Monday Poem


a moment is a poet’s cliché of a singular blur
tentative as an airborne bubble
hard as hammer-blow to thumb

moment: the smallest thing able to contain an unimaginable universe
…………… a universe able to imagine the smallest thing

as instantaneous as the passage of dust motes and Himalayas
as ephemeral and solid as those —as exquisite, as cruel

here  is  one  now: .. joy . .  . gone
here  is  one  now: pain ..  gone

………………. as swift as that, as if a bullet grazing an ear,
………………. as if a celestial flash in a thunderstorm
………………. brief as a thought spark instantly forgotten in regret
………………. as if love lost and won again

tiny as a lepton crammed with . . . . next

Jim Culleny

Crude American Petulance

by Mark Harvey

I’m not sure what Americans were like in the 18th and 19th century, but they have to have been a lot tougher, less whining, less self-important and paradoxically more exceptional without thinking they were exceptional than Americans of today.

Even Americans born well into the 20th century had a stoic quality and a modest sense of their own importance that seems to have been washed out of our culture. Not many WWII veterans left, but the ones I’ve met spoke about their battles at Normandy or in the South Pacific as just something that needed to get done. The people I knew who lived through The Great Depression said it was tough but made light of their own hardships.

Much of our citizenry today resemble loud spoiled children, whining and whingeing at every inconvenience, and trotting out opinions on the most complex matters—with zero formal training or any in-depth research. I fear that to other countries we look like one of those screaming toddlers having a fit in a very public place. Sort of an international cringe.

The recent melt-down over gas prices is a prime example of American petulance. Does the increase in gas prices affect the average American family? Yes it does. Are the fits over gas prices in proportion to the issue and do most Americans understand how gas prices are set? No and no. Read more »

As Darwinian As Apple Pie

by Mike Bendzela

Herbert W. Dow in the orchard in Standish, Maine, circa 1920.

Over thirty years ago, my then-partner-now-spouse, Don, began planting heritage apple trees on the small farm where we are tenants, in an attempt to partially restore the historical orchard of Herbert W. Dow, traditional Maine farmer and cider-imbiber.

Herbert’s original, handwritten map of the apple trees he grew out back was still in a desk in the house when Don moved here in the 1970s; so, we have been able to research and replant some of the old varieties Herbert grew. We decided we would tend the trees “organically,” or something equivalent, because, you know, toxic chemicals and all that, and we would sell rare apples to local markets.

This organic ideal did not last long, however. Little did we know what nature had in store for us.

Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, whose view profoundly influenced Charles Darwin, declared that “all nature is at war, one organism with another.”

The greater choke the smaller, the longest livers replace those which last for a shorter period, the more prolific gradually make themselves masters of the ground.

The belief that having “dominion” over nature exempts the husbandman from this Darwinian fray is romanticized claptrap. Raising any crop requires a farmer to tend simultaneously to the needs of a hospital and slaughterhouse. What follows is a compendium of just a few of the horrors baked into your apple pie. Read more »

A Sky without Monarchs? Thoughts on the IUCN Endangered Species Listing

by David Greer

“If mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” —E. O. Wilson

“[Rachel] Carson may have won a battle, but not the war.” —Dave Goulson, Silent Earth

Monarchs alight on every available surface once roused by the sun. Photo by David Greer

January 31, 2019

Though it’s close to noon high on a mountain about fifty miles west of Mexico City, the oyamel firs alongside the trail in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are covered in shadow, and something else besides. Their branches appear to sag beneath the weight of dark unmoving masses like swarms of bees multiplied many times over, so thick on the trees that the needles of the firs are entirely invisible.

