The Great Siberian Thaw

Joshua Yaffa in The New Yorker:

It was impossible to tell through the Antonov’s dusty porthole, but below me the ground was breathing, or, rather, exhaling.

Three million years ago, as continent-­size glaciers pulsed down from the poles, temperatures in Siberia plunged to minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit and vast stretches of soil froze underground. As the planet cycled between glacial and interglacial periods, much of that frozen ground thawed, only to freeze again, dozens of times. Around eleven and a half millennia ago, the last ice age gave way to the current interglacial period, and temperatures began to rise. The soil that remained frozen year-round came to be known as permafrost. It now lies beneath nine million square miles of Earth’s surface, a quarter of the landmass of the Northern Hemisphere. Russia has the world’s largest share: two-thirds of the country’s territory sits on permafrost.

More here.

The Deep Structure of Democratic Crisis

Ruth Berins Collier and Jake Grumbach in the Boston Review:

The United States faces a democratic crisis, as we have been told for several years now. But what exactly does this mean? On the anniversary of the January 6 attempted coup, the answer may seem obvious: the crisis is perhaps most dramatically seen in the transformation of the national Republican Party, which has abandoned a policy-making role for one that simply seeks power. To this end, it has become intent on exploiting vulnerable state-level institutions to suppress votes, gerrymander districts, and allow partisan actors to overturn the popular vote.

But to understand the threat of democratic backsliding in the United States, it is essential to untangle a variety of explanations of our contemporary crisis. These range from the most proximate to the more structural, and all are important. While most American analysts have focused on the former, however, we want to focus on the latter. We argue, in particular, that the economic transition from industrialism to post-industrialism may be less conducive to democracy, or at least provides an explanation for some important threats to democracy that we are witnessing today. Such a lens puts the analysis of the U.S. crisis in comparative perspective, allowing us to see some common threats across rich, historic democracies as well as the specific features that account for the extreme form it takes in our country.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

The Railroad Station

My nonarrival in the city of N.
took place on the dot.

You’d been alerted
in my unmailed letter.

You were able not to be there
at the agreed-upon time.

The train pulled up at platform 3.
A lot of people got out.

My absence joined the throng
as it made its way toward the exit.

Several women rushed
to take my place
in all that rush.

Somebody ran up to one of them.
I didn’t know him,
but she recognized him

While they kissed
with not our lips,
a suitcase disappeared,
not mine.

The railroad station in the city of N.
passed its exam
in objective existence
with flying colors.

The whole remained in place.
Particulars scurried
along the designated tracks.

Even a rendezvous
took place as planned.

Beyond the reach
of our presence.

In the paradise lost
of probability.

Somewhere else.
Somewhere else.
How these little words ring.

by Wislawa Szymborska
View With a Grain of Sand
Harvest Books, 1993
translation: Stanislaw Baranczak nd Clare Cavanaugh

Colm Tóibín: “I think, ‘I must be deep.’

Leo Robson in New Statesman:

In conversation, the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, the winner of the 2021 David Cohen Prize for Literature, employs a range of corroborating gestures. During moments of leisurely explanatory flow, he uses the back of his right hand to fondle the air just in front of him, or to fold it in gentle Nigella-ish revolutions. When he wants to achieve a tone of emphasis, a stab of the index finger accompanies every carefully chosen word. In more pensive moments, he likes to stroke his head, which is bald except for tufts around the back and side in the manner of his hero Henry James, the subject of his novel The Master (2004). On a recent afternoon, sitting in a library-like, though bookless, room in a small central London hotel, he preferred to lean forward from his armchair, arching his noble lined face towards the coffee table that lay between us – a disposition that reflected the infinite seriousness with which he takes “the creation of character and setting of scenes”.

“What you do,” he told me, at a moment of near horizontality, “is play to your strengths. But you keep not knowing what your strengths are.” He was talking about the evolution of his latest book, The Magician, a kind of sibling to The Master, which follows the German writer Thomas Mann virtually from cradle to grave. “You keep thinking, ‘I must be deep, I must be deeper.’ Then you say, stop this nonsense, get on with the story.” Eventually, he decided that he was “creating an illusion. The effort is to be immersive, so the reader can live this life emotionally, in a vicarious way.”

