Sunday, March 22, 2015
Biologists may be able to quickly spread a gene to disease-transmitting mosquitoes that stops malaria parasites
John Bohannon in Science:
On 28 December 2014, Valentino Gantz and Ethan Bier checked on the fruit flies that had just hatched in their lab at the University of California (UC), San Diego. By the classic rules of Mendelian genetics, only one out of four of the newborn flies should have shown the effects of the mutation their mothers carried, an X-linked recessive trait that causes a loss of pigmentation similar to albinism. Instead, nothing but pale yellow flies kept emerging. “We were stunned,” says Bier, who is Gantz’s Ph.D. adviser. “It was like the sun rose in the west rather than the east.” They hammered out a paper and submitted it to Science 3 days later.
In the study, published online this week, Gantz and Bier report that the introduced mutation disabled both normal copies of a pigmentation gene on the fruit fly chromosomes, transmitting itself to the next generation with 97% efficiency—a near-complete invasion of the genome. The secret of its success: an increasingly popular gene-editing toolkit called CRISPR, which Gantz and Bier adapted to give the mutation an overwhelming advantage. The technique is the latest—and some say, most impressive—example of gene drive: biasing inheritance to spread a gene rapidly through a population, or even an entire species. At this level of efficiency, a single mosquito equipped with a parasite-blocking gene could in theory spread malaria resistance through an entire breeding population in a single season (see diagram).
Birds in the Garden of the Cairo Marriott
And you, little birds, are waiters but not smiling,
hopping at the sad indignity of that man
(he said Detriot was home) on his second
giant burger; with your quick in-and-out
besieging tables sweetened by the sugared sky
of Cairo, you mock the nicest men with napkins
on their shoulders — would they snap at scraps? —
and your big rivals, we’d call them crows
but they are dignity itself in brown tuxedos,
peering from high perches of a Disney Ramasseum,
speaking faultless American forever,
they must be Prefects of the Underworld!
The little dust we drop our crumbs upon
seethes like the Red Sea Crossing — if this is history
asks a powerless nation, can mere birds
patrol the valley of the Kings each morning?
Three sparrows who have ĥotep somewhere
in their suffix drop beside our just uncovered
breakfast tomb: all food, they say,
is like another wave upon the Nile, a dream
worth sleeping for — the gods immured in obelisks
consider everything; their High Priests clad in aprons
are opening umbrellas as the sun begins
to climb above the masts of potted palms.
by Peter Porter
from Poetry Review, 98:2
Publisher: Poetry Review, London, 2008
Andreas Wagner in Aeon:
How do random DNA changes lead to innovation? Darwin’s concept of natural selection, although crucial to understand evolution, doesn’t help much. The thing is, selection can only spread innovations that already exist. The botanist Hugo de Vries said it best in 1905: ‘Natural selection can explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.’ (Half a century earlier, Darwin had already admitted that calling variations random is just another way of admitting that we don’t know their origins.) A metaphor might help to clarify the problem. Imagine a giant library of books containing all possible sequences of letters in the alphabet. Such a library would be huge beyond imagination, and most of its texts would of course be pure gibberish. But some would contain islands of intelligibility – a word here, a Haiku there – in a sea of random letters. Still others would tell all stories real and imagined: not only Dickens’s Oliver Twist or Goethe’s Faust, but all possible novels and dramas, the biography of every single human, true and false histories of the world, of other worlds as yet unseen, and so on. Some texts would include descriptions of countless technological innovations, from the wheel to the steam engine to the transistor – including countless innovations yet to be imagined. But the chances of choosing such a valuable tome by chance are minuscule.
A protein is a volume in a library just like this, written in a 20-letter alphabet of amino acids. And while protein texts might not be as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, their total number is still astonishing. For example, a library of every possible amino acid string that is 500 letters long would contain more than 10600 texts – a one with 600 trailing zeros. That vastly outnumbers the atoms in the visible universe. The library is a giant space of the possible, encoding all the proteins that could be useful to life. But here’s the thing: evolution can’t simply look up the chemicals it needs in a giant catalogue. No, it has to inch its way painstakingly along the stacks. Imagine a crowd of browsers – each one representing an entire familial line – who must blindly explore the library, step by random step. This sounds like a party game, but there’s a grisly twist. A mutation that compromises an essential protein such as haemoglobin is punishable by death. On that ill-fated volume, the bloodline ends.
