It's a wonderful story anyway.
That evening returning to the French villa where we were staying in Hue, I told the elegant lady who ran the place all about the lotus and the emperor's tea.
by Genese Sodikoff
One does not normally think about infection, illness, and recovery in terms of a three-staged "rite of passage" as European ethnographer Arnold van Gennep defined it, although catching a disease certainly involves a period of physical transition and disruption of our sense of self.
Of course, a "rite of passage" conventionally refers to a ceremony that marks a change in status, such as a wedding or commencement, where one social identity is shed and another assumed. Van Gennep's three stages include the separation from peers, a liminal or in-between period, and reassimilation into society with a new status. But if we loosely apply this concept to other life experiences, such as illness, we begin to see a structure to the stories that make up our lives.
Say an individual goes from healthy person, to ill patient, and finally to some resolution. At this point the individual has either returned to the prior state of healthiness, dies, remains somehow marked by the period of suffering, or persists in a state of impaired health, neither here nor there. Certain diseases seem to occupy the liminal space, casting their victims into medical limbo as neither diagnosable nor well. Chronic Lyme disease is one of those. Since the source of prolonged suffering is contested by doctors, many sufferers must seek help at the edges of the medical mainstream.
To turn back to the "rite of passage" schema for a moment, anthropologist Victor Turner was intrigued by Van Gennep's demarcation of a liminal period, the "betwixt and between" stage. In the late 1960s, Turner elaborated the concept, finding it rife with both social ambiguity and possibility. For Turner, liminality evoked an unstructured space, an opposition to the dominant structure at the edges of the cultural mainstream. It is here where people experience "communitas," a spirit of camaraderie and equality. Liminality is counter-cultural, a state of flux in which the dominant structure is recast in the image of the oppositional force until that new image becomes the structure from which to pull away.
Liminal pathology comes to mind with chronic Lyme disease and other contested medical conditions that are difficult to cure and often deemed illusory or psychosomatic. Medical anthropologist, Dr. Abigail Dumes of the University of Michigan has carried out an ethnographic project on chronic Lyme disease in the American Northeast, on its believers and naysayers and the battle over what constitutes evidence. Her forthcoming book chronicles the perspectives of doctors, scientists, and patients who have divided perspectives of the disease.
It is important to note that no one disputes the existence of Lyme disease, known to many by the bull's-eye rash that often (though not always) follows infection. Chronic Lyme disease refers to symptoms that linger, sometimes for years, after the regular course of antibiotics ends. The persistent presence of Lyme antibodies in the bloodstream can mean either past exposure or active infection. This is another source of contention between the camps: whether Lyme antibodies indicate the immune system has vanquished the disease (giving a "false positive") or is actually still at war. Dumes explains that diagnosis relies on an antibody test rather than isolating the bacteria from the body because Borrelia burgdorferi and its DNA are difficult to culture and isolate from patients' bodily fluids.
Chronic Lyme disease is not recognized by mainstream doctors, so patients' symptoms are chalked up to other possible causes. In contrast, "Lyme-literate" doctors do recognize the disease, as do its sufferers. Lyme-literate proponents recommend an intensive and extended course of antibiotics to treat symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, vertigo, neuropathy, and cognitive impairment, while mainstream doctors consider such treatment ineffective and potentially harmful.
The occurrence of Lyme disease dates back thousands of years, and today it is the leading vector-borne disease in the United States. Small mammals, as well as deer, are reservoir hosts of the bacteria. Approximately 30,000 new cases per year are reported, but the actual number is probably closer to 300,000. Infection rates are increasing; in fact, they have doubled since the early 1990s. Lyme disease burdens the northern United States more than the South, though incidence of Lyme or Lyme-like symptoms in the South is climbing. The more moderate climate of the Northeast (less severe and later winters than in the Midwest and Canada) has been favorable to more dangerous strains of Borrelia for people. Late summer is the feeding period for larval deer ticks, and infected nymphs (juvenile ticks, the size of tiny specks) feed in spring. Scientists report that in the Northeast, persistent infections of Lyme disease, caused by the more virulent bacterial strains, are tied to the long gap between larval and nymphal tick feeding times. In contrast, the severe winters of the Midwest end up shortening the duration of tick feeding, as well as the gap between nymphal and larval feedings. As a result, fewer cases of Lyme disease in the Midwest have been reported.
However, as the climate warms, Midwest winters are becoming more like Northeast winters have long been, foreshadowing an increase in Lyme infections in the Midwest. To make matters worse, a new species of Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia mayonii, was recently discovered in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the warmer atmosphere has enabled ticks to move steadily northward towards Canada, bringing Lyme with them.
Another factor contributing to the rise of Lyme disease in the Northeast are housing developments in former wildlife habitats. Suburban sprawl and people's desire to live near nature have brought humans, woodland mammals, and ticks into close contact. Dumes reflects on the conflicting views of wilderness in the North American imagination: Nature is deemed both soul-soothing and dangerous. For well-to-do Northeasterners who value properties that abut woodlands, the proximity to nature enriches people's lives, even as Lyme disease has wreaked havoc on many people's health.
You have to adapt to Lyme zones. Dumes recounts the bodily practices adopted by residents who have suffered Lyme disease. Family members often do the daily routine of intimately scouring each other's bodies for ticks, including all the nooks and crannies where ticks are prone to hide. People don knee-high socks outdoors, even in the heat of summer. They slather their skin with repellent, and toss their clothes in the dryer to roast off ticks before going indoors. Some deliberately choose white-furred pets so ticks will be more visible. Each household has its Lyme-inspired rituals, but tick checks are the common denominator. These folks dread re-infection and fret over their children playing outdoors, yet they are loath to give up the beauty and restorative effects of the forest.
The disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, named after its scientist discoverer, Willy Burgdorfer. It is transmitted from from small mammals and birds to people via the saliva of blacklegged or deer ticks. (Adult ticks favor deer as hosts.) Lyme refers to the town in Connecticut where in the mid-1970s a cluster of patients in Lyme and nearby rural areas manifested unusual symptoms, including fever, chills, rashes, arthritic joints, severe fatigue, and headaches. The cause of these ailments was a mystery, one that compelled a pair of determined women from the patient pool to further investigate on their own, contacting scientists, self-advocating, and pushing the boundaries of medical science. I suppose their efforts turned these women into "edgemen," Victor Turner's word for the folks at the margins of the mainstream. It was not until 1981 that Burgdorfer and colleagues identified the spirochete that causes Lyme.
For over eighteen months, Dumes interviewed and observed patients, doctors (both mainstream and Lyme-literate), Lyme scientists, public health workers, politicians, and patient advocates to understand the two sides of the debate about the existence of chronic Lyme disease--that is, Borrelia-caused malaise that lingers beyond the 10 to 21 days regimen of antibiotics.
Regarding the divided camps, Dumes remains firmly nonpartisan, as it is not the job of the anthropologist to determine the truth or falsity of a disease, but to analyze how social groups construct and experience their realities, whether inside or at the margins of the medical establishment. She investigates why the dominant paradigm of "evidence-based" medicine, built on randomized control trial design, has managed to intensify the disagreement around chronic Lyme disease rather than forge consensus.
As Dumes points out, evidence-based medicine is what informs clinical guidelines, and these determine insurance coverage, treatment plans, and public health advisories. So the stakes are high for patients. Evidence-based medicine, she explains, shapes ideas about the "right ways to be sick" (the medically explainable ways), with familiar symptoms corresponding to objective "signs" in the body. It also fosters ideas about the "wrong ways" to be sick (the medically unexplainable ways) that involve a symptomatology that doesn't neatly correspond to microscopic signs and can only be described "subjectively" by the patient.
Dumes says that in mainstream medical parlance, chronic Lyme disease is a "medically unexplainable illness," as opposed to "Lyme disease," which is understood to be diagnosable. If you suffer from Lyme-related "illness," your clinically ambiguous symptoms thrust you into the liminal space of medical alternatives. In the liminal zone, you are at odds with the mainstream medical authority yet determined to collect the kind of evidence that will legitimize your condition.
The sense of community among chronic Lyme patients and Lyme-literate doctors is evident in patient support groups and shared views on the causes of chronic Lyme and its effective therapies. Through interviews with patients, Dumes learned that many attribute their condition to the profusion of toxins in the environment and in their bodies. These patients believe that highly toxic environments (both external and internal) enable pathogens such as Borrelia to thrive. For them, our modern-age bodies are seen as "toxic swamps," fertile for Lyme.
The worry over toxicity derives in part from patients' concern about their reliance on pesticides to keep ticks at bay. To detox after performing the necessary evil of spraying and applying insecticide to the skin (and patients are well aware of the contradiction), many Lyme patients eat organic and use chemical-free products as much as possible. The preference for an organic lifestyle is often accompanied by the embrace of complementary and alternative therapies. These are usually alongside a regime of antibiotics (another acknowledged contradiction).
For example, Dumes describes the Rife machine, an apparatus invented in the 1930s and tested by the medical establishment for a while. The Rife machine, no longer accepted by mainstream doctors, emits a range of electromagnetic frequencies. The theory is that bacteria and viruses can be rendered inactive if targeted with the correct frequency. Beyond Lyme, some patients, I have read elsewhere, believe that the Rife machine helps to cleanse their systems of neurotoxins, reduce co-infections, and strengthen their immune systems. Since it can run a couple thousand dollars, Dumes told me that some patients have developed a sharing economy so that more may benefit. Chronic Lyme patients may also seek out a range of other often pricey holistic health products and treatments, such as BioMats, infrared saunas, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers. To some, it's all snake oil; to others, the sources of real relief.
Looking back on the patients from Lyme, Connecticut, who in the 1970s embarked on a quest to figure out what happened to them, it is easy to imagine them in a similar situation, occupying that liminal state of neither acutely ill nor healthy. They were laid low by a disease without a name or cure, and without much will by the establishment to demystify the symptoms. After time wore on and they never fully recovered, were they considered malingerers? The evidence of a microbe, Borrelia, and its vector, the tick, transformed not only the clinical approach to a constellation of symptoms, but also the perception of the "right way to be sick." The evidence also transformed northeastern semi-rural culture, the everyday habits, thoughts, and emotions of people living at the forest edge.
"All humans are genetically 99.9 per cent identical.”
—Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Great Wall, Tremendous Wall
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall one poet said
imagining friendly neighbors working their way
along that which stood between, resetting
fallen gneiss and granite loaves and balls
that had fallen to each to keep their wall intact
while one questioned the irony of friendly walls
and the other made a prima facie case
for an inherent friendliness in their practicality.
And so we’ve had walls and walls remain
not of stone but of blood and bone,
walls built of double helixes spiraling through time,
hydrogen-mortared pairs of adenine,
guanine, cytosine, thymine,
smaller than any past poet’s wall-builder might imagine,
but centuries stronger than Hadrian’s real
or Alexander’s mythic one which imprisoned
the Gogs and Magogs of alien tribes
behind stone or iron barriers to keep the builders safe
from differences that barely exist in the protein hieroglyphics
of the nature-made chemical bonds of a double helix
making us all Gogs and Magogs of each other
as we spiral through worlds hurting and killing
to uphold our imagination’s chronic beliefs
in quixotic walls and spurious distinctions
which heap between us grudges and griefs
by Carol A. Westbrook
You can't afford to have cancer without insurance. Medical bills from cancer run from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the unreimbursed personal costs, such as loss of income, babysitting, caregiver's costs, and transportation.
Paying for this is a complex process. About 60% of peple with cancer will be 65 or older, and thus will be insured through Medicare. A few percent more will qualify for Social Security disability insurance. Some of the rest will have health insurance. The others face loss of savings, huge loans, and even bankruptcy.
But even with insurance or Medicare, many medical costs are not reimbursed--these include deductibles, co-pays for clinic visits, medical supplies, and outpatient medication. Cancer patients face especially high unreimbursed costs because their treatment may require frequent clinic visits or expensive chemotherapy pills with exorbitant co-pays.
Cancer patients and their doctors are concerned about the uncertainty of health care costs with the threatened repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare with the new presidential administration. What will be the impact on cancer care?
In reality, the impact may be smaller than you think. Obamacare has helped with cancer care in some ways, but has made it worse in others. The most significant positive impact is guaranteeing health insurance coverage even in the face of pre-existing conditions, including cancer. Another improvement is in the ability to obtain insurance, even if you never had any in the first place. But the uninsured are still liable for the medical bills they already owe before their insurance kicks in--and they have to wait for the open enrollment period (December to January) to sign up for it through the insurance exchanges.
Where Obamacare has really failed is in cost containment. Enactment of the ACA led to rapid and often exorbitant increases in insurance premiums, or even the loss of coverage for those whose policies did not meet ACA standards. Worse yet, medical costs have continued skyrocket; there are continued increases in deductibles, co-pays, medication, medical supplies, and hospital charges. Although Obamacare does not apply to Medicare, there were collateral effects on its recipients, who faced mounting costs for their medication, for their Medicare supplemental insurance, and higher deductibles. Obamacare did nothing to stop the increase in health costs, and may have made it worse.
The other sector where Obamacare has had a negative impact is on physicians, particularly those who are in small, independent practices, unafilliated with large health-care organizations systems. These are the very doctors that serve small town, working-class or rural America. The mandate to participate in Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) or face lower Medicare payments has forced many to close their practices, or sell them to the large health care systems.
Similarly, the mandate to implement electronic records--and show "meaningful use" by their patients, was an expense many small practices could not manage. It was particularly irrelevent in communities where few people had internet access--particularly older adults, who carry a disproportionate share of the cancer burden. It was another factor driving small doctors out of business.
Marginal communities lost their only cancer provider; other patients lost family doctors that served them for years. I know from first hand experience, as I practiced medicine in small, working-class community in rural Pennsylvania. I, for one, was not surprised that so many of my patients switched their allegiance to the presidential candidate who vowed to repeal Obamacare.
These voters are now very concerned about what will happen to their medical care when Obamacare is repealed, as President Trump promised to do. Cancer patients depend on their lives for health care. What will replace it?
Perhaps we shouldn't replace Obamacare with yet another insurance plan. Why continue a dysfunctional system in which for-profit insurance companies call the shots on the practice of medicine, while patients' costs continue to increase? Is it possible to lower health care costs, improve quality, and increase access, in some entirely different way than mandatory health insurance?
What American voters liked about Obamacare, and want to keep, is that it made health insurance available to everyone, it removed pre-existing condition exclusions, and allowed young adults to remain on their parent's policies through age 26. What people hated is that everyone was forced to purchase insurance, yet it did not lower health care costs. And it drove their doctors out of business.
The reality is that is impossible to keep these insurance features people loved without paying for them. Insurance requires that everyone contribute to the pool from which these costs are paid. You cannot have a system in insurance is purchased only when needed; medical care is expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere.