Tóibín was born, 66 years ago, to a conservative Catholic family, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. His grandfather was an IRA member who took part in the Easter Rising. His father, a teacher, died when he was 12. As a teenager, at boarding school, Tóibín discovered literature and realised he was gay. After graduating from University College Dublin he moved to Barcelona, inspired partly by his love of Ernest Hemingway, in the final days of Franco, when the city was blooming with new freedoms.

More here.

Forest Fight

Gabriel Popkin in Science:

KOENIGSHAIN, GERMANY – MAY 19: Aerial photograph of dead conifers in a mixed forest on May 19, 2020 in Koenigshain, Germany. Because of the last years of drought needleleaf forests are infested by bark beetles. Many trees are felled to stop spreading these beetles. (Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

SCHWENDA, GERMANY—Last summer, Friederike and Jörg von Beyme stood on a bramble-covered, Sun-blasted slope outside this small town in eastern Germany. Just 4 years ago, the hillside, part of a nearly 500-hectare forest the couple bought in 2002, was green and shady, covered in tall, neatly arranged Norway spruce trees the couple planned to cut and sell. During January 2018, however, a powerful storm felled many of the trees. Then, over the next 3 years, a record drought hit Germany and much of Central Europe, stressing the spruces that still stood. The back-to-back disasters enabled bark-boring beetles that had been munching on dead trees to jump to drought-weakened ones. Beetle populations exploded. In just 3 weeks, towering spruces that had seemed healthy were dead.

The von Beymes salvaged what they could, rushing to log and sell the dead and diseased trees. But thousands of other forest owners did the same, causing the timber market to collapse. The couple’s piles of logs were worth less than what it had cost to cut and stack them. Now, they don’t expect to earn a profit from logging spruces for 20 years. “We have a big forest now with big problems,” Jörg von Beyme says. The von Beymes are far from alone. Since 2018, more than 300,000 hectares of Germany’s trees—more than 2.5% of the country’s total forest area—have died because of beetles and drought fueled by a warming climate. The massive dieback has shocked the public. And it has raised hard questions about how a country renowned for inventing “scientific” forestry more than 3 centuries ago should manage forests so they can continue to produce wood and protect ecosystems in the face of destablizing climate shifts.

Everyone agrees that new approaches are needed, but no one, it seems, can agree on what those should be. Some advocates want Germany’s government and forest industry to stop promoting the widespread planting of commercially valuable trees such as Norway spruces, and instead encourage landowners to allow forests to regenerate on their own. Others say that to meet economic, environmental, and climate goals, Germany must double down on tree planting—but using more resilient varieties, including some barely known in Germany today. The stakes are high: Germany’s forest products sector generates some €170 billion annually and employs more than 1.1 million people. If its wood supplies dwindle, pressure could grow to log forests elsewhere around the world. Declining forests could also imperil efforts to replace building materials that generate huge emissions of greenhouse gases, such as concrete and steel, with potentially climate-friendlier wood.

More here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Every Day a Dreyfus Affair: Art, Polarization, and the New “Both-Sidesism”

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack newsletter, Hinternet:

In the spring of 1991, the Romanian comparative-religionist Ioan Petru Culianu was shot to death while seated in a toilet stall near his office in Swift Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago. A single Winchester .25 bullet to the back of the head suggested the work of a trained assassin, who had swooped down upon him from over the wall of the neighboring stall like a hawk.

The FBI report on the murder was declassified in 2016. While most proper names are blacked out, the several documents it collates still manage to transmit a vivid picture of his life and times, and of the circumstances of his death. The murder remains unsolved, and already in the report we see an unusually thick fog of cluelessness hanging over its investigation. The efforts of the Chicago police detectives to make sense of Balkan politics and of the emerging post-communist order are predictably bone-headed, yet somehow valiant, mixing the high and the low of international intrigue and local color. We learn of one unnamed source, “contacted in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” who notes that Culianu had recently been “very outspoken about the repression in present Romania,” and in particular about the enduring power of the Ceaușescu-era secret police after the 1989 revolution. Another source, by contrast, says that “[h]e did not believe that the victim was shot over Romanian politics. Ioan didn’t seem to care anymore. [His] area of expertise is attractive to ‘wackos’. Some of the students are very bizarre.” In another place in the report a detective patiently listens to an unnamed source who “said he had never heard anyone accuse CULIANU of being a homosexual, however [REDACTED] said he could understand why CULIANU may have been accused of being a homosexual because CULIANU had a foreign accent.” The detective hastens to explain: “It is [REDACTED’S] belief that some people tend to associate those with foreign accents with homosexuality.”

