Poetry in Translation

To Javed My Son

 — on receiving his first hand-written letter in London

by Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938)

Create your own place in the world of love
New time new morning new evening

Listen to the divine within you
Like a hawk searching for live prey

Learn the language of a rose — Inshallah —
For its silence veils Nature’s secret

Shun glazed pottery made in the West
Mold your own cup using India’s clay

Harvest my ghazals like grapes
Ferment them to make sacred wine

Renounce the material
Be like me — a Sufi


Transcreated from the original Urdu by Rafiq Kathwari.

The Folly Of Seeing Agency in Contemporary Artificial Intelligence: Machine Learning (for that is what it is all about) as Pattern Finding Algorithms (Part 2 of 2)

by David J. Lobina

Well, first post of the year, and a new-year-resolution unkept. Unsurprising, really.

In my last entry of 2023, I drew attention to the various series of posts I have written at 3 Quarks Daily since 2021, many of which did not proceed in order, creating a bit of confusion along the way. Indeed, the last post of the year was supposed to be the final section of a two-parter, but instead I wrote about how I intended to organise my writing better in 2024. What’s more, I promised I would start 2024 with the anticipated second part of my take on why Machine Learning (ML) does not model or exhibit human intelligence, and yet in my first post of 2024 I published a piece on the psychological study of inner speech (or the interior monologue, as is known in literature), a fascinating topic in its own right, though I am not sure it got much traction, but it really has little to do with ML.

In my last substantial post of 2023, then, I set up an approach to discuss the supposedly human-like abilities of contemporary Artificial Intelligence (AI [sic]™, as I like to put it), and I now intend to follow up on it and complete the series. It is an approach I have employed when discussing AI before, and to good effect: first I provide a proper characterisation of a specific property of human cognition – in the past, I concentrated on natural language, given all the buzz around large language models; this time around was the turn of thought and thinking abilities – and then I show how AI – actually, ML models – don’t learn or exhibit mastery of such a property of cognition, in any shape or form. Read more »

Mifepristone, the FDA, and Abortion Activism

by Carol A Westbrook

Mifepristone in updaated package

The Supreme Court is poised to make another landmark decision this year, when it determines if it will uphold a Texas Federal court’s ruling that invalidates the FDA’s (U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s) updated labeling of the abortion pill mifepristone (pronounced mi-ˈfe-pri’-stōn) , brand name Mifeprex (Fig 1). Not only will this ruling have a significant impact on abortions in the US, it will also determine whether the Supreme Court (Fig 2) has the power to modify or nullify an FDA ruling. But before we delve any further into this debate, let’s review the action of this drug on the biology of the female reproductive system.

Fig. 2. Justices of the US Supreme Court pose for their official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on October 7, 2022. (Seated from left) Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, (Standing behind from left) Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

In the early part of a woman’s monthly cycle, her levels of the hormone progesterone rise, and this causes the lining of the uterus to thicken and increases its blood supply, converting it into a state that can support a fetus. After unprotected sex, sperm are deposited in the vagina, and they begin to travel up the fallopian tubes; at the same time, an egg is released from the ovary and travels down the fallopian tube. (Fig 3) When sperm and egg unite, conception occurs. Interestingly, the date of conception does not mark the start of the pregnancy; pregnancy is actually counted from the beginning of a woman’s monthly cycle, two weeks prior to conception. The total length of a pregnancy is usually 40 weeks, or 9 months. Read more »

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Evolutionary Origins of Life and Death

Leon Vlieger at The Inquisitive Biologist:

In this second foray into the biology of death, I will examine programmed cell death or PCD. You might have heard of the process of apoptosis, but, as the previously reviewed The Biology of Death mentioned, this is just one of many ways in which cells can actively kill themselves. It is a vital part of life in multicellular organisms, for instance sculpting our hands so that we are not born with webs of skin between our fingers, or allowing leaves to fall from the trees in autumn by triggering cell death in so-called abscission zones. These are small sacrifices to serve the larger organism. Surprisingly, single-celled (unicellular) organisms also show PCD. But wait, is that not tantamount to suicide? How did that evolve?

