrary to a conviction you hold is a bad argument in its favor. Overcoming a good argument can strengthen your position, while failing to may prompt you to reevaluate it. In either case, you’ve learned something—if perhaps at the expense of a cherished belief.

But with a bad argument, you’re put in an awkward situation. Since you agree with its conclusion, to the extent that you’re interested in spreading belief in this position, engaging it would not seem to be in your best interest. On the other hand, such arguments always carry the necessary raw materials for the construction of future strawmen within them: bundled together, they only need to then be knocked down with great aplomb to try and dissuade belief in the conclusion they purport to further. Hence, I call such arguments ‘straw arguments’.

Take the case of Ernst Haeckel’s supposed ‘biogenetic law’, which posits that the creation of the individual retraces the evolutionary history of the entire species—‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’. Thus, that evolutionary history is manifest in the developmental stages of an individual history, giving direct evidence (of a sort) of this history. The only trouble is, it’s wrong; individual stages of embryonic development do not resemble adult stages of phylogenetic ancestors. Read more »

Manifest Destiny; or, a Trip Out West

by Derek Neal

Friday, September 2, 3:24 pm

I’m in a white Toyota Camry, practically brand new, and I’ve passed a spotted deer grazing outside the airport and a billboard with a picture of a baby and the words, “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Wyoming, I think to myself. The GPS on my phone tells me I can drive 104 miles on the one lane highway before making a turn. Going west, I think to myself. I decide to try out the luxuries of the Toyota Camry; it has Sirius XM radio, and the breadth of stations is impressive. I put on “Studio 54” radio and immediately hear Luther Vandross singing for the group Change, a Chic-inspired disco band from the 80s. I listen for a few songs, but it’s all wrong: this is music for New York. I try to call up The War on Drugs on my phone, a fitting soundtrack for cutting through the plains, foot to the ground, blue skies above, but I don’t have service. Wyoming, I think again. Thank God the map is still working.

Going back to the radio, I see they have artist channels and one of them is Tom Petty radio. Now that’s music for driving west. The fist song is “Saving Grace.” Petty is singing:

And it’s hard to say

Who you are these days

But you run on anyways

I realize I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing beyond the windshield. Words come to me: steppe, bluff, vista, brush, but they lack a specific referent outside of the vast expanse unfolding before me. The landscape is dry and undulating, with occasional growths of struggling vegetation. There are few trees, much rock. Everything is a baked yellowish color, cooking under the sun and meeting the light blue sky on the horizon. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 62

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In connection with our research and meetings in the MacArthur network we did a considerable amount of international travel. Let me now turn to a whole series of my travel-related stories, some in connection with this network but mostly outside it and in different periods of my itinerant life.

When I start thinking of my travels the first thing that comes to mind, as it does with many others from India, is a whole series of anecdotes relating to authorities in western countries trying to block or hinder our travel in various ways. Let me unburden here some of them. Many decades back, before I got the much-coveted ‘green card’ (it actually looks rather pink, not green) for permanent residency in the US, I was standing in the long line for American visa one early morning in New Delhi. The line started forming even before daylight, hours before the Embassy doors opened, and it soon snaked around the Embassy building, under the scorching sun. When I finally reached near the counter in the air-conditioned interior, in front of me there was one other person, a woman of probably 27 or 28 years of age. She had told me that she had been admitted in a graduate school in the US with a fellowship, and we discussed her prospective area of research. But when she reached the counter the surly visa officer looked at the file, examined all her documents, then for a minute or two looked at her, and suddenly closed the file with a thump, and said, “You don’t look like a student to me (he probably meant that she was a few years older than the usual graduate student), No Visa for you! …..Next!” Standing there she started silently weeping, and I was next. I reached the counter and said, “Is this how you decide on visa, by looks of people?” The man growled at me and said, “Do you want your visa or not?” Things may have improved since then but at least those days it entirely depended on the arbitrary decision of one visa officer, and there was hardly any scope for appeal. While in the line I had already overheard some students discussing that the visa officer at the American consulate in Chennai was rumored to be a bit kinder than officers on duty elsewhere in India at that time, and many Indian students were making a special trip to Chennai to try their luck there. Read more »

Sunday, September 18, 2022

The tiny murder scenes of forensic scientist Frances Glessner Lee

Nicole Johnson at Al Jazeera:

In Lee’s miniature scenes, newspaper headlines were true to the day’s actual headlines. An issue of a miniature Newsweek found in ‘Living Room’ contained the real front page from the exact date.

A husband and wife, lying in their bedroom, their baby in her crib in the adjacent nursery. A typical family on a typical morning, minus the red bloodstains on the beige bedroom carpet and the pink and white striped wallpaper behind the crib. All three family members, mother, father and baby, have been shot to death.

