Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Ben Zimmer in the Visual Thesaurus:
As has become the custom for the LinguaFile series on Lexicon Valley, I presented the hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield with a mystery word. This time, I had them guess the word that Eminem discussed in a 2010 interview on "60 Minutes" with Anderson Cooper: "People say that the word ___ doesn't rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off, because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with ___." Bob figured out right away that it was orange, that eminently unrhymable word. Or not so unrhymable for Eminem, as he freestyles: "I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage, and ate porridge with George." I was amused to find out that Eminem's quasi-rhyming of orange has its roots in versifying going back to Walter William Skeat in an 1865 issue of Notes and Queries (not to mention a couple of dirty limericks collected by the great folklorist Gershon Legman).
The question that immediately came up had a less-than-obvious answer: Which came first, the color orange or the fruit orange? Many people are tempted to say the color, because it seems so basic to our vocabulary, but its "basicness" is relatively recent in the history of English. In the 1969 book Basic Color Terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay posited a kind of evolutionary sequence of terms in a language. The sequence starts with white and black, then proceeds to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown, and eventually to orange and purple (both unrhymable in English, as it turns out). The earliest evidence for the use of orange as a color term in English comes from 1512, several centuries after the other terms had been established. In Old English, you would need to say "yellow-red" (ġeolu-rēad) to describe something orange-colored.
But despite my considerable reservations, it is still useful to invoke one aspect of the just war tradition and apply it to the current conflict in the Middle East: just wars require not only proportionality but also a reasonable chance of success. And the problem with so much of the west’s military involvement in Iraq, in particular, is that it has precious little conception of what success actually looks like. Bombing Islamic State is no more than a tinkering around the edges of a massive conflagration that is now increasingly being compared in scale to the thirty years war.
The sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia, ignited first by the Iranian revolution and then deepened by the ill-advised western invasion of Iraq, is of a much greater order of magnitude than that acknowledged by Obama’s hands-off drone and air-strike approach.
We are witnessing a shift in the political tectonic plates throughout the whole of the Middle East and beyond into Africa, and the west’s apparently surgical involvement will probably do little more than generate some short-term satisfaction that we are doing something.
So 10:04 is a novel of intensities, an unfolding present. Some of this present is personal. At the start, Ben is diagnosed with “an entirely asymptomatic and potentially aneurysmal dilation of my aortic root” that could turn the artery into “a whipping hose spraying blood into my blood.” He’s also trying to impregnate his best friend Alex by artificial insemination (“fucking you would be bizarre,” she tells him). And he’s casually dating a conceptual painter named Alena with a taste for autoerotic asphyxiation. Other strands of the novel put Ben into contact with aspects of the city. He tutors an eight-year-old boy named Roberto, a well-drawn character but also a surrogate-son figure and an emissary from the immigrant class—Ben is constantly aware of being served by people who speak Spanish. Politics enters in the form of an Occupy protester who uses Ben’s shower and eats a meal he cooks, and an Adderall-addled student fixated on environmental apocalypse. Ben sits at the bed of a hospitalized mentor, who represents a connection with a vanishing avant-garde. He publishes a story in the New Yorker, fretting over whether he’ll let its editors “standardize” his work. After he signs his book deal, there’s an interlude in Marfa, Texas, where he sees the specter of Robert Creeley.
Since the English publication last year of the second novel in the series, Story of a New Name (Europa Editions, 2013), critics have lauded the mysterious Ferrante, whose true identity is unknown. They’ve praised her particularly for her skill in rendering the fraught relationship between Elena and her childhood friend Lina (alternatively called Lila). Indeed, she draws the lines of the deepest love and of momentary hate, of jealousy and manipulation, guilt and fear, with spectacular control and insight. Give Ferrante a paragraph, and she’ll burnish the page with brilliant, fiery life.
But underlying every nuance of personality here, every desire, every awakening, is the neighborhood, Naples, and the broad landscape of Italian cities, all in tension. This is “the infinite and the parochial,” as I attempted to conceptualize the opposite poles of urban life in Song of the City, my first book on Philadelphia. “It’s easy to become trapped in the parochial city,” I wrote, describing the neighborhood’s power of “exclusion and denial, stratification and fear.” On the other hand, “the infinite city is like the world itself. It is flat and wide and vast and in it everyone, everything can be known and explored.” For most of us and certainly for Elena and Natalie, “our relationship with the city stretches somewhere between the parochial and the infinite. Take away the parochial and the remains are cold, commodified spaces where personal, local connections do not exist. There are no neighborhoods, no neighbors, just glances. Dismiss the infinite from the city and what’s left is a village. The expectations are already known, the outcomes understood. The only way out is to leave.”