More here.

How an Icelandic Bird Led to the Discovery of Human-Caused Extinction

Gísli Pálsson at Literary Hub:

In 1858, the great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was reported to be in serious decline. William Proctor, keeper of the bird collection at Durham University, had traveled to Iceland in 1833 and 1837, partly in order to seek out great auks, but reported that sightings were now rare in Iceland and that he had not seen any of the birds.

Later, student William Milner inquired about great auks on his travels to Iceland and was informed that none had been seen recently, though two had been caught two years earlier, in 1844. Milner’s account of his visit gave rise to a strong suspicion that the species was not only rare but vanishing.

Naturalist John Wolley took a keen interest in discussions of rare birds, and he resolved to go to Iceland with the same intention as his friends. He invited Alfred Newton, then making a name for himself as a zoologist at Cambridge University, to join him. Wolley and Newton met for the first time in Cambridge one October day in 1851, although they had corresponded for several years.

More here.

Ambivalent Fanonism: On Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic”

Anthony Alessandrini in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

The Rebel’s Clinic thus enters an already crowded field. But given Fanon’s continuing influence, from the seminar room to social media to the streets, few would object to another effort to tell the story of his extraordinary life. Adam Shatz is well positioned to do so, since he has been writing about Fanon’s life and work for two decades (his first article on Fanon was a review of Macey’s biography), and The Rebel’s Clinic is an impressive accomplishment. Shatz, the US editor of the London Review of Books, is one of the finest political essayists working today. His best pieces have a deftly allusive style, revealing a wide-ranging intelligence that Fanon would have admired.

More here.

The Trouble with Old Men

Samuel Moyn in Granta:

Gerontocracy is as old as the world. For millennia, to greater or lesser degrees, it has been the default principle of governance, from ancient Greek city-states to the Soviet republics. Though there have been exceptions, when you look for gerontocracy today, you find it everywhere – aged men and women at the helms of states the world over.

The presidential contest in the United States this year is likely to pit two decrepit men against each other. Were the incumbent to win, he would be eighty-six by the end of his second term. Nor is the aging of politicians restricted to the chief executive of the country, or even an American syndrome. Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday (he was born the same year as California senator Dianne Feinstein, who died in office in September), making Michael Higgins, president of Ireland, appear sprightly by comparison at eighty-two.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the birth of political modernity, the French revolutionaries explicitly targeted the empowerment of the elderly: what came to be known as the ‘old regime’.

More here.

The Loss of Things I Took for Granted

Adam Kotsko in Slate:

Recent years have seen successive waves of book bans in Republican-controlled states, aimed at pulling any text with “woke” themes from classrooms and library shelves. Though the results sometimes seem farcical, as with the banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus due to its inclusion of “cuss words” and explicit rodent nudity, the book-banning agenda is no laughing matter. Motivated by bigotry, it has already done demonstrable harm and promises to do more. But at the same time, the appropriate response is, in principle, simple. Named individuals have advanced explicit policies with clear goals and outcomes, and we can replace those individuals with people who want to reverse those policies. That is already beginning to happen in many places, and I hope those successes will continue until every banned book is restored.

If and when that happens, however, we will not be able to declare victory quite yet. Defeating the open conspiracy to deprive students of physical access to books will do little to counteract the more diffuse confluence of forces that are depriving students of the skills needed to meaningfully engage with those books in the first place. As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch.

More here.

Black Women Artists: Shattering Stereotypes and Reclaiming Narratives

From Zarastro Art:

Black women artists have encountered several challenges throughout history due to their color and gender. They have demonstrated incredible tenacity and determination in the face of obstacles given by the predominance of white male artists, making vital contributions to movements such as the Black Arts MovementHarlem RevolutionBlack Feminist Movement, and Civil Rights Movement.

The groundbreaking work of their predecessors, who defined how Black women artists are perceived and celebrated in the art world, served as inspiration for contemporary Black women artists. Artists like Alma ThomasLois Mailou JonesBetye Saar, and Howardena Pindell have used cutting-edge ideas and techniques across a variety of mediums to explore topics connected to their cultural backgrounds and personal experiences. They have made a name for themselves as leaders, and their vision and insight have motivated countless others.

