Thursday, December 31, 2015
Marxism for Tomorrow
Wendy Brown in Dissent:
An intelligent left today can neither live within nor without Marx’s thought. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis reminds us, Marxism today is most useful when it is “erratic,” irreverent, non-doctrinaire. This means that effective political challenges to contemporary capitalism, not to mention other orders of injustice or peril (from racism to climate change), must revise, resist, and supplement Marx. Consider, in this regard, four Marxist arguments:
1. Capital organizes everything in the modern world, and capital is derived from exploited labor.
The first half of this teaching remains profound and important. Marx’s materialism was flawed and overstated, but this doesn’t negate his essential claim that human beings are unique as producers of their existence, and hence as producers of their history and world. Moreover, a mode of production such as capitalism, more than merely ruling, creates everything in its own image, including us. This insight is vital in the “post-productive” era of finance capital. How else to understand financialization’s transformation of both the character and aims of states and NGOs, universities and corporations, start-ups and social life? How else to fathom how humans themselves have become what the philosopher Michel Feher calls “bits of credit-seeking capital”—whether as middle-schoolers building résumés or as left magazine editors courting Facebook “likes”? Or to comprehend why new apps that are free to users and unprofitable may be valued by speculative investors in the tens of millions? Or to understand how the fates of (formerly) sovereign democracies like Greece have come to rest on their bond and credit ratings, which in turn depend on global financial institutions and the finance ministers of other nations? More than monetizing everything, finance capital has transformed the very nature and measure of value, thus reconfiguring states, firms, and non-profits as well as human aspirations, human conduct, and even human anxiety. Marx did not anticipate this chapter of capitalism, but he provided us with essential tools for apprehending its power to shape the world and its subjects.
The second half of this teaching—exploited labor as the source of all value—is less helpful today.
US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war
The public history of relations between the US and Syria over the past few decades has been one of enmity. Assad condemned the 9/11 attacks, but opposed the Iraq War. George W. Bush repeatedly linked Syria to the three members of his ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – throughout his presidency. State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; the payments were kept up even after it became clear that Syrian intelligence knew what was going on. A 2010 cable warned that funding for a London-based television network run by a Syrian opposition group would be viewed by the Syrian government ‘as a covert and hostile gesture toward the regime’.
But there is also a parallel history of shadowy co-operation between Syria and the US during the same period. The two countries collaborated against al-Qaida, their common enemy.
A son’s search for his mother
Hannah Gavron worked on The Captive Wife from her mid-twenties onward. It traces, in an early chapter, the history of suffrage and the legal progress by which women have moved from a position where “ideas of . . . inferiority were taken as part of the natural order of things” to a place where the notion of second-class citizen “would be inconceivable to the young woman of today”. But it ends its opening section with a terrible revelation of cultural apathy about the huge changes that have taken place, and it asks, “have all the great changes in the position of women in the last one hundred and fifty years come to nothing? The only way to begin to answer this is to study women themselves, in detail, because it is the details which added together will reveal something of the nature and quality of the lives being led by women today”.
To counteract the “unspeakable” nature of his mother’s death, Jeremy Gavron goes into detailed examination, too, in this stunning work with its inbuilt questions about the nature of truth and meaning, its quiet measured renegotiation of history and silence, and its revelations about articulation which won’t be denied whether timely, untimely or ahead of its time.
The form it takes is a piecing together of fragments, patches, verbal shreds, inferences, facts, photographs, texts, the suicide note on an old envelope (“thirty-three words in all – four more than the years of her life”), dug-out bits of paper with his mother’s writing on them, letters lost then found, the memories of the many people he contacts, old diaries mined for any information at all.
Does Your IQ Predict How Rich You Will Be?
Louis Putterman in Evonomics:
In their 2006 book titled IQ and Global Inequality, intelligence experts Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen report that setting the average measured IQ in the U.K. at 100, people in the U.S. had average IQs of 100 and 98, respectively. People in the Central African Republic, Mali and Kenya had average IQs of 64, 69 and 72. People in India, Indonesians, and Iraq scored somewhat higher than those in the poorer countries but lower than those in the richer countries: their average IQs were 82, 87, and 87 respectively.
