Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Some have called Kingsnorth a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a death wish for civilization (see John Gray in The New Statesman and George Monbiot in The Guardian). Others might call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.
Kingsnorth tossed a grenade in the January/February issue of Orion Magazine with his controversial essay “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” There, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of his case. “We are environmentalists now,” he writes, “in order to promote something called ‘sustainability.’ What does this curious, plastic word mean? … It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”
Ouch. But he isn’t finished.
If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. … Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. … If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.
On a spring day in 1964, a boy walked into the Oldfield Hotel in the London suburb of Greenford—or perhaps the White Hart Hotel in Acton, or perhaps an unknown pub on London’s North Circular Road; fact slides so easily into myth—and demanded an audition from the band playing there that night.
The boy was 17 years old. He was the drummer for a surf band called the Beachcombers. He hit his drums so hard that six-inch nails had to be driven through the base of his kit into the stage to keep it from wandering off when he played. He had been playing drums for five years. He had first tried the bugle, but then he heard the American jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Philly Jo Jones, and he was enlightened, so he switched to the drums and practiced in a music store with a kindhearted and probably hard-of-hearing owner. At age 14 he quit school altogether and got a job repairing radios. Part of the reason he quit school was that his teachers thought he was a dolt: “Retarded artistically, idiotic in other respects,” wrote his art teacher.
I want to start with a luminously beautiful – and luminously profound – quotation from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. He writes: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
“Common sense”. I believe that the knowledge of this state of affairs is the fundamental truth about our human nature: the fact that our lives simply amount to our individual occupation of this “brief crack of light” between two eternities of darkness shapes everything that makes us human and is responsible for everything good – and everything bad – about us.
You might argue that if you believe in a religious faith, where life and an afterlife are ordained and somehow controlled by a supernatural being – a god or gods – then this awareness of our temporal, bounded existence in time doesn’t apply. In response, you might counter-argue that religious faith is created expressly to confound and disprove this primordial conviction: a faith created, as Philip Larkin put it, to “pretend we never die”.
But whatever the nature of a faith in a supernatural being, or beings, and whatever its unprovable postulates, I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.
In December of 1961, a high-ranking K.G.B. agent knocked on the door of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, asking for asylum. His name was Antoliy Golitsyn, and he had a remarkable secret to share. There had existed within the British intelligence service, he said, a “ring of five”—all of whom knew one another and all of whom had been recruited by the Soviets in the nineteen-thirties. Burgess and Maclean, who had decamped to Moscow a decade earlier, were No. 1 and No. 2. The art historian Anthony Blunt had been under suspicion by M.I.5 for some time. He was No. 3. No. 4 sounded a lot like Philby: that was why M.I.5 rekindled its investigation of him shortly thereafter. But who was the fifth? When Philby managed to escape to Moscow, concern grew. Had the mysterious fifth man tipped him off?
Within the espionage world, Golitsyn was a deeply divisive figure. Some suspected that he was a fabulist, who embroidered his accounts of K.G.B. secrets in order to extend his usefulness to Western intelligence. Two people remained firmly convinced of Golitsyn’s bona fides, however. The first was Philby’s lunchmate at the C.I.A., James Angleton. The news about Philby convinced Angleton that the C.I.A. must be riven with moles as well, and he set off on a frenzied search for traitors which consumed the American intelligence community for the next decade.
Mohammed Suliman's tweets from Gaza (via Juan Cole):
Some were just tweeting and posting on Facebook about other people's death like I'm doing. Now people are tweeting about their death.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 20, 2014
Hani mourns the victims of Al Shijaiyya massacre. He wishes that his friends stay safe. He soon gets killed. His friends mourn his death.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 20, 2014
I look forward to surviving. If I don't, remember that I wasn't Hamas or a militant, nor was I used as a human shield. I was at home.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 20, 2014
We decide to escape the harrowing reality we're entrapped in by sleeping. Sleeping however has become an absurd wish. Death is easier.— Mohammed Suliman (@imPalestine) July 20, 2014
Sarah Viren in The Morning News:
It was sweltering the day I unmarried Marta, and we weren’t even together. I was with my little brother in a Penske truck, the flat haze of West Texas rising before us like the credits at the end of a movie. Marta was with our three-month-old daughter back in Iowa, where the weather was temperate. Highs were in the 70s, lows in the 50s, and Marta was still married to me. Don McLean was coming in concert that weekend and there were drink specials at our favorite vegan restaurant. Our three-month-old baby cried for milk and slept and cried some more. A couple of days later, the two of them flew out to West Texas to join me in our new home next to a university where Marta and I both had jobs, and where we were no longer married to each other.
