A trip to Hebron, the worst place in the world

Benjamin Moser in Urubuquaquá:

Five years ago this month, I attended the Palestine Festival of Literature, an initiative of the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief. She is one of the people I admire the most in this world—a kind woman, a wonderful writer, and someone who has found a way to do something many artists wish we could do, or wish we could do better: make some impact in the “real world,” which is to say: in real people’s lives.

Because here’s the thing. Compared to the real world of banks and armies and governments, your little novel, your evocative sculpture, your lachrymose ballad, will never really feel that important.

It’s true that we do these things because, in a way we can’t quite articulate, we feel that books and paintings and songs are more important than banks or armies or governments: that in some mysterious way, art and ideas move the world. We believe this, but it always feels grandiose, since the results are so hard to see.

I don’t know any writer who has devoted as much of her time and energy to activism as Ahdaf has. At PalFest, international writers—mainly from the English-speaking world—come together with Palestinian and Arab writers. That could happen in Lyon or Berkeley or Milan or, these days, on Zoom. But what’s unique about PalFest is that it shows you the situation. And the situation is very hard to see, even for people who want to.

More here.

Surreal Encounters in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’

Adam Bradley in The New York Times:

I first saw Ralph Ellison when I was 19 years old and he had already passed away. On a summer evening in 1994, he appeared to me in the attic of an old manor house on the campus of a small college in the Pacific Northwest. I had encountered him — just as I had Langston Hughes and Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer — by more conventional means the year prior, as an attentive reader of his published work. I read Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man,” for the first time as part of a class on African American literature and was drawn to his wise-foolish protagonist with whom, looking back now, I shared more than a passing resemblance: a young Black college student with vague aspirations for leadership who stumbles upon writing as a means of illuminating his identity. Nonetheless, Ellison — like Hughes and Austen and Chaucer — remained intangible to me, aloof, distanced both by time and by achievement.

That could have been the end of it. But, as Ellison was fond of saying, “it’s a crazy country” — by which he meant that the diversity of the American experience often occasions unexpected confluences of people and circumstance. Soon after Ellison’s death, on April 16, 1994, at the age of 80, or perhaps 81 (evidence uncovered after his passing suggests he was born in 1913, not 1914, as he always claimed), Ellison’s wife, Fanny, called on their longtime friend John F. Callahan, my professor, to assume the literary executorship of his estate. Callahan asked me to be his assistant — to help him gather research, photocopy documents and sort materials — which explains why I ended up carrying shipments arriving from the Ellisons’ Riverside Drive address up a creaky staircase to the manor house attic on my college campus. My first task was to unpack the boxes and array the pages contained within across a long mahogany conference table, preparing them for Callahan’s inspection. Among the papers were drafts of Ellison’s unpublished second novel, around 40 years in progress; dot-matrix printouts from his computer, some with penciled edits; and handwritten notes scrawled on scraps of paper and on the backs of used envelopes.

More here.

Amartya Sen’s nine-decade journey from colonial India to Nobel Prize and beyond

Christina Pazzanese in The Harvard Gazette:

Coming from a long line of Hindu intellectuals and teachers, Amartya Sen enjoyed advantages and freedoms that few others did in a deeply-stratified India of the 1930s, during the waning days of the British empire. Teaching was in his blood, and from an early age, Sen was struck by the stark economic inequities he saw all around him under the British raj. Identifying and understanding the causes and effects that inequalities, like those surrounding poverty or gender, had on people’s lives would become a lifelong intellectual lodestar for the political economist, moral philosopher, and social theorist. Many economists focus on explaining and predicting what is happening in the world. But Sen, considered the key figure at the convergence of economics and philosophy, turned his attention instead to what the reality should be and why we fall short. “I think he’s the greatest living figure in normative economics, which asks not ‘What do we see?’ but ‘What should we aspire to?’ and ‘How do we even work out what we should aspire to?’” said Eric S. Maskin ’72, Ph.D. ’76, Adams University Professor and professor of economics and mathematics.