Are country incomes and IQs correlated? A recent study using a sample of 157 countries finds a high and statistically significant correlation between the two. One might conclude, then, that it is the lower IQs of their people that explains the lower average incomes of people in the world’s poorer countries. Lynn and Vanhanen evidently think so.
Could this really be true?
Were this the nineteenth century, during which the sun never set on European empires, a cross regional study with findings like this might have been treated as self-evident in the U.K. or U.S. It would have seemed to provide a moraljustification for colonizing powers to maintain their rule over their inferior charges, helping them to advance themselves to the extent possible given their “more meager innate endowments.”
But it’s the twenty-first century, and IQ tests are a modern scientific tool. Racism has been roundly debunked. So what gives?
In a newly published paper titled “Does the intelligence of populations determine the wealth of nations?” Vittorio Daniele, who teaches economics at Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, Italy, provides an explanation that builds on the Flynn effect. In a series of studies published over several decades, the New Zealand political scientist J. R. Flynn has famously found that in mostly rich countries in which IQ test data have been available for sufficient periods of time, average IQ scores have been steadily rising. Some studies also show that at a given point in time, IQ tends to be higher for the young than for the old.
"Caught in the Pulpit" author Daniel Dennett on closeted atheist clergy and our new age of radical transparency
Andrew Aghapour in Salon:
If Daniel Dennett is anything, he is a champion of the facts. The prominent philosopher of science is an advocate for hard-nosed empiricism, and as a leading New Atheist he calls for naturalistic explanations of religion. Dennett is also the co-author (along with Linda LaScola) of the recently expanded and updated Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind, which documents the stories of preachers and rabbis who themselves came to see…the facts.
Caught in the Pulpit is a close cousin to The Clergy Project, an outreach effort to “current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs”—many of whom must closet their newfound skepticism to preserve their careers and communities.
For Dennett, closeted atheist clergy are not simply tragic figures, they are harbingers of great things to come. Peppered amongst Caught in the Pulpit’s character vignettes are mini-essays in which Dennett predicts a sea change in religious doctrine and practice. Our digital information age, he argues, is ushering in a “new world of universal transparency” where religious institutions can no longer hide the truth. To survive in an age of transparency, religions will need to come to terms with the facts.
Dennett spoke recently with The Cubit about institutional transparency, the parallels between religious and atheistic fundamentalism, and the future of religion.
You describe non-believing clergy as “canaries in a coal mine.” Why does this group hold such significance for understanding the future of religion?
I think that we are now entering a really disruptive age in the history of human civilization, thanks to the new transparency brought about by social media and the internet. It used to be a lot easier to keep secrets than it is now.
What It Takes To Rule The (Marine) World
Christie Wilcox in Science Sushi:
Fifty-five years ago, Jack Briggs determined there were 107 fish species with a trait most fish cannot boast: a global distribution. These circumtropicalspecies can be found in all tropical oceans, having found their way around the land masses which split the seas (at least often enough to persist as a single species). Now, in a publication for the journal Fish and Fisheries, Briggs has teamed up with Michelle Gaither, a postdoctoral research associate at Durham University, UK, and colleagues from the University of Hawaii and the California Academy of Sciences to update the half-century-old list. Of the over 20,000 marine fish species, a mere 284 span the seas to maintain a global distribution.
The team was able to re-evaluate Briggs’ original list thanks to breakthroughs in DNA sequencing that have occurred over the past 50 years. By looking at genetic sequences rather than just morphological differences, scientists are able to not only separate similar looking species, they are able to determine whether a single species is split into distinct populations or whether individuals are able to travel vast distances to keep disparate areas connected. Thanks to genetic data, nineteen of the original 107 have since been shown to be complexes of multiple species or not to make it around the globe, while 196 new species have joined the 1% club.