More here. (Note: In honor of Black History Month, at least one post will be devoted to its 2024  theme of “African Americans and the Arts” throughout the month of February)

Sunday Poem

Coffee Shop in the late Afternoon

The beautiful woman gone
leaving the shop to young men making
their way in the January world
with cell phones and computers –
and me.
Outside, a sunny day.
too warm for the season.
A phone rings – a barista calls out
“Tall vanilla soy latte.”
Strange talk to one who grew up
with a nickel cup of joe.
There are fewer and fewer
native speakers of one’s born language.
You learn to live with translations.

by Nils Peterson

Saturday, February 10, 2024

“Beyond Mere Survival”: A Conversation with Ajay Singh Chaudhary

Rithika Ramamurthy and Ajay Singh Chaudhary in Non-Profit Quarterly:

Rithika Ramamurthy: I want to talk about the central concept of your book, The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World. That is: exhaustion. Can you tell us how the term works across the material, psychological, and political dimensions of the climate crisis across the book? 

Ajay Singh Chaudhary: Exhaustion is not an accidental term….It’s a connecting concept and experience. I spend a long time in the book talking about psychosocial and bodily dimensions of exhaustion that run in parallel to [the] exhaustion of ecological phenomena. One of my goals was for people to understand that one of the most miserable and relatable aspects of contemporary life is a general sense that things are going too far, too fast, and are wearing us down. This is true in places like Bangladesh, the Mediterranean, and Brazil but also in places like the United States and the rest of the world. 

We have traditional categories of describing this dissatisfaction in life under capitalism, like alienation. But exhaustion is more specific to climate politics. Climate change is not just an “issue.” It’s too big and unprecedented for the tools we’ve inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries, so we need to change the way we think about politics to address it. We can’t just “staple” it onto other issues and say: “Here’s my tax policy, my employment policy, my inclusivity policy, and my climate policy.” It doesn’t work that way—it changes things.

More here.

Adam Shatz’s “The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon”

Over at the podcast LARB Radio Hour:

Adam Shatz speaks with Kate Wolf and Eric Newman about his latest book, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon. The book is both a biography of Fanon—one of the most important thinkers on race and colonialism of the last century—as well as an intellectual history that looks closely at his most seminal texts. Shatz uncovers the events that led to the writing of books such as Black Skin, White Masks and the Wretched of the Earth by following Fanon from his birth in Martinique (then a French colony), to his time serving in World War II, his studies in Lyon, his innovative work as a psychiatrist in France and Algeria, as well as his pivotal decision to join in the fight for Algerian independence and become a part of the FLN. Though Fanon died at only 36, in 1961, Shatz also explores the many afterlives of his work, from his embrace by the Black Panthers and his influence on filmmakers such as Claude Lanzmann and Ousmane Sembene to echoes of his thought in the continued movements for Black liberation and decolonization today.

Against Anti-theory

Anna Kornbluh in e-Flux:

On January 1, 2024, the best-selling author and motivational lifestyler Gabby Bernstein launched a New Year’s “Manifesting Challenge”: “If you think it, it will come.” To “manifest” is to make evident, obvious, plain. For the self-help thought leaders and #manifest TikTokers who have popularized the term of late, this emanating is radically intransitive: no specific event transpires, only our innermost authentic selves flowing outward to a mirroring world. “Manifest effortlessly!” Google Trends shows a significant increase in this fluid emission in recent years, with sales figures and influencer follower counts to match. So why is manifesting so manifestly valuable now?

In the tradition of Marxist cultural theory, such value should be understood in connection with economic value. Whenever there is a style trend or ideological innovation with a broad grip, it bears some relation to shifts in the economy. Intransitivity, emanation, immanence—these are the spiritual guises of über-capitalist “flow,” the frictionless, instantaneous, propulsive exchange that organizes twenty-first century circulation-intensity in the wake of stagnating production. For nearly fifty years now, in the G7 economies circulation has offered a compensatory source of growth: if you can’t make new things, just exchange old things faster. “Disintermediation” is one industry term for this circulation intensification: cutting out the middleman to facilitate more fluid exchange. Imperatives for the fast, smooth, on-demand, and all-access govern a sweeping spate of twenty-first century commercial and social activities, from gig labor to self-publishing to e-brokerage. With this as the basis of current capital, it is no wonder that spiritual values, cultural logics, and aesthetic modes have come to promote doing away with mediation.