Over his 65-year career, Sen’s research and ideas have touched many areas of the field. He’s credited as one of the founding fathers of modern social-choice theory with his landmark 1970 book, “Collective Choice and Social Welfare.” The book took up the late Harvard economist Kenneth Arrow’s ideas from the early 1950s about how to combine different individuals’ well-being into a measure of social well-being, intensifying interest in and expanding upon Arrow’s work.

“It was really Amartya who made the field what it became,” said Maskin, a 2007 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught with Sen, the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy, since the 1990s.

Sen’s 1970 paper, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal,” was deeply influential on philosophy and economics. In it, he pointed to an inherent conflict between individual liberty and the principle that making people better off is always desirable.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Iqbal Riza)

Saturday, June 5, 2021

All Things Great and Small

A rendering of the collision between two neutron stars, observed by researchers working with the LIGO and Virgo gravitational wave detectors, August 2017

Priyamvada Natarajan in The New York Review of Books:

The physicist Richard Feynman, in a lecture to undergraduates at the California Institute of Technology in 1961, posed a question and then answered it:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.

The profound insight that the entire material world can be described succinctly as composed of fundamental building blocks is at the foundation of all theories about the nature of matter, from ancient inquiries into its properties, to medieval and early modern attempts to transmute base metals into precious gold, to modern efforts to understand atomic structure, harness the power of the atom with fission and fusion, and create artificial materials in laboratories.

Three new books examine our current understanding of matter’s origin and qualities, and chronicle our continuing quest to probe beyond atoms. Neutron Stars: The Quest to Understand the Zombies of the Cosmos by Katia Moskvitch, a science writer, explores recent research into the super-dense remains of stars ten times more massive than our Sun, whose precise material composition has eluded us. The astrophysicist Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) shows how the contents of our universe—matter and energy—determine its destiny and, ultimately, its demise. In Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality, the physicist Frank Wilczek, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004, addresses new discoveries that are leading to a reassessment of the atomic hypothesis. He explains how notions of matter have changed over the past decades from “all things are made of atoms” to “all things are made of elementary particles”—the expanding list of which includes quarks, gluons, muons, and the recently discovered Higgs boson.

More here.

Prices -> An uncertain future

Ben Bakkum in Macro Chronicles:

I wrote last month about how base effects would cause year-over-year inflation numbers in the US to appear to rocket higher, and the headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) print of 4.2% for April certainly got everyone’s attention. Not just base effects, however, drove the year-over-year figure that high, with large jumps in certain components such as used cars making historic contributions to the overall index change. We can easily foresee when the base effects will fall off, but knowing to what extent inflation will return to a lower clip when various transitory factors abate (as the Fed assures us) or if it can maintain a high rate on the back of significant fiscal and monetary stimulus (as certain economists, bitcoin boosters, and financial pundits warn), remains uncertain.

In a super complex system like the economy, forecasting variables such as inflation with precision can be a quixotic undertaking in relatively normal conditions, let alone in the wild circumstances shaped by the pandemic. I tend to fade—based I think on good reason—the calls made with complete conviction that a bout of soaring inflation will soon overtake us, but I think the most intellectually honest view involves acknowledging that inflation could very well stay high for longer than expected. I would argue that no one really knows for sure. I like the title of Emily Stewart’s recent piece at Vox, The Black Box Economy, as a name for the current state of the world that makes it tough to see what comes next.

As an example of why I think inflation will prove particularly unpredictable, a look under the hood of the consumer price index shows a striking increase in the dispersion of its various component indices around the shutdowns last year and the reopenings now. This means that whereas price changes for different things like bread, men’s sweaters, car tires, and veterinary services tended to maintain a fairly consistent distribution pre-pandemic, now the changes in components are veering off from each other in direction and magnitude.

More here.

How to Get the Unemployed Back to Work

Claudia Sahm in Bloomberg:

Concern that something is holding back U.S. workers from taking jobs along with anecdotes from employers having trouble hiring has accelerated a trend among state governors to end federal enhancements to jobless benefits this month — three months earlier than Congress intended. The goal is to get people off government benefits and back to work. It’s doubtful this policy change alone will be enough to meet employers’ hiring needs.