The Hydraulic Hypothesis and the End of Civilization
Earlier this year Greg Laden wrote in his Scientific American blog:
The so called “Hydraulic Hypothesis” is an idea first fully characterized by the historian Karl Wittfogel. His original idea was part of a larger model for the origin of civilization that we see today as having several problematic aspects, but the key idea is still valid. If agriculture is the basis for a society, and it is carried out in a semi-arid region, then the management of water through various forms of irrigation and the centralized control of the agricultural cycle lends itself to centralized despotic leadership. or at least, some kid of cultural and social change allowing for organized effort to predominate over individual self interest. (In fact irrigation based systems have emerged without despotic leadership, and complex society has emerged absent a hydraulic beginning, so this is an oversimplification, just so you know.) But in its simplest form we can correctly say that the emergence of stratified, hierarchic, complexly organized societies was often linked in no small part to the emergence of organizational (and technological) solutions to growing food where there is not enough rain at the right time of year. There is a great advantage to growing food in this manner. The crops become, in essence, invasive species, because human activity provides the crops with a leg up on all the other plants in the region. A plant that in wild form is found primarily in limited microhabitats, out competed everywhere else by more arid-adapted plants, suddenly has a free ride across a vast landscape. Despite the fact that the Hydraulic Hypothesis is an oversimplification, we can appreciate the fact that the beginnings of human “civilization” (as a social and economic system, which we retain today by and large) is linked partially but importantly to managing water to grow food.
Soliman's Dream: A Light Show in Brixen
The Political Incorrectness Racket
Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg View:
Among Republicans, it has become politically correct to be politically incorrect. Actually that’s the most politically correct thing that you can possibly be. As soon as you announce that you’re politically incorrect, you’re guaranteed smiles and laughter, and probably thunderous applause. Proudly proclaiming your bravery, you’re pandering to the crowd.
A math-filled new paper, by economists Chia-Hui Chen at Kyoto University and Junichiro Ishida at Osaka University, helps to explain what’s going on. With a careful analysis of incentive structures, they show that if self-interested people want to show that they are independent, their best strategy is to be politically incorrect, and to proclaim loudly that’s what they are being. The trick is that this strategy has nothing at all to do with genuine independence; it’s just a matter of salesmanship, a way to get more popular.
Focusing on the role of experts rather than politicians, Chen and Ishida note that in many circles, political correctness is “associated with a negative connotation where people who express politically correct views are perceived as manipulative or even dishonest.” For that reason, the unbiased expert has a strong strategic incentive, which is to “deviate from the norm of political correctness” to demonstrate “that he is, at least, not manipulative.” Of course, the deviation is itself a form of manipulation, strategically designed to convince people that the expert can be trusted.
Chen and Ishida’s punchline is that whenever experts care about their reputations, “we cannot regard political incorrectness naively as a sign of blunt honesty since it can easily be an attempt to signal one’s hidden characteristics rather than the true state of the world. ” With respect to Republican candidates, that’s putting it much too gently. It’s the strategic go-to line when things get tough.
Consider the Republican chorus in this light. Donald Trump complains that we have “become so politically correct as a country that we can't even walk. We can't think properly. We can't do anything.” Ted Cruz is more concise: “Political correctness is killing people.” Ben Carson insists that the biggest threat to free speech comes from what he calls the “Political Correctness police,” who have “created fear in a large portion of our population, causing them to remain silent.” Mario Rubio says the “radical left” is using a “politically correct way to advocate Israel’s destruction.”
It’s true that in some left-wing circles, especially on college campuses, political correctness is doing serious damage, because it entrenches a particular ideological orthodoxy (and dampens necessary dissent). In some places, you reject that orthodoxy at your peril. If you say that you oppose affirmative action or an increase in the minimum wage, you incur a kind of reputational tax, and the price may be too high to be worth paying.
But those who deplore political correctness tend to entrench an orthodoxy of their own.
How Native American Artist Fritz Scholder Forever Changed the Art World
Jordan Steffen in Smithsonian:
In the winter of 1967, artist Fritz Scholder broke a promise. Working as a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Scholder was already a Native American artist of some renown. His work up to that point had come along with a vow — he would never paint a Native American figure. He believed the subject had devolved into a romantic cliché. But standing before his students one day, he grew frustrated with their inability to create an “honest” representation of current American Indians. So he carried his brushes and paints into the studio classroom and quickly filled the canvas with the figure he pledged to avoid. The same subject that would eventually define his works. Scholder’s decision to break his promise marked a fierce turning point for campaign on behalf of Native American rights and for American Indian artists.