More here.

To Save Museums, Treat Them Like Highways

Laura Raicovich and Laura Hanna in The New York Times:

Ask any workers in the nonprofit arts sector — maybe after they have had a few drinks — and they will tell you that arts funding in this country is a mess.

Here’s an example: At a typical midsize arts institution — a place like the Toledo Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum of California or the Queens Museum, an institution at which one of us has firsthand experience — much of the energy of any director is spent cobbling together funding. Most of the annual budget comes from a combination of strapped local government agencies; private philanthropy, such as foundations, individuals and corporations; and ticket sales and other earned income sources, such as venue rentals or gala events.

But there’s a large chunk of the budget — usually about 40 percent — that involves infrastructure costs like keeping the lights on and paying the staff salaries. Those are the costs that few donors are stepping up to take care of (since there’s little public prestige) and that government arts grants, because of current rules, don’t cover. Yet it’s this gap in funding, this 40 percent, that’s too often threatening small and midsize cultural institutions across the country right now.

There is a better way to fund the arts in America.

More here.

Labour Under New Management

James Stafford in Dissent:

In the next British general election, due to happen within the year, the Labour Party is set to sweep into power after fourteen years in opposition. Its two major rivals, the Conservative Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP), have imploded in scandal and division. The financial meltdown unleashed by the forty-nine-day tenure of former Prime Minister Liz Truss propelled Labour to a commanding position in national opinion polls, one that her successor, Rishi Sunak, has been unable to dent at the time of writing. A police investigation into misappropriation of donations and the resignation of First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon have undermined the SNP at a moment when the pandemic, war, and Conservative vulnerability have made the case for independence seem far less pressing than it did a decade ago. Local council and by-election results from the rural shires of Yorkshire to the satellite towns of Glasgow suggest that Labour is advancing on all fronts. 

After national elections in 2015 and 2019 saw Labour routed in many of its former heartlands in Scotland and northern England, it’s a relief to see that post-Brexit predictions of a permanent, U.S.-style electoral realignment on questions of culture and identity were wide of the mark.  Ever since the 2017 general election, when Jeremy Corbyn was carried to the gates of Downing Street by a wave of anti-austerity sentiment, large sections of the British electorate have been loudly demanding an end to the relentless cuts to public services—and the increases in taxation and cost of living—that have defined Conservative rule.

More here.

Beyond Oscar Wilde: the unsung literary heroes of the early gay rights movement

Tom Crewe in The Guardian:

Oscar Wilde always imposed. Meeting him in 1892, the French writer Jules Renard reported: “He offers you a cigarette, but selects it himself. He does not walk around a table: he moves the table out of the way … He is enormous, and carries an enormous cane.” The affectations of dress and manner; the extraordinary, magnetic talk; the flourished epigrams; the startling, needling essays, stories and plays – all these were impositions. They were how Wilde forced himself on the attention of the world, made himself notorious, and then famous. And in the ugliness and despair of his downfall – in 1895 he was found guilty of homosexual offences (acts of “gross indecency”) and sentenced to two years of hard labour – he imposed himself again: on the contemporary and historical imagination. But also on the lives of gay men, for 128 years and counting.

There is a well-known passage in EM Forster’s Maurice, written in 1913 but not published until 1971, after Forster’s death. Maurice, who has “failed to kill lust single-handed”, resolves to consult a doctor about his problem. “I am an unspeakable,” he confesses, “of the Oscar Wilde sort.” What is “unspeakable” is immediately revealed by the use of Wilde’s name: that Maurice is homosexual. To be an “Oscar Wilde sort” was to be gay – but was it to be anything like Oscar Wilde?

More here.