Seventeen Notes on Singing

Clifford Thompson in Agni:

Otis Redding

1.

I was walking on our small green college campus, singing. Dave, beside me, tall and lank and not known for flattery, said, “You should sing, Cliff.” He thought a moment. “You do sing, Cliff.”

I shrugged and thanked him. “I can sing a little, I guess. I can’t perform.”

“They could teach you that stuff.”

2.

One of my two favorite singers never learned that stuff. A gawky six foot one, Otis Redding, who couldn’t dance to save his life, would march in place on stage. “If you can’t march to it,” he once announced with an endearing defensiveness, “it ain’t no good!”

3.

The basement of my family’s little house held much that my three older siblings once held dear. Along the white stucco walls were stacks of soul LPs and singles. On one red 45 was Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay”—recorded in 1967, very shortly before his death at twenty-six in a plane crash. I discovered it in the summer of 1975, less than a year after my father died.

More here.

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A Fine Profile of J.B.S. Haldane as Scientist and Scientific Socialist

T. N. Avinash in The Wire:

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892-1964) is today best remembered as one of the founders of population genetics, which married Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s ideas of natural selection with Mendelian genetics using the language of statistics. His other scientific contributions spanned the fields of physiology, biochemistry, and medical genetics – contributions that the evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith once said would “satisfy half a dozen ordinary mortals”.

Haldane was also the most brilliant populariser of science of his generation, writing and speaking tirelessly about science and its role in society. A committed Marxist and anti-imperialist, Haldane believed that science and socialism went hand-in-hand, that they were our best means to improve society.

In A Dominant Character, his new biography of Haldane (out in India on December 10, 2019), Samanth Subramanian attempts to make sense of such a complex personality by seizing upon Haldane’s “greatest moral crisis”, one where science and politics collided head on. This was Haldane’s response to the infamous Lysenko affair of 1948, where within a span of just one week, the Soviet Union turned its back on genetics and evolutionary biology.

More here.

On “The Report” and the history of the CIA onscreen

Joel Whitney in The Baffler:

IN LATE 2005, when the dread of finding Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq dwindled, California Senator Dianne Feinstein joined a chorus of non-mea culpa Democrats who claimed to be victims of Republican manipulation. But when a torture scandal arose two years later, the senator would not be so easily fooled again. Rather than accept the CIA’s bouquet of rationalizations for waterboarding, confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or EITs, used on suspects rounded up in the War on Terror, Feinstein unleashed on the CIA a sober investigator, former FBI staffer Daniel J. Jones. A new feature film, The Report recounts Feinstein and Jones’s fight to uncover what really happened before President Obama ended the torture program with an executive order two days into his first term, a history that remains largely obscured.

Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, The Report is accurate and unambivalent on the fundamental question of whether torture worked: it did not. Nevertheless, the film’s urgency derives from its forceful recounting of how hard it proved—even for a veteran of the Senate (who headed the Select Committee on Intelligence)—to reveal a truthful answer to a simple question. If the torture yielded gains that saved lives, what were they?

More here.

The Greatness of Grace Paley

Justin Taylor at Lit Hub:

Paley was an artist of the highest order, but she was also an activist, a pacifist, a mother, and a citizen. She saw her several callings as connected, and ideally as indistinct from each other, but when circumstance forced her to choose between protesting the war and making art, or standing up for free speech and making art, or building community and making art, she tended to back-burner the art-making. This may be one reason why her output was relatively slender and why it has been relatively undervalued. I don’t mean to suggest she’s neglected, exactly, only taken for granted at times. Well, whose mother hasn’t been?

While making my way through the Collected I realized that Paley’s debut, The Little Disturbances of Man, turns 60 years old this year. The diamond jubilee! I can hear her laughing. Which reminds me: 1959, the year of Little Disturbances, was also the year that Roth debuted with Goodbye, Columbus and Updike published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

more here.

What Were Dinosaurs For?