His painting, Indian No. 1, and the works that followed thrust contemporary styles into a genre dominated by what Scholder characterized as “flat” and, at times, disingenuous depictions of Native Americans. His paintings disrupted comfort zones — even for Native Americans — by rawly exposing issues including alcoholism, unemployment and cultural clashes. But for Scholder, who was one-quarter Native American, the choice to paint the charged subject matter was — as in any of his paintings — second to his love of color and focus on composition. Scholder did not fully embrace his Native American heritage. He was, at his core, a painter. Still, decades after he completed his Indian Series, people struggle to look beyond the subjects in Scholder’s paintings. An exhibition of Scholder’s work at the Denver Art Museum is designed to help visitors see more.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
What Do You Really Want?
Quassim Cassam in The Philosophers' Magazine:
As you sit down to dinner at your favourite restaurant the waiter comes over and asks you what you would like to drink. You don’t find this a difficult question. A gin and tonic is (say) what you want and you know it’s what you want. So you place your order. Your irritating companion asks you how you know want a gin and tonic. A very strange question, no doubt, and probably a conversation stopper. Anxious to drink your gin and tonic you say you just know, and that is all there is to it.
Although your impatience with your companion’s question is perfectly understandable it raises an interesting philosophical question. On the face of it, any assertion is open to the challenge “How do you know?” For example, if you assert that it is raining in Mombasa then you can be asked how you know. So if “I want a gin and tonic” is a genuine assertion then it, too, is exposed to the question “How do you know?” You might not know the answer but there must be an answer. Equally, if you know you believe it’s raining in Mombasa there must be an answer to the question how you know that that is what you believe. Being asked for the answer over a gin and tonic might be a bit much, but if there is such a thing as knowledge of one’s own desires, beliefs, hopes, fears, and intentions it should be possible in principle to explain how such self-knowledge is possible.
In philosophy, rationalism is much impressed by the role of reasons in our mental lives and its account of self-knowledge is constructed on this basis. So if you are a rationalist you might be tempted to suggest that our beliefs and desires are normally determined by our reasons and so are knowable by reflecting on our reasons. For example, if your belief that it is raining in Mombasa is formed in response to the reasons in favour of believing this then you can know that you believe that it is raining in Mombasa by consideration of these reasons. By the same token, you can know that you want a gin and tonic by consideration of the reasons in favour of wanting one, as long as your desires are determined by your reasons. To put the point more simply, you can answer the question whether you actually want a gin and tonic by answering the question whether you ought rationally to want one.
Unfortunately, many of our desires are not determined by our reasons. If your doctor has told you to cut down on your drinking then you have a good reason not to want a gin and tonic but that doesn’t alter the fact that you want one. So consideration of what you ought rationally to want won’t be a good guide to what you actually want unless you are the kind of being whose desires are rationally determined.
“They can sag a little, can’t they?”
Jenny McPhee in 3:AM Magazine:
In her memoirs, Leni Riefenstahl—the German actress and filmmaker famous for her association with Hitler—describes her first and only meeting with her compatriot and colleague Marlene Dietrich:
I was struck by her deep, husky voice, which sounded a bit vulgar and suggestive. Maybe she was a little tipsy. I heard her saying loudly, “Why does a woman have to have beautiful breasts? They can sag a little, can’t they?” Then she lifted her left breast slightly and enjoyed the startled faces of the young girls sitting around her.
Riefenstahl, who lived a long, robust, and adventurous life, was an artist who learned early on how to play fast and loose with the truth, a technique that served both her craft and her survival. Her life-long animosity for Dietrich, tinged, as this passage reveals, with awe, most likely began when the young Hollywood director Joseph von Sternberg passed her over to cast Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel, launching one of the great film careers of all time. We will never know if Riefenstahl’s anecdote about Dietrich is true. Riefenstahl, especially after World War II when most of the Nazi leadership was dead, spent a great deal of concerted effort reinventing her past in exquisite detail. “The silence of the famous dead offers an enormous temptation to the self-promoting living,” critic Janet Malcolm has written. For Riefenstahl, it was more a question of opportunity than temptation. Truth aside, her brief story about Dietrich has the seductive authenticity of art.
