John McPhee: Seven Ways of Looking at a Writer

Tyler Malone in Literary Hub:

The sixties were a decade of upheaval and progress, and one of the many areas where that revolutionary spirit reared its head was in the art of nonfiction. In previous decades, nonfiction—particularly if written for periodicals—had been seen mostly as ephemeral reportage. It was for catching up on world events, local matters, and human interest, usually read over a morning cup of coffee, stained with those wet, brown rings. Partially because it was churned out on deadline, factual writing was often pooh-poohed as a lesser art form than fictional writing, with the focus merely on the transfer of information, rather than aesthetic splendor, thematic heft, and formal precision.

In the sixties, writers like Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and John McPhee changed that perception by imbuing the factual with as much artistry as the fictional. Of course, the “New Journalism,” as it has often been called, might not have been as revolutionary—as new—as our cultural myths imply. McPhee, for his part, thinks this narrative is a bit of hooey.

More here.

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Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Derek Leben on Ethics for Robots and Artificial Intelligences

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

It’s hardly news that computers are exerting ever more influence over our lives. And we’re beginning to see the first glimmers of some kind of artificial intelligence: computer programs have become much better than humans at well-defined jobs like playing chess and Go, and are increasingly called upon for messier tasks, like driving cars. Once we leave the highly constrained sphere of artificial games and enter the real world of human actions, our artificial intelligences are going to have to make choices about the best course of action in unclear circumstances: they will have to learn to be ethical. I talk to Derek Leben about what this might mean and what kind of ethics our computers should be taught. It’s a wide-ranging discussion involving computer science, philosophy, economics, and game theory.

More here.

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Why Do People Fall for Fake News?

Gordon Pennycook and David Rand in the New York Times:

What makes people susceptible to fake news and other forms of strategic misinformation? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

These questions have become more urgent in recent years, not least because of revelations about the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 United States presidential election by disseminating propaganda through social media platforms. In general, our political culture seems to be increasingly populated by people who espouse outlandish or demonstrably false claims that often align with their political ideology.

The good news is that psychologists and other social scientists are working hard to understand what prevents people from seeing through propaganda. The bad news is that there is not yet a consensus on the answer. Much of the debate among researchers falls into two opposing camps. One group claims that our ability to reason is hijacked by our partisan convictions: that is, we’re prone to rationalization. The other group — to which the two of us belong — claims that the problem is that we often fail to exercise our critical faculties: that is, we’re mentally lazy.

However, recent research suggests a silver lining to the dispute: Both camps appear to be capturing an aspect of the problem.

More here.

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Dana Schutz Takes Back Her Painterly Name

Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

In her new work, artist Dana Schutz takes back her painterly name. Her current canvasses are hyperassertive, full of operatic grandeur, self-mocking turbulence, acidified flooded color, disfigured hideousness, and the psychopathology of her figures — all clawing in some Malthusian struggle for existence. Like this work or not, Schutz is claiming a lot of visual territory for herself. This means more tenacity in the paint, irrepressible surfaces, ambitious scale, and mixed — conflicted — compositional structures.

The cosmic background radiation and explosive blowback of what Schutz triggered in 2017 are still here, of course. How could they not be? Painting is a kind of time machine: Just as the speed of light and sound are experienced after the fact so, too, is the speed of art — things like stress, shock, conflict, phobia, admissions of complicity, and crushing psychological weight emerge only later in one’s work.

more here.

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The House That Agnès Built

Joan Dupont at Film Quarterly:

She has been called the Godmother of the New Wave, sometimes the Big Sister, even the Grandmother, but Agnès rides her own wave. She has never slowed down: a ceaseless creative force, she has been on the spot at historic moments. She never puts anything away for good, so old photos turn into films, and whatever she can’t use right away may turn up later in her short films, recycled with fresh invention. On a trip to Germany, the history of 4711 eau de cologne captivates her as much as the venerable cathedral and re-appears in her Agnès de ci de là Varda (Agnes Varda: From Here to There, 2012). She sees the world in a grain of sand—or in a heart-shaped potato. In her garden, she pays as much attention to a tree’s growth as to any honored guest.