Verlyn Klinkenborg at the NYRB:

A life-size model of the early Cretaceous tyrannosaur Yutyrannus huali; from Mark Norell’s The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Tour

As I was reading some recent books on dinosaurs, I kept wondering, “What were dinosaurs for?” It’s a ridiculous question, and I wondered why I was wondering it. After all, dinosaurs were “for” exactly what we are “for,” what every organism has been “for” since life began. Every species that has ever lived is a successful experiment in the enterprise of living, and every species is closely kinned at the genetic level with all other species. This is harder to grasp than it seems, partly because the logic of that Satanic preposition—“for”—is so insidious, so woven through the problem of time. Teleology is the moralizing of chronology, and nowadays science tries to keep watch for even the slightest trace of it, any suggestion that evolution has a direction tending to culminate in us or in what we like to call intelligence or in any other presumably desirable end point.

But the obvious, quotidian logic of chronology is basically too much for the human mind: we’re constantly confusing sequence, causation, and purpose. Because we come after, it’s easy to suppose we must be the purpose of what came before. That’s what recent generations of humans have supposed and continue to suppose. Such is the nervous logic of living not only in the present but also at the constantly moving end point of the chronology of life on Earth.

more here.

Julian Barnes, The Essayist

Leo Robson at The New Statesman:

If the book has a raison d’être beyond a mild anti-Brexit subtext, it is Barnes’s repeated plea not to patronise the past – to recognise trailblazers such as Pozzi without chiding his contemporaries for failing to be more like “us” (“We know more and better, don’t we?”). So even if the book hardly qualifies as a work of history, it still delivers a message that all historians should heed.

Though I have never been convinced by the idea that Julian Barnes is an essayist trapped inside a novelist, The Man in the Red Coat suggests that he always had somewhere in him the author of gently rambling, lightly polemical book-length non-fiction. At one point, Barnes observes a little wistfully that “these matters could, of course, be solved in a novel”. I, for one, am glad he decided not to wander down that path and produced instead this lovable mongrel of a book.

more here.

Can Surrogacy Remake the World?

Jessica Weisberg in The New Yorker:

Commercial surrogacy, the practice of paying a woman to carry and birth a child whom she will not parent, is largely unregulated in America. It’s illegal, with rare exceptions, in three states: New York, Louisiana, and Michigan. But, most states have no surrogacy laws at all. Though the technology was invented in 1986, the concept still seems, for many, a bit sci-fi, and support for it does not follow obvious political fault lines. It is typically championed by the gay-rights community, who see it as the only reproductive technology that allows gay men to have biological children, and condemned by some feminists, who see it as yet another business that exploits the female body. In June, when the New York State Assembly considered a bill that would legalize paid surrogacy, Gloria Steinem vigorously opposed it. “Under this bill, women in economic need become commercialized vessels for rent, and the fetuses they carry become the property of others,” Steinem wrote in a statement.

In a new book, “Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family,” the author Sophie Lewis makes a forceful argument for legalization. Lewis takes little interest in the parents. It’s the surrogates who concern her. Regulation, she says, is the only way for them to avoid exploitation. Lewis frequently, if reluctantly, compares surrogacy to sex work, another industry that persists despite being illegal. Banning these jobs is pointless, Lewis says, aside from giving privileged feminists something to do, and making the work more dangerous. “Surrogacy bans uproot, isolate, and criminalize gestational workers, driving them underground and often into foreign lands, where they risk prosecution,” she writes. “As with sex work, the question of being for or against surrogacy is largely irrelevant. The question is, why is it assumed that one should be more against surrogacy than other risky jobs.”

Lewis does not offer straightforward policy suggestions. Her approach to the material is theoretical, devious, a mix of manifesto and memoir. Early in the book, she struggles to understand why anyone would want to get pregnant in the first place, and later she questions whether continuing the human race is a good idea. But she is solemn and unsparing in her assessment of the status quo. A portion of the book studies the Akanksha Fertility Clinic, in India, a surrogacy center that, according to Lewis, severely underpays and mistreats its workers. (Nayana Patel, who runs the clinic, has argued that Akanksha pays surrogates more than they would make at other jobs.) All of the Akanksha surrogates are required to have children of their own already, ostensibly because they know how difficult it is to raise a child and are therefore less likely to want to keep the ones they’re carrying.