The challenge, then, is to land on texts that work.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
Claire Cameron in Nautilus (image The Discussion by Harry Wilson Watrous):
A Language Where Time Flows East to West
Stanford linguist Lera Boroditsky and Berkeley’s Alice Gaby studied the language Kuuk Thaayorre, spoken by the Pormpuraaw people, also in Queensland, Australia. Like Guugu Ymithirr, it uses cardinal directions to express locations. But Boroditsky and Gaby found that in Kuuk Thaayorre, this also affected a speaker’s interpretation of of time.
In a series of experiments, the linguists had Kuuk Thaayorre speakers put a sequential series of cards in order—one which showed a man aging, another of a crocodile growing, and of a person eating a banana. The speakers were sat at tables during the experiment, once facing south, and another time facing north. Regardless of which direction they were facing, all speakers arranged the cards in order from east to west—the same direction the sun’s path takes through the sky as the day passes. By contrast, English speakers doing the same experiment always arranged the cards from left to right—the direction in which we read.
For the Kuuk Thaayorre speakers, the passage of time was intimately tied to the cardinal directions. “We never told anyone which direction they were facing,” wrote Boroditsky. “The Kuuk Thaayorre knew that already and spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.”
Franҫois Kiper in the LA Review of Books:
PARENTS AND CHILDREN of the 1990s will remember the PBS “edutainment” television series The Magic School Bus. For many children of this generation, the animated series melded fact and fantasy to distill the complexity of biological, physical, and chemical processes into a fun, microcosmic world explored by a group of elementary school students.
The Emmy-winning cable news show VICE, now into its third season on HBO, likewise often conflates the distinction between reality and the imagination to entertain and (at least professedly) to instruct its viewers. While not animated, VICE simplifies the confusing, overlapping worlds of domestic and foreign affairs by reducing such vexing problems as terrorism, genocide, and poverty to sensational, 30-minute films unfolding in real time, shot from a direct, firsthand perspective. The show’s cameras breathlessly follow its correspondents — “boots on the ground” in the parlance of series creator, frontman, and Svengali Shane Smith, who has a penchant for overblown militaristic rhetoric — as their unmediated, first person accounts of world-historical issues invariably place them in the thick of perilous circumstances, often amidst whirring gunfire and exploding tear gas canisters. VICE’s swashbuckling, immersive eyewitness mode of staging the news plunges the viewer into the action in the manner of a first person video game. Not surprisingly, then, every VICE episode is an engrossing and exhilarating cinematic experience, which is certainly a testament to the talent of the series’ production staff. Even the most cynically guarded TV viewer would be hard-pressed to refrain from marveling at — and temporarily living vicariously through — the exploits of VICE’s correspondents.
However, if we are all students riding on the adrenaline-fueled magic school bus piloted by Smith, executive producer Bill Maher, and chief creative guru Eddy Moretti, perhaps it’s time to stop and question where they are taking us now that the show is into its third season.
Whereas the Magic School Bus series never purported to represent “hard science,” nor held any pretense to usurping the field of science from scientists, VICE CEO Shane Smith makes no bones about his show being equal to the task of “heavy” and “serious” journalism. Despite the show’s disregard (or ignorance) of fundamental journalistic ethics — such as the hazards of participant observation — Smith unabashedly proclaims that VICE is “blazing a new trail” at the forefront of “a changing of the guard in media.”
Aatish Taseer in the NYT (image Damien Poulain):
India has had languages of the elite in the past — Sanskrit was one, Persian another. They were needed to unite an entity more linguistically diverse than Europe. But there was perhaps never one that bore such an uneasy relationship to the languages operating beneath it, a relationship the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as “a scorched-earth policy,” as English.