It’s hard to define when the act of unmarrying takes place. Were we unmarried as soon as I drove out of Iowa in that Penske van and into Missouri, where same-sex marriage is not recognized? Or was it only official once Marta joined me in Texas, where marriages like ours are outright banned? Or perhaps the real unmarrying occurred when we changed our mailing address with the post office, which would mean we were unmarried for a week without even realizing it. Getting unmarried to someone is also quite different from divorcing them. There are no legal documents to sign. There are no lawyers or judges explaining the terms to you. There is just you and your once-wife and your still-legal baby in a one-story orange brick house under the beaming sun of a West Texas neighborhood where you feel the same as you did before. Almost the same—you are both aware a difference exists, and you can also feel that something small but significant has changed.
Justin Smith in Berfrois:
Does a Muslim Chechen migrant laborer in a provincial Siberian city –a ‘Caucasian’ if anyone ever was– enjoy ‘white privilege’? It seems offensive to suggest that he does. Of course, there is some scenario on which his children could be taken to the US and raised by Americans, and if this were to happen they would have a set of privileges denied to African adoptees. But that scenario is so remote from the actual range of advantages of which this Chechen can avail himself as he navigates his own social reality that one may as well not mention it. In his context, though racially ‘white’ by American standards, he is the object of suspicion, contempt, and exclusion. The thought that he is ‘white’ has almost certainly never crossed his mind.
Now of course there is nothing wrong in principle with focusing on our own parochial context—indeed it is our responsibility to be concerned with it, and to strive to improve it. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the intersectional approach, she had just such a focused and non-global concern, namely, to analyze the actors’ categories that come into play in government responses to domestic violence against women in the United States. But one serious problem with staying faithful to actors’ categories and thinking of local contexts in terms of ‘race’, is that this seems to imply a universal natural order in which the locally salient distinctions between different types of people are grounded. And there simply is no such order. What we find when we move to the global context, and to the longue durée, rather, is that the focus on supposedly racial physical attributes is generally an a posteriori rationalization of a prior unequal system of interaction between members of different ethnic groups. The more aggravated this inequality, typically, the more racially different the people on different sides of the ethnic divide will appear to one another.
William Deresiewicz in TNR [h/t: Simon During]:
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
Adam Shatz in The Nation:
Shortly after September 11, I interviewed V.S. Naipaul about his views on Islam for The New York Times Magazine. Much of what he said was predictably ugly, a provocation calculated to offend liberal sensibilities. “Non-fundamentalist Islam,” he told me, is “a contradiction.” September 11 had no cause other than “religious hate.” But Naipaul said something else that I will never forget: that ultimately, you have to make a choice—are you a writer, or are you a missionary? At the time, this remark struck me as glib, even dishonest. If anyone was a missionary, wasn’t it Naipaul, with his crude attacks on Muslims, his extreme Hindu nationalism and his snobbery, all of it dressed up as devotion to the noble calling of writing and art?
Still, the remark stayed with me. I couldn’t dismiss it; I have since seen its wisdom, although I am no fonder of Naipaul’s views now than I was then. Naipaul was evoking the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement or cause. The contrast is not as stark as Naipaul suggests, but it exists, and the more closely you analyze a society, the more you allow yourself to see and to hear, the more you experience this tension.