But what if health care costs were much lower, representing, say 7-9% of the GNP--as it is in most first-world countries--instead of the current 20% that we pay in the US? If that were the case, health insurance would be much more affordable, and many would sign up voluntarily, especially if it were not tied directly to employment, and did not exclude pre-existing conditions. Others would pay for their own care out of pocket.
What if drug costs were as low in the US as they are in other countries? What if we had cost transparency, so you could shop openly for the best price in tests and hospitals, regardless of state boundaries? What if large "non-profit" health care systems actually had to pay taxes on their profits? These funds could be used to subsidize care for the poor, and to help pay for cancer research and clinical trials. With lower costs it may even be possible to pay outright for routine medical care--like we used to do--purchasing insurance only for coverage of catastrophic conditions, such as cancer.
Lowering our country's medical costs would take a good administrator, someone who can negotiate like a businessman with insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and large health care systems. Someone who will not be influenced by lobbyists for Big Pharma, Insurance, and Mega-hospital systems. It will be interesting to see how the new administration approaches this problem.
I am hopeful that the Obamacare repeal--as inevitable as it appears to be--will mean a new beginning for cancer care.
(Reprinted in part from Ask-An-Oncologist.com, 1/10/2017 ).
Jiang Zhi. Love Letters (12), 2014.
Archival inkjet prints.
"In 2010, Jiang Zhi’s wife, whose name meant Orchid, died suddenly at the age of 37. His photo series Love Letters (2011–2014) was his way of mourning her: “She loved flowers,” he says. Selecting one or two flower stems—first orchids and later lilies, roses, peonies—he sprayed them with alcohol, set them alight, and, with his shutter clicking at 60 frames per second, captured the blossoms haloed in pale flames. The artist, who is also a poet, likens the flames to the butterfly in a fairy tale he once wrote. The butterfly fell in love with a flower, and when the flower died it wanted to die too, to “be with its beloved forever”. In Jiang Zhi’s pictures, the flowers are wreathed in flames but miraculously untouched by them. It is as if their beauty, like love itself, is immortal."
by Maniza Naqvi
A very decent, elegant, graceful and intelligent man, the kind who opens doors for his wife, and wins a Nobel prize for Peace just by being has for eight years occupied the White House, furthering and expanding the indecency of war. And Mr. Trump may slam doors on everyone and not win a prize but will do the same.
Because in this system, it doesn't matter who is elected, they become part and parcel of, let me coin a term the: war industrial complex kitkaboodles endless dreadfulness (WICKED).
Let me locate myself. If you draw a straight line from here, Karachi, to there—DC, both points are home. Most days of the year walking past it I stop and gaze at the White House—at its glory—with appreciation as well as with many grievances in my heart for the policies unleashed across the globe.
Grievances against the kind of endless war policies which have now brought us inevitably, shamefully, tragically, criminally up to year sixteen of relentless erosion of public space, privacy, discourse and the increase of war and the propaganda necessary for it—books have disappeared—we rely on google and social media for all our information.
In the vicinity of where I live in Washington DC and where I work there used to be many bookshops and now there are next to none. Yes, Politics and Prose and Kramers--- one or two keep chugging on—but more as coffee shops, bars and restaurants then bookstores. With the erosion and disappearance of books and with the rise of IPhones and social media—we are getting more and more connected with nothing—and informed about nothing. Perhaps the march across the USA on January 21, 2017 has finally woken up America, thanks to the over the top fascistic rhetoric of Donald J. Trump. Perhaps Trump has managed to build that wall—after all—but of people rising against injustice and fascism. Perhaps against war and the killing of people and genocide and not just for the sake of protection of our women's right to birth control.
On January 20, 2009 I stood freezing on the Mall with beloved friends most from the Midwest and Spain and England watching with millions as Mr. Barack Hussain Obama took the oath and became President Barack H. Obama. A dear friend turned to me flag in hand, tears flowing down his cheeks, snot accumulating, sobbing with happiness and relief—hugging me. It was this incredible moment in American's history—it was not just a personal journey for Mr. Obama but for all Americans. But for this cynical bitch—it was just a packaging change in an ongoing and still unfolding unjustifiable war in a whole huge half continent which was also beginning to pivot to Africa---and due to the accusations of racism and crusades—the country had with relief voted for the product put forward by its deep state—an absolutely beautiful couple and a man who was the product of a white and black parentage. The product of slavery—and of Kenya and of a beautiful single mother a development specialist for God's sake was becoming President. It was so lovely so beautiful. And that dear close friend turned to me—his eyes saying it all—the pain and happiness he felt and ---I detected in them an insistence that I banish my cynicisms and my heart aches of grievances and rebukes and anger and rage and accept this as the dawning of a new day---and that I stop, that I stop insisting that there wasn't hope, or change and that I agree that yes there would be change—that I stop repeating like a broken record the fearful warnings that fascism was on its way….
And here we are. This time none of us will be on the Mall on January 20th. None of us—will be treating the week before the inauguration like a new day coming—like a long Thanksgiving feast for which we were preparing. I will not go searching for the perfect ball gown---I had worn a peacock blue with shots of brown---taffeta—with matching silk beaded shoes to an official ball in 2009…..And had danced the night away at a lovely similar ball in 2012…..Same friends—same joy…..But by 2012 I had danced for the chance to simply dance and nothing more.
This time I watched the inauguration in my town from far away from home---at home in Karachi---Like geese from Siberia I too fly here every January or February in search of warmer climes. I'm doing my own marching here—trying my best to save a bookshop: The Pioneer Book House—A Law Books Shop-the oldest Book Store in Karachi. Perhaps I will not succeed---I'm rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic I feel. But I must keep trying, resist, resist, resist. I dust and wipe book after book on laws, and regulations and acts and amendments and poetry and some fiction. And even a book on General Zia-ul-Haq that awful fascist General supported fully and totally by the United States of America and Saudi Arabia in that then war that has gone on endlessly in Afghanistan since 1979. That endless war that has murdered millions and that became the epicenter of murder of so many in the world and in Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Karachi. My urge is to throw the book in the trash bag—but I resist that urge. All opinions are valid. And after all he has been the muse for most of my fiction.
Telecommuting by night, moonlighting by day. Phoning, skyping, webexing with DC by night---talking Safety Nets, Poverty, Fragility, and so on by night—and dusting off books—law books in the Pioneer Book House for Law books and hoping for more poetry and fiction by day……sweeping floors. Hoping, hoping----hoping that somehow that this will make an iota of a difference.
On the TV screen, my town and the Mall, at 2.30 a.m. in Karachi, appeared as though Spring had come to DC in January—March in January, the entire Mall from the aerial view was an ocean of pink ---as if the blossoms that appear in Spring have already arrived. Pink hats and banners. An estimated 2.2 to 2.5 million women and men marched in DC. Another five hundred thousand in New York. And five million worldwide. Finally a protest against racism and war? This is a beautiful thing. The muse for this? I guess we have Mr. Trump to thank.
A couple of hours before twilight
a gibbous moon rose in the east
over the serpentine spine of the mountain
a bright hole in a bluegrey scrim,
just there without reason,
as uncomplicated and expected
as a shard of granite on the slope of a talus,
as common as the little moons that rise
above the cuticles of each finger
of your familiar hands, as singular,
as sure as the hidden sun it mirrors,
and I wondered at what the ancients thought
as it appeared and disappeared
regular as breath, opulent as a third eye,
as crisp as the feel of a January breeze
slapping my cheek as I cross the bridge
from here to there. I’m as stupefied
as they must have been,
even though I’ve been told this bright hole
is no more than dust and rock
tethered by a wrinkle in space
which holds it in a groove of time
like a stylus spiraling in black vinyl
sending mute tunes
hushed as the sure breath
that billowed from our mouths
as we threw row cover
over the kale
Sopheap Pich. Wall Structure No. 2, 2015.
Bamboo, rattan, and wire.
Digital photograph by Sughra Raza at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Jan 15, 2017, thanks to Amna Naqvi who recommended the visit!
by Akim Reinhardt
I've been writing 3QD Monday columns for over six years now. Never missed a deadline. Not a one of ‘em. Every fourth Monday: Bang! 2,000 words. More like 2,500. I enjoy it. I look forward to it.
Each December, when the city of Baltimore mails every resident a Baltimore City Department of Public Works paper calendar, I open it up, flip through the months, and write 3QD in the box of every fourth Sunday, reminders to have my essay done in time for the Monday column to be posted. Right there, beneath color photos of workers standing in sinkholes and shoveling to get at busted water mains; of latex gloved volunteers picking up garbage; of jerryrigged snow plows rambling somewhat ineffectively through snowy streets; of schoolkids ogling a big truck at the city dump. That is where I make happy little notes so I don't forget: compose another essay for 3 Quarks Daily!
And lo and behold, today is that fourth Monday. Today I'm up to bat, along with a handful of other semi-esteemed writers, like Adam Ash (not his real name), Leanne Osagawara (not her real name anymore), and that guy who uses his real name while comparing cheesy Hollywood films to real world events (love it!). And all the others who've come and gone. There used to be some woman in Canada who was a nurse, maybe? Or a dentist or something? I don't know. She wrote good stuff. But she and a lot of others have burnt out or moved on. Yet here I remain. And it's my turn again.
But I'm not doing it. I'm not writing my essay this week. I'm taking early January, 2017 off. Why, you ask? How did it come to this? Well, there's a whole bunch of reasons, really.
I'm a Lazy Bastard: My whole life I've loved nothing better than doing nothing. Sometimes I come clean and admit my lethargy, but people often refuse to believe me. "You have a Ph.D. You've published three books. You helped negotiate the Peace of Westphalia. You can't possibly be lazy." I protest. I insist that I am. I remind them that professors are notoriously lazy, barely rousing themselves to sleep with their students. But the skeptics just pshaw and insist I'm energetic.
Yeah? Well not energetic enough to write this essay.
Saddam al Jumaily. Untitled.(Basra, Iraq).
by Leanne Ogasawara
About five hundred miles north of Saigon lies Vietnam's old imperial capital city of Hue. Famous for its walled palace set along the shimmering Perfume River, it stands as a 19th century Vietnamese emperor's imperial dream of China.
In days past, the beautiful palace moat was filled with tall, fragrant lotus blossoms. In those days, emperors would cross the bridge into their celestial palace ~~as if floating above a sea of pink flowers.
A symbol of spiritual purity and spiritual detachment, the Vietnamese revere the lotus. In addition to the flowers that once filled the palace moat, there were also lotus ponds within the palace walls. My favorite is the small pond that lies behind the old throne room. I spent a lovely afternoon there nearly 20 years ago relaxing on the wooden veranda overlooking the lotus pond, where I was enchanted by a cool breeze that seemed to appear out of nowhere in the torpid Vietnamese summer.
My enchantment with Vietnamese lotus flowers would continue too. For it was there where I learned that the emperor's servants began their mornings every day collecting the dewdrops that had collected overnight on the lotus leaves in the pond.
It sounded like a difficult job. How did they gather the dewdrops? And why? Well, a nearby tour guide was explaining to her group that the servants used the dewdrops to make the emperor's morning cup of tea. Can you imagine? Tea made from the water of dewdrops collected on the leaves of the lotus flowers? Now that is something I would very much like to try someday....
It's a wonderful story anyway.
That evening returning to the French villa where we were staying in Hue, I told the elegant lady who ran the place all about the lotus and the emperor's tea.
Taking both my hands into hers hands (something that caused her jade bangles tinkle so musically-- 玲玲), she said,
Closing at night, the flowers in the lotus pond ever so slightly sink back down into the muddy water. But the moment the sun comes out the next morning, the flowers turn to face the sun. And there, facing toward the morning sunlight, they open up and blossom. They do this each morning at dawn. So if you really want to hear it, you have to be there early, early in the morning.
"Hear it?" I wondered. "I have never heard of flowers making a sound when they blossom. What do they sound like?"
She laughed and told me she had never heard the sound herself but that old people claim it sounds like a great pop!
I went back at sunrise the next morning. But didn't hear a sound.
Several years later back in Japan, my tea ceremony friend Nobue invited me to go on a picnic with her. It was also a blisteringly hot summer day. We set out by car to a local temple with a well-known lotus pond. Happily eating rice balls and drinking tea in front of the beautiful blossoms while Nobue was being amusing talking about some book she was reading, a very old and stooped woman sneaked up on us ~~and without a word of greeting looked at us and said (pointing at the flowers),
You know, you can hear them open in the morning. Pop!
The elusive sound of flowers blossoming was an idea I would never forget. Fast forward two decades later. I had just told a friend about this experience of trying to imagine what flowers sound like when they blossom, when I came across a wonderful essay by Japanese scholar and eco-humanitarian activist Kumi Kato. Appearing in the middle of my Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, her essay was about deep listening and the sound of lotus flowers blossoming. I was so surprised and amazed.
A few years ago, I wrote a post in these pages about listening. In the post, I suggested that Western culture has long prioritized the sense of vision over that of hearing. Just think how much video technology has advanced in the past two decades, while sound technology is not going anywhere. In fact, I would bet that most people are listening to super-digitally compressed music that doesn't sound nearly as good as what they used to listen on those systems they were using ten or twenty years ago. How is this possible? Not only can we no longer send men to the moon but are music sounds awful too?
The post was inspired by an Entitled Opinions podcast that Robert Harrison did with Slavic literature specialist Gabriella Safron. After discussing ancient Greek philosophy in terms of vision and the Hebrew Bible in terms of listening, Saffron considers "how difficult it is for us to even imagine a time when information was taken in mainly by sound." She was, of course, hearkening back to a world where there was a shared calendar and liturgy that was repeated every year round and round like a clock and people let information sink in over time by listening over and over again. Harrison and Safron discussed the way that "ritual listening" has all but disappeared from our modern lives. Nowadays, we prioritize new information --and that is almost always taken in through independent reading. In contrast to this, Saffron imagines the pleasure people must have had in repeated listening. To hear something again and again. For Easter, she described the Orthodox tradition of greeting one another with the paschal greeting: Christ has risen, truly He is risen...
Similarly, Kumi Kato believes that ritual listening is under-prioritized in Western societies and explains that in Japanese kiku does not just mean listening with one's ears but conveys the idea of an attentive appreciating of something with all of our senses (聴く). That is why the verb is used for more than just "hearing" and includes broader acts of aesthetic discernment, such as judging the clarity of sake (きき酒) or picking out the various fragrances in an incense blend（"hearing the scent" 聞香）. These acts are all conveyed by kiku, "to listen by heart."
She then tells the wonderful story of the sound of lotus blossoms.
One early morning in early summer, during the early Showa period, a group of people gathered near a pond in a central parkland to listen to the sound of a lotus flower opening. As the sonic frequency of the lotus opening (9-16 Hz) is much lower than the normal frequency range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz of human capability, it was clearly impossible for humans to actually hear the sound of the blooming. The gathering, however, was attended by people, who brought to the event their aesthetic appreciation of the lotus flower's subtle color, the softness of the petals, the reflection on the water, the pleasant experience of the early morning breeze and the fact that the flower opens for only four days. In fact, it opens only for a few short hours in the early morning, and on the fourth day, the petals fall, ending the flower's short life. Lotus flowers in Buddhism are regarded as sacred and the sweet fragrance wafting in the gentle breeze is considered heavenly.