Karen Wieland’s new book Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin, and a Century in Two Lives is so compelling yet obvious, I found myself wondering how this book hadn’t already been written. Born within spitting distance of each other in Berlin in the first two years of the twentieth century, Riefenstahl and Dietrich had similar trajectories well into young adulthood. They were both more defiant than compliant in their family life, both ambitious, both inexorably drawn towards careers as performers; one in front of, the other eventually behind, the camera. And both women came of age just after WWI when, as Robert Musil noted, “Woman is tired of being the ideal of the man who no longer has sufficient energy to idealize, and she has taken over the task of thinking herself through as her own ideal image.”
The Nazis’ rise to power would dramatically change each of their lives and forever divide their paths. Dietrich left for America with von Sternberg and never lived again in Germany; Riefenstahl, with her celebrated films Triumph of the Will and Olympiad—the latter still considered one of the finest sports films ever made despite its overt and questionable politics—became a leading figure in the Nazi propaganda machine. Though Wieland’s dislike for Riefenstahl is sometimes needlessly blatant, and her treatment of Dietrich teeters on hagiography, her study of these parallel lives is on the whole terrifically nuanced.
Is it OK to have kids?
Richard Chappell in Aeon:
Many people want to have children. But they might wonder: is it ethical to bring a child into this broken world, where she might suffer – and partake in – various harms and injustices? Others prefer not to have children. This choice also raises ethical qualms: is it ‘selfish’ to refrain from procreating? Are non-parents failing to contribute to the future of humanity – to the building of the next generation – in a way that we all should if we can?
It is tempting to dismiss such questions on the grounds that whether or not you have kids is a personal matter. It is surely nobody else’s damn business. It’s not up to the government or society to tell me. This question falls securely within the ‘private sphere’ that, in a properly liberal society, other people must respect and leave well enough alone.
True enough. But the mere fact that it is a private matter, something that others have no business deciding for us, does not mean that morality is necessarily silent on the issue. We can each, individually, ask ourselves: what should I do? Are there ethical considerations that we should take into account here – considerations that might help guide us as we attempt to navigate these intensely important, intensely personal questions? And if we do undertake such ethical enquiry, the answers we reach might surprise us.
Is it fair to your would-be child to bring her into a life that will inevitably contain significant amounts of pain, discomfort, suffering and heartache? In his essay ‘On the Suffering of the World’ (1850), Arthur Schopenhauer asked:
If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? Or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden in cold blood?
Yes, you can expect your child’s life to contain happiness, satisfaction, joy and love. But many would see an asymmetry here all the same.
Is String Theory Science?
Davide Castelvecchi in Scientific American:
Is string theory science? Physicists and cosmologists have been debating the question for the past decade. Now the community is looking to philosophy for help.
Earlier this month, some of the feuding physicists met with philosophers of science at an unusual workshop aimed at addressing the accusation that branches of theoretical physics have become detached from the realities of experimental science. At stake is the integrity of the scientific method, as well as the reputation of science among the general public, say the workshop’s organizers.
Held at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany on December 7-9, the workshop came about as a result of an article in Nature a year ago, in which cosmologist George Ellis, of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and astronomer Joseph Silk, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, lamented a “worrying turn” in theoretical physics (G. Ellis and J. Silk Nature 516, 321–323; 2014).
“Faced with difficulties in applying fundamental theories to the observed Universe,” they wrote, some scientists argue that “if a theory is sufficiently elegant and explanatory, it need not be tested experimentally”.
First among the topics discussed was testability. For a scientific theory to be considered valid, scientists often require that there be an experiment that could, in principle, rule the theory out — or ‘falsify’ it, as the philosopher of science Karl Popper put it in the 1930s. In their article, Ellis and Silk pointed out that in certain areas, some theoretical physicists had strayed from this guiding principle — even arguing for it to be relaxed.
The duo cited string theory as the principal example.