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
A typical American car, Dr. Alley said, belches a pound of carbon dioxide through its tailpipe for every mile driven. A typical American power plant that burns coal to generate the electricity that lights up your home, your computer and your vibrating toothbrush releases more than 20 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the sky each day, said Donald J. Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois.
And too bad, when you pick up your luggage after your flight from Chicago to Salt Lake City, that you can’t also collect the 2,000 pounds that is your portion of the CO2 exhaust expelled en route by the burning of jet fuel. But it’s too late. The buoyant, odorless, colorless carbon dioxide molecules have dispersed into their surroundings, where wind and currents will stir them more or less evenly through the nitrogen and oxygen gases of which our atmosphere is overwhelmingly composed, and where the bouncing triplets will remain, on average, for 1,000 years. Researchers emphasize the importance of understanding the basic character of carbon dioxide and related greenhouse gases, and the fundamental role such gases have played in making our planet a Goldilocks haven, fit for life. But just as a pinch of salt can bring out the flavor in food but a fistful will ruin it, so too can excess CO2 transform our world into a two-thumbs-down stew.
Sandra Shapshay in The Critique:
The profundity of “True Detective”, in my view, is to be found in the series’ handling of the theme of pessimism and possible responses to this doctrine. By pessimism I mean the view adumbrated by Schopenhauer that life (that is, conscious life whether it be non-human animal or human life) involves a tremendous amount of suffering that is pretty much built into the structure of the world and is, further, unredeemed. By focusing on the character arc of Rust, one may empathetically appreciate the challenge posed by Schopenhauerian pessimism , and possible ethical responses to it.
Before we are introduced to the character, Rust had already experienced a terrible loss of his 4-year old daughter and the painful dissolution of his marriage. Further, his employment confronts him daily with the horrors of human conduct, where the “law of the stronger” reigns and the strong and sadistic exploit the weak. Throughout Season One, we see Rust struggling to find the best, truest response to all this seemingly endemic and unredeemed suffering. When we meet him, he declares to Marty, upon the latter’s insistent questioning, that he is “in philosophical terms, a pessimist,” and holds that human consciousness is a “tragic misstep in nature.” For Rust, it is our “programming” (in Schopenhauer’s terms, the will-to-life) that “gets us out of bed in the morning”, but that it would be better, all things considered to “deny our programming” and “walk ourselves hand in hand into extinction.” The only reason he has not committed suicide, he claims, is that he “lacks the constitution” to complete the act.
Despite his stated embrace of pessimism and his resignationist tendencies as evidenced by his rather ascetic lifestyle and in principle embrace of suicide, Rust does not actually resign himself from life. He is, after all, the eponymous “true detective” and throws himself assiduously into the task of solving the ritualistic rape/murders and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
So what really motivates Rust to spend most of his waking life (and he doesn’t seem to sleep all that much) attempting to solve these crimes? Is it the intellectual puzzle? Is it compassion for the victims and potential new victims? Is it a thirst for justice?
Hisham Melhem in Politico:
There is no one single overarching explanation for that tapestry of horrors in Syria and Iraq, where in the last five years more than a quarter of a million people perished, where famed cities like Aleppo, Homs and Mosul were visited by the modern terror of Assad’s chemical weapons and the brutal violence of the Islamic State. How could Syria tear itself apart and become—like Spain in the 1930s—the arena for Arabs and Muslims to re-fight their old civil wars? The war waged by the Syrian regime against civilians in opposition areas combined the use of Scud missiles, anti-personnel barrel bombs as well as medieval tactics against towns and neighborhoods such as siege and starvation. For the first time since the First World War, Syrians were dying of malnutrition and hunger.
Iraq’s story in the last few decades is a chronicle of a death foretold. The slow death began with Saddam Hussein’s fateful decision to invade Iran in September 1980. Iraqis have been living in purgatory ever since with each war giving birth to another. In the midst of this suspended chaos, the U.S. invasion in 2003 was merely a catalyst that allowed the violent chaos to resume in full force.
The polarizations in Syria and Iraq—political, sectarian and ethnic—are so deep that it is difficult to see how these once-important countries could be restored as unitary states. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 42-year reign of terror rendered the country politically desolate and fractured its already tenuous unity. The armed factions that inherited the exhausted country have set it on the course of breaking up—again, unsurprisingly—along tribal and regional fissures. Yemen has all the ingredients of a failed state: political, sectarian, tribal, north-south divisions, against the background of economic deterioration and a depleted water table that could turn it into the first country in the world to run out of drinking water.