In Finding the Center, Naipaul writes that travel “became a necessary stimulus for me. It broadened my worldview; it showed me a changing world and took me out of my own colonial shell…. My uncertainty about my role withered; a role was not necessary. I recognized my own instincts as a traveler and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a looker. And I learned to look in my own way.” He continues:
To arrive in a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses—that could be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after. Travel of this sort became an intense experience for me. It used all the sides of my personality; I was always wound up…. There was always the possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters. This gave a gambler’s excitement to every arrival. My luck held; perhaps I made it hold.
In this passage, Naipaul captures some of the most crucial aspects of reporting: an alert or receptive passivity; a willingness to expose oneself to unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences and people, to give up control and to get lost. This is not as easy as it sounds. That “readiness for adventure or revelation” has to be cultivated. As Walter Benjamin writes in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, “not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”
George Johnson in The New York Times:
Though he probably didn’t intend anything so jarring, Nicolaus Copernicus, in a 16th-century treatise, gave rise to the idea that human beings do not occupy a special place in the heavens. Nearly 500 years after replacing the Earth with the sun as the center of the cosmic swirl, we’ve come to see ourselves as just another species on a planet orbiting a star in the boondocks of a galaxy in the universe we call home. And this may be just one of many universes — what cosmologists, some more skeptically than others, have named the multiverse. Despite the long string of demotions, we remain confident, out here on the edge of nowhere, that our band of primates has what it takes to figure out the cosmos — what the writer Timothy Ferris called “the whole shebang.” New particles may yet be discovered, and even new laws. But it is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.
There are skeptics who suspect we may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Recently, I’ve been struck by two books exploring that possibility in very different ways. There is no reason why, in this particular century, Homo sapiens should have gathered all the pieces needed for a theory of everything. In displacing humanity from a privileged position, the Copernican principle applies not just to where we are in space but to when we are in time.
Monday, July 21, 2014
by Jalees Rehman
Ramadan is the month of fasting and a time for spiritual growth among Muslims. The traditionalist approach to "spiritual growth" is for Muslims to complement their fasting with performing additional prayers at night and regular reading of the Quran throughout the month. My own approach is somewhat different, I tend to complement my fasting with the reading of writings and scriptures from other philosophies or faith traditions, including atheist and humanist teachings. This year, I decided to study the Dhammapada (in the translation of Gil Fronsdal), one of the most widely read and revered writings in the Buddhist faith.
I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism because I was reading the remarkable novel "A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki, who is not only a brilliant author but also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. The first person narrator in the novel is a 16-year old Japanese girl Nao who is bullied by her classmates. Nao's parents moved from Japan to Silicon Valley but were forced to return to Japan when the Dotcom bubble burst. Nao's father loses his job and the family is forced to live in poverty. The family's poverty and the fact that Nao is seen as an alien "transfer student" lead to her being ostracized at school. But her classmates go even further and begin psychologically and physically torturing her, leaving scars and scabs all over her body.
by Tamuira Reid
You say the words the same way you say I'm an alcoholic, but this time you aren't sitting in a church basement with a shitty assortment of store-bought cookies on your lap. You hear a small, unmistakable gasp on the other end of the line – "Mom, are you there?"
You weren't drunk when you got pregnant. Those days are over. You were lucid and clear-headed and saw a future in his face.
Then you saw two lines on a stick. Then you saw nothing except the darkness.
This is the thing; you were trying to get pregnant.
And it happened. And then he happened.
The baby. Eight pounds of flesh and bone and gumption.
Control is not your forte. Blame it on being from "Gypsy stock" on your mother's side. It's in your blood. Erratic behavior just comes with the territory. "Take it one day at a time". Or "This too shall pass". Funny how those annoying aphorisms apply more to this situation than they ever did to your drinking.
Now they will come out of the woodwork, flood your life like blood through a cracked artery. It's okay. You didn't notice how many Honda Accords were on the road until you owned a Honda Accord. This is like that. Now everything is babies. Their faces will peek out at you from billboards towering over Times Square, from the Gerber ads plastered to the side of an M16 bus, from Toys-R-Us coupon books rubbing up against the lit mags in your mailbox. Ignore them.