India, if it is to speak to itself, will always need a lingua franca. But English, which re-enacts the colonial relationship, placing certain Indians in a position the British once occupied, does more than that. It has created a linguistic line as unbreachable as the color line once was in the United States.
Two students I met in Varanasi encapsulated India’s tortured relationship with English. Both attended Benares Hindu University, which was founded in the early 20th century to unite traditional Indian learning with modern education from the West. Both students were symbols of the failure of this enterprise.
One of them, Vishal Singh, was a popular basketball player, devoted to Michael Jordan and Enfield motorbikes. He was two-thirds of the way through a degree in social sciences — some mixture of psychology, sociology and history. All of his classes were in English, but, over the course of a six-week friendship, I discovered to my horror that he couldn’t string together a sentence in the language. He was the first to admit that his education was a sham, but English was power. And if, in three years, he learned no more than a handful of basic sentences in English, he was still in a better position than the other student I came to know.
That student, Sheshamuni Shukla, studied classical grammar in the Sanskrit department. He had spent over a decade mastering rules of grammar set down by the ancient Indian grammarians some 2,000 years before. He spoke pure and beautiful Hindi; in another country, a number of careers might have been open to him. But in India, without English, he was powerless. Despite his grand education, he would be lucky to end up as a teacher or a clerk in a government office.
Michael Ruse in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
You have got a fever, your body aches, and you feel dreadful. What should you do? The traditional answer is: “Take two aspirin, drink lots of fluids, get to bed and call me in the morning if you don’t feel better.” Could it be that this is just the wrong advice? That the last thing you should do is reduce your temperature with aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever? Is it, to use a phrase, nature’s way of fighting illness? This is very much the position of a small group of biologists and medics who are pushing what has come to be known as “evolutionary medicine.” Crystallized about 20 years ago by a book – Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine – authored by the distinguished evolutionist George C. Williams and the psychiatrist Randolph Nesse, it claims that the force that caused us all, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection, does not care about human happiness or even human health per se. What it cares about is survival and reproduction and it is prepared to go to great measures to achieve its ends. Too long has medicine focused only on proximate causes, the physiological and other reasons for ill health. What we must do also is look at end causes, what Aristotle calls final causes and what we might call ultimate causes, and put our bodies and their functioning in perspective – a perspective that in this day and age means Darwinian evolution brought about by natural selection. If selection found that fevers increase life expectancies and consequent reproductive success, then bring them on, no matter how unpleasant they may be. That evolution is important is probably accepted by every medical person today in some respects.
...However, going back further, fascinatingly and paradoxically, the person most responsible for keeping evolution out of medical education was Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s self-styled “bulldog.” Huxley was a fanatical evolutionist and preached it publicly on every occasion. But he was never that keen on natural selection and thought overall that evolution was too speculative – and of no real value – to biological education. As I discovered by looking at student notebooks, in a 165-lecture course on biology, he would give less than half a lecture to evolution, and selection got all of 10 minutes. As a master academic politician and system builder – and as one who incidentally started life with a medical degree – Huxley saw the medics as the source of support for his science and his students. After the total muck up in the Crimean War, when most soldiers died of disease and dirtiness and not battle, the medical profession realized that the time had come to stop killing and start curing. Huxley gave them the perfect solution. “I will educate people in basic biology and then you can take them and turn them into doctors.”
Miranda Seymour in The Telegraph:
In June 1857, following a series of seemingly unrelated uprisings by disaffected Indian soldiers in the employ of their British overlords, Cawnpore was still under siege and Delhi had been taken by the mutineers. Up in the Punjab, one of the most ferocious of the British Generals, John Nicholson, had frightened potential rebels into subjection by blasting 40 live mutineers out of the mouths of loaded cannons, before marching his modest force of 600 cavalry and 2,400 infantry down the Grand Trunk Road to the rescue of Delhi.