Seyla Benhabib in the NYT's the Stone (Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial. Credit Associated Press):
The Emory University historian Deborah E. Lipstadt told The Times this month that Stangneth “shatters” Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann. In The Jewish Review of Books, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin writes: “Arendt had her own intellectual agenda, and perhaps out of her misplaced loyalty to her former mentor and lover, Martin Heidegger, insisted on applying the Freiburg philosopher’s concept of ‘thoughtlessness’ (Gedankenlosigkeit) to Eichmann. In doing so, she drastically underestimated the fanatical conviction that infused his actions.”
This sort of dismissal of Arendt’s work — essentially a rejection of the “banality of evil” argument — is by no means new, but it does not hold up when one truly understands the meaning of her phrase. Couldn’t Eichmann have been a fanatical Nazi and banal? What precisely did Arendt mean then when she wrote that Eichmann “was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.”? Arendt certainly did not think that ordinary human beings were all potential Eichmanns; nor did she diminish the crime Eichmann committed against the Jewish people. In fact, she accused him of “crimes against humanity,” and approved his death sentence, with which many, including the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, disagreed.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Frans de Waal has picked the three winners from the nine finalists:
- Top Quark, $500: Eric Michael Johnson, Promiscuity Is Pragmatic
- Strange Quark, $200: Christie Wilcox, Did Allergies Evolve To Save Your Life?
- Charm Quark, $100: Carl Zimmer, The Wisdom of (Little) Crowds
Here is what Frans had to say about them:
Eric Michael Johnson knows how to grab the reader’s attention, and does so in “Promiscuity is pragmatic.” In Biology 101, we all have learned that females are the picky sex, and that males roam the field. This view is made to sound logical, and moreover comfortably fits accepted gender roles. Explaining what kind of resistance there has been, and there still is, to violations of this Victorian scenario, Johnson – who is getting a PhD in science history – delves into its history. He portrays anthropology as dominated by white male morality, hence its hostility to theories explaining female “promiscuity” (the term alone is morally loaded!). And not just hostility to the theories: data in support of a more complex view of sexuality are quickly dismissed or simply ignored.
The reason I give this essay top ranking is partly since it is so compellingly written, capable of keeping our attention, but also because the topic is provocative, as attested by the 500+ comments it has elicited. Johnson’s blend of history, primatology, and anthropology works very well in convincing us to pay heed to evolutionary explanations of human behavior. His take is not nearly as narrow as the one common in evolutionary psychology, partly because of his ability and desire to look beyond our own species. He is also not shy to explore science that is at the fringes. Here I don’t mean science at the fringes for being obscure or questionable, but rather because it is subversive.
Johnson has a heretical streak, which makes him pay attention to serious scientists with unconventional ideas. As a result, his writing is more exciting than that of those so seeking to present all sides of an issue as to end up somewhere in the middle. Also, even though Johnson starts out with a primate story, his essay is relevant to all of animal and human science, as attesetd by the ground breaking study on fruit flies that challenged the Bateman hypothesis and the implications for human anthropology.
I found all of the entries very much worth reading, and so it was not easy to pick the two other two Quark Prizes. My second choice is Christie Wilcox’s piece on the toxin hypothesis of allergies. It is well written and the recent mouse work she describes supports the view that allergies reflect a protective mechanism.
My third choice is Carl Zimmer’s essay about small crowds being superior in decision-making compared to big crowds. This essay, too, is a pleasure to read, and systematically explores the idea why crowds make better decisions than single individuals, and why this advantage is not necessarily a linear function of crowd size.
In fact, all three essays explore unusual ideas that seem to go against the mainstream, which makes for exciting reading, leaving one to wonder what other established ideas we may have wrong. As such, these authors promote the healthy skepticism that is the bedrock of science, and show that science is always in flux, always keeping us at the edge of our seat. In a society that sometimes turns away from science, or views it as a boring mass of facts, this is a most important message to convey.
Congratulations also from 3QD to the winners (remember, you must claim the money within one month from today--just send me an email). And feel free, in fact we encourage you, to leave your acceptance speech as a comment here! And thanks to everyone who participated. Many thanks also, of course, to Frans de Waal for doing the final judging.
The three prize logos at the top of this post were designed by Sughra Raza, me, and Carla Goller. I hope the winners will display them with pride on their own blogs!