It would be hard to imagine a world without lotus blossoms.
I guess I am a kind of accidental environmentalist. Always considering myself something of a city person, I never really seriously thought much about the issues until I came back to the US. It was only when I returned to this country that the level of thoughtless waste and consumption bowled me over. Especially compared to Japan. Not to say Japan was perfect by any means about the environment-- but in Japan, I think it is safe to say that nature is not held as "standing reserve;" not seen merely as a resource to be used, but rather nature is understood as something alive and something that needs to be attended to --and indeed listened to.
Kato writes that:
Deep attentive listening is an act of honoring--honoring the other who speaks to us, telling stories of their being in various voices and sounds Listening is a humbling act, for the ephemeral and transient quality of the sound demands a degree of attention and focus.
I think it is absolutely true that real listening demands that one stop and show a form of humble hospitality to the other. A Canadian friend who has spent his life in Asia recently remarked that in the US he sees anything to do with the environment as being utterly politicized --or worse associated with obsessions over certain personalities, like "liberals" or "climate deniers" or Al Gore or whatever. He sees this as further evidence of a kind of 3rd-worldification of America. People who are reasonable will inherently understand that to decrease their environmental imprint is a good thing. He explained to me that,
When I was growing up, among people who hunted, it was considered a no-brainer that ecological footprints should be minimized, for a large number of reasons, climate patterns being just one of them.
It is a no-brainer, if only you stop and listen.
Reading Kato's essay, I was delighted to learn that she is a proponent of Japanese water harps, or suikinkutsu 水琴窟. A Japanese invention, suikinkutsu are often found in traditional Japanese gardens and especially in tea ceremony gardens. Made by burying an inverted terracotta bowl with a small hole in the top in the ground, water then drips into the bowl from the top creating a pleasant sound, similar to a Japanese zither, or koto 琴, from which the suikinkutsu derives its name.
It just so happens that in Japan I lived in a town full of these water harps.
Many of the older temple gardens had them. My tea teacher also had one installed in her garden, next to the stone basin used by guests to rinse their hands before stepping into the tea hut. But in addition to these traditional water harps in gardens, I had a friend in town who belonged to an ecological group, and as part of their activities these gentlemen paid for several new harps to be installed here and there around town. Because our town hadn't suffered any bombing during the war, it contains a great many historic buildings and gardens. The town is also full of scenic splendor and so the idea behind installing these water harps around town was to get visitors and locals alike to stop for a moment in their busy day and engage in mindful listening. To allow for a meditative pausing to be more able to fully appreciate the beauty of the town. I have to say, it was really charming to see children or families pausing around a harp to take turns listening. I always loved watching the people smiling and listening to the music of the world.
I think if I had to choose one explanation for how I have come to feel in America, it is that people have lost their ability to truly listen. Hunkered down in nuclear family units and plugged into what seems like some pretty serious echo chambers, I don't feel that Americans are much capable of listening to each other anymore--much less listening to non-human animals and the environment.
When did our lives become so isolated? Everything has become so terribly one-way (embodied best by the expression of people "doing what works for themselves.")
I think Kato is spot-on when she says that being embedded in a "soundscape" demands a certain two-way, give-and-take hearing --or to use the philosophical word-- it demands an atunement of oneself to the local environment/community and to place (terroir). That is because when you stop and listen, you thereby come to belong to the land as much as the land belongs to you--even if just in that moment. The world is no longer a resource to be efficiently consumed but instead becomes lit up and embodied with voice and with sentiment. To be more inter-connected, so as to be better able to heed Pope Francis' call to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. [To be continued...]
by Sarah Firisen
President-elect Trump, along with so many other gaping holes in his knowledge, seems, for all his evident command of social media, to not really get the modern computer age. On the one hand, this is both astounding and terrifying. It’s one thing to have your 70 year old grandmother not understand or want to use The Email, it’s another thing for the incoming President of the world’s great industrial and economic powerhouse to be skeptical about the value of email and computers. On the other hand, in a rather Chauncey Gardner-like way, he may have inadvertently spoken a great truth, “I think the computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole, you know, age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on.”
We are clearly at the point of a huge paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and machines. While we’ve long depended on them in both our professional and personal lives, it has been a means to exercise our wills more quickly and efficiently, servants of our needs and desires. But artificial intelligence has now reached the point where the servant no longer needs the master; every day the news is full of yet another computer that has performed a task that was previously solely a human capability, and increasingly the computers are performing that task not only as well but better than a human could. Today we drive cars, tomorrow they will drive themselves.
While there are many technologies that will change our lives in the next 20 years in significant ways, there are a few that will have an impact beyond the imaginations of most people who aren’t Gene Roddenberry.
Virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VR, AR & MR) have been around in one form or another for 30 years, but recent technological shifts have made it possible to create headsets at a price point that is a game changer, “Twenty-five years later a most unlikely savior emerged—the smartphone! Its runaway global success drove the quality of tiny hi-res screens way up and their cost way down. Gyroscopes and motion sensors embedded in phones could be borrowed by VR displays to track head, hand, and body positions for pennies.” In conjunction with cheap and abundant processing power and data storage we now have the perfect storm to make VR, AR and MR so likely to be ubiquitous in the near future that there are serious predictions of the impending death of the computer monitor and indeed many of our physical devices. While Gene Roddenberry got so much right about the future, one thing he almost certainly got wrong was that, while the Enterprise had a much used VR/MR holodeck, it was a separate space. When the crew was out and about they still held physical machines in their hands and sat in front of physical displays when they were running the starship. This almost certainly isn’t how it’s actually going to be, “One of Microsoft’s ambitions for the HoloLens is to replace all the various screens in a typical office with wearable devices. The company’s demos envision workers moving virtual screens around or clicking to be teleported to a 3-D conference room with a dozen coworkers who live in different cities.”
The Internet of Things (IOT) really just refers to all the connected/smart devices that we’re already all using in our everyday lives, from Fitbits to Nest thermostats. As our cars, homes, offices and cities become increasingly connected, the concept that we once had “dumb” fridges that didn’t alert us when we were out of milk will make my grandchildren laugh as much as descriptions of my childhood home’s one landline accessed by a rotary phone amuses my teenagers now.
As impactful as all these technologies will be, and indeed already are in many cases, the real shock and awe comes from their convergence. When you are interacting with real devices in an augmented reality and those devices have the ability to learn about you, your patterns of behavior and needs and those devices are connected to each other and save this information in the cloud so that you can return to that same state from any other place in the future, then you have an extremely powerful technology ecosystem that, to President-elect Trump’s point, will be very complicated. We’ll be able to interact with things and with each other across physical boundaries in ways that will have significant implications for business sectors from transportation to entertainment to retail and beyond. As our dependence on this ecosystem increases, again (to my horror), to quote Trump, “We have speed and we have a lot of other things, but I'm not sure you have the kind of security you need”.
If the ongoing Russian election hacking drama shows anything, it’s how dramatic and far reaching the results of hacking can be even today. Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be 20.8 billion connected devices! The potential security threats to this future connected ecosystem are just one concern. Most of us already have given up a lot, probably too much, of our privacy. And not just in the more obvious ways by posting our whereabouts and details of our everyday lives on social media. Even people who are immune to the temptations of social media are almost certainly given up far more of their personal details than they realize. Unless you never buy anything on the internet and don’t own a smartphone, odds are you’re giving information away every day, on your preferences, your demographics, your location, your purchases, your desires. And this is before your fridge starts communicating with your autonomous car so that it knows when you’re near the market that has the lowest price on your favorite kind of cheese, which your fridge deduced once you’d bought the cheese 3 times this month and that it now knows you’re out of.
The technology that you may not have even heard of but which is predicted, and likely, to be the biggest game changer since the first web browser, is blockchain, an immutable, distributed database. It may sound more familiar when I tell you that it’s the technology that sits behind Bitcoin the controversial cryptocurrency. But don’t let stories about cryptocurrencies and money laundering or drug money overshadow the hugely disruptive potential of blockchain. In many ways, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are some of the less interesting use cases of blockchain technology. Blockchain is already being used to assure the origins and authenticity of food and diamonds. It’s being used for asset rights management, land registries, to upend traditional supply chain management and much, much more. Filament is using blockchain technology to manage and secure IoT devices on its smart networks and blockchain likely to be one of the technologies that helps ensure we don’t have 20.8 billion hacked devices in 2020. Other companies are using blockchain to help us secure and manage our digital identity, giving us control over who our personal data is shared with and how it’s used. When blockchain based voting is fully realized, there will be a transparency and immutability to voting that is clearly needed in the US and abroad.
We are at a point where technology is about to become even more complicated and ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives than Donald Trump begins to realize. To be fair, probably more so than most people realize. If Trump’s interested, this white paper does a great job of explaining how, when the Brave New World that sits at the convergence of these technologies has blockchain sitting behind it, we have the potential to not just make it powerful and exciting but also to give our digital lives a level of transparency and security that is both vital and, for the most part, missing today. Of course, the paper’s 41 pages long so he probably won’t read it. You really should.
As many of you know John Brockman is literary agent for a parliament of well-known scientists, science journalists, and others – Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Dan Dennett, George Dyson and a cast of, if not thousands, perhaps hundreds. Each year he poses a question and they answer it. Then the answers are posted to the web at The Edge, Brockman’s website. This years’ question, which elicited 206 responses:
What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?
I’ve been through them, though only quickly, and selected three for comment: prediction error minimization, Bayes’s Theorem, and attractors.
Andy Clark: Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist; Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, University of Edinburgh, UK; Author: Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind.
Let’s ease into this one.
Once upon a time, back in my undergraduate days during the 1960s, I was invited to a party at an artist’s loft. This was a real honest-to-god un-renovated loft, large, bare walls, a wood stove for heat (it was mid-winter), raw. Someone remarked they were showing a film “over there.” Sure enough, there was a 16mm projector facing a wall, clicking and buzzing rapidly away, and there were blurry gray smudges dancing on the wall opposite (no sound).
I watched the moving mottled grays for some seconds, five, ten, twenty, who knows, I wasn’t counting, and then SHAZAM! It became clear. On the right, a naked woman standing, bent forward, outstretched arms touching a wall. On the left, a naked man behind her, thrusting away. SEX! First porn film I’d ever seen.
But why did it take me awhile to see what was very plainly there in the flickering lights on the wall? Because I didn’t know what I was seeing, that’s why, and that’s what Clark’s prediction error minimization is getting at. If someone had said “hey, dirty movies” or I’d seen a title (say, “Danny Does Debbie”) I’d have known what to look for in the lights. But I didn’t know and it took me awhile to figure it out.
Well, not so much ME, considered as a reasoning being, because there was no reasoning involved. I just looked and looked until things became clear. My brain, the cognitive unconscious, did it on my behalf, if you will.
The fact is, the world is much too rich for our perceptual and cognitive systems to keep up with it – hence the blurry splotches of light I saw. Most of the time, however, we are in a world that is, to a non-trivial degree, familiar, not only familiar kinds of objects and events, but even specific things, our ordinary everyday surroundings. In such a world we are reasonably good at predicting what comes next, still:
Consider something as commonplace as it is potentially extremely puzzling—the capacity of humans and many other animals to find specific absences salient. A repeated series of notes, followed by an omitted note, results in a distinctive experience—it is an experience that presents a world in which that very note is strikingly absent. How can a very specific absence make such a strong impression on the mind?
The best explanation is that the incoming sensory stream is processed relative to a set of predictions about what should be happening at our sensory peripheries right now. These, mostly unconscious, expectations prepare us to deal rapidly and efficiently with the stream of signals coming from the world. If the sensory signal is as expected, we can launch responses that we have already started to prepare. If it is not as expected, then a distinctive signal results: a so-called "prediction-error" signal. These signals, calculated in every area and at every level of neuronal processing, highlight what we got wrong, and invite the brain to try again.
Here’s an example that is more complex because it involves, not only perception, but timing motor output to anticipate perception. Look at this photo:
As you can see, it’s snowing and visibility is poor. What you don’t see is that there are small lights on the stop sign at the right. They appeared to blink at regular intervals. I wonder if I can catch a shot of the lights? The problem, of course, is if I wait until I see the light to snap the shutter, I’ll miss them because they’ll have shut off by the time the shutter opens. So I’ve got to anticipate them, just like a baseball batter anticipates a pitch. You can’t start your swing when you see the ball in the strike zone; you start swinging early. That’s tricky.
Anticipating the lights is not so tricky. They’re stationary and they appeared to be blinking at regular intervals. Conscious thought isn’t fast enough to keep up. [Insert standard mystical Zen martial arts clichés about not thinking and about going with the flow.] Don’t think, do.
The photo above was the first in the series. Here’s the sixth:
Got it! After that, six more misses, then I got it again; another miss, got it next time; two misses, got it. And then I quit. It seemed clear that I was converging on the proper timing.* Time to go home.
And time to switch scale, from microseconds, seconds, and minutes to weeks, months, and years or more, at least in the examples that interest me. At whatever scale, we’re always making assumptions about and anticipating the future and those assumptions are always grounded in our past.
Sean Carroll: Theoretical Physicist, Caltech; Author, The Big Picture.
Here’s what Carroll says about Bayes’s Theorem:
We turn to Bayes’s Theorem whenever we’re uncertain about the truth of some proposition, and new information comes to light that affects the probability of that proposition being true. [...]
The theorem itself isn’t so hard: the probability that a proposition is true, given some new data, is proportional to the probability it was true before that data came in, times the likelihood of the new data if the proposition were true.
So there are two ingredients. First, the prior probability (or simply “the prior”) is the probability we assign to an idea before we gather any new information. Then, the likelihood of some particular piece of data being collected if the idea is correct (or simply “the likelihood”). Bayes’s theorem says that the relative probabilities for different propositions after we collect some new data is just the prior probabilities times the likelihoods.
Here’s a powerful case, and perhaps a bit odd, that entered my personal repertoire of “incidents revealing how the world works”: the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which marked the collapse of the Cold War. While a prescient few realized that the Soviet empire was rotting within — notably Senator Daniel Moynihan — I was not one of them. I was raised through primary school in the Cold War, had had fantasies of a super-cool bomb shelter in the back yard, and assumed that the Cold War would dominate the international arena through the day I died and beyond.
My prior proposition, or more simply, my prior, was something like: the Cold War is inherent in the nature of the world. The Cold War was not something I merely read about in history books. It’s something I became aware of, really, before I was old enough to have any real sense that there is such a thing as history and that conditioned my life. On that basis an event like the fall of the Berlin wall was extremely unlikely. When that unlikely event happened, I had to revise that basic sense of the world: Oh, the world CAN change, and in sudden and dramatic ways.