Some 7.6 million fewer people were employed in April than February 2020. But even with about 130 million Americans fully vaccinated, the number of workers is unlikely to rise rapidly. Government data show that only 1.4 million are on temporary layoff, down from the almost 17 million in the early months of the pandemic last year and a small fraction of the missing workers. The “low-hanging fruit” of easily recalling laid-off workers is basically gone.

Muted Recovery

There are far fewer “missing workers” on temporary layoff now than early in Covid crisis

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


More here.

Encountering the Work of Beverley Farmer

Josephine Rowe at Lit Hub:

The Bone House, published in 2005, is either a decade’s work or a lifetime’s, depending on how you look at it. It is the distillation of an expansive mind that seeks to delve and delve. Her tone is never didactic—rather, discursive, exploratory, delighted, unjaded, alive. To read more than a few pages at a stretch is to travel a long way from where you set out. Sometimes to travel so far as to lose the view of the mountain, only to be brought back via an unfamiliar face of it.

For a little more than a week, I read—I traveled through—very slowly. The book was there for mornings, the days drawing their shape and tone from as few as half a dozen pages. Or it was a place to come for refuge, panhandling at four am, unable to sleep, tilting the book towards the cheap lamp to ask, what lasts?

more here.

A New Biography of Kurt Gödel

Jennifer Szalai at The New York Times:

Gödel could go for long walks with his fellow institute scholar Einstein, who sponsored Gödel’s citizenship application and called him the greatest logician since Aristotle, but he was wracked by physical ailments and nervous conditions. A doctor told him he had a bleeding ulcer, which he strangely refused to believe, even though he was also a self-medicating hypochondriac. He subscribed to all sorts of conspiracy theories, insisting that “nothing happens without a reason,” and that the reason was almost always a hidden one. The unlimited freedom he had at the institute proved to be double-edged, Budiansky observes. In one sense, it saved Gödel’s life; but it also allowed his consciousness to wander into the darkest places, without the checks on his expansive anxieties that interactions with the ordinary world might have otherwise provided.

more here.

In praise of pastrami, the world’s sexiest sandwich

Josie Delap in More Intelligent Life:

What would you rather have: an orgasm or a pastrami sandwich? The woman at the table next to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in Katz’s Delicatessen in “When Harry Met Sally” chose poorly. She plumped for the turkey sandwich that seemed to have inspired Sally’s simulated raptures. She should have picked what he was having: the pastrami.

Pastrami on rye is the platonic ideal of the New York deli sandwich. The version Harry demolished as Sally educated him in the ways of womankind was oddly modest. He was able to get his chops around it with little effort and no mess. A perfect pastrami sandwich should be large enough to inspire a certain apprehension. It is testimony to the Jewish fear that someone, somewhere might at some point go hungry.

Jews did not invent pastrami. In Ottoman Turkey, basturma or pastirma was a kind of pressed, spiced meat – beef, goat or mutton – not unlike jerky. It may have been produced by horse riders stashing the beef in their saddlebags and pressing it with their thighs as they rode. The recipe travelled along the spice route to Romania, where goose became the meat of choice.

The late 19th century and early 20th century saw a surge of Jewish immigrants to New York from across eastern Europe, including Romania. An earlier rush of German migrants to the east coast had brought a delectable range of smoked and cured meats and sausages. When Romanian Jews introduced the pastrami, they soon abandoned the traditional goose in favour of beef, which was cheaper and more readily available.

More here.

Thinking Like an Octopus

Louis Proyect in Counterpunch:

Just over five years ago, Inky the octopus became a folk hero because of his escape from a New Zealand aquarium. After squeezing through a narrow chink in his tank, he crawled across the floor and found an opening to a 164-foot-long drainpipe that led to the ocean. As much as I enjoyed the film based on Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, which climaxes in Tim Robbin’s daring prison break, I only wish that a gifted animation team like the one that made “How to Train Your Dragon” could tell Inky’s story.

At the time, I made a mental note to myself to learn about octopuses. From the time that I read about Inky, interest in the creatures has increased dramatically with this year’s Oscar for documentary going to “My Octopus Teacher.” Nearly everybody who spends time looking at octopus YouTube videos, or going further and reading books about them, will be struck by both their intelligence and inscrutability.