Details about the prize here.
by Namit Arora
‘No man ever steps in the same river twice,’ wrote Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, ‘for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’ Some also say this about ‘home’, making it less a place, more a state of mind. Or as Basho, the haiku master, put it, ‘Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’ Still, in an age of physical migration like ours, one of the most bittersweet experiences in a migrant’s life is revisiting, after a long gap, the hometown where he came of age. More so perhaps if, while he was away, his neighborhood turned to ruin, crumbling and overrun with weeds, as happened in my case.
Last month, I revisited my boyhood home in Gwalior, a city in north central India, with my parents. I had grown up with my two sisters in Birlanagar, an industrial township in Gwalior, until I went away to college at age 17. After graduation, I left for the U.S. in 1989 for post-graduate studies and various jobs in the U.S. and Europe over the next two decades. I continued to think of Gwalior as my hometown until my parents also left in 1995 and I stopped going there during my India visits. By most measures I had a decent boyhood in Gwalior, yet I’m loath to idealize it or look upon it fondly. If it had its joys, it was also full of graceless anxieties, pressures, and confusions.
A ‘Temple of Modern India’
Many industrial townships similar to Birlanagar had arisen in mid-20th-century India, including at Bhilai, Durgapur, Rourkela, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, and Ranchi. Most were built around public sector enterprises, housing factories that employed thousands. Nehru, the modernizer, called these the ‘temples of modern India’. Birlanagar, where I grew up, was a private township, centered on two textile mills. The Birlas had started building it shortly before independence on land given to them for free by the Scindias, who ruled the then princely state of Gwalior. The older and larger of Birlanagar’s two mills was Jiyajeerao Cotton Mills (JC Mills). The other, founded around 1950, was Gwalior Rayon (later Grasim), where my father, a textile engineer, worked for 36 years from 1958-94. Under the once famous ‘Gwalior Suiting & Shirting’ brand (watch this ad with Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore), Gwalior Rayon produced a range of fabrics combining both natural and synthetic fibers—such as cotton, wool, rayon, polyester, acetate, viscose—including some that ‘never tore’ and needed no ironing. Retailers apparently loved these products because their quality required no discounting.
by Tasneem Zehra Husain
It sounds a bit ridiculous when you admit your jealousy of inanimate objects. If you confess that you covet the skill with which these lifeless forms navigate their circumstances, you're bound to get some strange looks. So, you keep it to yourself - for the most part. But honestly, there are times when - if you know about the least action principle - it takes all your strength to keep from declaring that you would trade places with a subatomic particle, or a ray of light, or a rubber ball, in a heartbeat. Chances are, if you know about the principle of least action, you know enough science to realize that electrons and photons and rubber balls are not active decision makers, but that doesn't keep you from envying their ability to always follow the optimal route from one point to another. In fact, it almost makes the whole thing worse. These objects are not sentient beings; it's not as if they'd suffer if they took a circuitous route! But somehow, they manage to get it right every time, whereas you - well, you often manage to take what seems like the most complicated possible life path from Point A to Point B.
So what exactly is this mysterious knowledge that subatomic particles seem to possess, and how does one go about acquiring it? We begin by recognizing that these particles aren't furiously calculating their every move, maximizing the effect thereof; they are merely obeying the laws of nature - familiar laws, like those transcribed by Newton. The least action principle offers an approach that enables us to calculate the motion of a classical object, without recourse to conventional mechanics. But this principle should not be thought of as just an alternative to Newton's laws; it is much more powerful and far deeper than that. The chief strength of the least action principle is its flexibility. It is applicable not just within the province of classical mechanics, but can be extended to the realms of optics, electronics, electrodynamics, the theory of relativity and - perhaps most shockingly - even quantum mechanics. In fact, (as is evident in Feynman's path integral formulation) the least action principle is the most logically smooth way to connect classical and quantum physics! Suffice it to say that many well known laws are encapsulated in the elegant statement that "a physical system evolves from a fixed beginning to a fixed end in such a manner that its action is minimized."
Having drummed up the anticipation, l should at least attempt to explain what the principle is, and give you a glimpse of how it works.
by Akim Reinhardt
I'm currently circling the nation in a black and orange ‘98 Honda Accord, my rusted chariot. About 7,500 miles in a little over two months. That's the plan. As far north as North Dakota, as far south as New Mexico, and as far west as California before closing the circuit by returning to Maryland. About 26 states in all.
It's a massive research/conference trip. I'm on sabbatical. A full year at half-pay.