During your office hour, go onto Amazon and find a reputable Spanx dealer. Buy in bulk. And when a writing student walks in, hurriedly minimize the screen. Your face is red and sweaty. Say something about the weather. He thinks you're looking at porn and feels sorry for you. It must be hard to get laid when you're someone's mom.
Disassembling the invisible
has its own mathematics, different rules apply,
the process has its special calculus
because the unseen is huge and impudent,
powerful and odd
When we were dumb and ignorant
the spirit wind would startle us, would frighten us,
shatter shelters, split the sky with light
—unseen, but real, we called it God
The invisible has popular cachet,
being as it is among us
in the interstices of the known
It seeps through everything
It colors the fabric of our thoughts
as ultraviolet works to build our bones
and ultrasonic whistles through the atmosphere
it fills the trellis of our oughts
persuading us we’re not alone
by Jim Culleny
by Dwight Furrow
Few terms in the wine world are more controversial than "terroir", the French word meaning "of the soil". "Terroir" refers to the influence of soil and climate on the wine in your glass. But the meaning of "terroir" is not restricted to a technical discussion of soil structure or the influence of climate. Part of the romance of wine is that it (allegedly) expresses the particular character of a region and perhaps its people as well.
According to some "terroirists", when we drink wine that expresses terroir, we feel connected to a particular plot of land and its unique characteristics, and by extension, its inhabitants, their struggles, achievements, and sensibility. Can't you just feel their spirit coursing through your veins on a wild alcohol ride? The most extreme terroirists claim that the influence of soil and climate can be quite literally tasted in the wine. If this strikes you as a bit of, well, the digested plant food of bovines to put it politely, you are not alone. Many in the wine business are skeptical about the existence of terroir claiming that winemakers should make the best wine they can without trying to preserve some mystical connection with the soil. But the issue is an important one because the reputation of entire wine regions rests on the alleged unique characteristics of their terroir, not to mention the fact that the skill and discernment of wine tasters often involves recognizing these characteristics.
There is confusion, however, regarding what this concept of terroir conveys. Some uses of the term simply imply that wine grapes are influenced by climate and soil so that wines from a region with broadly similar soil types and macroclimates have common characteristics discernable in the wine. This is obviously true and unobjectionable. Factors such as the ability of soil to drain or absorb water, the presence of stones that radiate heat into the vineyard, and the effects of nutrients on plant metabolism are among the important known effects of soil on vineyards. The soil and climate in Bordeaux differs from the soil and climate in Burgundy and thus they grow different grapes and make wines of quite contrasting styles that are apparent in the glass.
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
The fridge is between pesto and grasshopper green; the dining table is oval. A cubist picture hangs on the wall. It changes meaning, depending on the time of the day and the way I fall into its shapes and clever shades. The fish in the painting’s octagon looks like a remote control car or a scarf sometimes, then it goes back to being a fish; the face is sometimes benign, sometimes not. On a good day, this dining room has the aura of sweet cream, parathay (fried bread) and chilled mangoes, otherwise, cabbage and beets. There is a door that opens to the foyer; I am the height of the doorknob.
My seat at the dining table faces the window. Here is where I practice “joining handwriting” (what “cursive” is called in Pakistan), glancing, from time to time at Sadequain’s Quranic calligraphy on the wall: a composition that has Arabic letters made to look like sailboats in which other letters nestle. It cools the room. As an adult there will be many reasons to recall this piece— its placid dignity, its nests of words from the holy book— in a world where my Muslim identity will know no nests, no dignity, where verses from the book will be twisted, desecrated by fellow-Muslims, where large populations of Muslims will be brutally punished by the enemy for the crimes of a few, or for no crime at all.
It is the month of Ramadan. I have many notebooks of summer homework to fill but the heat makes it hard to concentrate. I study the pattern of the tablecloth, the occasional lizard on the wall. The swinging door to the kitchen startles me every now and then as my brothers come running through it. They use motion to navigate the world, I, reverie. We balance each other’s energies and are most in harmony in the loquat or guava season, or in Ramadan when the family bonds over Iftaar, the meal at sundown, typically consisting of dates, lemonade or lemon barley squash, mango milkshake, pakoray (chickpea fritters), spicy fruit salad, samosay and other snacks. There is a certain aroma associated with the fasting season, owing to this traditional menu. It is the aroma of festivity and fatigue, chatter and silent meditation.