In the recent past, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has forced a lot of Democrats to rethink, but rethink just what? That depends. I note, however, that by attributing Clinton’s loss to dirty tricks – by the Russians, the FBI, and by GOP restrictions on voter registration – and by emphasizing that Clinton actually won the popular vote, you can preserve a belief that Clinton’s programs, that is, the programs of the neo-liberal third-way triangulating Democratic Party, are essentially right for the country and are what voters really want. Democrats who emphasize the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders, an old socialist fer cryin’ out loud! and of course the actual victory of Donald Trump, whose own party had doubts about him and who appealed to white working class males, these people are thinking a different way. They may not in fact have been particularly happy with Hillary (even if they voted for her), so they’re defending a different set of priors.
What if they’re all wrong? Is it deeper than that? Do we really know?
That brings me to the last idea:
Kate Jeffery: Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Dept. of Experimental Psychology, University College London
Let’s wade right in without bothering with a definition; that can come later. Having presented the annealing of glass as a physical example, then other natural systems, Jeffrey looks at human society:
The problem of pairing everybody off so that the species can reproduce successfully is a problem of annealing. Each individual is trying to optimize constraints — they want the most attractive, productive partner but so do all their competitors, and so compromises need to be made — bonds are made and broken, made again and broken again, until each person (approximately speaking) has found a mate. Matching people to jobs is another annealing problem, and one that we haven’t solved yet—how to find a low-strain social organization in which each individual is matched to their ideal job? If this is done badly, and society settles into a strained local minimum in which some people are happy but large numbers of people are trapped in jobs they dislike with little chance of escape, then the only solution may be an annealing one — to inject energy into the system and shake it up so that it can find a better local minimum. This need to de-stabilize a system in order to obtain a more stable one might be why populations sometimes vote for seemingly destructive social change. The alternative is to maintain a strained status quo in which tensions fail to dissipate and society eventually ruptures, like shattered glass.
I don’t know just when Jeffrey submitted her answer, but I can’t help but think that she had the 2017 US presidential election in mind when she wrote those last two sentences – or perhaps Brexit back in July, as she's British. That’s certainly what a lot of Americans had in mind with the candidacies of Trump and Bernie Sanders – “Let’s shake things up!”
The line is that a certain centrist “establishment” has been running things in Washington at least since Bill Clinton. To be sure, George W. Bush was President for eight years, but he was a centrist, no? Perhaps a different brand of center from Clinton or Obama, but still, the corporate Wall Street center. But Sanders and Trump...Whoa, baby!
Let’s get back to the basic physics. Here’s what Jeffrey says about attractors:
Systems in which elements interact with their neighbors and settle into stable states are called attractors, and the stable states they settle into are called attractor states, or local minima. The term “attractor” arises from the property that if the system finds itself near one of these states it will tend to be attracted towards it, like a marble rolling downhill into a hollow. If there are multiple hollows — multiple local minima — then the marble may settle into a nearby one that is not necessarily the lowest point it can reach. To find the “global minimum” the whole thing may need to be shaken up so that the marble can jiggle itself out of its suboptimal local minimum and try and find a better one, including eventually (hopefully) the global one. This jiggling, or injection of energy, is what annealing accomplishes, and the process of moving into progressively lower energy states is called gradient descent.
Let’s consider the simple system I photographed in A Primer on Self Organization. It consists of a tumbler filled with ordinary tap water into which we introduce two or three drops of black ink. Of course we know what’s going to happen. In time the ink will all but disappear into the water.
Here’s the tumbler before I dropped some ink into it:
Consider this photo, the first one I was able to take after dropping the ink:
As I recall, two or three drops entered the water where the individual molecules immediately began to interact with their neighbors and so began to diffuse through the water.
Physicists like to think about this by constructing a very abstract space in which the instantaneous state of the system is but a single point. For that we need a space of very high dimensionality which has a dimension for each molecule (actually, six for each molecule: 3 for its position in space and 3 for its momentum). Just to get a rough feel for this let’s do a crude calculation. Our little system has three spatial dimensions which the photograph flattens (projects) into two. The original of this photo measures 2670 by 2003 pixels making a total of 5,348,010 pixels. Think of that as a two-dimensional measurement of the evolving system taken at an “instant” of time.
That measurement space alone would then require 5,348,010 dimensions. It contains no momentum information at all and each individual pixel is, in effect, a “smear” of billions upon billions of molecules. It’s a pretty poor proxy for real measurement, but it’s enough to give some intuitive sense of complexity and strangeness of these conceptual objects, these abstract space in which a system’s state is represented by a single point.
Here’s the fourth photo I took:
That state too, however rich and complex it appears in the photographic measurement, is only one point in the phase space. Likewise, the final state (four and a half hours after I dropped the ink) is but a point in this high-dimensional space (& ignore the streaks on the tumbler, which are reflections):
The sequence of states a system occupies during its evolution is called its trajectory. That trajectory can be visualized by projecting it into a 3D or 2D space. In the next image I show what such a projection might look like for this system:
I do not in fact know what that trajectory would look like in 2D projection. I made this image purely for illustrative purposes. The nine points represent the nine photographs I took. Each represents a single micro state of the system, all zillions of dimensions. The red point is the first photograph while the blue point is the last. The light gray line represents a WAG (wild-ass guess) about the whole trajectory. Whether or not it’s correct is irrelevant. What’s important is that there IS a trajectory.
If you were to perform this little demonstration many times, it would become evident that, no matter where the ink was dropped into the tumbler, the final state would always be the same. The different trajectories might be somewhat different in character, but the final point is always the same. That final point is called the system’s attractor.
The name is unfortunate as it suggests that there is something THERE that is ATTRACTING the system to that state, like bees to honey or iron files to a magnet. There isn’t. Nothing is attracting in that way; there’s nothing attractive about that point. It’s just that, given the internal dynamics of the system, that’s how things work out.
At this point you might be thinking: Really? Do you really think that ink diffusing into a tumbler of water has anything whatever to tell us about, you know, social systems, and elections and stuff? That’s a good question.
And my answer is: maybe. We’ll never know until we try. Remember, though, that that’s only one of the three examples I’ve discussed in this post. And those three are taken from a set of 206 ideas posted at The Edge, a number of which are conceptually close to these three.
What would it take to gather, 10, 33, 45, a hundred or more such ideas into a single conceptual system? Would that kind of system give us insight into human behavior that’s deeper than any existing conceptual system? And who could understand such a system?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But it does seem to me that that’s what the human sciences will be working on for the rest of the century, and beyond. In the words of James Tiberius Kirk, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” – that’s our mission.
* I don’t know how long the light blinks on, but it’s likely that it persists in vision longer that it is actually on. If the light is on for only, say, 1/100 of a second, then the nervous system has to be working at that scale in order to successfully anticipate the blink. For what it’s worth, the shutter speed when I caught the light was 1/250 of a second.
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
The philosophical program developed by the ancient Stoics is currently enjoying a renaissance. It recently has been heralded as an exceptionally effective ‘life hack' and refuge for sensitive souls in these dark days. With its emphasis on mastering one's emotions and steeling oneself against adversity, it is understandable that Stoicism's stock regularly rises as a coping mechanism in the midst of troubling times. Indeed, Stoicism originally arose in the dark days of the Hellenistic period, amidst war, violence, and social instability; as Admiral James Stockdale observed, it remains a philosophy aimed at enabling one to survive life's most tragic conditions.
We are philosophy professors, so we generally applaud whenever a traditional philosophical school gains popular appreciation. Moreover, since we are sympathetic with the Stoic program, we think the renewed interest in Stoicism is good news. Yet we bear two pieces of bad news for the Stoicism in Dark Days movement.
First, the Stoic program has its complications. As a theory of the good life, Stoicism is posited on a division between the things that are up to us (such as our beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and inclinations) and the things that are not up to us (such as our status, wealth, health, and so on). The Stoic holds that the key to living well is understanding this distinction. If we strive to control only what is up to us, we won't be frustrated; we will always have success. By contrast, when we try to control the things not up to us, we are doomed to failure, obstruction, and disappointment. According to the Stoic, our moral purpose is to perfect the things we can control – to be good critical thinkers, to want only things that are good, to do our duty for those who depend on us. Everything else is beyond our control and thus must be accepted; so long as we do not think our wellbeing depends on those externals, we are invulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate and thus truly free. This is the reasoning that Cicero presents throughout his Paradoxa Stoicorum and with which Epictetus opens the Enchiridion. Being good is not merely its own reward, but it is also sufficient for a good life. This view, then, offers a kind of liberty and dignity to all.
But this view prompts an obvious and longstanding objection.
In short: how can denying the value and significance of externals (material successes, political victories, even the virtue of ones' offspring) yield anything but inaction and complacency? Stoicism seems to place one on the road to a wholesale withdrawal from the world, perhaps even a smug or snarling refusal of it all. Traditionally, this challenge to the Stoics is called the lazy argument; it charges that Stoic value theory is a recipe for do-nothingism.
The traditional Stoic reply to the lazy argument took many forms, but the core thought behind them all was that, in order to cultivate the Stoic virtues of rationality and self-mastery, one must be active in the world. One does one's duty for one's community only if one is active in it. One can exercise one's rational capacities only if one is well-informed. It seems that one can develop the skills that render one invulnerable to the world only by becoming engaged with the world.
But this Stoic response to the lazy argument seems to constrain the sense in which Stoicism can provide refuge in dark days. In order to cultivate the qualities of character that make their own lives invulnerable to misfortune, Stoics must nevertheless involve themselves in those fateful turns. And so, Stoicism councils not that one close oneself up in an inner citadel and withdraw from the world, but rather to live in a way, out in the world, that constructs this citadel as a matter of habit. Stoicism, when properly lived, calls us to be maximally embedded in the darkest days. It is no coincidence, then, that Cato the Younger was both a prominent adherent of Stoicism and also a vocal opponent of the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar. Stoicism made the quality of Cato's life invulnerable to fate, but his life itself was not invulnerable.
This, of course, is bad news for Stoicism only in a particular sense. It is bad news if one's preferred notion of refuge from dark days is a psychological condition where there are other more pleasant matters to attend to, a kind of philosophically-achieved detachment. Stoicism offers refuge only in that it guides one toward developing a state of character that weathers the dark days. Stoicism offers equipment for enduring the challenges, not eliminating them. For many, this amounts to an affirmation of the world's tragedies, not a refuge at all.
Now for our second bit of bad news. The revival of Stoicism has come too late. If one adopts Stoicism specifically for the purpose of enduring the dark days that have already have descended, one has missed the point. One must be a Stoic at all times, fortunate and unfortunate, for the program to be possible. It should be obvious why this is the case. If one revels in the good turns of fate but then turns Stoical amidst the bad, then one embraces the Stoic perspective only out of convenience. When selectively deployed, Stoicism turns out to be merely a sour grapes philosophy, a self-deceived rationalizing habit that keeps firmly in place all of the affective and emotional drives that Stoicism is supposed to purge. Arguably, Stoicism-by-convenience is also contradictory. In order to turn Stoic only in the dark times, one must first sort good fortune from bad. But Stoicism requires us to regard all fortune as neither good nor bad; moreover, the Stoic must see the very thought that some events are bad as itself bad. It is the very kind of thought we must rid ourselves of if we are to achieve Stoic freedom.
The ancient Stoics recognized that maintaining the Stoic comportment requires continuous practice, and that means that one must exercise one's Stoic virtue even in the best of times. Epictetus identifies this element of Stoic training with his exercise of the jug:
In the case of everything attractive or useful or that you are fond of, remember to say just what sort of thing it is, beginning with the least little things. If you are fond of a jug, say, "I am fond of a jug!" For when it is broken, you will not be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say that you are kissing a human being; for when it dies, you will not be upset. (Enchiridion 3)
Epictetus' point is that one cannot maintain the Stoic attitude just when things are going badly. Stoic value theory must be practiced when things are going well, too. In fact, the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, noted that unless one maintains the Stoic attitude in times of plenty, it is impossible to call it up when times are hard.
Avoid Caesarification, an indelible stain. It happens. Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy makes you. . . . So that when your time comes, your mind will be clear. (Meditations 6.30)
So it seems that that Stoicism's renaissance during these dark days is unlikely to do any good. In order for Stoicism to equip us to endure in bad times, we must adopt it when times are good. But, of course, when things are going well, who has time for such stark philosophy? Indeed, the Stoic idea that the times one is living in can never be good or bad looks flatly perverse when things appear to be going one's way. Thus, then, a paradox of Stoicism: When one is most obviously in need of Stoicism's benefits, one is least able to properly adopt and practice it; and the times when one is best able to put in the work necessary to cultivate the Stoic comportment are precisely the times when one is least able to acknowledge Stoicism's benefits.
"Wonder was the grace of the country."
~ George W.S. Trow
At a recent cocktail party, the conversation turned to conspiracy theorists and how to engage them. I offered a strategy that has served me fairly well in the past: I like to ask my interlocutor what information they would need to be exposed to in order to change their minds about their initial suspicion. To be clear, I think of this more as a litmus test for understanding whether a person has the capacity to change their minds on a given position, rather than an opening gambit leading to further argument and persuasion. Climate change is a good example: What fact or observation might lead a person to consider that global warming is happening, and that human economic activity is responsible for it? It is actually quite surprising how often people don't really have a standard of truth by which they might independently weigh the validity of their argument. Of course, in today's ‘post-truth' world, I suspect that it is just as likely that I might be told that nothing can change a person's mind, since everything is lies and propaganda anyway.
I was pleased that another person at the party made an even better suggestion. She said that she would ask not only what would change a conspiracy theorist's mind, but from whom they would need to hear it. This vaults the act of interrogation from a context grounded purely in individualism and individuals' appeals to authority, to something distinctly more social. It also specifies the importance of not just facts, but from where those facts emanate. Because as much as we would like to believe ourselves independently reasoning beings, that we come to our conclusions through a rigorous and sacrosanct process of discernment, we are still very subject to having our opinions shaped by others. This may seem somewhat obvious, but in these times, when new ways of sensemaking are in high demand, I believe this provides an important opening.
Interestingly, this cocktail chatter echoed a much more deeply elaborated mode of thinking, developed by the French theorist René Girard. If much of what drives us is desire, Girard postulated that desire was something that we learned from each other (and not to be confused with needs: consider the distinction of needing to eat, versus desiring one food over another). Desiring is therefore an intrinsically social experience. And we learned not just to desire from one another, but what to desire. We may be born free, but we don't know what to want of the world until we look around and see what others are wanting for themselves. Girard called this ‘mimetic desire'. This is desire as imitation, and as contagion. The corollary, of course, is that it doesn't really matter if we are born free or not; we only become fully human when we enter into this web of desiring what others desire, and having others learn to desire what it is we ourselves covet.