A single semester at full pay is the more common sabbatical leave. For a full year sabbatical, the typical approach is to get a research fellowship that makes up the lost salary and provides academic focus.
But I usually end up doing things my own way. I'm not bragging. It's as much a blend of chaos and neurosis as anything else. But in this case the result is, no research fellowship.
Instead, I've rented out my house during the semester, and this past summer I took on a freelance writing project. I co-authored a coffee table book, which will come out next summer.
Bill moved in to my Baltimore rowhome in August. At the end of the month, I bid him a fond farewell and hit the road. And thus the journey begins.
The first stop was The Bronx. It seems only fitting to kick off an epic trek by visiting friends and family in my hometown.
Like the rest of the city, more chains are moving into The Bronx. Not at the same rate that sees Manhattan turning into a bland, congested, overpriced version of the rest of America, but it's happening nonetheless. Very depressing. Dunkin' Donuts. Target. Bla bla bla.
The day I see a real New Yorker, not some Midwestern transplant, order Domino's, is the day I turn my back on the city completely. When that day comes, New York's pointlessness will be profound beyond words.
For now, the pizza's still worth it. For now.
by Leanne Ogasawara
The incredible Sisyphean story of a man who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in the late 19th century is only to be outdone by the crazy outlandishness of the man who decides to re-create the event a hundred years later in film.
Like a set of nested Russian dolls--each more mind-bogglingly conceived-- the story's central metaphor continuously revolves around the theme of "man against nature." This is a world where it is dreams that truly matter. And people move mountains in order to pursue their obsessions. So, to build his opera house, the hero, Fitcarraldo, has to employ hundreds of Indians to help pull a 320-ton ship over a muddy hill. But perhaps what is the most incredible part of the story is that Werner Herzog, in the making of his film about the historic ship-pulling, insists on physically re-creating the original challenges by struggling to capture on film the impossible task of having the local Indians pulling a real 320-ton ship over a mountain. His hell-bent will to veracity has made Herzog's film the stuff of legend.
And this is all very unexpected since film has never been an art much concerned with literal truth, being taken up solely by images. Not to mention that if all that matters is the "burden of his dream," why doesn't Herzog employ the usual Hollywood devices of stage set and miniatures to evoke his story more poetically? Why does he seek to do the impossible and film actual people pulling a real 320-ton ship over a steep and very slippery hill in the most remote part of the Amazon --given the useless burden of doing so?
Alongside Herzog's wonderful memoir concerning the making of the film, Conquest of the Useless, I am reading a fascinating book about 17th century science, by Ofer Gal and Raz Chen-Morris. Exploring the intellectual compromises in epistemology that were generated by the rise of the "new science," Baroque Science tells the story of Western philosophy's estrangement from the senses. In particular, it focuses on the inevitable denigrating of human vision and the disappearing observer in natural philosophy.
Ray Smith. Red Army, 1991.
Digital photograph taken by Sughra Raza at Kentuck Knob sculpture park, PA, Sept 5, 2014.
(Thanks to Akila and Ute Viswanathan).
By Eric Byrd
The Belle Époque cosmopolitan, after bidding Rodin adieu at the Gare du Nord the day of the Austrian ultimatum, returned to Germany and donned the feldgrau tunic, to battle for the fortunes of the Reich. The 1914-18 entries of this famous diary can be hard going for those of us unfamiliar with the Eastern Front campaigns or the intrigues of the German High Command – but occasionally Kessler unfolds a comprehensive collage of prewar Modernism – with which he was so intimate – as it continued and changed behind the national parapet. On the day he heard of Rodin's death, after a visit to Grosz's studio, Kessler set down this astonishing vista:
Berlin. November 18, 1917. Sunday. I think Grosz has something demonic in him. This new Berlin art in general, Grosz, Becher, Benn, Wieland Herzfelde, is most curious. Big city art, with a tense density of impressions that appears simultaneous, brutally realistic, and at the same time fairy-tale-like, just like the big city itself, illuminating things harshly and distortedly as with searchlights and then disappearing in the glow. A highly nervous, cerebral, illusionist art, and in this respect reminiscent of the music hall and also of film, or at least of a possible, still unrealized film. An art of flashing lights with a perfume of sin and perversity like every nocturnal street in the big city. The precursors are E.T.A. Hoffmann, Breughel, Mallarmé, Seurat, Lautrec, the futurists: but in the density and organization of the overwhelming abundance of sensation, the brutal reality, the Berliners seem new to me. Perhaps one could also include Stravinsky here (Petrushka). Piled-up ornamentation each of which expresses a trivial reality but which, in their sum and through their relations to each other, has a thoroughly un-trivial impact.