As the winter sun approaches its zenith, its first rays strike the firs and warmth starts to creep into the clearings between the trees. Myriad wings, orange and black, begin to tremble. Soon afterwards, a few random butterflies disengage from the swarms and lift lazily into the air. Within minutes, the sky between the treetops is speckled with butterflies lazily twisting and turning as if stretching from a long night’s sleep. Their numbers quickly swell, the fluttering of wings now loud as the patter of gently falling rain, an incongruous sensation to experience on a trail beneath a cloudless sky. Read more »

Acting Machines

by Fabio Tollon

Fritzchens Fritz / Better Images of AI / GPU shot etched 1 / CC-BY 4.0

Machines can do lots of things. Robotic arms can help make our cars, autonomous cars can drive us around, and robotic vacuums can clean our floors. In all of these cases it seems natural to think that these machines are doing something. Of course, a ‘doing’ is a kind of happening: when something is done, usually something happens, namely, an event. Brushing my teeth, going for a walk, and turning on the light are all things that I do, and when I do them, something happens (events). We might think the same thing about robotic arms, autonomous vehicles, and robotic vacuum cleaners. All these systems seem to be doing something, which then leads to an event occurring.  However, in the case of humans, we often think of what we do in terms of agency: when we do perform an action things are not just happening (in a passive sense). Rather, we are acting, we are exercising our agency, we are agents. Can machines be agents? Is there something like artificial agency? Well, as with most things in philosophy, it depends.

Agency, in its human form, is usually about our mental states. It therefore seems natural to think that in order for something or other to be an agent, it should at least in principle have something like mental states (in the form of, for example, beliefs and desires). More than this, in order for an action to be properly attributable to an agent we might insist that the action they perform be caused by their mental states. Thus, we might say that for an entity to be considered an agent it should be possible to explain their behaviour by referring to their mental states. Read more »

Who Burnt Sienna?

by Carol A Westbrook

Bison from the walls of the cave of Lascaux

We live in an artificially-colored world, filled with added color in our homes, our clothing, our toys, our hair and even our food! We take this plethora of colors for granted. By comparison, the natural world is bland and almost monotone, except for small patches of brightly colored flowers or birds.

Ever since prehistoric times, man has had the urge to add color to his surroundings by expressing himself in paintings. Imagine a caveman picking up a charred piece of wood from his fire and drawing a picture on the cave wall. Later he added colors made from colored clays and stones that he picked up near the cave…and so painting begins. Some of the oldest of these ancient paintings were located deep in caves so carefully hidden that they lie undisturbed for millenia. One of the most famous of these are the paintings in the caves of Lascaux, in Southwestern France, depicting over 2,000 figures of animals and men, as shown in this detail of a bison colored with red ochres.

The Lascaux cave art was created over 17,000 years ago, using paint made from local sources.

The colored clays used to paint the cave walls were iron-containing rocks and clays known as ochres. Ochres are ubiquitous, as iron is the fifth-most abundant element in the earth. The colors of ochre stones vary from muted yellow to browns and reds; no doubt the caveman artist tried burning his colored stones and found that he created even more colors. This is due to reduction of the iron ore within the stone, resulting in the production of iron oxide or rust. The caveman’s paint colors, or his palette, included yellow ochre, red ochre, raw umber, raw Sienna and burnt Sienna. Burnt Sienna? No, this is not the name of a color derived from burning the medieval town of Sienna, but rather from burning a brown stone found near Sienna, which when burnt gives and even darker brown. Read more »

Approaching The Language of Thought by Other Routes, Take 1: The Infraverbal Case

by David J. Lobina

In my series on Language and Thought, I defended a number of ideas; to wit, that there is such a thing as a language of thought, a conceptual representational system in which most of human cognition is carried out (or more centrally, the process of belief-fixation, or thinking tout court, where different kinds of information – visual, aural, information from memory or other held beliefs – are gathered and combined into new beliefs and thoughts); that the language of thought (LoT) is not a natural language (that is, it is not, for instance, English); that cross-linguistic differences do not result in different thinking schemes (that is, different LoTs); that inner speech (the writers’ interior monologue) is not a case of thinking per se; and that the best way to study the LoT is through the study of natural language, though from different viewpoints.

In the following two posts, I shall change tack a little bit and consider an alternative approach (as well as some alternative conclusions), at least on some rather specific cases (see endnote 1). As pointed out in the already mentioned series on the LoT, the study of human thought can be approached from many different perspectives; central among these is to study the “form” or “shape” thought has through an appropriately-focused analysis of language and linguistic structure – my take – a position that raises the big issue of how language and thought at all relate.