More here.

Does science describe experience or truth?

James C. Zimring in The Scientist:

Science seems under assault. Attacks come from many directions, ranging from the political realm to groups and individuals masquerading as scientific entities. There is even a real risk that scientific fact will eventually be reduced to just another opinion, even when those facts describe natural phenomena—the very purpose for which science was developed. Hastening this erosion are hyperbolic claims of “truth” that science is often perceived to make and that practicing researchers may themselves project, whether intentionally or not. I’m a researcher, and I get it. It seems difficult to explain the persistent success of scientific theories at describing nature, not to mention the constant march of technological advancement, without assigning at least some special epistemic status to those theories. I explore this challenge in my book, What Science Is and How It Really Works. If the history of science teaches us anything, it is that the ability of a theory to predict unobserved phenomena and lead to amazing new technologies is no proof that said theory is “true.”

For example, in addition to explaining the dynamics of the known solar system, Isaac Newton’s mechanics enabled stunningly accurate predictions of other astronomical phenomena, such as Halley’s comet arriving later than normal in 1759 due to the gravitational effects of passing close to Jupiter. Even more impressive, in the early 1800s when astronomers determined that the orbit of Uranus deviated from Newtonian predictions, they concluded that Newton’s theory was not wrong; rather, the existence of a previously unobserved planet was posited and was later found exactly where it was expected to be (and named Neptune). Such successes of the scientific revolution were so impressive that philosophers developed whole new theories of knowledge to try to explain how scientists appeared to have used observation and reason to discover fundamental truths. In doing so, both scientists and epistemologists attempted to dismiss what logicians have known since antiquity: that no amount of correctly predicted effects can prove a hypothesized cause. Attempts to do so commit the fallacy of “affirming the consequent”—in other words, scientific theories are always underdetermined by the available data.

More here.

Wesnesday Poem

there is a silence

i think about the way your tongue flicks
the top of your mouth at the end of my name

& spend a warm moment as a coin
slotted in the slit-mouth of a Coke machine.

see me breathe as the leaves die,
we have a limited number of these left,

so walk your hands through their hair
& listen to the sound of time

slowly taking off our skins.

i can’t tell anymore if the sound
as i try to sleep is water on the windows or

the wet patter of semi-automatics
in children’s chests.

the yellow slides behind the barricade
have hearts carved into their sides.

in my head, there is a silence :
the ring left by a glass of lemonade

at a summer funeral. when our idea
of this world ends & we sit with our faces

to the ATMs & police tanks, i wonder
which poems we will be dying for.

by George Tousaint
from Brooklyn Poets

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Are Cows Adult Bovine Females?

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

I read with some interest Alex Byrne’s recent paper, forthcoming in Philosophical Studies, “Are Women Adult Human Females?” Of particular note to me was his discussion of the semantics of gendered terms for non-human animal species.

“Someone who wants to deny AHF [i.e., the view that women are adult human females],” Byrne writes, “needs to explain why [the] pattern of gendered animal words leaves us out.” But whether defending or denying AHF, one would also do well to explain why this pattern of gendered animal words extends only as far as it does: to sows, does, hens, and so on, but not to adult female lizards, anglerfish, or cnidarians. There is no special word for the adult females of these biological kinds, and the obvious explanation of the difference is that pigs, deer, and chickens enter into human social life in a sufficiently salient way to warrant specialised terminology.

“Cow”, one might dare say, is political at least to the extent “woman” is: it designates a special category of being, with a role that is circumscribed and dirempted by political and economic forces from what would naturally be required for its thriving, within the broader zoopolis, to speak with Will Kymlicka and Sue Donaldson, that contains all of human political reality. But there are many, many biological kinds that are not included within this zoopolis, or at least only wander through it without being as it were censused or noted in its official registers.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Ned Hall on Possible Worlds and the Laws of Nature

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

It’s too easy to take laws of nature for granted. Sure, gravity is pulling us toward Earth today; but how do we know it won’t be pushing us away tomorrow? We extrapolate from past experience to future expectation, but what allows us to do that? “Humeans” (after David Hume, not a misspelling of “human”) think that what exists is just what actually happens in the universe, and the laws are simply convenient summaries of what happens. “Anti-Humeans” think that the laws have a reality of their own, bringing what happens next into existence. The debate has implications for the notion of possible worlds, and thus for counterfactuals and causation — would Y have happened if X hadn’t happened first? Ned Hall and I have a deep conversation that started out being about causation, but we quickly realized we had to get a bunch of interesting ideas on the table first. What we talk about helps clarify how we should think about our reality and others.