At age seven, I insist on keeping my first Ramadan fast. I’m old enough to practice a bit of self-discipline, not old enough to appreciate the full meaning of fasting (that slight detail having to do with spiritualty!). The day is immeasurably long. I stand by the window to watch the slow day wilt. I give my mother a (long and badly spelt) list of treats for iftaar. She cooks every single item and finds the misspelt list too amusing not to save for posterity. I add drawings to my menu: triangular samosay, coils of orange jalaibi, round parathay. It will be important for posterity to know the shapes and colors of Ramadan food, I imagine.
Pencil, graphite, acrylic.
by Gerald Dworkin
Recently a ghastly case of capital punishment by means of lethal injection was featured in the news. A convicted murderer and rapist, Clayton Lockett, died 43 minutes after his execution began. He was described by many witnesses as writhing in pain and struggling to speak.
After administering the first drug, "We began pushing the second and third drugs in the protocol," said Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Robert Patton. "There was some concern at that time that the drugs were not having the effect. So the doctor observed the line and determined that the line had blown." He said that Lockett's vein had "exploded."
The execution process was halted, but Lockett died of a heart attack.
A somewhat bizarre aspect of the story was that Lockett had been taken for routine x-rays at 5 am that morning. When he refused to be restrained for the procedure he was tasered. I leave it as an exercise for the reader why the protocol for x-rays is in place. (1)
For me one of the features --the participation of physicians in the execution--was of particular interest since I had published an article opposing such participation in 2002. (2) In this article I began by assuming for the sake of argument that capital punishment is a legitimate mode of punishment. I did so, not because I accepted this, but because I wanted to focus on the much narrower issue of physician participation.
by Jonathan Kujawa
Mathematicians have a soft spot in their hearts for mathematical trifles. These beguiling little puzzles are more amusing than important, and also often devilishly hard. These are the sorts of math problems professional mathematicians are embarrassed to admit they spend time thinking about (but would be the first to tell you if they solved it!). Call them mathematical guilty pleasures.
Fermat's Last Theorem is such a trifle. Those old enough to remember might recall seeing it in the news twenty or so years ago. It's the theorem which says that for any natural number n greater than three, you can't find integers a, b, and c which satisfy the equation:
But what fun would life be if you're always serious? Let's be unserious for a moment. Fermat's Last Theorem is tantalizing. It is easy to find a, b, and c which are solutions when the n is equal to two. For example, 3, 4, and 5 work. These solutions are called Pythagorean Triples because they exactly give the three sides to a right triangle and the equation becomes the famous Pythagorean Theorem . There are infinitely many Pythagorean Triples, so shouldn't there also be infinitely many solutions when n is three, four, or five? What makes two so special?
The first person to ask the question was Fermat in 1637. He wrote a note in his copy of Diophantus's Arithmetica that:
It is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.
You would have to have a heart of stone to not be tempted to try a few examples after reading that.
Fermat never wrote down his proof and in all likelihood he was mistaken. Indeed, it took 300+ years for math to develop enough high powered tools to tackle his simple little challenge. It wasn't until the mid 1990s that Andrew Wiles was able to affirmatively prove Fermat's "Theorem". And while there was a great deal of excitement about Wiles's work, the real benefit Fermat's trifle was all the high powered tools mathematicians developed while wrestling with it. They are now invaluable in number theory, cryptography, and elsewhere .