A visit to the heart of African Paris
The Goutte d’Or—or “golden drop,” named for the wine produced there in the Middle Ages—is one of central Paris’s last truly working-class neighborhoods. It’s on the Boulevard de la Chapelle that readers first met Gervaise, the tragic protagonist of Émile Zola’s late nineteenth-century novel L’Assommoir (the slang title loosely translates as The Drinking Den), which fictionalized the lives of the area’s alcoholic workers, mired in poverty and despair. The book crystallized the Goutte d’Or’s reputation as seedy, poor, and dangerous, and, nearly two centuries later, in the minds of many Parisians, not much has changed.
As is often the case with areas the more fortunate shun, the neighborhood has historically been a haven for outsiders. The first wave of migration to the area was internal, as members of the rural French underclass arrived to toil in urban factories after the Revolution. Then came Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, and Eastern Europeans, all looking for work. By the late nineteenth century, members of North and West African diasporas were settling there. Today, it offers some semblance of sanctuary to thousands fleeing war and dictatorship.
Just outside La Chapelle’s exit, street vendors hawk their wares—contraband cigarettes, roasted corn, and cheap cell phones. Nearby is the now fenced-off lot where Abdel and several hundred others spent last winter—a particularly frigid one—in tents. Though his first Parisian home was beneath the metro tracks, Abdel told me he still thinks of the La Chapelle station as a source of comfort, a place where he “could find friends . . . from Sudan, even here in France.”
a european manifesto
I have looked through the telescope and I have seen: nation-states will die. We now arrive at our topic: the European Union must inevitably lead to the extinction of nation-states. And rightly so. I won't be able to convince the current political elites of this, nor the columnists of the national press and all the other high priests of national identity and the defence of national interests. Nor will I be able to convince them of the basic reasonableness of a post-national world-view. I may not be able to convince you either. Still, let me tell you: the sooner you understand and accept this fact, and arrange your life accordingly, the better for you and your children. That's not an opinion. An opinion, as Hegel rightly said, is mine and is something I can just as well keep to myself. No, it is a fact. To be on the safe side, let me say in advance that I don't believe that history has a goal, nor do I believe that it has a meaning. Historical processes, on the other hand, do exist; human life on this planet can only be conceived as the production of history, just as individual life is the production of biography, and only biography can fully determine who an individual is. To think historically and perspectivally is to establish meaning in the meaningless, to give form to the processes of life, rather than just to undergo them. In the world-view of the overwhelming majority of people today, the belief in the idea of the "nation", the belief in its rational basis, the belief in the almost ontological and hence inextinguishable longing of human beings for "national identity", has taken on an almost religious character. The tendencies and movements towards renationalization that we are currently seeing belong to the conflicts of faith and wars of religion that are erupting globally. Despite the historical experience of National Socialism and its bloody trail of death and destruction, the fact that countless people literally believed in it has not yet permanently shaken the faith in the idea of "nation".
ellsworth kelly (1923 - 2015)
Ellsworth Kelly, the painter and sculptor of implacably beautiful abstractions, is, except for Jasper Johns, the last hero standing of the mighty American avant-garde that succeeded Abstract Expressionism. But, rather than rest on his laurels, Kelly, now eighty-eight, is reaping more of them. One cloudy morning not long ago, he bustled about his vast, museumlike studio, showing visitors works and plans for imminent shows and commissions. The studio’s nobly proportioned, austere architecture, by Richard Gluckman, is set in luxuriant woodland south of Albany, where Kelly has been since 1970 and now shares a house with his partner, Jack Shear, the energetic director of Kelly’s foundation. Carefully situated wooden chairs by Gerrit Rietveld and Antoni Gaudí greet visitors in the studio’s entrance hall—a rare decorative touch in a building that trumpets functionality. Down the road a bit, the house is another, gemütlich matter, furnished by Shear with eclectic elegance: items both modern and antique and a dazzling, up-to-the-minute kitchen. “Jack has wonderful taste,” Kelly enthused. Shear said, “Our deal is that I see to the household decisions, and Ellsworth does his work.”
The artist looks younger than his years, though he suffers from a lung condition and must trail tubes from oxygen pumps as he moves from room to room. No, he never smoked. He blames “sixty years of breathing turpentine.”