More here.

Hospitals Are in Serious Trouble

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Omicron is so contagious that it is still flooding hospitals with sick people. And America’s continued inability to control the coronavirus has deflated its health-care system, which can no longer offer the same number of patients the same level of care. Health-care workers have quit their jobs in droves; of those who have stayed, many now can’t work, because they have Omicron breakthrough infections. “In the last two years, I’ve never known as many colleagues who have COVID as I do now,” Amanda Bettencourt, the president-elect of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, told me. “The staffing crisis is the worst it has been through the pandemic.” This is why any comparisons between past and present hospitalization numbers are misleading: January 2021’s numbers would crush January 2022’s system because the workforce has been so diminished.

More here.

Letter from the Collapse

Ed Simon in The Millions:

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Sitting with Amazing

Today I’m sitting with amazing

Even though there are still many things that are an onslaught
…. against my mind and my senses; I’m sitting with amazing.

Because I need joy.
Because I need peace.
Because I need to be able to inhale
…. and exhale something other than trauma.
I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m reclining in the sun streaming through my window.
I’m sitting with amazing.
I’m remembering yesterday’s sky and taking in the sunset.
I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m hearing about how balsamic vinegar plus heat
…. can elevate tomatoes;
visualizing how a plantain stew is going to feed my soul.
…. I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m belly-laughing with my cousin about my failed attempt at Sahur.
My tray was laden with goodness, my timing was off.
I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m smiling at the power of a bowl of soup and some sourdough bread.
Simple things saturated with love.
Totally unplanned. Completely intentional.
I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m leaning into wonder, open to awe, maintaining my joy.
I’m sitting with amazing.

I’m here writing instead of sleeping . . .
60 minutes and counting.
306 words, 1,748 characters and stopping.
Behind every thought a bigger story.
Today, I’m sitting with amazing.

by Janet Whyne
Worldview 2021
Poetry Archive;

The Poet of Old Age

Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine:

WHEN POETS DIE YOUNG, youthfulness comes to seem like the essence of their work, the thing they were born to write about. If John Keats hadn’t died at 25 of tuberculosis, he might have gone on to write great poems about marriage, parenthood, and middle age; since he never got the chance, he is forever a poet of adolescent exuberance and melancholy, of ambitions and dreams. Some of the best-loved poets in English have been doomed to eternal youth, from Thomas Chatterton in the eighteenth century to Sylvia Plath in the twentieth.

Donald Hall ’51, who died in 2018 a few months shy of 90, was one of the rare poets with the opposite destiny: he was born to write about aging and being old. The earliest poem he chose to include in The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, “My Son, My Executioner,” is about how becoming a parent brings old age closer, even for parents as young as Hall and his first wife, Kirby: “We twenty-five and twenty-two,/Who seemed to live forever,/Observe enduring life in you/And start to die together.” In one of the last poems in the book, Affirmation, Hall wrote about that journey from the other end: “To grow old is to lose everything./Aging, everybody knows it.”

More here.

Man gets genetically-modified pig heart in world-first transplant

Michelle Roberts in BBC:

David Bennett, 57, is doing well three days after the experimental seven-hour procedure in Baltimore, doctors say. The transplant was considered the last hope of saving Mr Bennett’s life, though it is not yet clear what his long-term chances of survival are. “It was either die or do this transplant,” Mr Bennett explained a day before the surgery. “I know it’s a shot in the dark, but it’s my last choice,” he said. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center were granted a special dispensation by the US medical regulator to carry out the procedure, on the basis that Mr Bennett – who has terminal heart disease – would otherwise have died.

He had been deemed ineligible for a human transplant, a decision that is often taken by doctors when the patient is in very poor health. The pig used in the transplant had been genetically modified to knock out several genes that would have led to the organ being rejected by Mr Bennett’s body, the AFP news agency reports. For the medical team who carried out the transplant, it marks the culmination of years of research and could change lives around the world. Surgeon Bartley Griffith said the surgery would bring the world “one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis”. Currently 17 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant, with more than 100,000 reportedly on the waiting list.

More here.