And in considering the relationship between language and thought, it is often supposed that the rather sophisticated cognitive abilities of preverbal infants and infraverbal animal species demonstrate that some form of thought is possible without language. That is, that thought does not depend upon having a natural language, given that many non-linguistic abilities are presumably underlain by a medium other than a natural language. Read more »

Excerpt from a Work-in-Progress, Part Two

by Andrea Scrima

This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale, the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.

Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island. Read more »

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 55

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Among other things London School of Economics is associated in my mind with bringing me in touch with one of the most remarkable persons I have ever met in my life, and someone who has been a dear friend over nearly four decades since then. This is Jean Drèze.

I think it was in the middle-1980’s Nick Stern at LSE introduced me to Jean. I have known Nick since he was a student of Jim Mirrlees at Oxford. Once when I was teaching in Delhi Nick and my Cambridge classmate Christopher Bliss (both of them teaching at Oxford at that time) came to talk to me about any suggestion I had about an Indian village they might pick which they then wanted to study intensively. I remember telling them to choose a village that had been surveyed before so that they had some benchmark information, and directed them to the Agro-Economic Research Center of the Delhi School of Economics which over many decades carried out village surveys in different parts of north India. They finally chose a village, Palanpur, in western UP about 200 kilometers from Delhi, which had been surveyed by the Center. Over the last 50 years they and their team have studied this village intensively and repeatedly, which is quite a unique achievement in the interface of development economics and economic anthropology. Read more »

Sunday, July 31, 2022

‘We risk being ruled by dangerous binaries’ – Mohsin Hamid on our increasing polarisation

Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian:

In 2017, I published my fourth novel, Exit West, and bought a small notebook to jot down ideas for the next one. I thought it would be about technology. I came across an article by Simon DeDeo, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, discussing an experiment he and his colleague John Miller had conducted in that same year. They simulated cooperation and competition by machines over many generations, building these machines as computer models and setting them playing a game together. An interesting pattern emerged. Rather than constant trading for mutual benefit among equals, or never-ending fights to the death among foes, instead a particular type of machine became dominant, one that recognised and favoured copies of itself, and enormous prosperity ensued, built on ever-growing levels of cooperation. But eventually the minute differences that naturally occurred (or were, in the experiment, designed to occur) in the copying process, as they do in organisms when genes are passed on, became intolerable, and war among the machines resulted in near-complete devastation and a new beginning, after which the cycle repeated, over and over.

More here.

How the omicron subvariant BA.5 became a master of disguise – and what it means for the current COVID-19 surge

Suresh V. Kuchipudi in The Conversation:

The omicron variant did indeed become dominant early in 2022, and several sublineages, or subvariants, of omicron have since emerged: BA.1, BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5, among others. With the continued appearance of such highly transmissible variants, it is evident that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is effectively using classic techniques that viruses use to escape the immune system. These escape strategies range from changing the shape of key proteins recognized by your immune system’s protective antibodies to camouflaging its genetic material to fool human cells into considering it a part of themselves instead of an invader to attack.

I am a virologist who studies emerging viruses and viruses that jumped from animals to humans, such as SARS-CoV-2. My research group has been tracking the transmission and evolution of SARS-CoV-2, evaluating changes in how well the omicron subvariants evade the immune system and the severity of disease they cause after infection.

More here.

Sheila Heti and The Fight for Art

Jonathan Baskin in Liberties:

On the fourth page of Pure Colour, the fourth and most recent novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, it is proposed that there are three kinds of beings on the face of the earth. They are each a different kind of “critic,” tasked with helping God to improve upon His “first draft” of the universe. There are birds who “consider the world as if from a distance” and are interested in beauty above all. There are fish who “critique from the middle” and are consumed by the “condition of the many.” And there are bears who “do not have a pragmatic way of thinking” and are “deeply consumed with their own.” The three main characters in the novel track with the three types: Mira, the art critic and main character, is a bird; Mira’s father, whose death takes up the middle part of the novel, is a bear; and Mira’s romantic interest and colleague at a school for art critics, Annie, is a fish.