—After Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Kuttey
Not even dogs
Go as quietly as these men
Battered and bruised
Idle and begging
Homeless and hearthless
Stabbing each other o’er scraps
Starving in silence
What myth is it
That keeps you
That keeps you
To your strength
by Anjum Altaf
Africa is a Country Recommends: Books of 2015
From Africa Is A Country:
The one book that stood out for me this year was Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History. The book makes the very compelling argument that the rise of capitalism in the West was aided in no small way by the cotton industry — plantations in the American South and processing plants in Britain. Prof. Beckert shows how cotton, the 19th Century’s equivalent of oil, was grown largely for free by about a million African slaves at its height and then shipped right across the world to the cotton processing plants of Manchester. After reading the book, you are left to wonder why popular accounts of the rise of the West leave out this rather important fact.
I only read classics this year! And my fave was Fahrenheit 451. Not only because it’s a very defensive formation with a stacked midfield, but because Bradbury made me restless to start writing again with his simple and ordered yet explosively creative off-the-cuff style. So, like 451, with one player in a free role. Also, there’s an empty decadence to our modern lives that he prophesied in the book. Maybe we’re already living in someone else’s dystopia?
Genome-editing revolution: My whirlwind year with CRISPR
Jennifer Doudna in Nature:
Some 20 months ago, I started having trouble sleeping. It had been almost two years since my colleagues and I had published a paper1 describing how a bacterial system called CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to engineer genomes (see ‘Based on bacteria’). I had been astounded at how quickly labs around the world had adopted the technology for applications across biology, from modifying plants to altering butterfly-wing patterns to fine-tuning rat models of human disease. At the same time, I'd avoided thinking too much about the philosophical and ethical ramifications of widely accessible tools for altering genomes. Questions about whether genome editing should ever be used for non-medical enhancement, for example, seemed mired in subjectivity — a long way from the evidence-based work I am comfortable with. I told myself that bioethicists were better positioned to take the lead on such issues. Like everyone else, I wanted to get on with the science made possible by the technology. Yet as the uses of CRISPR–Cas9 to manipulate cells and organisms continued to mount, it seemed inevitable that researchers somewhere would test the technique in human eggs, sperm or embryos, with a view to creating heritable alterations in people. By the spring of 2014, I was regularly lying awake at night wondering whether I could justifiably stay out of an ethical storm that was brewing around a technology I had helped to create.
...This year has been intense — and intensely fascinating. At times I have wished that I could step off the merry-go-round, just for a few minutes, to process everything. Ensuring that my travel and other commitments do not disrupt the progress of my lab members has been a priority, but working with them has increasingly involved meeting at night or on weekends, or conferring by e-mail or Skype. For now, time for my beloved vegetable garden and for hikes into the wilds of California with my 13-year-old son is gone. Almost three years after a colleague warned me that a “tidal wave” of research, discussion and debate involving CRISPR–Cas9 was coming, I still don't know when the wave will crest.
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
The real John le Carré
In the life of David Cornwell, alias John le Carré, mysteries remain, since along with the author’s powers of fantasy went an easy-going relationship to the facts. After a spell with MI5 at the age of twenty-six, in 1960 he switched to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), yet he remains reluctant to confirm that he ever worked there, explain how he came across his non de plume, or come clean about various episodes in his past. Professional mystification? Or as Adam Sisman repeatedly suggests, false memory? “Everything he says”, Sisman states in an introduction, “needs to be examined sceptically.” This is not the voice of an authorized biographer – Cornwell didn’t want one – though that of a friend.