While the scene may sound like something straight out of a true-crime show, it is a diorama called “Three-Room Dwelling” that was built in about 1944 by a 60-something Chicago heiress named Frances Glessner Lee.

It was made to train police officers in the handling and processing of evidence. The blood behind the baby’s crib allows officers to study blood spatter patterns.

Lee crafted her macabre dollhouse-sized crime scenes using miniatures, then considered a feminine craft, to educate in a field dominated by men.

More here.

Did GoogleAI Just Snooker One of Silicon Valley’s Sharpest Minds?

Gary Marcus in The Road to AI We Can Trust:

Clever Hans, a horse widely reputed to be so much smarter than his brethren that he could do math, tell time, and even read and spell.

People may no longer believe that horses can do math, but they do want to believe that a new kind of “artificial general intelligence [AGI]”, capable of doing math, understanding human language, and so much more, is here or nearly here. Elon Musk, for example, recently said that it was more likely than not that we would see AGI by 2029 . (I think he is so far I offered to bet him a $100,000 he was wrong; enough of my colleagues agreed with me that within hours they quintupled my bet, to $500,000. Musk didn’t have the guts to accept, which tells you a lot.)

But it’s not just Elon that wants you to believe that AI is nigh. Much of the corporate world wants you to believe the same.

Take Google. Throughout the 2010’s, Google (and by extension its parent, Alphabet) was by the far the biggest player in AI. They bought Geoffrey Hinton’s small startup, soon after Hinton and his students launched the deep learning revolution, and they bought the research powerhouse DeepMind, after DeepMind made an impressive demonstration of a single neural network architecture that could play many Atari games at superhuman levels. Hundreds of other researchers flocked there; one of the best-known minds in AI, Peter Norvig, had already been there for years.

More here.

What Are Numbers? Michael Harris and Justin Smith discuss

From The Point Magazine:

What does it mean for a number to exist? In the philosophy of mathematics, there are two general camps when it comes to numbers: there are the Platonists—or the “realists”—who think numbers somehow really exist, and there are the constructivists, who think they’re the products of mathematical activity. In this episode of “What Is X?” Justin invites on the Columbia University mathematician Michael Harris to try to figure out what the ontological status of numbers is. Are they the ultimate abstractions, or is there something “more real” to numbers than even our physical world? If we ran into them in outer space, would aliens understand numbers as we’ve conceived of them here on earth?  Over the course of the hour, you’ll get to listen in on: a  discussion of the relationship between numbers and culture, a true story that sounds like a joke about three mathematicians who walk into a bar, and a back-and-forth about why certain philosophers are obsessed with mathematics (hint: its unmediated access to truth).

US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy, inequality

Kathleen Frydl in The Conversation:

The United States may regard itself as a “leader of the free world,” but an index of development released in July 2022 places the country much farther down the list.

In its global rankings, the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development dropped the U.S. to 41st worldwide, down from its previous ranking of 32nd. Under this methodology – an expansive model of 17 categories, or “goals,” many of them focused on the environment and equity – the U.S. ranks between Cuba and Bulgaria. Both are widely regarded as developing countries.

The U.S. is also now considered a “flawed democracy,” according to The Economist’s democracy index.

As a political historian who studies U.S. institutional development, I recognize these dismal ratings as the inevitable result of two problems.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Landscapes that Remind Me of My Children

Utica is a pretty and quiet country
When I was at the bus station
my son would say to me, ‘mom, I am hungry’
and a man who was sweeping came up to me
and told me to come
and I went
and he bought him a hamburger
and a milk carton
and that is how a woman came up to me
and asked me ‘what are you doing here?’
and I told her what was happening to me
and she said come to my house
because it is very cold outside
and then call the person so that they come get you
she gave us dinner but I
because I was sad
could not eat
or sleep
and this is my story

by Lourdes Galván
Split This Rock
Translation from the Spanish by Leanne Tory-Murphy @ READ MORE

Read more »

Are soul mates real, according to science?

Amir Levine in The Washington Post:

For humans, biologically speaking, soul mates are entirely real. But just like all relationships, soul mates can be complicated. Of course, there isn’t a scientifically agreed-upon definition for “soul mate.” But humans are in a small club in the animal kingdom that can form long-term relationships. I’m not talking about sexual monogamy. Humans evolved with the neurocircuitry to see another person as special. We have the capacity to single someone out from the crowd, elevate them above all others and then spend decades with them.

In other words, soul mates are made possible for us because of the way our brain is wired. What’s fascinating to me is that we are all unique. Our DNA is unique. Our faces are unique. Our brains are unique. And yet we all have the brain neurocircuitry to see another person as more special than anyone else. What happens when we make someone special like that is they become more valuable than others. There’s a lot more at stake whether they call us or don’t call us.

More here.