One manifestation is in that old American saying about ‘keeping up with the Joneses': a social vector that is extremely well-suited to commerce, with the proviso that money is to be made from leveraging desire most efficiently when coupled with manufactured scarcity. Consider, for example, the multi-day lines that form in anticipation of a new make of Nike's Air Jordan sneakers: it is an act of collective taste-making where the goal is to obtain exactly the same object for which everyone else in line. The same may be said of stock market bubbles (and the underlying ‘greater fool' theory of investing), neighborhood competitions around Christmas decoration, or any other phenomenon that somehow expands from something socially acceptable to irrational and perhaps even systemically dangerous.
But Girard's theory has an explanatory power that goes beyond the material aspect; it encompasses matters of opinion as well. How do I settle on knowing what I know about the world? For Girard, this is also a mimetic process. Although he did not address technology very much in his writings, here is an interesting thought experiment: what if mimetic desire, instead of being captured in the physical form of goods, could be reproduced endlessly, with little to no friction preventing its amplification? What if it were, for all intents and purposes, free?
The roles that so-called ‘fake news' and social media have played in this election cycle will be discussed for years to come. In a world of bespoke filter bubbles, it is easier than ever for us to only desire the things that already resonate with our existing worldview. In addition to seeking out the opinions of politicians, journalists and commentators with whose positions we already agree (and want more of), social media has inserted a crucial (inter)mediating step: we access these professionals through the good offices of our friends, or people we would like to be our friends.
This may seem banal, but keep it in mind when looking at the numbers: by a recent, widely cited Pew Research poll, 62% of Americans get their news from social media, with 18% ‘doing so very often'. Additionally, Facebook was the most widely accessed source, with Twitter and YouTube coming up relatively distant second. Importantly, despite all the discussion around the algorithms that serve up the information that we consume on these platforms, it is our relationships with the people we trust that constitutes the ‘last mile' of service delivery by which this information reaches our eyeballs. This is further abetted by the structural incentives of the social media platforms themselves. As Mike Caulfield writes,
…conspiracy clickbait sites appeared as a reaction to a Facebook interface that resisted external linking. And this is why fake news does better on Facebook than real news. By setting up this dynamic, Facebook simultaneously set up the perfect conspiracy replication machine and incentivized the creation of a new breed of conspiracy clickbait sites.
Here we return to the notion of conspiracy. It allows us to ask what role conspiracy thinking plays within a mimetic context. Obviously, it's one thing to want the same sneakers that the cool kids on the block are sporting. It's entirely another to jump on the bandwagon of a worldview that has produced everything from Trutherism to Birtherism to PizzaGate. If one accepts mimetic desire as a motivating force for the generation, dissemination and adoption of opinion, then fake news - and social media itself, which is the agar upon which fake news feeds - is merely symptomatic. There is another aspect to Girard's theory, that of the scapegoat, that takes us further.
For Girard, the bubble factory of mimetic desire isn't just how culture is created. With too many people chasing too few goods, mates or other social signifiers, the rivalries produced over and over again by mimetic desire eventually precipitate a crisis that threatens to reduce society to a Hobbesian war of ‘all against all'. There must be a mechanism by which society can hold itself together in the face of such forces, and for Girard it was the notion of the scapegoat:
When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
History bears witness to a number of practices where we can see this ‘scapegoat mechanism' at work. More often than not, these practices are so culturally important that they are regularly repeated, and in fact may very well be ritually encoded. Written in 1922, JG Frazer's still-magisterial ‘The Golden Bough' devotes several chapters to its function. A single example will suffice to illustrate the unifying power of the scapegoat:
In civilised Greece the custom of the scapegoat took darker forms than the innocent rite over which the amiable and pious Plutarch presided. Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city or stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.
As Frazer demonstrates, the phenomenon of the scapegoat - whether human or animal - manifests not just in Greek and Roman culture but throughout the world. It is a catalyst by which society reaches a consensus with itself that, whatever its internal differences and disagreements (the ‘rivals' of Girard's mimetic process), there is a larger, more important threat to be overcome. Obviously, there is an open line to divinity here, as the scapegoat's sacrifice to the gods creates the expectation that relief will be provided, or a pathway to salvation opened (as in the case of Jesus Christ).
Crucially for Girard, the process only works when it is conducted unconsciously. That is, everyone must believe that the scapegoat is actually guilty of the transgressions. For example, even in the ancient Greek case cited above, the full weight of belief transforms the blameless poor man into a vehicle for gathering up all the plague within the city's walls, and, with his death outside those walls, its dissolution. Conspiracy thinking functions in a very similar fashion: applied to the recent election, Hillary Clinton has never not been guilty, and Donald Trump has never not been a fascist thug. What is lacking is a ritually encoded means by which this malevolent presence can be expunged, so that society might move on. One could contend that, for at least the former scenario, Trump could have indeed put Clinton in jail for her sins, which are of course the sins of her husband as well. But the fact that Trump blithely put this possibility out of mind almost immediately following his victory implies that Girard's requirement of belief (or at least, suspended disbelief) in the scapegoat is not fulfilled. What we then have is a fully functioning scapegoat mechanism that is nevertheless denied its consummation.
There is a more important point to be made about Girard's requirement of belief. All of the above would be of passable interest as far as analytical approaches go (in fact, I'm certainly not the first person to bring this up, having been inspired by this piece in The New Inquiry). The extraordinary additional wrinkle in this story, as The New Inquiry and others have pointed out, has been Peter Thiel's role. In a nutshell, Thiel is a libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire who embodies Randian ideals to an almost caricaturish extent. He was one of the first outside investors in Facebook. More recently, he acquired notoriety as the man behind the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. For our purposes, however, it's more appropriate to note that he was one of René Girard's students at Stanford.
Girard's influence on Thiel is quite clear. The notion of the scapegoat is explicit in Thiel's own writing, specifically in Zero To One, Thiel's contribution to innovation and entrepreneurship. As noted by The New Inquiry, Thiel writes:
The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they're praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune… [It is] beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures.
For Thiel, it is thanks to this Girardian process that society progresses at all. The problem is that, more often than not, it's people like him - the wealthy, the founders, the leaders - that wind up becoming scapegoats. The difference is that Thiel, thanks to his position and resources, is now actually able to intervene in this very process. This was the case with Gawker: spurred on by his personal beef, Thiel identified the site as a factory for the manufacturing of scapegoats, and bided his time until the perfect case presented itself, which he then used to destroy Gawker.
But other Girardian mechanisms are worth keeping around. For the reasons described by Mike Caulfield above, Facebook is a streamlined machine for reproducing mimetic desires, for creating rivals in desire and therefore for fomenting social tension. The difference with a platform like Facebook is it is a thoroughly quantified domain. Suddenly, there is an opportunity to guide and channel these passions. Scapegoats will continue to be generated, but if the process can be influenced, however subtly, then we have effectively replaced the prior, ritually encoded consummation of the practice of scapegoating with one that is is micromanaged by algorithm. More importantly, at least according to Thiel's worldview, we will avoid scapegoating the ‘wrong people'.
This theorization points to a hard truth for not just public opinion in general, but journalism in particular. Writing recently in The Guardian, Caitlin Moran struck a hopeful tone:
I think things are going to get worse for newspapers before they get better. We're living in a post-truth age and people don't seem to care, because we're drunk on the internet; and I think things will have to get a bit messier before we start wanting to have facts again. The tone of politics right now is one of shouting and trolling, and that tone has absolutely been set by social media. At some point, probably when society and the economy have got much worse than they are now, we'll reinvent the idea of having a creditable, trustworthy press.
Unfortunately, I am extremely skeptical that a return to a dignified public discourse is imminent, or even possible. If we buy not only into the Girardian scenario, but one which is moreover actively guided by those in the position to do so, then it is difficult to conceive of the kind of event or trend that will provide a turning point and return us to a prelapsarian idea of ‘truth' or ‘journalism' or even ‘media'. More broadly, as George WS Trow wrote in the New Yorker almost 40 years ago, "To a person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference." It seems sensible to assert that structures of power that can exploit these processes will maintain a steady upper hand, compared to those that seek to disrupt them. If we take Girard at his word, mimesis may well be sufficient unto itself, as it has been for a long time already.
by Jalees Rehman
Competition for government research grants to fund scientific research remains fierce in the United States. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which constitute the major source of funding for US biological and medical research, has been increased only modestly during the past decade but it is not even keeping up with inflation. This problem is compounded by the fact that more scientists are applying for grants now than one or two decades ago, forcing the NIH to enforce strict cut-offs and only fund the top 10-20% of all submitted research proposals. Such competition ought to be good for the field because it could theoretically improve the quality of science. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to discern differences between excellent research grants. For example, if an institute of the NIH has a cut-off at the 13 percentile range, then a grant proposal judged to be in the top 10% would receive funding but a proposal in top 15% would end up not being funded. In an era where universities are also scaling back their financial support for research, an unfunded proposal could ultimately lead to the closure of a research laboratory and the dismissal of several members of a research team. Since the prospective assessment of a research proposal's scientific merits are somewhat subjective, it is quite possible that the budget constraints are creating cemeteries of brilliant ideas and concepts, a world of scientific what-ifs that are forever lost.
How do we scientists deal with these scenarios? Some of us keep soldiering on, writing one grant after the other. Others change and broaden the direction of their research, hoping that perhaps research proposals in other areas are more likely to receive the elusive scores that will qualify for funding. Yet another approach is to submit research proposals to philanthropic foundations or non-profit organizations, but most of these organizations tend to focus on research which directly impacts human health. Receiving a foundation grant to study the fundamental mechanisms by which the internal clocks of plants coordinate external timing cues such as sunlight, food and temperature, for example, would be quite challenging. One alternate source of research funding that is now emerging is "scientific crowdfunding" in which scientists use web platforms to present their proposed research project to the public and thus attract donations from a large number of supporters. The basic underlying idea is that instead of receiving a $50,000 research grant from one foundation or government agency, researchers may receive smaller donations from 10, 50 or even a 100 supporters and thus finance their project.
The website experiment.com is a scientific crowdfunding platform which presents an intriguing array of projects in search of backers, ranging from "Death of a Tyrant: Help us Solve a Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Mystery!" to "Eating tough stuff with floppy jaws - how do freshwater rays eat crabs, insects, and mollusks?" Many of the projects include a video in which the researchers outline the basic goals and significance of their project and then also provide more detailed information on the webpage regarding how the funds will be used. There is also a "Discussion" section for each proposed project in which researchers answer questions raised by potential backers and, importantly, a "Results" in which researchers can report emerging results once their project is funded.
How can scientists get involved in scientific crowdfunding? Julien Vachelard and colleagues recently published an excellent overview of scientific crowdfunding. They analyzed the projects funded on experiment.com and found that projects which successfully achieved the funding goal tend to have 30-40 backers. The total amount of funds raised for most projects ranged from about $3,000 to $5,000. While these amounts are impressive, they are still far lower than a standard foundation or government agency grant in biomedical research. These smaller amounts could support limited materials to expand ongoing projects, but they are not sufficient to carry out standard biomedical research projects which cover salaries and stipends of the researchers. The annual stipends for postdoctoral research fellows alone run in the $40,000 - $55,000 range.
Vachelard and colleagues also provide great advice for how scientists can increase the likelihood of funding. Attention span is limited on the internet so researchers need to convey the key message of their research proposal in a clear, succinct and engaging manner. It is best to use powerful images and videos, set realistic goals (such as $3,000 to $5,000), articulate what the funds will be used for, participate in discussions to answer questions and also update backers with results as they emerge. Presenting research in a crowdfunding platform is an opportunity to educate the public and thus advance science, forcing scientists to develop better communication skills. These collateral benefits to the scientific enterprise extend beyond the actual amount of funding that is solicited.
One of the concerns that is voiced about scientific crowdfunding is that it may only work for "panda bear science", i.e. scientific research involving popular themes such as cute and cuddly animals or studying life on other planets. However, a study of what actually gets funded in a scientific crowdfunding campaign revealed that the subject matter was not as important as how well the researchers communicated with their audience. A bigger challenge for the long-term success of scientific crowdfunding may be the limited amounts that are raised and therefore only cover the cost of small sub-projects but are neither sufficient to embark on exploring exciting new ideas and independent ideas nor offset salary and personnel costs. Donating $20 or $50 to a project is very different from donating amounts such as $1,000 because the latter requires not only the necessary financial resources but also a represents a major personal investment in the success of the research project. To initiate an exciting new biomedical research project in the $50,000 or $100,000 range, one needs several backers who are willing to donate $1,000 or more.
Perhaps one solution could be to move from a crowdfunding to a tribefunding model. Crowds consist of a mass of anonymous people, mostly strangers in a confined space who do not engage each other. Tribes, on the other hand, are characterized by individuals who experience a sense of belonging and fellowship, they share and take responsibility for each other. The "tribes" in scientific tribefunding would consist of science supporters or enthusiasts who recognize the importance of the scientific work and also actively participate in discussions not just with the scientists but also with each other. Members of a paleontology tribe could include specialists and non-specialists who are willing to put in the required time to study the scientific background of a proposed paleontology research project, understand how it would advance the field and how even negative results (which are quite common in science) could be meaningful.
Peer reviewers who assess the quality of scientific proposals for government agencies spend a substantial amount of time assessing the strengths and limitations of each proposal, and then convene either in person or via conference calls to arrive at a consensus regarding the merits of a proposal. Researchers spend months preparing research proposals which is why peer reviewers take their work very seriously and devote the required time to review each proposal carefully. Although the peer review system for grant proposals is often criticized because reviewers can make errors when they assess the quality of proposals, there are no established alternatives for how to assess research proposals. Most peer reviewers also realize that they are part of a "tribe", with the common interest of selecting the best science.
Merging the grassroots character and public outreach of crowdfunding with the sense of fellowship and active dialogue in a "scientific tribe" could take scientific crowdfunding to the next level. A comment section on a webpage is not sufficient to develop such a "tribe" affiliation but regular face-to-face meetings or conventional telephone/Skype conference calls involving several backers (independent of whether they can donate $50 or $5,000) may be more suitable. Developing a sense of ownership through this kind of communication would mean that every member of the science "tribe" realizes that they are a stakeholder. This sense of project ownership may not only increase donations, but could also create a grassroots synergy between laboratory and tribe, allowing for meaningful education and intellectual exchange.
Vachelard J, Gambarra-Soares T, Augustini G, Riul P, Maracaja-Coutinho V (2016) A Guide to Scientific Crowdfunding. PLoS Biol 14(2): e1002373. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002373
by Olivia Zhu
Every year, there comes a flood of articles regarding trends in baby names accompanied with charts and historical analyses. I’ve been tickled to see my own first name see rather significant increases popularity over the past decade or so—congratulations to my parents for being trendsetters!
Yet, equally interesting—if not perhaps even more interesting—is the modeling of surname trends over time, and it was that problem that captivated my collaborator Nicole Flanary (Nicole is the 152nd most popular female baby name, by the way) and me. Surnames tell the stories of lineages, immigration, ethnic enclaves, feminism, assimilation, family planning, and more, whereas given names more typically reflect cultural fads. A study of surnames also offers up the idea of “surname extinction,” the fatalistically named phenomenon that British mathematicians Francis Galton and Henry William Watson modeled. In 1847, they explored the topic to determine whether aristocratic families might go extinct depending on the number of children they had—a process well-modeled since British high society at the time was fairly closed, homogenous, and patrilineal.
