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“We Should Form in Us the Shadows of Ideas…”

by Joseph Shieber

When I think back on when I realized that I think differently than most people, what surprises me most is that I didn’t realize it sooner.

The earliest indication that I can explicitly recall would have occurred to me some time in the 1990’s. It was around then that I’d learned about the “method of places” technique for memorization — also known as the “memory palace” technique.

The technique works like this. Choose a location that you know very well from memory — say, the street where you grew up. Visualize yourself walking down the street, observing landmarks along your walk. Now, when you want to memorize items in a list in order, simply visualize those items at locations along the familiar path in your mind.

I could pretend that I first learned about the method of places from Jonathan Spence’s 1984 book The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, but it’s likely that I actually encountered it first in Thomas Harris’s 1999 novel Hannibal. Harris would have led me to Spence’s book — as well as to Frances Yates’s 1966 book The Art of Memory.

The technique is one of the most widely used strategies by mnemonists — like the journalist Joshua Foer, who wrote about how he employed the technique to win the 2006 U.S. Memory Championship in his 2011 book Moonwalking With Einstein.

Now, the technique is not easy. It took Foer a year of concentrated effort to prepare for the Memory Championship, for example. But when I set out to try it for myself, I found that I was unable even to get started.

The problem was that first step: visualization. I can’t do that. I’ve never been able to. Read more »

Monday Poem

On the Edge of a Joke

on the tip of my tongue
a funny thing is on edge

an ambivalent thing I think,
as if a comedian on a brink
in a no-nonsense universe
of serious laughs is set to sail or sink

but all anticipation feels this way
in the space before a punch line,
in the knot between chuckle or groan,
waiting for a laugh or its dark doppelganger
in the world between cozy dream and
I-really-need-to-wake-up-now-unalone

Jim Culleny
5/6/18

Thanks to A. R. for a dream he shared which included the line,
“…on the edge of a joke,“ which now seems even more apropos.

Home

by Abigail Akavia

Social Distancing with Kids, Leipzig 2020

A few thoughts about working from home, about “home”, about writing and about not-writing. About myself, with full realization of the incredible privilege that allows me to write—in normal days and, a fortiori, in days of pandemic.

When the reality of the COVID19 tsunami began to hit us here in northeast Germany, my husband suggested we should pack a suitcase or two and go to Israel, or “go back” to Israel, where we both grew up, where most of our immediate relatives and many of our closest friends live. But where—I repeatedly countered in the anxiety-ridden conversations we had in those faraway times of three weeks ago—we don’t live anymore. We haven’t lived there for over a decade. We don’t have a house or an apartment there, we don’t have a home there. The thought of living in a rented space for the foreseeable future without most of my stuff, without my routines, however blanched-out they are these days, forbidden by law to see my kids’ grandparents and my friends, was panic-inducing to me. I’d rather stay here, where I don’t have to relearn where the coffee mugs are shelved.

It was around the time that videos of quarantined neighbors singing from their windows and balconies starting pouring out of Italy. This was never explicitly said between us, but if I had to explain the terror my husband (and even if to a lesser extent, definitely I, too) felt at staying confined and socially isolated in Germany, I would put it like this: the thought that our neighborhood would start singing—a song we don’t know, in German—and that we would feel a sense of alienation and exclusion, rather than solidarity and belonging. So far, this hasn’t happened (partially, but certainly not only, because the restrictions here are less severe than elsewhere, and people are still allowed to leave their houses to take walks, for example). And who knows, maybe if it does happen, the hipsters of our block will opt for some internationally beloved civil rights movement anthem in which we can join. Either way, like all anxieties, this one too—being cooped up in our apartment, fearing that food will soon run out, surrounded by East-Germans—tells us more about our psyche than about the likelihood of an actual scenario in the world.  Read more »

Who Will Bear the Costs of Coronavirus?

by Thomas Wells

Among other things Covid-19 is a moral crisis. It requires suspending the usual rules about who deserves what, firstly because it is impossible for many of us to pay what we owe in these conditions, and secondly because of the priority of the humanitarian duty to save as many lives as possible. Nevertheless we must not forget about justice. In particular we must make sure that the costs of this crisis are not born disproportionately by the poor, those least able to afford the burden but also least able to escape it.