Three Films By Mani Kaul

Ratik Asokan at The Current:

In 1968, soon after he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India, Mani Kaul made an arresting short titled Forms and Designs. It observes artisans at work across the country, some swimming alone against the tide of mass production, others pitched up at government centers for handicraft revival. Several times the camera tilts from hands chiseling (or painting or weaving) up to faces gathered in concentration. There is an admiring sequence on village cooperatives. These are set beside dour images of industrial machines and advertisements for home appliances, as a starchy voice warns that the “wheels of mechanization” are accelerating. “He is the last in his family,” it’s said of eighty-five-year-old Imtiaz Ali Khan. “With his passing, the art of brass engraving will wither away.”

more here.

A Tribute to bell hooks

Niela Orr at The Paris Review:

Reading hooks transformed my thinking on a bevy of subjects, including feminism, Buddhism, Christianity, celebrity, sex, romance, and the limits and possibilities of representation. In her 2003 book We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, she notes that “throughout our history in this nation African-Americans have had to search for images of our ancestors.” This is true of my own search for biological forebears, but in terms of intellectual heritage, I feel lucky that I didn’t have to search very far to find the images hooks conjured in words, or the actual photographs of her on dust jackets. She was incredibly prolific, and her books were everywhere when I was coming of age. Since my teens, I’ve enjoyed the slow burn of revelation that comes through encountering and reencountering her work. I’ve learned the importance of being patient enough to let meaning reach me when I’m ready for it, allowing an insight to land slowly and settle in my mind. Rereading hooks has helped me to revel in ideas without necessarily articulating them to anyone but myself, lest I interrupt the process of recognition by blabbing what I think I know too soon. As the old folks say, some things can remain private, and these reading experiences that overwrite each other and take years to develop are among the most pleasurable.

more here.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Market Power

by Raji Jayaraman

Every Econ 101 student learns the basic model of demand and supply. It’s pretty straight forward. Picture a graph with the price of a product or service on the vertical axis and the quantity supplied and demanded on the horizontal axis. There are two curves drawn on this graph: the demand curve and the supply curve. The demand curve is downward sloping because as prices decrease, consumers are willing to buy more. The supply curve is upward sloping because producers are willing to supply more when they are paid more. The “competitive equilibrium price” of the product or service is where supply equals demand: two curves intersect. When prices are higher than the equilibrium price, supply is greater than demand: there is “excess supply”. This makes sense: at higher prices, suppliers are going to be happy to sell more, but consumers aren’t willing to buy as much.

Economic conservatives often apply this logic to justify their opposition to a minimum wage. The argument goes like this. Minimum wages mandate that the price of labour be set above the market wage. At the new, higher wage there are more people willing to work and fewer jobs to go around because hiring a worker is now more costly to employers. In other words, there will be an excess supply of labour. Another way of saying this is that there’s going to be more (involuntary) unemployment.

Now, of course there are many excellent reasons to want to raise the minimum wage, none which have anything to do with economics. Trying to ensure that low-wage workers are paid decently is important if you care about things like equity, human decency, and fairness. But if my support for minimum wages rested on my commitment to social justice, the prospect of this policy instrument causing a dramatic increase in unemployment would give me pause. It’s hard to maintain the moral higher ground when my favoured policy improves the wages of those who are lucky enough to have a job but drives countless others into unemployment. Read more »


by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

I knock at the bathroom door. 

“You alright, hun?”

No pause. “Yeah, I’m fine! Just bad today.”

I try to keep any sign of pity out of my voice—nobody likes to be treated like a patient—“I’m sorry. Can I get you anything?”

No pause. “No, I’m fine! Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

My husband has a chronic, invisible disability called microscopic colitis. It is a bowel disorder, common in white women in their seventies and eighties. (He likes to joke that at least some part of him is privileged.) It causes pain, bleeding, and, quite often, a violently upset stomach. Marco is remarkably lighthearted about it, but it is the kind of disability for which one could be put on government assistance. Some days, I don’t even notice colitis. And then, some days, Marco is scarcely out of the bathroom. He has developed all of his own ways of coping with this, using music mostly to turn the bathroom into a kind of sanctuary. Most days are somewhere between these extremes. Colitis interrupts things here and there, causes us to miss movie credits or makes us late for dinner. I have no idea what it is like to be the one who suffers through missing movie credits or running late for dinner. I have no idea, either, of the pain—real, physical pain—that I can so simply gloss here as movie credits and dinner. For me, it is abstract. For him, it is embodied and immanently real. I only know what it is like to live adjacent to that suffering, to witness it and to try my best to respond to it with delicacy and care. 