Theo Metcalfe, one of the closely linked tribe of ancestors around whom Ferdinand Mount builds his enthralling account of India under a century of British rule, had narrowly escaped being massacred in Delhi before, breathing fire and baying for blood, he joined Nicholson's avenging army. The self-styled Delhi Field Force were taking a brief afternoon rest when a tiny severed foot was delivered into their camp. The foot, still neatly buttoned into its shoe, was that of a small white child. Nobody knew who had brought it, but nine local villagers, following the evening parade, were hanged in savage retaliation from a single tree.Nicholson and Metcalfe were united by their fury against the natives whom they had already begun to slaughter with incontinent zeal. What neither man fully grasped was the real significance of that curious token. What it indicated, Mount suggests, was an unequivocal determination on the part of the so-called mutineers to exterminate an alien and conquering race. Mincing no words, Mount describes the chief intention of the Indian Mutiny (or First War of Independence, as it's known in India) as British genocide.
In her father’s land they plant bombs
as it rains sand and angry prayers
sent west, her country an hourglass
of deformed snow globes,
trickle of broken roads, every family
a house with pillars missing.
The night tricks silence into sweat,
beads ticking red as she purses her lips
to quit shivering in the urge:
say something dangerous.
Poetry is unladylike.
In the right light
her veil is burning from her face,
a wind giving wings to its embers.
She imagines setting the entire desert on fire.
Unladylike. If alone, her mouth opens cold like Russia’s
orphaned Kalashnikovs, the men’s ears still ringing–
her song flows full of outdated weaponry,
informally trained assassin, she carries
her true voice like cowboys would
a dagger in their boot.
by Meena Muska
Ever since its first publication in 1934, Miklós Szentkuthy’s Prae has continued to baffle generations of critics and readers alike. Regarded as a seminal work by some, dismissed as a pretentious monstrosity by others, Prae, Szentkuthy’s first work, was published when the Hungarian author was merely twenty-six years old.
To date, the book has never been translated in its entirety into any language, though excerpts appeared in French and Serbo-Croatian in the 1970s, and sections had been translated into German in the 1930s but were never published. It is quite an enterprise, then, on the part of Contra Mundum Press, to commit to publishing Prae, following two other works by Szentkuthy—Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor—all three translated by Tim Wilkinson. For a translator, the sheer bulk of the book is daunting enough, not to mention its myriad stylistic idiosyncrasies: long, convoluted sentences, stunning metaphors and neologisms, the references to branches of learning as diverse as art history, physics, philosophy, and biology, as well as Latin and German phrases, often invented by the writer.
When it comes to writers of stature, comparisons used as advertising catchwords are usually more misleading than helpful, but to give an idea of what reading Szentkuthy may remind the reader of, I would say that he is Joycean in his masterful juggling of European culture in describing everyday life, Rabelaisian in his grotesque extravagance, Sterneian in his predilection for digression as a structural device, and Proustian in his keen and precise recording of sense impressions and their sediments in our mind.
A theme of all these books is that ASI would not need to hate us in order to destroy us. Even if its goal were to bake the perfect Victoria sponge, it might decide to wipe out all of humanity just in case one of us was tempted to turn the oven off early. We may hope that it would not do such a thing to us, its makers, but instead regard us with a sense of affection and filial obligation. But that is to project on to it those un-programmable human sensibilities. And anyway, if we discovered that we were created by bacteria, would we be nicer to them? Probably not much.
Perhaps more worrying than the difficulties of creating friendly machines is that most AI developers are not even trying to or, indeed, are striving for the opposite. As Barrat points out, most of the research is sponsored by business and designed to do things such as make money on the stock market — well over half of all Wall Street’s equity trades are already made by automated systems. The other main sources of funding are defence agencies. Darpa, the US defence department’s research body, has long been a major sponsor of AI. According to Barrat, alongside the US, at least a further 55 countries are “developing robots for the battlefield”. In other words, the serious money is going into AI designed to be decidedly unfriendly — AI that is, in fact, designed to kill humans. What could possibly go wrong?
This is key to Fraser’s thesis. What fueled the resistance to the first Gilded Age, he argues, was the fact that many Americans had a recent memory of a different kind of economic system, whether in America or back in Europe. Many at the forefront of the resistance were actively fighting to protect a way of life, whether it was the family farm that was being lost to predatory creditors or small-scale artisanal businesses being wiped out by industrial capitalism. Having known something different from their grim present, they were capable of imagining — and fighting for — a radically better future.