The bird, the bear, and the fish are the basis for an inquiry into different value systems and the ways of perceiving the world that follow from them.

More here.

The Aging Student Debtors of America

Eleni Schirmer in The New Yorker:

Americans aged sixty-two and older are the fastest-growing demographic of student borrowers. Of the forty-five million Americans who hold student debt, one in five are over fifty years old. Between 2004 and 2018, student-loan balances for borrowers over fifty increased by five hundred and twelve per cent. Perhaps because policymakers have considered student debt as the burden of upwardly mobile young people, inaction has seemed a reasonable response, as if time itself will solve the problem. But, in an era of declining wages and rising debt, Americans are not aging out of their student loans—they are aging into them.

Credit supposes that which we cannot afford today will be able to be paid back by tomorrow’s wealthier self—a self who is wealthier because of riches leveraged by these debts. Perhaps no form of credit better embodies the myth of a future, richer self than student loans. Under the vision of the free-market economist Milton Friedman, student loans emerged in the nineteen-fifties as an outgrowth of “human capital” theory, which posits the self as, above all, a unit of investment.

More here.

Wounded Women: The feminism of vulnerability

Jessa Crispin in Boston Review:

Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born—yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another. I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity—and from the way pain became a polemic.

The campaign extended beyond Twitter. At online magazines such as ImposeThe Hairpin, and The Toast, writers from Emma Aylor to Roxane Gay told similar stories in 2,500 words rather than 140 characters. Suddenly women writers were being valued for their stories of surviving violence and trauma. Bestsellers such as Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams portrayed women as inherently vulnerable. The New York Times Book Review recently proclaimed “a moment” for the female personal essayist. No longer are the news or male commentators telling women they are at risk in the big, bad world, a decades-old manipulative ploy to keep us “safe” at home where we belong. Women are repeating this story for a different effect: women are a breed apart—unified in our experience and responses, distinct from those of men.

More here.

The Evolution of Malls

Katrina Gulliver in City Journal:

When I was 12, I went to the mall after school to look at a dress in the window at Laura Ashley. I pined after that dress. And Laura Ashley, unlike the fast-fashion outlets of today, kept the same dress in the window for weeks, its floral print illuminated by fluorescent lights.

Making people want things has always been part of mall design. In their ideal form, malls offer a smorgasbord of shopping options in a safe, climate-controlled environment. Around the next corner is another store, with another window, offering something new. Meantime, one finds places to eat, places to sit, and piped-in music to maintain the mood. What you want is not simply the object you shop for but to be at the mall. The “Gruen Transfer,” named for mall designer Victor Gruen, is defined as the point in time that mall-going ceases to be about running an errand and becomes about enjoying the visit itself.

As architecture critic Alexandra Lange notes in Meet Me By The Fountain, “People love to be in public with other people.” For the suburbs, malls offered this experience in the way that parks and town squares had in the past. Like railway stations and hotels before them, malls created a zone of public-private space: private property, yet open to the public to use within certain bounds. They are enjoyed by groups as diverse as white-haired walking groups, teenage truants, and representatives of fringe religions scouting for recruits.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Visiting the Oracle

It’s dark on purpose
so just listen.

Maybe I inhabit a jar, maybe a pot,
maybe nothing. Only this
loose end of a voice
rising to meet you.
It sounds like water.
Don’t think about that.

Let your servants climb back down the mountain
by themselves. I’ll listen.
I’ll tell you everything
I discover, but I can’t
say what it means.

Someone will always
assure you of the best of fortunes,
but you know better.

And keep this in mind: The answer
reveals itself in time
like the clue that fits
perfectly and explains everything
after the crime has been solved.

Then you will say: I should have known.
It was there all along
and never even concealed,
like the story of the letter
overlooked by the thief because
it had not been hidden.
That’s the trick, of course.

You didn’t need me.

by Lawrence Raab
The Collector of Cold Weather
Ecco Press, 1976