All round the world war rages and in the center is this nervous city in which so much presses and shoves, so many people and streets and lights and colors and interests: politics and music hall, business and yet also art, field gray, privy counselors, chansonettes, and right and left, and up and down, somewhere, very far away, the trenches, regiments storming over to attack, the dying, submarines, zeppelins, airplane squadrons, columns marching on muddy streets, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, victories; Riga, Constantinople, the Isonzo, Flanders, the Russian Revolution, America, the Anzacs and the poilus, the pacifists and the wild newspaper people. And all ending up in the half-darkened Friedrichstrasse, filled with people at night, unconquerable, never to be reached by Cossacks, Gurkhas, Chasseurs d'Afrique, Bersaglieris, and cowboys, still not yet dishonored, despite the prostitutes who pass by. If a revolution were to break out here, a powerful upheaval in this chaos, barricades on the Friedrichstrasse, or the collapse of the distant parapets, what a spark, how the mighty, inextricably complicated organism would crack, how like the Last Judgment! And yet we have experienced, have caused precisely this to happen in Liège, Brussels, Warsaw, Bucharest, even almost in Paris. That's the world war, all right.
by Josh Yarden
The new year, Rosh HaShana, according to the Hebrew Calendar, arrives this week with the coming of the new moon. As we also reach the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings, I revisited the final words words of Moshe (or Moses*.) The prophet has a curious way of describing his exit from the scene. When he is preparing the people for his own passing and for the transition of leadership (Deuteronomy 31) He tells the Hebrews: "A hundred and twenty years old am I today" and, depending upon which translation you read, he might be saying, "I can no longer… be active" (JPS) "…sally forth and come in," (Robert Alter) "… go out and come in" (Everett Fox) "I am no longer able to lead you" (King James Version.) In any case, the fact that he is about to die is not exactly at the heart of the sentence.
That which Moses will no longer be able to do is somehow bound up in leadership and particularly in the process of transition. He relocated and transformed his state of mind several times throughout the Exodus narrative. Within the first few verses, he comes into the world, gets put into a basket, placed in the river, drawn into the hands of Pharaoh's daughter, put back into the hands of his mother, and then taken into the palace. When we next meet him as a young adult, he gets into an argument, goes into a murderous rage, into exile in the desert, into Median and into the family of the local high priest. He then enters a marriage, fatherhood, a trance and eventually, he's on his way back into Egypt.
The rest is history. (… or maybe it isn't, but that's not even slightly important to the theme of the narrative.) He eventually goes back into the desert for 40 years, and now, we learn that this next stage of his life will be his last transition. If he is about to die, and if "going out and coming in" is actually what he will no longer be able to do, then the process of personal transformation is the essential meaning of life.
by Brooks Riley
by Bill Benzon
In The Only Game in Town: Digital Criticism Comes of Age I argued that digital criticism was the most important development in contemporary literary studies because it is the only line of investigation that presents us with new objects of thought. I’m continuing that argument in this post, where I consider some of the new conceptual objects in Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013).
Jockers undertakes a variety of inquiries into a corpus of 3346 19th Century Novels from America, Britain, Ireland, and Scotland, examining style, theme, and influence. Though he considers the possibility that literary culture evolves in a manner similar to that of life forms, he rejects the idea (pp. 171-172). Not only do I think Jockers is mistaken on that point, but I think that his analytic and descriptive work provides strong evidence not only for conceptualizing literary history as an evolutionary process, but that that process is directional (at least for the corpus Jockers examines). The purpose of this essay is to sketch out that case by reinterpreting some of Jockers’ results.
Note however that I do not intend to provide the required evolutionary model, though I do have some thoughts on how to do so (see the suggested readings at the end). I’ve only explained why I believe such an account is necessary.
Caveat: This is an unusually long post, so you might want have coffee or wine, your pleasure, readily at hand. Also, the argument is basically mathematical, though informally expressed, and mostly through diagrams, which are central to digital criticsm.
Does Culture Evolve?
Let me set the stage by quoting a passage from Tim Lewens’ excellent review of cultural evolution in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014):
The prima-facie case for cultural evolutionary theories is irresistible. Members of our own species are able to survive and reproduce in part because of habits, know-how and technology that are not only maintained by learning from others, they are initially generated as part of a cumulative project that builds on discoveries made by others. And our own species also contains sub-groups with different habits, know-how and technologies, which are once again generated and maintained through social learning. The question is not so much whether cultural evolution is important, but how theories of cultural evolution should be fashioned, and how they should be related to more traditional understandings of organic evolution.