It is this imaginative capacity that is missing from our second Gilded Age, a theme to which Fraser returns again and again in the latter half of the book. The latest inequality chasm has opened up at a time when there is no popular memory — in the United States, at least — of another kind of economic system. Whereas the activists and agitators of the first Gilded Age straddled two worlds, we find ourselves fully within capitalism’s matrix. So while we can demand slight improvements to our current conditions, we have a great deal of trouble believing in something else entirely.
Fraser devotes several chapters to outlining the key “fables” which, he argues, have served as particularly effective resistance-avoidance tools. These range from the billionaire as rebel to the supposedly democratizing impact of mass stock ownership to the idea that contract work is a form of liberation.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Quassim Cassam in Aeon:
The weirder the belief, the stranger it seems that someone can have it. Asking why people believe weird things isn’t like asking why they believe it’s raining as they look out of the window and see the rain pouring down. It’s obvious why people believe it’s raining when they have compelling evidence, but it’s far from obvious why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job when he has access to compelling evidence that it wasn’t an inside job.
I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how theyinterpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.
Julie Rehmeyer in Discover:
One of the most remarkable and mysterious technical advances in the history of the world is written on the hide of a 13th-century calf. Inked into the vellum is a chart of the Mediterranean so accurate that ships today could navigate with it. Most earlier maps that included the region were not intended for navigation and were so imprecise that they are virtually unrecognizable to the modern eye.
With this map, it’s as if some medieval mapmaker flew to the heavens and sketched what he saw — though in reality, he could never have traveled higher than a church tower.
The person who made this document — the first so-called portolan chart, from the Italian word portolano, meaning “a collection of sailing directions” — spawned a new era of mapmaking and oceanic exploration. For the first time, Europeans could accurately visualize their continent in a way that enabled them to improvise new navigational routes instead of simply going from point to point.
That first portolan mapmaker also created an enormous puzzle for historians to come, because he left behind few hints of his method: no rough drafts, no sketches, no descriptions of his work. “Even with all the information he had — every sailor’s notebook, every description in every journal — I wouldn’t know how to make the map he made,” says John Hessler, a specialist in modern cartography at the Library of Congress.
But Hessler has approached the question using a tool that is foreign to most historians: mathematics.
Goerge Yancy and Noam Chomsky in the New York Times:
George Yancy: When I think about the title of your book “On Western Terrorism,” I’m reminded of the fact that many black people in the United States have had a long history of being terrorized by white racism, from random beatings to the lynching of more than 3,000 black people (including women) between 1882 and 1968. This is why in 2003, when I read about the dehumanizing acts committed at Abu Ghraib prison, I wasn’t surprised. I recall that after the photos appeared President George W. Bush said that “This is not the America I know.” But isn’t this the America black people have always known?
Noam Chomsky: The America that “black people have always known” is not an attractive one. The first black slaves were brought to the colonies 400 years ago. We cannot allow ourselves to forget that during this long period there have been only a few decades when African-Americans, apart from a few, had some limited possibilities for entering the mainstream of American society.
We also cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new “empire of liberty” were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society, as well as England and the continent. The industrial revolution was based on cotton, produced primarily in the slave labor camps of the United States.
As is now known, they were highly efficient. Productivity increased even faster than in industry, thanks to the technology of the bullwhip and pistol, and the efficient practice of brutal torture, as Edward E. Baptist demonstrates in his recent study, “The Half Has Never Been Told.” The achievement includes not only the great wealth of the planter aristocracy but also American and British manufacturing, commerce and the financial institutions of modern state capitalism.