Galton and Watson might have found a few other societies interesting as well. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese populations are renowned for the lack of surname diversity—was there an extinction-style event at some point that eliminated names from the language altogether? Vietnam is a particularly interesting case, as 40% of the population share the same last name: Nguyen. Contrastingly, surname diversity and even inventiveness in other countries is also worth studying, especially since new last names may be easily and often added to the name pool.
Nicole and I had wanted to focus on Boston merchant names over a period of 80 years, beginning with 1845. We reached out to the Boston Athenaeum for information on census data that we needed to check the vigor of our model. Fortunately, the data not only included a list of each surname, but also how many individuals in the area possessed each surname. Moreover, the names are also associated with their occupation and address, as the city directories function as a type of phone book.
One consideration for the data involves the fact that it is not comprehensive, including only the names of individuals who were business owners. That is, families and women are generally not included. However, we believed that the city directory is representative of the greater demographic trends, and was a valid base for our analysis.
Looking at Boston meant we had to modify the Galton-Watson process in the following ways: first, we included true birth and death rate data for the region examined. Second, we inserted a new set of names each generation to account for natural rates of immigration that would add diversity to the surname pool. We did, however, keep the overall structure of the model relatively similar, and we also assumed a patrilineal passing down of names (where women take men’s names upon marriage, and therefore only sons can continue the surname line).
Why all this tinkering? Well, it was of interest to us whether we could approximate the average family size (really, the number of people that shared the same surname) and if we could determine and predict and extinction “rate” of names, which we ultimately discovered to be around 10-20%. That is, from one “generation” to another, 10-20% of all surnames disappeared—a surprisingly huge percentage.
We learned through completing this project that our model provides a reasonable framework for modeling name diversity in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. Opening a society (like American society been opened) fundamentally alters the Galton-Watson model as name diversity is very much driven by immigration—Galton-Watson assumes a closed society. From our model, we discovered that increasing name diversity is driven totally by name immigration numbers, which is unsurprising, but an important result nonetheless. We also learned how the rate of death could alter the surname makeup of a society; our results also indicated that birth and death rates clearly have long lasting effects on surname diversity as well.
It was a bit of a silly prompt to begin with (can we tell if surname extinction is actually happening?) and morphed into a project seeing how we could model how last name populations grow and decline. These are real names, tied to real lineages, and trends in this data is indicative of greater societal movements than the rising popularity of a first name like “Olivia” (however excited I may be about it).
by Dwight Furrow
Among the most striking developments in the art world in the past 150 years is the proliferation of objects that count as works of art. The term "art" is no longer appropriately applied only to paintings, sculpture, symphonic music, literature or theatre but includes architecture, photographs, film and television, found objects, assorted musical genres, conceptual works, environments, etc. The Museum of Modern Art in New York proudly displays a Jaguar XKE roadster as a work of art. As Jacques Rancière writes regarding the modernist aesthetic that begins to emerge in the 18th Century:
"The aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroying any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself."*
Rancière argues that with the proliferation of objects that now count as art, contemporary art is neither autonomous from nor fully absorbed into everyday life but occupies a borderland between the everyday and the extraordinary that is art's function to continually negotiate. Art is about having a certain kind of aesthetic experience; it is no longer about a particular kind of object.
Wine is among the most prevalent of everyday objects that have no function except to provide an aesthetic experience. And so the question naturally arises: Can wine be a work of art?
No doubt some will immediately object that wine is not designed to provide aesthetic experience but rather to get you drunk. But as an alcohol delivery system wine is terribly inefficient and expensive; the alcohol by itself doesn't explain why connoisseurs love wine. More importantly, the mild buzz one gets from the kind of restrained imbibing associated with wine appreciation is not only compatible with aesthetic appreciation but in fact enhances it. The presence of mild intoxication is hardly incompatible with the appreciation of art as the frequent invocation of Dionysius in the history of art can attest. If we are to understand aesthetic experience as something incompatible with the ecstasies we have clearly lost our way in trying to understand the phenomenon.
Neither is the question of whether wine is an art an idle conceptual matter. The issue is important because it is really about the future of wine (and perhaps art as well). The important thing about art is that it is inexhaustible—there are constantly new developments and new modes of self-expression that enliven art for each new generation. Can something similar be said about wine? Will wine continue to develop as an aesthetic experience with new flavors and textures to explore? If the answer to that is yes then wine will continue to command the interest of people with an interest in taste. So thinking of it as an art not only reflects that aesthetic potential but it will encourage the right sort of engagement with wine, treating it as an aesthetic object rather than merely a commodity. On the other hand, if wine lacks the kind of aesthetic potential that we associate with art, perhaps in the future, it will reach a point where there are few new developments because we've reached a limit to what can be done with wine and thus it becomes a mere commodity like orange juice or milk.
Of course, the answer to this question of whether some wines may be works of art will depend on how you define art which is a vexed question in philosophy and something guaranteed to trap any conversation in endless epicycles of assertions and counter-examples. But it seems reasonable to claim that art, whatever else it might be, is a product of an artist's distinctive vision, imagination, and creativity. At least that is how we understand art today. So I would propose that we think of a work of art as any object that was produced with the primary intent to provide an aesthetic experience and that exhibits a substantial level of creativity in its production.
As noted, wine provides us with aesthetic experiences, and for many winemakers that is their primary intention. But it isn't obvious that winemakers exhibit the kind of creativity associated with the arts. And truth be told, most philosophers do not think winemaking is an art because it is thought that winemakers don't have the same ability to control their product in the way that artist's do. As Skilleas and Burnham in The Aesthetics of Wine insist:
"Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling and the like….Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage." 
While Skilleas and Burham are right that a vintner cannot erase the influence of weather, this quoted passage does underplay the degree to which modern technology has influenced winemaking. Vineyard managers can now measure the amount of water uptake for each leaf on the vine and regulate water supply to each individual vine through irrigation; sophisticated planting strategies and canopy management optimizes sun exposure; careful clonal selection produce vines more adaptable to local weather conditions; and optical sorting devices eliminate all but the best grapes from the crush. In the winery, fermentation temperatures can be precisely controlled, aromas given off by the fermenting grapes can be captured and reintroduced, microbursts of oxygen can be introduced at various points in the process to build and control structure, not to mention the availability of hundreds of yeasts, oak products, and chemical additives that contribute to flavor, aroma, and texture. Given modern winemaking techniques and technology, increasingly winemakers have the tools to really shape their wines according to their aesthetic vision suggesting that wine might be a medium of self-expression and creativity for winemakers.
But the problem with using this increased technological control as support for the prominence of creative intention in the winemaking process is that many of the best wines in the world are made the old fashioned way, using few of these newest technologies. The production of these "artisanal" wines seem to have less to do with the winemakers imagination, creativity, and self expression and more to do with using various techniques to bring out the inherent nature of the grapes. At least that is the expressed ideology of the producers who emphasize the importance of terroir, the French term meaning "of the earth". Today there is a great deal of controversy in the wine world about a fundamental contrast between wines that express the geographical features of the vineyard or region vs. wines that are heavily "manipulated" in the winery. I think it is safe to say that most wine writers and dedicated wine lovers prefer wines that express terroir. One of the most intriguing features of wine grapes is their ability to reflect geographical differences. That is a key element in the romance of wine. If wine is in the end more of an expression of the vineyard or region and not the winemaker's imagination and creativity, then winemaking looks less like an art and more like a craft.
Thus, although we could draw a distinction between art wines and artisan wines based on how much control and creative intention is exerted in the winery, since many artisan wines are at least as aesthetically pleasing as art wines, this distinction seems artificial and incapable of capturing the aesthetic dimension of wine quality. It would be strange to argue that wine is an art but the most aesthetically interesting wines don't count.
But is it really the case that artisanal approaches to winemaking lack creativity, imagination, and self-expression? It has become popular among winemakers to be modest about their contribution to the final product and to adopt what might be called a custodial view of winemaking—basically their idea is just don't screw up the grapes and let them express themselves. But I'm not at all persuaded that this custodial view quite captures the decisions that winemakers, viticulturalists and vineyard managers make, even those who are committed to preserving terroir using traditional methods. After all, you can give different winemakers the same grapes and they will produce different wines. And grapes that share terroir often make wines that exhibit substantial differences. Is it true that artists can express their intentions with few constraints while winemakers are stuck doing the best they can with the grapes they have? I think there is some misunderstanding of the nature of art in starkly drawing such a contrast.
No doubt the nature of the grapes one uses will strongly influence the style of wine one produces. But that is also true of artists. The nature of an artist's materials will strongly influence the kind of art she produces. Oils produce a quite different look than do watercolors. A melody played by a violin will sound differently when played by an oboe. Painters must work with a two-dimensional space. The whole history of modern art is a struggle with that limitation. All artists work under the constraints of their materials just as winemakers do.
The fact that winemakers are limited by their grapes therefore does not disqualify artisanal wines from being works of art. In fact, the social scientist Jon Elster in his book Ulysses Unbound defines creativity in the arts as the maximization of aesthetic value under constraint. The reference to constraint is important. Elster thinks the relationship between creativity and the constraints imposed on the creative process is an upside down U-curve. The greater the constraint, the more potential for creativity exists unless the constraints are so severe that creativity becomes impossible. Thus, the constraints that weather and other contingencies impose on winemakers encourage creativity; they don't preclude it. But the question of control and intention raised by Burnham and Skilleas in the above quote is an important one. If the aesthetic features of a wine are not something intended or created by the winemaker and her team then it is implausible to think of wine as an art.
In my essay on Creative Receptivity last month I began to sort out what it means to have a creative intention in the arts. No doubt part of the creative process is akin to brainstorming—juxtaposing ideas in new combinations. Painters juxtapose shapes, colors, and lines. Musicians juxtapose notes, rhythmic sequences, and sound textures when conceptualizing how to proceed with a new work. The analog in winemaking is the tasting winemakers do in the vineyard and in the winery trying to conceptualize what the finished wine will be like giving what they taste in the grapes. Experienced winemakers, including artisan winemakers using traditional methods, have a sense of their style preferences and know the tendencies and dispositions of their vineyards. Yet, every year because of the influence of weather and changes in vineyard practices they must revisit those intentions re-conceptualizing their intention when their tasting reveals something new or unexpected as it routinely does. Creative intentions are present in winemaking but can be solidified only after tasting.
But this need to develop creative intentions only after assessing the condition of one's materials is not unique to winemaking. An equally important part of the creative process in the arts is the adoption of an aesthetic attitude toward the work as it is developing. Genuine artistic ability involves selecting which of the brainstormed ideas is worth pursuing and, crucially, which of them can be realized in the materials one has available. Creativity in the arts is about execution in a physical medium and that means being receptive to how the world is, reacting to one's materials as they are developing and shaping one's intentions in light of that development. No artist or musician can successfully make her materials do what they are not disposed to do. All materials have dispositional properties that the artist must be intimately acquainted with. It's that obduracy of matter, the stubbornness of physical objects, which gives art its friction, and makes art more than the idle spinning of ideas.
Thus, artists and winemakers are in the same boat in that their intentions are limited and shaped by their materials. If there is a difference between winemakers and artists it will be a matter of degree. Yet I doubt the differences are substantial. Our common understanding of how intentions work in the creative process are incomplete and, once that picture is filled in, the differences between creativity in winemaking vs. the arts shrink. But more on that next month in Part 2.
Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Bloomsbury, 2013,p. 19.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
by Maniza Naqvi
To dance the dance, I did not dance, because at the end of the conference, my handbag, my partner containing all my documents, passports, credit cards and so forth compelled me to sit frumpily, guarding it, instead of joining the sensuously swaying crowd. When I had the chance, I chose instead to sit tied to my belongings—an accumulation of things. Ah the regret.
Why you? Why You? Why you? I had asked myself earlier, marveling at my good fortune gleefully. I kept repeating the direction I was headed towards the land of a thousand stories: Aracataca, Aracataca, Aracataca. Each syllable slung against the roof of my mouth, crashing against each other on my tongue, creating a rhythm like a tin drum. I wanted to jump and dance. Oh sure. I was going just to a conference—but it was on the shores of Colombia very near Aracataca. And so I went pulled by the magnetic allure of it and the lore of the Sierra Nevada.
But, ah the regret. Nearly there, not really there, close, nearby. I did but glimpse it in that chance brief encounter with its beauty and its possibilities, a moment so very brief it nevertheless left me breathless. And when I left, it left me imagining it, wishing that I would return to travel it by river perhaps at a great age, and in love. Finally. And then, then, without a care in the world, I would dance.
Surely, this, this regret, I try to salvage it's detritus, such as it is with the thoughts that it would only lead to new writing, of dreaming of imagining. Yes, perhaps its chapter one must begin here of a new story. A new direction on the compass for me. My eyes rest now on the great Gabo's work lying on my bedside, spread eagle, spine up, it lies, poised to take flight and through it I.
But instead I had been confined to a conference. Where we, found ourselves caught between the sentiments of regret of the existence of a referendum and the regret of it being rejected, the regrets of those who couldn't vote, the regrets of those who didn't vote. The possibility that this deep regret would lead to a better most committed second chance. So at a conference, we filled the gap between waiting and hope's arrival with our prescriptions and were referred to as doctors as if we had gathered there to fill the pain of regret and despair.
And so there, in a conference room of thoughts encompassing compasses of regrets and hope and despair and consolations and of repair, I found myself drifting away into day dreaming of sailing up a great river at a great age. But mostly, I stayed in the room, there, in that room I listened to processes of negotiations, agreements and implementations and how laws come about, I learnt that a compass, here, is also the term used for the background initiating paper that starts the ball rolling on a set of research and investigative procedures that are required to make a decision on whether a policy is required which then would lead to legislation which then leads to action on the legislated policy. Naturally, then procedures of a compass, necessitate the review of a myriad lawyers and a plethora of underlings studying every direction and angle and trajectory of every detail and hence a frenzy and volumes upon volumes of writing. And the word department means province and state. How appropriate. Such a state of writing and writing must lead to decades of solitude, of thinking and inquiry. All that compassing encompassing all that is entailed in getting to an agreement for peace.
That Herculean task has been accomplished. The imagining and pinning down of the Peace Agreement all five chapters of it—has been accomplished and written down recently though imagined over at least twenty decades spanning now three centuries. For Colombia has been at war for a long time two centuries for one reason or other. And all the reasons all the same.
What the peace agreement promises to do, is to acknowledge the stories of all the other Colombias. The political and economic stories of those other Colombias include stories of those that are displaced and hunted, hungry and fearful. And the feared and fearsome. In this century and the last and the one before that. The exhausted.