The alternative, Lewens suggests later on, is that “cultural change, and the influence of cultural change on other aspects of the human species, are best understood through a series of individual narratives.” Lewens rejects that notion, and so do I – and I’ll address that specific alternative, individual narratives, a bit later.
Before going on, however, I want to dispose of the most common objection to the idea of cultural evolution:
The explanatory point of evolutionary dynamics is that it gives us design without a designer, without intention. But isn’t culture consciously and deliberately designed and created?
Cultural artifacts (whether physical things, such as books or drawings, or events, such as rituals or musical performances) are deliberately designed and created by human agents and thus are not the result of a blind evolutionary process. That is true. But whether or not any of those artifacts are retained in a group’s repertoire is a matter beyond the will and design of individual creators. The process of cultural selection is independent from that of artifact creation.
Those many 19th Century novels that are now forgotten were created with as much deliberation and intentional design as those few that we still read and used as the basis for other cultural products, such as movies and, e.g. zombified parodies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Whatever it is that distinguishes the novels with lasting cultural salience from the more ephemeral ones, it isn’t the mere fact of deliberation and design.
by Sue Hubbard
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven," wrote Wordsworth on the eve of the French Revolution. Though his words could equally have been describing a very different time and place and another, later, revolution where to be young was, also, ‘very heaven'. This revolution was expressed not through chopping off aristocratic heads but through drugs, sex and rock n'roll. And, as with the French revolution, its utopian values of freedom grew out of the restrictions and constraints of the dominant culture.
I was at school in the 1960s and remember going to see Easy Rider. It's hard to explain, coming from my bourgeois English background, just how mesmerising it was to sit in the dark and watch this anarchic road movie. Cool, sexy and intense, its saturated colour, naturalistic shots and long lonely vistas of desert highways seemed to embody a sort of frontier freedom that was primarily American, something I'd only previously encountered in the writing of Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider was wild, thrilling and a little frightening. It encapsulated the restlessness of the 60s counterculture, the feelings of a generation increasingly disillusioned with organised government and the political conflicts that surrounded Vietnam, poverty and issues of race. The film stared three men who would go on to become iconic anti-heroes: Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper.
Mad, bad and, no doubt, dangerous to know, Dennis Hopper became a cult figure. He embodied the restless mood of those emotionally charged times with their major social shifts and changes in moral values. Good-looking, self-confident and iconoclastic - part outlaw, part artist - he was the sort of guy who was always going to be something even if he didn't know what that something was going to be. By the age of 18 he was under contract to Warner Bros and became fascinated by the creative potential of film, co-starring with that other American icon, James Dean, in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). By the late 50s Hopper was living in New York and studying acting under Lee Strasberg. He was also taking photographs of street signs, walls and ripped posters, material not yet commonly the subject of art. At 25 he married the actress Brooke Hayward, daughter of the photographer, Leyland Hayward. On Hopper's birthday Brooke went to her father and borrowed the money to buy him a Nikon camera. From 1961 to 1967 he carried it everywhere until he began work on Easy Rider and put it away.
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Dolphin Tale 2 and the Apple Watch
by Matt McKenna
I didn't see the first Dolphin Tale movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, and a couple kids who look as if were custom built at the Disney Channel Research Lab, but allow me to synopsize the synopsis from Wikipedia: a wild bottlenose dolphin faces death when she loses her tail in a nasty crab trap accident. Fortunately, the hapless creature is rescued by a few plucky humans, christened "Winter," and given a prosthetic tail that enables her to swim around in her pool and so forth. In a sense, the original movie sounds a bit like a damp, G-rated Robocop with less murder and more playful splashing. Regardless, the synopsis provides the necessary background to understand Dolphin Tale 2, a film about what happens after you strap a plastic flipper to a proud animal and roll credits. Now, it wouldn't be accurate to say Dolphin Tale 2 is a dark film in the way the Christopher Nolan's second Batman film is dark or even how Irvin Kershner's second Star Wars film is dark, but it is certainly not to be taken lightly. I mean, sure, there's a goofy, hardcase pelican who falls in love with a sea turtle, but that doesn't mean the movie doesn't hit upon some weighty subjects. If the viewer can get past the half of the movie that consists mainly of adolescents giggling as they watch animals goof around, they'll experience a film that lays bare the emerging issue of technological innovation begetting technological dependence.