Before she published My Brilliant Friend, the first volume of her much-celebrated Neapolitan series, in 2011, Elena Ferrante was known for three short, violent novels about women on the outer boundary of sanity. Although their stories are unrelated, the books form a thematic trilogy. Each is narrated by a woman who embodies a different aspect of female experience—in Troubling Love, a daughter; in Days of Abandonment, a wife; in The Lost Daughter, a mother—and each is concerned with how these domestic roles constrict the lives of their protagonists. Ferrante is often asked about the classical influences in her work, and reading these books you can see why. They are strikingly compressed and spare, set largely in enclosed, almost anonymous, spaces that evoke the stage of a Greek drama, their focus turned inward on the narrator’s slow uncovering of the unconscious forces underneath ordinary family life.
The best-known of the three, Days of Abandonment, is narrated by a kind of contemporary Medea, a woman whose husband has just left her for the teenage daughter of a family friend. In an ominous early scene, she accidently breaks a bottle of wine while preparing a meal, leaving shards of broken glass in her husband’s food and making her wonder whether she secretly wants him dead.
Drawn by caricaturist John Leech, the illustrations of Gilbert Abbott à Beckett’s The Comic History of Rome are a Victorian fever dream of ancient Rome. Senators pair their togas with top hats, generals wear muttonchops under their helmets, and priests styled as snake charmers draw gullible crowds with the help of coal-powered rotating billboards. The blending of past and present in Leech’s illustrations is on one level a simple visual joke that reinforces the humor of the text, dragging the glories of Roman history down to the level of the contemporary London street. A closer look at the context of the book, however, reveals a series of interesting tensions beneath the surface humor.
Leech and à Beckett first worked together on the staff of Punch, the satirical London periodical. First published in 1841, Punch quickly gained a reputation for capturing – and mocking – the cultural zeitgeist of Victorian London, from pompous politicians to the unwashed masses. Henry Silver, a Punch contributor, wrote in his diary in 1864 that Leech “sneers at the Working Man, as usual.” A staunch Tory, Leech frequently came into conflict with the more progressive members of the early Punch staff about the content of the magazine. His cartoons often portrayed the urban poor as stupid and the wealthy as frivolous. À Beckett, on the other hand, was a member of the progressive-minded Reform Club and earned a reputation for understanding and generosity when he served as Poor Law commissioner in 1849.
“Truly,” Beethoven remarked in 1827, “in Schubert there dwells a divine spark.” Franz Schubert himself worshiped the older composer and was a torchbearer at his funeral. In the following year, he asked for one of Beethoven’s string quartets to be played at his own sickbed, days, if not hours, before he died at the age of thirty-one. Many of Schubert’s works contain homages to Beethoven: the Fate theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the animating motif of Schubert’s terrifying song “Der Zwerg” (The Dwarf). His “Auf dem Strom” (On the River, for voice, piano, and horn) takes up the theme of the Eroica’s death march. And the unusual tempo marking of the first song of the Winterreise cycle (Mässig, in gehender Bewegung, moderate, at walking pace), written in the year of Beethoven’s death, might be seen as a valedictory reference to the latter’s piano sonata “Les Adieux” of 1809–1810.
For Schubert’s contemporaries, Beethoven was the colossus, a figure whose titanic energy and sublime originality went on to define the cult of the hero-musician in the nineteenth century. His deafness added a strain of tragedy. And Beethoven could look the part, his image in paint, print, and sculpture portraying the rugged aesthetic adventurer. Schubert, on the other hand, was under five feet tall, bespectacled, and pudgy, “looking not like a god of music but like a harried Viennese clerk with a head-cold,” as a character in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime puts it.
Elias Altman in Lapham's Quarterly:
On Christmas Eve, 1881, Oscar Wilde boarded a steamship at Liverpool and disembarked in New York City on January 3, proceeding over the next year to travel fifteen thousand miles across North America by carriage, boat, and train, delivering more than 140 lectures, sitting for at least ninety-eight interviews, and becoming the subject of more than five hundred newspaper articles. Wilde gave talks on aestheticism and interior decorating at the Music Hall in Boston, Platt’s Hall in San Francisco, the Pavilion in Galveston, and the Academy of Music in Halifax. He drew crowds ranging from twenty-five to 2,500, made up variously of socialites, intellectuals, housewives, students, prospectors, prostitutes, and Texas Rangers. Along the way he met, drank, or supped with Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry James. In terms of scope, pace, and publicity (generated and attracted), the lecture series surpassed both of Charles Dickens’ American reading tours. Wilde was twenty-seven years old.