Read Chapter One of the Peace Agreement and you have the manifesto of sharing wealth and prosperity the basis for ending over hundred years if not more of continuous civil wars in one place or another. There are five chapters to the 297 page Colombia's Agreement to End Conflict and Build Peace. Chapter One: Towards a New Colombian Countryside, Comprehensive Rural Reform, reads like an equitable plan for national development with the goal to address economic and social inequality and enable inclusive prosperity. This chapter, is an example for governments present and future to emulate and implement.
So why me? And I answered myself too swiftly because you know this, that's why you. That's why you're going to Colombia. You've done it before, so you can talk about it, the reintegration of demobilized ex-soldiers, into civilian jobs and work. You managed it for nearly 8000 soldiers in Bosnia Herzegovina and that's why you. And that experience in Bosnia was so intense it ended up with you losing yourself in its power and in you writing stories and poems and essays called Sarajevo Saturdays. And now here you are going to Gabo's country, to his home town Aracataca and to the town which inspired the fictional town of Macondo in 100 years of Solitude which was based on the town of Cienaga near Aracataca.
Not so swiftly, said the naysayers. What about the mosquitos? Mojitos? No Mosquitos? Zika? You've got to be crazy, I replied. I won't miss this chance for anything.
And so I found myself in Santa Marta, way north of Bogota, on the shores of the Caribbean at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, in the native land of the Kogi and the Wayuu tribes. The tribes who carry the treasures of phantasmagorical stories. I had been told that the Sierra Nevada's snow topped peaks send down gentle cool breezes for a perfect confluence of climate with the waves lapping on to the shores.
But I was confined to a conference room, cavernous, cold, dim---dimly lit, that is, inside the air-conditioned window less walls encompassing compasses.
Chapter One, oh the regrets, yes first the regrets: the intention was always to do so much more.
And now I regret that I could not sleep longer and extend the dream and the journey I took on the shimmering gossamer wings of a mosquito. The mosquito who despite my fortifications of tightly shut windows, managed to slip through and carry me off to the other Colombia that I should have seen. On its wings the regrets melted away. The regret that I focused on the altitude induced headache and the panic of not being able to connect to an office email system that I didn't see the clouds on the snow covered Andes as the plane came into Bogota because it was night time. I saw it all on the wings of a mosquito, who swiftly morphed into a Swift. For a Swift as know can fly non- stop for 10,000 miles or Swift. Sweet. Don't forget your compass said the mosquito disappearing into the Swift, she'll need it while she drifts in and out of the conference, along the Rio Magdallena, passed the clouds coming off the Andes, into the Savannah, to the Cordillera, the jungles, the ice on the Sierra Nevada, through all the peoples of the Americas, the indigenous tribes, the Spanish, African, Lebanese, Roma gypsy descendants, the Pacific to the west, the Caribbean and Atlantic to the North, northeast—yes and yes---- or she could use the compass to map it differently, between the powerful and the powerless scattered where the treasures lie, the oil the gas pipelines, the emerald mines, the coca and the cacao and of course the land mines.
And on its swift wings—business suit grey wings---chalking up the miles, I flew past the regrets. The regrets that in Bogota I drank coffee but not the hot chocolate or, santafereno, its cheese infused version. That I did not cut open length wise the gourd like pod of a cacao. That I did not experience the taste of cacao—it's beans, up to fifty beans nestled inside the yellowish orangey gourd like pods hanging from the cacao trees, that I did not pick a pod, slice it open lengthwise and behold for myself the revelation of the treasure carried in it, like passengers on a ship, the beans that make the richest chocolate. That I didn't pry them out one by one with my fingers and suck the fleshy skin till the bean was made naked or bit into the bean to reveal the purplish goodness of its future. Shimmering beans, like babies arriving clothed in placenta. Beans picked and dried in the shade of plantain leaves or fermented, then skinned again, then cradled in an epistle made of jungle wood and stone then crushed into the chocolate paste by Indian women and of XX tribe oh how I regret not having drunk this---not tasted this magical brew---- I regret not having the time to drive to the town of Manizales.
Yes Manizales—rich in coffee and cacao-then take a boat on the Rio Magdalena and make the same journey up north through the Western and northern mountain ranges-the Cordilleras to Baranquilla and to Cartegna and then from there to Santa Marta in the tracks of Simon Bolivar in his final journey—as chronicled in the General in His Labyrinth. Had I done that, gone up the river, I would have gone through the rich green savannahs, listening to the bird song and chatter of toucans and tanagers and humming birds and antpittas and macaws—"redbreasts, bee-eaters, canaries and troupials" and counted stars in the night sky as I made my way to the cacao growing region of El Carmen in Santander, the largest cacao growing region of Colombia—to chocolate---the source of my regret for having missed out on the taste of it. I would have listened to the stories told by people descending from the Quimbayas, the Chibchas and the Caribes tribes: the Arhuaco, Kogi and Wayuu. The Wayuu are the matriarchal indigenous tribe, the largest in Colombia inhabiting the North of Colombia. The Kogi believe that the Earth is our mother and we are its children. They worship the earth as the mother of living things, Mother Nature is a living breathing entity. (here)
I regret having been in such nearness, such proximity—yet not having had the time to go to Aracataca and to Cienaga, the town in the department of Magdallena, which was the inspiration for Macondo. I regret not lying in a hammock slung between two palm trees ---or leaving the windows open at night in Santa Marta, so that I could feel the breeze which I had been told was cooled by the ice on the Sierra Nevada and tempered by the tropics of the Caribbean--- or hear the gentle lapping of the Caribbean waves on to beach, sing a lullaby to put me to sleep or at sunrise hear the argumentative crows scatter away my dreams to bring me back into the awakening day. No time for all that and the fear of mosquitos and the exotic virus they might bring Z for Zarro--- Z for Zika.
Colombia has stirred in me a civil war of endless regrets-between the heart and the soul and the mind. Factionalized an already factionalized me. Who knows how many years this will last or had fomented. It has me searching for maps of rivers, tracing trajectories—wondering how far birds can fly without needing a stop-over. In my flight of imagination I have already lost the plot and flown to a cute little café in Islamabad serving Colombian hot chocolate, truffles and coffee financed by a loan by a Bank that money launders Pablo Escobar's cocaine billions and Ahmed Shah Masood's heroin billions—from a Pakistani owned Bank branch in Miami. Is that a story? I think I almost told it and I called it Losing the Plot.
Or shall it be the thinly veiled fiction that I no longer have the strength to write to resurrect the untimely dead, of tracing the trajectory of a swashbuckling, debonair, whoring, drinking Air Force pilot—in search of better angels, dancing with the other kind, and that arch of his flight from Karachi to Dhaka, to being airlifted and evacuated to Tehran in defeat as the surrendering Generals scrambled to save their precious assets--pilots—while citizens lay bleeding to death in the thousands, after the civil war between East and West wings of the country, his moonlight flying clandestine chartered flights from Miami and so on, for the CIA, gun running and drugs to places in Central America and to Colombia—then his sudden death years later for more of the same, gun running and shit---for the Generals, his sudden death at Dubai airport—heart attack. A brief case in which rattled around a diary containing a few phone numbers including his mother's, a few lonely pills of Cialis and a half empty bottle of Black Label. His better angels never won.
And so of course it has left me searching stories on coca. And on emeralds. And oil and gas. The stuff that makes for endless seasons of war and violence. I first saw a Colombian emerald on the finger of a great aunt in Abbottabad, as I stood at her knee gazing at a delicate bejeweled hand. Sapphires from Cambodia were thrown away, rubies from Burma, were kept and emeralds from Colombia—revered. That's how the must haves went of jewelry aspirations. "Only Colombian emeralds for my gems. I'll give this to you my pet. To turn everyone green with envy!" Yes—I could work that in.
I was going to get to go to a place just an hour and half by car to Aracataca, where I would go I promised myself, the moment I had a moment, I would go, as a pilgrimage. I would make a wish there. For inspiration. I must, I told myself. And in the evenings, the few along the coast, I must indulge in mojitos, dance Salsa and listen to phantasmagorical poetry and songs and eat the great food of fried plantain and seafood stew: Cuezalas des Mariscos
But instead, steadfastly, I sat in a conference room and listened to the discussions about the many 'Compasses' of the past which were initiated for policies for the other Colombia the one that was not elite and rich. The one that lived in the rural countryside or the slums of cities, displaced from their homelands. The ones that toiled in the mines and fields but did not benefit from Colombia's cash crops of coffee and cocaine or from the oil, gas, coal and emeralds. I listened to the presentations on experience from other countries on reintegration of ex combatants. I presented the experience on reintegration of ex-soldiers after the war in Bosnia.
For a few brief hours, not more than four, no more, I walked through the streets of Santa Marta—listening to the sounds of drums, going aracataca, aracataca aracataca. I got to dance too, oh but all too briefly. I ate a meal of mouth-watering plantains and cuezalas. I sipped on rum. I sat next to men in sombreros from Medellin.
And when I sat down to write about it I wrote this: There are five chapters to the 297 page Colombia's Agreement to End Conflict and Build Peace. Chapter One: Towards a New Colombian Countryside, Comprehensive Rural Reform, as pointed out by the Vice Minister of Defense at the conference on Regions Opportunities and Peace, reads like an equitable plan for national development with the goal to address economic and social inequality and enable inclusive prosperity. This chapter, agreed to by the Government and the FARC is an example for governments in Colombia present and future to emulate and implement. The Vice Minister noted that such a plan should have been implemented long ago. The open and informative discussions, questions and commentary that emerged at the conference by development practitioners, policy makers, mayors and vice ministers, revolved around the issues covered in Chapter One, even though the Chapter was mentioned only once.
That conference, held in that gap between the moment of regret and the moment of redemption, demonstrated to everyone there that they had perhaps already imagined themselves, in a better place and entered into the Chapter One of their better angels.
by Claire Chambers
If you've read any of my blog posts for 3 Quarks Daily or columns for Dawn's Books & Authors section, you may know me for my criticism of world literature. But as it's the holidays, I want to write about something more frivolous.
I have a confession to make: as well as being a lecturer in global literature, for the last five years I have also moonlighted as a
Zumba, if you're unfamiliar with this high art form, is a dance fitness programme. Like all self-respecting cults, it has its own creation myth. Godhead and co-founder, Colombian Alberto 'Beto' Perez, began his career as an aerobics teacher in Florida. One day, the story goes, he arrived at his class only to realize he had forgotten his aerobics cassettes (yes, it was the 1990s...). He improvised a class based on the Latin music tapes he had in the car, and the punters loved it. He then teamed up with two more pragmatic and business-minded Albertos -- Alberto Perlman and Alberto Aghion -- and Zumba Fitness was born.
A typical Zumba class is built around four main dance styles. Most people are familiar with Cuba's elegant, sexy Salsa. (Less well-known is its offshoot Salsa Choke, which originates in Beto's native Colombia and intermixes Cuban panache with the rhythms of Zumba's next core dance, Reggaeton.)
Perhaps best described as Latin hip-hop, Reggaeton hails from Puerto Rico. Its edgy, urban lyrics and beats have made their way across South America. Some of Reggaeton's most famous musicians, such as Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Pitbull, have an even wider following across the globe.
Merengue is the third style, which most people have heard of but may not be aware that this is a fast march from the Dominican Republic and other parts of the Caribbean. It has an even beat but can become very frenetic, with moves that have names like double hesitations, pretzels, and cradles.
Finally, Beto introduced his national dance, Cumbia, which sprang from the history of slavery. Cumbia was one of the musical styles featured on the soundtrack to the Netflix series Narcos, about Colombian drug dealer Pablo Escobar, and has a hypnotic 'oom-pa' beat. In one move, called the machete, dancers mimic the cutting of sugar-cane in the plantations, while in another known as 'sleepy leg' they emulate slaves with their ankles in chains carrying candlesticks in their hands. Cumbia has probably travelled the most easily of all the Zumba styles, with most Latin countries having adapted it and invented their own versions.
Zumba is not limited to these four dances. Salsa, Reggaeton, Merengue, and Cumbia simply form the core of the class, and many others are thrown in by the instructor, from Flamenco to Samba to Belly Dancing. As a specialist in South Asian literature in my day job, my signature is to include a dance from the Indian subcontinent in every class, whether it is to Bollywood classic 'Sheila ki Jawani', bhangra such as 'Tunak Tunak Tun' or 'Hadippa', 'Jugni Ji' by British-Punjabi music producer Dr Zeus. The inclusive nature of Zumba means that it embodies the kind of happy hybridity famously championed by postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha.
Taking these diverse dance styles, most of which are traditionally performed with a partner, Zumba turns them in to a kind of high-energy line dancing (it's a lot better than it sounds, I promise!). The programme took off in the US in the early 2000s and went big in Europe around seven years ago. Other similar programmes such as Bokwa and FitSteps have tried to challenge Zumba's popularity, but Beto's following shows little sign of diminishment.
Zumba routines are based around songs with different speeds and levels of intensity, as compared with aerobics' more homogeneous four to the floor rhythm patterns. This ever-changing pace means that Zumba is a kind of interval training, a varied form of exercise which can trick the body into burning more calories than steadier rhythms. Additionally, Zumba's music should be uplifting and intricate, so that the time seems to pass very quickly and class members don't feel as though they're exercising. Finally, research suggests that Zumba -- and dancing more broadly -- is good for mental health. During the class, one has to think about one's feet and arms all the time, so there is no room for thoughts about work or other stresses, in what is a type of mindfulness.
Zumba attracts an international fan-base. At my Christmas Eve class at the University of Leeds, UK, there was a reduced crowd of 13 in attendance. Only one class member and I were white; the others were students from East and South Asia, or were Black or mixed-heritage. As well as hybrid music forms, then, Zumba apparently provides space for spontaneous ‘conviviality’. This space, Paul Gilroy explains, positively disrupts binary thought and ‘the leaky barriers of race and absolute ethnicity’ that dominated imperialist discourse and persist today.
The dance programme is less pluralist in relation to gender. In Britain, it is dominated by women and, to a lesser extent, gay men. Many buttoned-up Britons seem to think it is simply unappealing to straight men. In less inhibited Italy, I hear, Zumba cuts across genders and sexualities in a way that is genuinely inclusive.
Zumba also has a ruthlessly commercial side. Under the slogan 'Zumba Love', the company will sell you anything from neon pants to a bumper sticker emblazoned with the ominous slogan, 'Zumba Changed My Wife'. One of the best articles to pick up on those aspects of the programme most ripe for satire is by a feminist anthropologist based at Princeton:
How am I, an outsider, to follow these wordless instructions, dictated by gestures as subtle and specific as a swift movement of the head, or even merely the eye, in the direction of the foot intended to kick? The instructor offers no answers, merely pelvic thrusts and the shrill cry of an “arriba.”
Zumba is emphatically uncool. It nonetheless conveys important truths about the world and its music, which can be useful to the postcolonial scholar. With profuse apologies to Frantz Fanon for wresting his words out of context, when dancing I often think of this sentence from The Wretched of the Earth: 'The circle of the dance is a permissive circle: it protects and permits.'