The conflict in Dolphin Tale 2 revolves around finding an aquarium-mate for Winter when her previous geriatric dolphin buddy, Panama, passes away after having lived a long, rewarding life of confined bliss that in no way resembles Blackfish. Adding urgency to the quest to find Winter a dolphin bestie is pressure arriving on two fronts: 1) the USDA will snatch Winter from her Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) residence and deliver her to some hell hole in Texas if a regulation-mandated pal isn't found and 2) the investment firm that put money into the CMA is annoyed that a lonely, depressed Winter can't be shown to the throngs of thong-sandaled families that paid good money to experience the miracle of a disabled dolphin making do.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Seth Stevenson in Slate:
Before any of the six entrants in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup had nudged a white pawn to e4, they’d already been hailed as the strongest collection of chess talent ever assembled. The tournament, held in St. Louis, featured the top three players in the game. The weakest competitor in the field was the ninth best chess player on the planet.
The favorite was current world No. 1 and reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen. The young Norwegian—who is among the best players in the history of chess—strolled into the lounge of the St. Louis Chess Club as the most alluring grandmaster ever, a brilliant, handsome 23-year-old with a modeling contract for the clothing company G-Star Raw. Forget about his overmatched foes. If anything could stop Carlsen, his fans reckoned, it would be the swirl of distractions occupying the parts of his brain not given over to memorizing Nimzo-Indian variations.
As the tournament began on Aug. 27, Carlsen was mired in an ongoing faceoff withFIDE, the international governing body of chess. There are a few things you should probably know about FIDE—or the Federation Internationale des Echecs, if you’re feeling continental. FIDE is, by all accounts, comically corrupt, in the vein of other fishy global sporting bodies like FIFA and the IOC. Its Russian president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who has hunkered in office for nearly two decades now, was once abducted by a group of space aliens dressed in yellow costumes who transported him to a faraway star. Though I am relying here on Ilyumzhinov’s personal attestations, I have no reason to doubt him, as this is something about which he has spoken quite extensively. He is of the firm belief that chess was invented by extraterrestrials, and further “insists that there is ‘some kind of code’ in chess, evidence for which he finds in the fact that there are 64 squares on the chessboard and 64 codons in human DNA.”
Jonathan Webb at the BBC:
Apart from humans, chimpanzees are the only primates known to gang up on their neighbours with lethal results - but primatologists have long disagreed about the underlying reasons.
One proposal was that human activity, including destroying habitats and providing food, increased aggression.
But the new findings, published in Nature, suggest this is not the case.
Instead, murder rates in different chimp communities simply reflect the numerical make-up of the local population.
The international study was co-written by more than 30 scientists and gathers data from some 426 combined years of observation, across 18 different chimp communities.
A total of 152 killings were reported. This includes 58 that were directly observed by researchers; the rest were counted based on detective work - tell-tale injuries or other circumstances surrounding an animal's death or disappearance.
Interestingly, the team also compiled the figures for bonobos, with strikingly different results: just a single suspected killing from 92 combined years of observation at four different sites. This is consistent with the established view of bonobos as a less violent species of ape.
Hussein Ibish in Bookforum:
As this review was going to press, the latest bout of hostilities between Hamas and other Gaza-based militants and Israel had become even more bloody and destructive than 2009’s brutally named Israeli incursion into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. An estimated 1,700 people have been killed. Between 70 and 80 percent of them were Palestinian civilians, and at least 200 were children. Israel has so far attacked seven UN schools serving as refugee shelters, provoking harsh condemnation even from the United States. Meanwhile, Hamas has drawn criticism from the global community for using abandoned schools to store ordnance. Sixty-four Israeli troops have been killed, along with three civilians—a stark contrast to Operation Cast Lead, which claimed the lives of just nine Israeli soldiers, four of them killed by friendly fire. The cost reckoned in damage to infrastructure and property in Gaza remains all but impossible to calculate. The war has reportedly displaced some 460,000 people—nearly a quarter of Gaza’s entire population. The present conflict appears unlikely to come to a complete stop—and if it does, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t flare up again at any moment.
With so much international attention focused on Gaza, it’s finally occurring to many Americans and other Westerners that the region has its own history, and that this history is key to sorting out the present conflict. So in this sense, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Gaza: A History arrives at a propitious moment; if anything, Filiu’s book—“the first comprehensive history of Gaza in any language,” the publisher claims, probably correctly—is long overdue. Gaza isn’t exactly exhaustive; it dashes through the area’s lengthy and complex ancient, classical, and Islamic imperial histories in a mere thirty pages or so.