More here.

Arjun Appadurai: A Syndrome of Aspirational Hatred Is Pervading India

Arjun Appadurai in The Wire:

I have been triggered into writing this short essay by three events. One is reading Mukul Kesavan’s recent piece in the Telegraph saying that the terrifying thing about contemporary India is not the everyday violence against women, Dalits and other minorities or dissenters, but the formalising and rationalising of these actions into the highest levels of the law of the land.

The other trigger is the news of the burning of the victim in the Unnao rape-murder case on her way to court in Lucknow on Thursday, December 5, by a group of men who included some of the accused rapists.

The third trigger, the most worrisome, is the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which the Lok Sabha passed on Monday and the Rajya Sabha too is likely to formally approve soon. This last development is procedural and formal, but it is yet another big step towards closing the gap between the fascism of law and the fascism of the streets in India.

More here.

Roman Polanski’s Dreyfus

Bernard-Henri Lévy at Tablet:

The film’s subject is, yes, this France of a century ago, cleaved in two: one half enraged anti-Semites that I have always believed paved the way for the deadliest of European fascism; and another half for whom the affair, still known today in France as “l’Affaire,” shook, unsettled, or sometimes destroyed anti-Semitic prejudices.

The Jews of France were among the inventors and builders of France.

They were, with Rashi and the Tosafot of Champagne, those talmudic commentators with the merit of having first written, and thus fixed, the words of the French language.

They were with the kings of France, whose coronation was always done invoking kings David and Solomon, and who built the Collège de France (François I) so that there would be, in Paris, at least one professorship of living Hebrew.

more here.

Michel Houellebecq: All I Have Are Negative Thoughts

Andrew Marzoni at The Baffler:

WHAT MAKES SUICIDE FUNNY? Rarely in real life, if ever, but under the cover of fiction, abstraction, or anonymity, why do we laugh at the sad man who hates himself? Do we, too, wish that he would die?

Each of Michel Houellebecq’s novels has capitalized on a collective discomfort with these questions. His first, translated as Whatever at the height of the grunge era, confirmed that disaffection was alive and well in Paris, if it had ever left. The French title, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte, expresses in one phrase the argument each of Houellebecq’s books has found an inventive way of restaging: the failure of the sexual revolution to overthrow capitalism has commodified human eros, rendering its subjects so many pieces of entrepreneurial meat in a cold, bureaucratized market. Periodic incels, Houellebecq’s protagonists are racist, misogynistic, alcoholic, and depressed—losers obsessed with their own desire, shielded from oblivion by cowardice, laziness, and the demoralizing conveniences of modernity: sex tourism, New Agery, populism, and in his latest novel Serotonin, prescription pharmaceuticals.

more here.

The Death of Jesus

James Womack at Literary Review:

Is it just a writer’s insecurity? As though worried that he, or we, might forget what he’s up against, J M Coetzee regularly produces books that measure themselves alongside canonical predecessors: Life & Times of Michael K wears its debt to Kafka in its title, just as Foe beckons to Robinson CrusoeThe Master of Petersburg is a fantasia that bends Dostoevsky into The Brothers Karamazov. If it isn’t insecurity, it might be hubris, in which case Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy is likely to do little more than strengthen the arguments of his detractors – which monument can I stand next to now, Ma? The sense of a writer finding material worth riffing on never quite goes away, but there is more to it than that: in their needling, selfish, dry-as-dust way, these three books are works of cumulative power and never less than consistent interest.

Like the two novels that preceded it, The Death of Jesus is difficult to get a handle on. Of course, given the title, its trajectory is clearer than those of The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus.

more here.