At the end of what has been a very difficult year 2016, I think world literature and Zumba dance can help us keep sane in a milieu that seems to be collectively going mad.
Marianne Brandt. Self Portrait in Globe at Atelier Bauhaus. c 1928-1929.
by Hari Balasubramanian
I've noticed that it isn't easy to strike up a meaningful conversation with someone who doesn't fit into your professional or social circle. Even among strangers we look for clues and – understandably – seek out people with whom we might have something in common. This behavior appears to erect subtle barriers between groups of people who live or work in the same physical space – say the same neighborhood or even the same building – but hardly interact.
One example of this I experienced dates back to my graduate school days. I worked as a research assistant for six years (2000-2006) on the fifth floor of the engineering building at Arizona State University. I noticed I could easily strike up a conversation with professors and fellow graduate students, who were from very different backgrounds and countries. But I somehow found myself shy in the afternoon and evenings in talking to the janitor who cleaned and maintained the two dozen rooms on our floor. I wanted to connect with him but found it difficult to step out of my comfort zone. I wondered what the reason was. Was it because our work was so different? Because we were from different countries? Would I have managed to strike up a conversation more easily if he too was from India? Was it his personality?
Mark was a constant presence in the hallways and restrooms every weekday from four in the afternoon. Most times you just heard his presence: the clink of his thick bunch of keys; the rumble of the large trash-can-on-wheels; a pause; a knock on an office or lab door; the emptying of trash; and then clink and rumble again before the next pause. And at times you heard an insistent squeak in the hallway – that was Mark using his sneakers to erase a smear off the linoleum floor.
Mark was probably in his early sixties. He was balding, but had a thin ponytail. Most days, he wore a light gray shirt, blue jeans, and glasses. He had a gray-white beard, and an intense, withering gaze. His movements were short and abrupt.
He took his work very seriously and did it well. He worked with such verve that the offices, labs, and hallways of our level might well have been a cherished, sacred space to be meticulously guarded and maintained. He would stand and stare at a blemish on the floor as if it were a personal affront. With a look of annoyance and a few mumbled words, he would angrily set about effacing it. I remember how my friends and I had once played a makeshift version of cricket in the lab (with a squishy ball, and a notebook serving as a bat) and left scattered imprints of our soles with our frantic running. Mark noticed these imprints later that afternoon; he was puzzled and looked long and hard and intensely at them.
I wasn't the only one mindful of Mark and his moods. Others – students, staff and professors – were keen as well on ensuring they cooperated with him. Mark chatted with with only one or two faculty members. He was closest to Dan Riviera, a professor who worked late, and with whom he developed a lasting friendship. I heard them talking often when I stepped into the hallway: Dan, leaning against his office door, and Mark with his mop or trash can; or just-arrived Mark still with his cap on and with his dinner in a blue and white box.
That was exactly the kind of connection I too sought. But I never managed it. There were a lot of hellos but I never went beyond the preliminaries. I was nervous, and there was a reason for it.
Mark once put up a notice on our lab door requesting everyone to leave by 5 pm. He was going to wax the floor and clean the room; it would take him all of that evening. He came in punctually at the appointed time and announced to those of us still working that we had to leave. So we packed our bags and left but I went back in a minute later.
"I need to get a textbook for the evening," I told him.
"Get out of here!" he said.
I thought he was just joking, so I smiled sheepishly and continued to stand in the middle of the room, though hesitantly.
"Don't screw with me," he said, his rage now plain. "Get the fuck out of here!"
He was carrying a long wooden pole with a brush at one end for cleaning the ceiling. It looked like a weapon to me then. I left in a hurry, shaken, my knees weak and wobbly. I wondered if he would always remember me from that incident. But I don't think he kept track of such things. Mark was just sincere about his work; he abhorred interruptions and I had interrupted his work – it was the interruption he had yelled at, not me. Anyone who upset his work routine was at the receiving end of his ire.
I did not know anything about his personal life. There were only glimpses. He didn't come to work one day. I wouldn't have noticed, but he came to our lab the next day (presumably, he went to other labs and offices too) and said with great earnestness, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to come yesterday. My little dog wasn't feeling well."
And on November 02 2004, Election Day – the day John Kerry lost – I thought I could talk to him about politics and start a conversation that way.
"Have you already voted, Mark?" I asked.
"No, I am not a registered voter," he said, smiling.
I hadn't expected this response – for some reason, it threw me off. I couldn't go further, thinking that to ask why he wasn't registered would be too intrusive. Besides he was busy.
But I did know that his health wasn't good. He looked exhausted most of the time. I saw him once next to the sink in the hallway, holding on to the ledge of the sink for support, his head bowed. At other times, he seemed to just will himself on despite his fatigue. I learned later that he was epileptic and had diabetes. He had suffered a collapse once in the hallway. And it was his health that eventually put an end to his work. When he stopped coming, I asked Dan Riviera what had happened. He told me Mark had had an amputation because of health complications, and had claimed for disability.
I last saw Mark in the loading area behind the building a few months later. He was using crutches, walking with some difficulty. I stopped and said hello. His face lit up when he saw me and said: "Hey, how are you?" I was surprised because I'd never felt that he knew or could recognize me. On that final occasion, like all other, we talked very little - a friendly sentence of two. Nevertheless Mark's personality and uncompromising work ethic left a lasting impression.
I graduated the next year, and two years later, I starting teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At the new red brick buildings I frequented, I got to know some of the custodians and janitors. One of them, who worked the evening shift, always greeted me with a booming voice – "Hello Professor!"– and admonished me playfully when I stayed late: "What are you still doing here?" Another, who worked in a different building, turned out to be an outspoken supporter of Trump – he'd voted for Sanders, but after Sanders' loss in the primary, immediately turned to Trump, and in the months leading up to the election, was visibly angry with the establishment and mainstream media, was sympathetic to the conspiracy theories making the rounds, always warning of a wave in favor of Trump in the forgotten hill towns of Massachusetts where he was from.
And there was B., a polite, soft-spoken man in his sixties who worked in the morning, and spoke with nostalgia of his past jobs – the numerous construction projects he had been part of. He had been part of a bridge or dam project in Vermont which had to ensure that species of fish could easily continue their journeys unobstructed. He spoke of the extensive network of pipes and other infrastructure underneath the UMass campus, a subterranean world that he'd traversed and which enabled heating during the winter months. As a custodian, he understood the faults of the decades old building he worked in, its electricity and water supply. Even without a college degree, B. knew far more about mechanical and electrical systems than I did. Although I had majored in manufacturing engineering and interned in automobile assembly plants in India, I had never tinkered with anything; I only had a half-baked, textbook knowledge of how an engine or motor worked, if at all. Since graduate school I had moved even further away from traditional engineering, to the field of operations research, which involves abstract mathematical modeling, playing with numbers and algorithms that are stimulating as mental exercises but are well removed from physical reality.
B. wanted to share some of his hands-on experience in construction projects, and wondered if there were professors who would allow him to speak in the classroom. This seemed like a great idea. The difficulty was that the engineering professors who might have been interested were so absorbed in their day to day academic activities that they wouldn't even know that someone like B., whose knowledge in certain domains might have exceeded their own, worked in the same building, walked the same corridors. There aren't many occasions where the two worlds meet.
The past is inevitable.
…………—Delmore Schwartz, Poet
Hadn't Thought of it Like That
Though likely, tomorrow is
This day’s loose ends twist in the wind
like kite tails jerked in blue at the end of present’s string
becoming codas no one can sing—
the future’s not something on which you should bet
Only Now sings real arias
If you stand on the bridge in the middle of town
where the river parts at abutments in bow waves
split as the bridge’s foot in the stream
becomes a ship’s prow plowing north to nowhere
and gives the early crimson sky
an oscillating rendition of itself in its otherwise slick mirror
you catch a glimpse of your bobbing head
in flames of pleated clouds
You are its aria
As you turn and walk off you get
that the past is inevitable
Photo: The Bridge of Flowers
by Martin Yaffee
In deep sorrow for the people of Aleppo.
by Mathangi Krishnamurthy
My time-travel fantasies often include a return to my first memory of romantic embarrassment, wherein I had shied away from the unknown boy in front of me, one who I had seen lurking around five feet away the many past weeks, and who had emerged from the shadows to ask, "Will you make friendship with me?" At that time, I had experienced embarrassment and romantic fulfillment in the same breath. In that moment, I had thought myself a lawful entrant into the mysterious world of boy-girl relationships. And in that very knowledge, I had exercised my rights to refuse and walked away. Now, I wish I had been a different person who had paused to find out. Now, I wish I had for a moment, doubted the common knowledge of what a question like that might mean, and instead, waited. Now, I wish I had taken up the possibility of friendship. For what more a radical question than that can there be? To extend one's hand out to a person of unknown and little experienced character, disposition, and gender. To state merely that one's purpose in approaching, was friendship. Thus far. The no further could have come later on. Or not.
Since then, I have been better at allaying my expert suspicions. I have made friends. And I have grown further fascinated with the set of relationships we so summarily explain away with the term, "friendship". Movie stars in India, when interrogated as to possible amorous connections between them, often respond in the coded phrase, "just friends". But how could there be mere-ness in the relationship of being friends?
My earliest memories of the parts of a childhood, which trouble me most, are of not having friends. I was a strange person, a quiet creature, and one neither aware nor willing to be aware of people, as much as books. Possible candidates for friendship were beings of light and laughter, as much as I was morose and corner-bound. Then as in now, I was painfully aware of a loneliness that underlined all waking minutes. The first friends I made I was constantly suspicious of, worrying that they smiled to my face while secretly plotting my demise. It didn't help that we were avid competitors for that coveted top spot in class. Other friends, boys and girls alike, must have noticed my craven longings for friendship of whatever kind, and invited me home so I could help with their homework. Even as this afforded me some possibility of claiming friends, I knew something was off.
I envied my parents' friendships, formed so easily within the structures of their dependencies. Mothers were friends with one another, fathers were friends with one another, and everyone knew who could and could not share meals, teas, and day-trips. Within these solid hierarchies, and mild crossovers, I saw them share and exchange language, crises, recipes, and political opinions.
The first happy friendship I can recall was with a supremely kind, older girl who I regret not knowing anymore. In her, I remember noticing a beatific patience, and a feeling of oneness with the world, neither of which I knew I possessed. Even in her doubts, she was nevertheless at peace. We were twelve and thirteen, and took long walks, speaking of people, animals, the trees, and relationships between men and women. When she and her parents moved house, I was left with a renewed sense of profound loneliness and misery, no different from future experiences of romantic disappointments and break-ups. It was not that this friendship was romantic, I realized, but that its intensity matched and perhaps, superseded those feelings that we only easily ascribe to certain matters of the heart.
Growing older, far from the boundaries of family, home, and school within which I was defined, I ventured forth, still suspicious, still unwilling to believe in the possibility of friends. History is after all, the weight of other people. And yet, in the raucousness that is a women's hostel, I bet on people and they bet on me. We played, fought, cooked, set things on fire, and talked late into the night, together enjoying this halfway house that we had been bequeathed before having to venture out into the world.
Since then, the world has re-arranged itself into an array of friends. My face has grown more open, my limbs colt-like, and my eyes wide-eyed at the possibilities of transcendence that only friendship offers. Poets, artists, and songwriters can occupy themselves with love; me, I only pay obeisance to friendship, for like a good Capricornian I prize consistency, and persistence over wild, roller-coaster rides. And then, of course, friendship being the amoeboid that it is means that one need not have to choose. But people do. And I must confess to not understanding the hierarchies between friendship and romance.
I am, not however, naïve. I know that my friendships often orient themselves within familiar grids of caste, class, and gender. But it is in the alteration of these arrangements that I am interested. As I live my friendships, I am also intrigued by their political possibilities; as a critique of the present world and an active desire for its betterment. How better to think of possibility than through friendship? Many, far wiser, and far more engaged than me have considered this as well, but for them, politics and indeed, friendship remains the realm of men. The act of friendship among women that many write and ponder about has also produced an alternate set of possibilities that are worth thinking about. And friendship between men and women and those who identify themselves as sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes neither? And between those of the highest and lowest classes and castes?
Even as alliances, solidarities, and support systems do exist among and across identities of difference, there is work to be done. In these troubled times more than ever, we need friendships. For we need to acknowledge the common conditions of humanity that we share, even as we admit to the accruing of privilege among some at the cost of the marginalization of others. Friendship may disturb that which other structures hold in place. Else, we are doomed to merely regurgitating the language of good and evil. And as those who maintain complex friendships will tell you, the movement of power between bodies and lives is all that determines the production of good and evil. And we need political possibilities that naysay power.
I am charged and recharged by every encounter of friendship. Every one of them plays with my insides, and bends my will. I listen, alert to the Other, seeking the frisson of conversational difference. I look forward to the banter, and the incomprehension, and the back and forth, in the search for that rare moment when the Other makes itself manifest in all clarity and honesty and you see it and it sees you. In the hope of these connections, I open myself to every possible friendship. There is a profound loneliness to being human. Some of us experience it, and some of us distract ourselves from it. In friendship however, is the possibility of being lonely together. And this I miss most of all. I sometimes fantasize about being the host of salons of inspiring, inspired people that will together participate in this project of friendship, but then I realize that salons were public spaces, whereas that which I seek is the most intimate private space of self and Other.
My life choices are a series of errors, I think. Why, I wonder have I chased ambition, and work, and adult-like settling instead of chasing my friends, three score and some times around the world? Why have I not determined that my only chances at sanity and plenitude lie with these people I have chosen and those that have chosen me in generosity and kindness and eternal presence? Why do they not chase me three score and some times around the world, I wonder? But then, these questions I have also asked of lovers past, so perhaps, I need to pose my willful ignorance in a different fashion.
Sometimes, I read obituaries in the newspaper. Tucked away on page fifteen or so, occupying barely one modest corner of these daily bundles of mayhem and chaos, they bear testimony. They are small. I suppose, every paisa spent after death counts as a bad return on investment. Every word, I imagine, to be measured out. "Survived by", they read. And barely ever, in these little packets of lives is there a mention of friends. Were these people so contained? Is kin all they needed, and all they left? I think of kin as both my family and my friends. My fondest hopes for old age are to live with my friends, for I am convinced that only we will have the tenacity and tolerance for each other's idiosyncrasies. Already, we are the only ones that do. And perhaps, in each other's company, we will learn to be friends with the world.
—Mary Mraz Culleny, 12/8/17-3/2/03
The tsunami scent of yeast inundated our house
the mornings our mother baked bread
up through floorboards it came, up the stairwell
it spread stirring our dreamselves alive—
fresh loaves, bells for the nose
their toll sent sleep from somnolent heads
I’d written that thinking of her floured hands,
sifting, kneading, table strewn
with the tools of her art and the stuff she teased
and blended with such skill, without need to measure,
knowing by sight and weight —by feel, what it took
to fold matter and love into sustenance
in her confectionery mill, her love kitchen