What makes this extensive tour even more incredible is that the author of A Picture of Dorian Gray, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest wasn’t much of an author in 1881: the sole published book to bear his name was a volume of verse—dismissed by one reviewer as “Swinburne and water”—that Wilde had printed at his own expense. So how and why did this foreign nobody come to America with such fanfare and go on to become one of the most-quoted somebodies of the nineteenth century? This is a question raised in Roy Morris Jr.’s 2013 book Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America and wonderfully answered in David M. Friedman’s 2014 book Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. While Wilde was a decade away from writing his famous novel it seems he already knew in his heart—and his American adventure embodied—one of its best lines: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Jason Tanz in Wired:
A recent piece in The New York Times compared TED to an evangelical tent revival—one that flattered its listeners into believing they could overcome the world’s injustices, that “simply showing up to listen makes you part of the solution.” To be sure, there have been moments that inspired an almost spiritual response. Fred Jansen’s tale of landing the Rosetta probe on a spinning, craggy comet was a stirring testament to human ingenuity. Neuroscientist David Eagleman unveiled a vest that pulsed against the wearer’s skin in response to data, allowing him to expand his sensory perception of the world around him. And Stanford’s Fei-Fei Li showed how neural networks could identify objects in photographs—and describe them in full sentences—at about the level of a three-year-old child.
And yet, sitting through the first two days of presentations, I have not felt like part of the solution. If anything, I feel powerless in the face of forces, cavalierly unleashed, that have grown beyond our control. The official theme this year is “Truth or Dare,” which sounds optimistic but actually carries a vague undercurrent of menace. Nick Bostrom, the author of Superintelligence, delivered a grim vision of a future in which humanity is dominated by a machine intelligence it can no longer contain. In her terrifying discussion of antibiotic resistance, Superbug author Maryn McKenna predicted that our wanton overuse of antibiotics would lead to 50 million annual deaths by 2050. “We did it to ourselves,” she said, “by squandering antibiotics with a heedlessness that is almost shocking.” The True American author Anand Giridharadas argued that American inequality had created an empathy gap that prevented the privileged—including the entire TED audience—from knowing or much caring about the struggles of the vanishing middle class. “If you live near a Whole Foods; if no relative of yours serves in the military; if you’re paid by the year, not the hour; if no one you know uses meth,” he said, “if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that you may not know what’s going on. And that you may be part of the problem.”
Perhaps at the prodding of TED organizers, even the direst conclusions were counterbalanced by a stab at optimism.
I Think / I Am
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” But, by one mythic star,
God, cutting to the chase, probably said,“I think, therefore you are,”
then, without thinking added (to a roll of drums), “but I just Am,”
and burned the bush S/He'd been speaking from.
March 27, 2011
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Lawrence Osborne in Lapham's Quarterly:
Years ago, while flying from Bangkok to Phnom Penh, I read what could be called a local novel by a Bangkok private investigator named Byron Bales. The Family Business was written with an entertainingly maniacal attention to detail and a world-weariness perfectly matched to its material: an American couple who plot to stage the husband’s death in Manila in order to claim insurance money back in the United States.
The British call this kind of faked death “doing a Reginald Perrin,” after a 1970s sitcom hero who stages his own suicide and then comes back to life to start all over again. The British, after all, can never forget government minister John Stonehouse, who disappeared on a Miami beach in 1974. Stonehouse was later found in Australia, using a forged passport under the name Clive Mildoon. It’s the ultimate travel experience: reincarnation in a distant place as an insurance scam. Insurance agents call it “pseudocide.”
Bales spent more than thirty years as an investigator, ten of them in Bangkok, tracking down people who had disappeared, faking their own deaths in order to dupe America’s gullible and often chaotic insurance companies (it’s an industry in decline, he insinuates). I learned from the back cover of The Family Business that it was based on several cases that Bales himself had investigated. So people really do disappear, I thought, and they really do collect the money.