Our Predictions About the Internet Are Probably Wrong

Alex Merto in The Atlantic:

Not long ago, I stopped by the Morgan Library, in Manhattan, to pay a visit to the Gutenberg Bible on display within a cube of glass in the Morgan’s tower­ing East Room. Gutenberg Bibles are among the rarest of printed books—about 50 copies are scattered around the world. At the time of their production, in Mainz in the 1450s, Gutenberg Bibles were of course the most common printed books—they were among the only ones. If a Gutenberg Bible were to come on the market today, it would sell for as much as $35 million, according to some estimates. But who knows? Sheikhs and oligarchs might launch a bidding war. The Morgan has three Gutenbergs. The copy on display was bought by J. P. Morgan in 1911 at Sotheby’s, which was acting for the family of a Wiltshire banker, who had bought it from the British bookseller Bernard Quaritch, who had bought it from the family of a Middlesex brewer, who had bought it from a member of the aristocratic Sykes family, who in 1824 had sold off his brother’s famed library in order to buy hunting dogs. The Sykes copy can be traced to a Scottish monk, antiquarian, and spy who lived in Germany in the late 18th century, and it is probably the copy that was lodged for centuries in the Augustinian monastery at Rebdorf.

I know all of this because of a remarkable (and hefty) recent study titled Editio Princeps—­the book that prompted my visit to the Morgan. The author, Eric White, the curator of rare books at Princeton, has composed meticulous biographies of each of the complete Gutenberg Bibles that have come down to us. Many have led picaresque lives. Harvard’s copy was briefly stolen, in 1969, by a troubled young man who smashed its glass encasement, took the book, climbed out a window, and knocked himself unconscious when he fell to the ground; charges were dismissed on grounds of mental illness, and the thief went on to become an adult-film star. White tells the story of Johannes Gutenberg himself—­how the goldsmith and maker of religious mementos for the pilgrimage trade combined the idea of metallic movable type (his true innovation, though it had antecedents) with a wooden press (like the kind used for making wine) to produce a printed page. The practice of copying books by hand did not immediately disappear, but the new technology spread fast. Venice, with its dense cluster of print shops, played the role of Silicon Valley. The printing press would soon upend the social order in ways that no one had anticipated and that few today give much thought to.

The comparison of the printing industry in Venice to the tech industry in Silicon Valley is not Eric White’s. It was made in 2005, by a historian of the printed word named Elizabeth Eisenstein, in the afterword to The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, an abridged edition of her monumental The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Eisenstein’s original two-volume study was published in 1979, before personal computers and the internet began to work their will, but she was well aware of subsequent developments.

More here.

When did societies become modern? ‘Big history’ dashes popular idea of Axial Age

Laura Spinney in Nature:

It’s an idea that has been influential for more than 200 years: around the middle of the first millennium BC, humanity passed through a psychological watershed and became modern. This ‘Axial Age’ transformed an archaic world of divine rulers, slavery and human sacrifice into a more enlightened era that valued social justice, family values and the rule of law. The appeal of the general concept is such that some have claimed humanity is now experiencing a second Axial Age driven by rapid population growth and technological change. Yet according to the largest ever cross-cultural survey of historical and archaeological data, the first of these ages never happened — or at least unfolded differently from the originally proposed narrative.

Major changes did take place in the way humans understood their place in the universe, and their relationships with each other, finds the analysis. But sometimes these societal shifts happened earlier than the first millennium BC, and sometimes later. And they did not always occur in the societies typically considered ‘axial’ — what is now Greece, Israel–Palestine, Iran, India and China — although they did take place in some other societies. “We couldn’t find any consistent Axial Age that was confined to those five societies,” says anthropologist Jenny Reddish at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, one of the survey’s authors.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

Aunt Rose

the last
20 years
of her life
after her
mother
died
she sat
at that
kitchen
table
hating
the irish

drinking
scotch
mist

&
clipping
obits

lonliness
spread out
in front
of her

like
family
jewels

&
now
years
later
i remember
i had no
kindness
for her

by Jim Bell
from
Landing Amazed
Lily Pool Press, 2010