An economy is a complex web made up of the promises we are continually making to each other. Those promises may not always be perfectly fair, but they are generally quite precise. They tell us what is expected from us and what we have the right to expect from others, from what time to take our kids to school to how many months of unemployment insurance we can count on if we lose our job. The trouble is that our ability to keep our promises depends on other people and organisations keeping their promises to us. If any particular link fails, it can be repaired, compensated, worked around, and so on. But if multiple links fail at the same time we are plunged into a moral crisis wherein our usual moral scripts cannot provide guidance. We need suddenly to look up from our tidy little life-worlds and think from the perspective of the whole (even global) society.

Many people, including leaders of government agencies and firms, have clearly struggled to get their heads around this breakdown of business-as-usual morality. They still see things in terms of what is fair or not under the old rules about what people deserve. Hence their slowness to recognise that gig workers need unemployment benefits even if they never paid the premiums, and that the uninsured need to know their medical care will be (almost) free. This is perhaps not so strange. As leaders well know, humans are very sensitive to promise-breaking and free-riding, and in normal times there is nothing more toxic to the functioning of any organisation or community. Fortunately most governments and even some businesses have recognised the need for a more humanitarian moral compass. Read more »

How the pandemic exposes irrationalities in our social system

by Emrys Westacott

The current Covid 19 pandemic is undoubtedly a disaster for millions of people: for those who die, who grieve for the dead, who suffer through a traumatic illness, or who, suddenly lacking work and income, face the prospect of dire poverty as the inevitable recession kicks in. And there are other bad consequences that one might not describe as ‘disastrous” but which are certainly significant: the stress experienced by all those providing care for the sick; the interruption in the education of students; the strain put on families holed up together perhaps for months on end; the loneliness suffered by those who are truly isolated; and the blighted career prospects of new graduates in both the public and the private sectors.

No-one knows what the long-term, or even the short-term consequences of the pandemic will be, either for any particular country or for the world as a whole. It’s conceivable that in some places things could eventually tilt toward the sort of apocalyptic break down of civil society often depicted in dystopian fiction. Perhaps more plausibly, it could lead to the further erosion of democratic rights in at least some countries. This has already happened in Hungary, where the parliament recently voted to give the Prime Minister, Victor Orban, the power to rule by decree for an unlimited period, during which time there can be no elections. But it is also possible that the current crisis will be the occasion for a fundamental rethink about the character of the society we wish to live in. Let us hope so.

This hope could, of course, be just naïve wishful thinking. History offers plenty of example of well-intentioned pledges to learn from the past being buried beneath forgetfulness, indifference, incompetence, prejudice, ideology, and vested interests. But the pandemic is undeniably effective at exposing some of the most obvious flaws in the socio-economic organization of countries like the US (and, to a lesser extent, other modernized capitalist societies). And by “flaws,” here, I don’t mean minor inefficiencies that can be removed with a bureaucratic tweak, but profound irrationalities linked to objectionable values. Read more »

Learning from COVID

by Robert Frodeman

The coronavirus amounts to an ongoing, real-world experiment in societal response to an international calamity. The pandemic will be studied for decades, but COVID has already taught us much about the relationship between science and decision-making.

Two recent essays begin the process of making sense of our predicament. In Pandemic Science and Politics, Dan Sarewitz claims that the unique features of the COVID-19 virus reveal central truths about the connection between facts and values. In COVID-19: the Medium is the Message, Laurie Garrett believes that in an age of misinformation, underfunding communication staffs at agencies like WHO becomes a deadly mistake.