…Furthermore, if intelligence is related to the amount of neurons in a creature’s brains, some attention must be paid to how they are located in an octopus’s body. Most are not in its head but in its arms. Each tentacle has millions of them that it uses to help in finding food but without the direct visual cues that go along with the eye-to-brain pathway. For an octopus, there are the usual experiments that measure a lab specimen’s IQ such as rats finding the shortest path to food in a maze or challenging a chimpanzee to place a round peg in a round hole, etc. Godfrey-Smith argues that it is much better to see an octopus’s intelligence in terms of its ability to reproduce itself in the ocean. One example is how this one carries around coconut shells that can come in handy fending off a shark’s bite.

More here. (Note: Do watch the incredible video!)

Friday, June 4, 2021

This biography of Agha Shahid Ali reads his life and his poetry together to join the dots

Manan Kapoor in Srcoll.in:

In Delhi, Shahid also became aware of the city’s Mughal and colonial history, and was impressed by its architecture. In the early ’60s, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz had visited New Delhi and had been charmed by its architecture. He wrote numerous poems about the city and about all that he had witnessed here. He found Delhi’s “aesthetic equivalent” in “novels, not in architecture”, and to him, wandering the city was “like passing through the pages of Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, or Alexandre Dumas”.

Paz’s gaze, wherever he went, was directed inwards. For him, all the experiences, including the splendour of the Mughal architecture that attracted him, were revelatory and enlightening in one way or the other. In his book In Light of India, he called Delhi’s architecture “an assemblage of images more than buildings”. It was quite the same for Shahid who, after nineteen years, had returned to the city of his birth.

More here.

The Climate Book You Didn’t Know You Need

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

In the past years, media coverage of climate change has noticeably shifted. Many outlets have begun referring to it as “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”, a mostly symbolic move, in my eyes, because those who trust that their readers will tolerate this nomenclature are those whose readers don’t need to be reminded of the graveness of the situation. Even more marked has been the move to no longer mention climate change skeptics and, moreover, to proudly declare the intention to no longer acknowledge even the existence of the skeptics’ claims.

As a scientist who has worked in science communication for more than a decade, I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I perfectly understand the futility of repeating the same facts to people who are unwilling or unable to comprehend them – it’s the reason I don’t respond when someone emails me their home-brewed theory of everything. On the other hand, it’s what most science communication comes down to: patiently rephrasing the same thing over and over again. That science writers – who dedicate their life to communicating research – refuse to explain that very research, strikes me as an odd development.

This makes me suspect something else is going on. Declaring the science settled relieves news contributors of the burden of actually having to understand said science. It’s temptingly convenient and cheap, both literally and figuratively. Think about the last dozen or so news reports on climate change you’ve read. Earliest cherry blossom bloom in Japan, ice still melting in Antarctica, Greta Thunberg doesn’t want to travel to Glasgow in November. Did one of those actually explain how scientists know that climate change is man-made? I suspect not. Are you sure you understand it? Would you be comfortable explaining it to a climate change skeptic?

More here.

Finding meaning in the climate fight

Greg Jackson in Harper’s Magazine:

To those who still harbor doubts about the justness of this war, who continue to question the scientific consensus on global warming and the ravages it promises, I ask only that you entertain, if there is a chance you are right, that there is also a chance you are wrong. Let us even say, for argument’s sake, that the virtual certainty of scientists were reduced to 50 percent confidence and the forecasted effects of climate violence were reduced in severity by 50 percent as well. That would still justify the most massive mobilization of human energy and resources the world has ever seen, because the likely outcome would still be far worse than any threat we have faced in the past.

Of course, there are some who accept the seriousness of the threat but console themselves with the possibility that we might overcome it without serious disruption to our lives. The cost of solar power has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past decade and shows no sign of stopping. Wind power has followed suit. According to reports by the International Renewable Energy Agency and others, wind and solar are now the cheapest forms of energy in most cases, and there are already many places where building new wind and solar capacity is cheaper than continuing to run existing coal plants. Synergistic technologies, such as batteries and electric cars, have improved dramatically over the same period, and there has been progress on more intractable problems such as the decarbonization of air travel and the production of cement, glass, and steel.

But for all the good news, we would be foolish to think technology alone will save us.

More here.