If the book begins on a tragicomic note it is because of Ronnie, David’s con-man father. His surreal schemes can be entertaining (“In New York Ronnie checked into the Plaza Hotel, announcing that he was in town to sell Bethlehem steel, America’s largest shipbuilder . . . ”), but for his sons David and Tony they were not so funny. A childhood running from scam to scam and house to house was to cost them their mother, who abandoned her children when David was five. The effects were as you might expect, and the father’s gift for make-believe appears to have rubbed off on his son. When David claimed at Oxford that he had quit Sherborne after a housemaster tried to kiss him, for example, Sisman implies that the episode may have been invented to boost his anti-Establishment credentials, something to which Cornwell was to devote much of his life.
looking at the stars
Today, we are more disconnected from the stars than ever before. Even utilitarian attachments have fallen away, as the markers that form our sense of place in the wider world have shifted from the distant to the local. Navigators once used the stars as reference marks; the GPS units in modern cellphones refer instead to a constellation of artificial satellites in orbit around the Earth, synchronised to atomic clocks in ground-based laboratories. (There has been one intriguing reversal of the trend: anxiety about the wartime vulnerability of the GPS system recently prompted the US Naval Academy to reinstate the teaching of celestial navigation. This particular unease is an apt metaphor for our general anxiety about losing our way when the lights go out, about where we stand in general relation to the world.)
We have lost a part of our selves in the process. Knowing where you are in the world is fundamental to knowing who you are. The development of our sense of spatial relationships – the ongoing discovery of where I am – is deeply entwined with memory formation. Neuroscience studies reveal that this is because forming the knowledge of place, and building that sense of our relation to other parts of the world, requires the brain to combine several different sense modalities.
theater in russia, then and now
THEATER HAS LONG BEEN at the center of political struggle in Russia. The theatricalization of life was one of the key aims of the Russian avant-garde, which embraced the 1917 revolution in part because it promised to transform everyday life into living theater. With the advent of socialist realism in the 1930s, Stalin turned theater into an instrument of state propaganda, but restrictions loosened again in the period of late socialism, from the 1960s to the 1980s, at which time theater acquired a near sacred status in Soviet culture. As Marina Davydova, a leading expert on Russian theater, observes in her 2005 book The End of a Theater Epoch, “Russia in the period of late socialism was not a literature- but a theater-centric country.” While censorship was strong, and many Western authors remained taboo, Soviet directors began to test the boundaries of artistic speech through the camouflaging techniques of Aesopian language. Ordinary citizens went to great lengths for the chance to see Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky in the role of Hamlet at the Taganka or, with the introduction of glasnost, to attend a new play by Liudmila Petrushevskaya. Outside Moscow, too, amateur theater circles flourished (my own parents first met in one such circle in Baku). In a country without a functioning civil society and, officially, without religion, theater became a substitute for the church, the parliament, and the free press.
All of this changed in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union—perhaps unfairly regarded as a period of stagnation for Russian theater. Historians cite various reasons for theater’s decline in the 1990s. The rate of emigration among the intelligentsia was high; the economy was in free fall; new social and civic institutions, however imperfect, had begun to emerge; and theater now had greater competition from other media, such as commercial film and television.
Nancy Cartwright in IAI News:
From the faceless particles of fundamental physics to marshes, mountains, and rain forests, fleas, walruses and traffic jams, we are all supposed to live in a world governed by eternal, all-encompassing laws, laws discovered by the experiments of physics and encoded in its mathematical equations. This 400-year-old image of the governance of nature is today being undermined by exciting new modes of understanding across the sciences, including physics and biology, as well as, perhaps less surprisingly, in the study of society. There is order visible in the world, and invisible. But if we trust to these new ways of understanding, this need not be order by universal law. It can be local, piecemeal, and contextual – much like the world as we encounter it.
We live our everyday lives in a dappled world unlike the world of fundamental particles regimented into kinds, each just like the one beside it, mindlessly marching exactly as has forever been destined. In the everyday world the future is open, little is certain, the unexpected intrudes into the best-laid plans, everything is different from everything else, things change and develop, and different systems built in different ways give rise to different patterns. For centuries this everyday world was at odds with the scientific world governed through-and-through by immutable law. But many of the ways we do science today bring the scientific image into greater harmony with what we see every day: much of modern science understands and manipulates the world without resort to universal laws.
Consider biology, where our knowledge since World War II has made huge leaps forward and with it, our ability to put that knowledge to use. How is this knowledge encoded? A close look at the methodologies employed, especially in evolutionary biology, suggests that rather than good old-fashioned ‘proper laws’, biology offers instead laws that emerge historically, laws that are contingent and laws that admit exceptions.