For Sarewitz, COVID reveals the nature of the relation between science and politics. The virus brings clarity that stands in contrast to our usual “disagreements around climate change, nuclear energy, mammograms, K–12 public education, chemicals in the environment…” For in the case of COVID,

  • We all have the same value – to save lives
  • Causality is clear – everyone agrees about what’s causing illness
  • Facts are sufficient to create a plan of action – even if they turn out to be wrong

COVID highlights the fact that “science’s place in politics is determined not by the logic of facts, but by the fundamental influence of human values.” Science gains its centrality in the current crisis because we already line up on questions of value. Read more »

From Pakistan: COVID Diary

by Samia Altaf

“Will we survive this?” my husband asks me as we lounge around the living room, glued to our laptops. “We are in the vulnerable group.” I look up at a bald man with thinning gray tufts over his ears, peering anxiously at me over black-rimmed glasses. Yes, we are certainly in the vulnerable group. What happened to that bright-eyed young man with fifteen pounds of black hair on his head, the one sporting sideburns that put Elvis to shame? Over his shoulder I see our son also looking expectantly at me, Camus’s The Plague in hand, open halfway.

“Dr. Rieux was only too well aware of the serious turn things had taken.” I think of our other boy, locked down in New York where the virus is on a vicious rampage. I send my child a panic-stricken WhatsApp message even though it is the middle of the night there. He answers, “I am fine ma, don’t stress,” and goes back to sleep. He is brave, that one, and sensible too.

So finally it has come marching in, with remarkable audacity and crackling energy, generating fear, closing down schools, colleges, businesses, shops, restaurants, hotels. Blowing away vendors and hawkers, leaving streets deserted and even the public parks locked. It comes, this COVID-19, not with the saints but with spring. Those glorious, wondrous, fragrant, colorful couple of weeks in Punjab when normally you can imagine that all is well with the world. A time when gulmohar trees burst into brilliant red flaming flowers, regular ordinary vegetation replicates itself overnight, as if possessed of some wild crazy RNA, in places you could not think possible. Rows upon rows of bluish-purple petunias, golden nasturtiums, hollyhocks, snapdragons, gleeful sunflowers, bold dahlias, and lush bougainvillea laden with voluptuous bunches of magenta, violet, and burned-orange clusters draped over walls. And roses! Read more »

Apocalyptic Pop Culture in the Age of a Pandemic

by Mindy Clegg

https://etgeekera.com/2013/09/18/the-walking-deads-getting-a-spin-off/the-walking-dead-comic-vs-tv-show-header/
This image comes from https://etgeekera.com/

The taste for the end times as a dramatic backdrop well preceded our current pandemic lock-down, but now seems as good a time as any to explore the popularity of end-of-time dramas as any other. Perhaps we can take some solace from a discussion of others surviving worse situations than our own, even if fictional. Philosopher and pop culture theorist Slavoj Žižek (or it might have been Fredrick Jameson) once noted that the popularity of apocalyptic culture tended to be driven by the all-encompassing power of our current global system, noting that it’s easier for us to imagine the world’s end rather than it’s transformation.1 This seems to break with earlier popular culture that imagined some level of continuity between our present and the future, such as Star Trek. If today we have a harder time imagining productive change to our globalized system, at least our visions of its collapse are numerous and offer compelling viewing. The Walking Dead comic and TV series are a prime example of that sort of entertainment. I argue here that although the series and comic seem on the surface to explore only the collapse of our modern systems of governance and our globalized economy, the focus instead rests on what we keep and what we leave behind as we rebuild in the wake of some kind of wide-spread devastation. In many ways, the Walking Dead offers an alternative to ideologies like the Milton Friedman “shock doctrine” that turns disasters into fodder for privatization.2

Just a note for fans of the show or comic: I’ll include spoilers here for what I’ve watched thus far and for the comic, as that has recently concluded. Read more »

Will the Taste Revolution Survive?

by Dwight Furrow

I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a disappointing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be, especially not with our “leadership”. Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, these lyrics from the bard of Duluth run through my mind:

Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

There are many tragedies unfolding as Covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood, the fate of the wine and restaurant industry is not among the worst outcomes, but it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Small, artisan wineries, independent restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, creativity, imagination and determination gone to waste. The chains and mammoth, commercial wine companies will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power and lobbyists do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business. (I’m writing from the perspective of the U.S. but I imagine the situation is similar worldwide.) These small businesses are the heart and soul of the wine and restaurant industries and they face an uncertain future. Read more »