The first and most prominent thing I have learned in my five years of living with a man who has a disability is that those who live with disabilities are remarkably resilient. This almost sounds like a cliché. Of course they are, you’re thinking. But resilience is a more expansive thing than our typical idea of it. Read more »

Monday Poem

Having Coffee
coffe and whistlers mother

i’m having coffee
i’m dreaming I’m having coffee with Whistler’s mother
i’m out of the frame to the left meeting her gaze
i’m scratching a knuckle with my nose
i’m not listening to my wife while gazing out a window
i’m imagining our small distant sun rising over the horizon of Neptune
i’m having coffee   —paper cup with a heat sleeve
i’m playing with two small stones, twiddling them in my palm like
i’m remembering throwing stones through a neighbor’s bias
i’m sitting, but you don’t want to know where
i’m wondering if death is simply the mirror parenthesis of birth
i’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling slightly chilled, I need another
i’m fooled again
i’m not fooled again
i’m having coffee    —dark roast, the only kind
i’m wrong about a lot of things          too many
i’m dumber than a stump but smarter than a breadbox
i’m still wondering what it’s all about Alfie
i don’t care what it’s all about, I’m picking asparagus
i’m inside a cosmic question bouncing off its walls
i’m having coffee   —Colombian this time, but dark, as I said…
i’m puffed as a peacock but simultaneously beside the point
i’m over the hill but still climbing
i’m loose as a goose and tight as a fundamentalist’s ass
i’m unknown, thank god— remembering Elvis
i’m anonymous as a red leaf in the Berkshires in Fall
i’m having coffee gazing over the rim of a mountain watching a
…………small cloud glide
i’m as unbelievable as your average Mike or Mohammed
i’m at least as believable as your average Mike or Mohammed
i’m beating my head against the wall again painlessly
i’m taking an aspirin just in case
i’m having tea , green, trying to take coffee’s edge off
i’m under the gun but still over the clover
i’m not sure
i’m cock sure
i’m as fraught with anticipation as I was when I was twenty,
………….just not as often
i’m remembering something, but quickly change channels
i’m thinking again of a Dylan line —so many good ones
………….blowin in the wind time out of mind

I’m having coffee
I am not having
I am not not

Jim Culleny, May 2009
Whistler’s Mother
—by James McNeill Whistler

Mind And Tense: Zombies In The Here And Now

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A philosophical zombie is a being physically/behaviorally identical to a human, but lacking any ‘inner’ experience.

Zombies have become a mainstay of philosophy as much as of pulp fiction—a confluence that it would be fallacious to assume implies some further connection between the two, naturally. Zombies are beings that act in many ways like living humans—they move around, they interact with the world, and they, to generally horrific effect, consume resources for sustenance—not ending up as which is the typical goal of the protagonists of various kinds of zombie media. Yet, they lack the crucial quality of actually being alive, instead generally being considered merely ‘undead’.

Zombies are thus creatures of lack, creatures that have been robbed of some quality we otherwise think essential. Consider, for instance, the notion of the soulless zombie: a being which, despite acting and reacting just like any other human being—in fact, we might stipulate, in a way exactly paralleling your actions and reactions—lacks a ‘soul’ of any kind. If this is imaginable, then, the argument goes, there’s nothing that you’d actually need a soul for—and hence, we can strike it from the list of essential qualities without any resulting deficit.

A counterpoint to this particular argument is the floating man thought experiment of Ibn Sina (often Latinised as Avicenna), the eleventh century Persian polymath and physician. Ibn Sina imagines being created ‘at a stroke’, fully formed, in a state of free fall, and in darkness. Lacking any external sensory impression, one would still be certain of one’s own existence. But if there is nothing physical one could be conscious off absent such sensory data, then that sensation of being aware of one’s own self must be a sensation of something non-physical—the soul, or Nafs in the Quran. To Ibn Sina, then, the soulless zombie would merely show that the world is not exhausted by the physical, by our behaviors and reactions to external stimuli. Read more »