Let me now tell you about another enticing mathematical morsel which is still unsolved: the Square Peg Problem (SPP). The history is a bit murky, but it is generally credited to Otto Toeplitz in 1911. The SPP is the conjecture that if you draw a curve on a sheet of paper without picking up your pencil and which begins and ends at the same place, then you can find four points on the curve which form the corners of a square. Such a square is called an inscribed square.
by Brooks Riley
by Kathleen Goodwin
I only recently had the pleasure of reading Haruki Murakami's memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running", published in 2009. There were multiple times when reading this elegant little book when I literally gasped with astonishment at Murakami's ability to perfectly describe my own love/hate relationship with distance running and how precisely it feels to run along my native Charles River on the shores of Boston and Cambridge and in my newly adopted New York City. Strange looks on the N/Q/R line only quelling my enthusiasm slightly, I became convinced while reading that Murakami must be my soul mate and despite his being 41 years my senior and married, I began hatching plans that would allow me to make it known to Mr. Murakami that he understood the hidden contents of my psyche in a way that no writer or real life friend had ever been able to achieve. On further reflection, I've come to realize that Murakami may have been achieving less of a form of telepathy with me and more of a succinct rendering of some of the truer parts of the human spirit, perhaps common to all mankind and not just to him and myself, two mediocre yet dogged runners in an unforgiving world.
Murakami himself admits to the implicit indulgence of writing a book solely about himself running numbingly long distances, perhaps among the most boring subjects for a writer to cover. His memoir doesn't seek to recommend any sort of product (or lack of product) or to instruct readers on training techniques or even to offer helpful advice on how to mentally prepare for, or survive during, a marathon. Murakami is forthright in his book's lack of both intentions and narrative tension. And Murakami happens to be an award winning writer and thus has far more authority when it comes to writing about tedious things. And yet, I ask any reader who has made it this far, to indulge me for a few more paragraphs, as I contemplate the same topic, with far less writerly credibility.
by Sue Hubbard
Iconic is a much overused word but there are certain artworks that have changed the course of art history. Without them what we take for granted as contemporary art might have been totally different. Picasso’s 1907 Desmoiselles D’Avignon reconfigured the human form. His chthonic women act as a metaphor for psychological insecurity and the breakdown of old certainties rather than as a description or likeness. Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917, introduced the readymade and challenged the concept of elitist craft-led art, while Andy Warhol’s early 1960s soup cans appropriated banal everyday commodities, placing them within the sanctity of the museum and gallery. But without Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, what he called ‘a bare icon… for my time’, contemporary abstract painting, as well as contemporary architecture, sculpture and design might have taken another direction altogether. It’s rare that an artist does something completely new. But Malevich, it might be argued, did. After him, painting no longer represented the world but became an end in itself, a new reality.
Born of Polish stock in Kiev in 1879, Malevich moved to Kursk in 1896. By the age of 27 this talented young man was living in the dynamic city of Moscow where successful merchants were collecting works by Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Malevich was to find himself - like Russia - balancing on the cultural fault line between Eastern and Western Europe. Should artists look back to traditional icon painting to create an authentic national art form or to the new movements coming from France?
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Clive Cookson in the Financial Times:
Since the 1950s proponents of artificial intelligence have maintained that machines thinking like people lie just a couple of decades in the future. In Superintelligence – a thought-provoking look at the past, present and above all the future of AI – Nick Bostrom, founding director of Oxford’s university’s Future of Humanity Institute, starts off by mocking the futurists.
“Two decades is a sweet spot for prognosticators of radical change: near enough to be attention-grabbing and relevant, yet far enough to make it possible that a string of breakthroughs, currently only vaguely imaginable, might by then have occurred,” he writes. He notes, too, that 20 years may be close to the typical remaining duration of a forecaster’s career, limiting “the reputational risk of a bold decision”.
Yet his book is based on the premise that AI research will sooner or later produce a computer with a general intelligence (rather than a special capability such as playing chess) that matches the human brain. While the corporate old guard such as IBM has long been interested in the field, the new generation on the US West Coast is making strides. Among the leaders, Google offers PR-led glimpses into its work, from driverless cars to neural networks that learn to recognise faces as they search for images in millions of web pages.
Approaches to AI fall into two overlapping classes. One, based on neurobiology, aims to understand and emulate the workings of the human brain. The other, based on computer science, uses the inorganic architecture of electronics and appropriate software to produce intelligence, without worrying too much how people think. Bostrom makes no judgment about which is most likely to succeed.