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Like No One They’d Ever Seen

Ed Park in the New York Review of Books:

Younghill Kang; drawing by Karl Stevens

What if the finest, funniest, craziest, sanest, most cheerfully depressing Korean-American novel was also one of the first? To a modern reader, the most dated thing about Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, published by Scribner’s in 1937, is its tired title. (Either that or its subtitle, “The Making of an Oriental Yankee.”) Practically everything else about this brash modernist comic novel still feels electric.

East Goes West has a ghostly history: at times vaguely canonical, yet without discernible influence, it has been out of print for decades at a stretch, and surfaces every quarter-century or so as a sort of literary Brigadoon. (Last year’s Penguin Classics edition is its third major republication.) Kang’s debut, The Grass Roof (1931), captures the twilight of the Korean kingdom in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as Japan colonizes the peninsula. Its narrator, Chungpa Han, is a precocious child whose thirst for education takes him from his secluded home village to Seoul, three hundred miles away; into the heart of Japan; and finally to America, where East Goes West picks up on the pilgrim’s progress.

Though both novels were first published to great acclaim by Maxwell Perkins—the legendary editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe—they stand as the alpha and omega of Kang’s fiction career: an explosion of talent, followed by thirty-five years of silence.

More here.

Sunday Poem

96 Vandam

I am going to carry my bed into New York City tonight
complete with dangling sheets and ripped blankets;
I am going to push it across three dark highways
or coast along under 600,000 faint stars.
I want to have it with me so I don’t have to beg
for too much shelter from my weak and exhausted friends.
I want to be as close as possible to my pillow
in case a dream or a fantasy should pass by.
I want to fall asleep on my own fire escape
and wake up dazed and hungry
to the sound of garbage grinding in the street below
and the smell of coffee cooking in the window above.

by Gerald Stern
from Poetry 180
Random House, 2003

Do No Harm

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

This series is devoted to reporting on the experience of doctors at the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus, as we approach what are likely to be some of the deadliest weeks in the history of the United States. Though their identities are known to the editors, the doctors interviewed will remain anonymous so that they do not face repercussions for sharing frank truths about practicing medicine in the midst of this crisis.

ON SUNDAY, MARCH 29, Dr. L[*] walked home in the dark after her shift at a New York hospital ended. The city felt uneasy, as if about to erupt in defiance of the imposed desolation keeping streets empty and noise limited to the unending wail of ambulance sirens. Dr. L lived close to the hospital, but on this dark and silent night, the two blocks seemed longer than ever. In the days that had just passed, the hospital, almost all of which is now devoted to treating COVID-19 patients, had transitioned from anticipating the storm to being in the thick of it; Dr. L had overseen the conversion of more and more floors to COVID-19 floors. As the familiar hospital she and her colleagues knew transformed into a battlefield, they had begun to have the sort of conversations that had been unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

Dr. L recalled overhearing two nurses at a nursing station discussing imminent ventilator shortages. “Who would you save?” one nurse asked the other, “if you had one ventilator and had to choose between a young thirty-five-year-old or a seventy-year-old?” The second nurse didn’t answer. Looking at both, Dr. L interjected. “The hard choices are not going to be between a thirty-five-year-old and a seventy-year-old,” she said, “they’re going to be when you have to choose between a single thirty-year-old  male and a forty-five-year-old male with three children.” The nurses just stared at her silently; the idea that they—health workers, nurses and doctors who had sworn to preserve life—would be deciding the value of one life against another still seemed abstract. Dr. L thought about this conversation as she walked into her dark apartment, switching on the light. She was exhausted, but sleep seemed distant, only a theoretical possibility. She turned on the TV in her bedroom and the never-ending news loop began. The president had given a press conference earlier that day; now CNN was playing clips of it. Trump asked if the masks being sent to New York hospitals were “going out the back door.”

More here.