In this house on the rue Daguerre in the fourteenth arrondissement, where she has lived since the 1950s, she raised children and tended cats, developed photos, cooked up movies and installations, filmed neighbors, plotted adventures, and received friends and famous artists, including at least one president of the Republic.

more here.

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The Euthanasia Problem

Christopher de Bellaigue at The Guardian:

The underlying problem with the advance directives is that they imply the subordination of an irrational human being to their rational former self, essentially splitting a single person into two mutually opposed ones. Many doctors, having watched patients adapt to circumstances they had once expected to find intolerable, doubt whether anyone can accurately predict what they will want after their condition worsens.

The second conflict that has crept in as euthanasia has been normalised is a societal one. It comes up when there is an opposition between the right of the individual and society’s obligation to protect lives. “The euthanasia requests that are the most problematic,” explains Agnes van der Heide, professor of medical care and end-of-life decision-making at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, “are those that are based on the patient’s autonomy, which leads them to tell the doctor: ‘You aren’t the one to judge whether I am to die.’”

more here.

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Wednesday Poem

Naming

I tell mom Forsythia is blooming in the neighbor’s yard.
She says, For-sith-a-what? I say, a golden bush burning like a fire.
She says, we call them Yellow Bell the other word is too hard.

The proper name pricks her tongue like a useless shard.
Her folklore lessons unfold like the bush that inspires.
I tell mom Forsythia is blooming in the neighbor’s yard.

The golden leaves aflame enchanting the heart of a bard.
She says, For-sith-a-what? I say, a golden bush burning like a fire.
She says, we call them Yellow Bell the other word is too hard.

Her looking back always carries me like a river forward.
The balm of her history flows from the heart without tire.
I tell mom Forsythia is blooming in the neighbor’s yard.

She listens, retrieves her past memories unmarred.
She’s still entranced by this bright beckoning spire.
She says, we call them Yellow Bell the other word is too hard.

Foreign words anguish her tongue and leave it scarred.
Yet her simple words heal and lift me gently higher.
I tell mom Forsythia is blooming in the neighbor’s yard.
She says, we call them Yellow Bell the other word is too hard.

by Glenis Redmond
from Under the Sun
publisher: Main Street Rag, 2008.
ISBN:
1599481332

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Origins – how the Earth made us

Katy Guest in The Guardian:

It can be reassuring to reassess life by taking a long view. In this book about “how the Earth made us”, Lewis Dartnell considers the last billion or so years, in his mission to understand how our planet has been “a leading protagonist in the story of humanity”. Our human bodies are, inevitably, made from the elements of Earth: our blood, sweat and tears come from the rocky fabric of its crust; our hair is made from volcanic debris. But Dartnell also explains how humanity became early civilisation and then the societies we live in now: how the formation of the Channel, through megaflooding events hundreds of thousands of years ago, “has had profound ramifications through history for Britain”; how Labour votes have followed coal seams laid down in the Carboniferous period. Never has geological history seemed so current.

To cut a (very) long story short, we are the result of plate tectonics and ice ages. The crashing together of continents caused the cooling and drying of Earth, which enabled the growth of the grasses that form the basis of our diet, and humans to walk across the land out of Africa. The rocky hills of Greece demanded foot soldiers to fight battles there, each of whom had a say in events, helping to create democracy. A fascinating chapter explains trade winds, the age of exploration, colonisation and the “subsequent history of our world”. Dartnell is an eloquent, conversational guide to these daunting aeons of time. He writes of land masses swelling and bursting “like a huge zit”, and global warming “triggered by a great methane flatulence of the oceans”. And it is always useful to think about chronology. “Cleopatra lived closer in time to the modern world of iPhones,” he writes, “than she did to the ancient construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza.”

More here.

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Our Language Affects What We See

Catherine L. Caldwell-Harris in Scientific American:

Does the language you speak influence how you think? This is the question behind the famous linguistic relativity hypothesis, that the grammar or vocabulary of a language imposes on its speakers a particular way of thinking about the world. The strongest form of the hypothesis is that language determines thought. This version has been rejected by most scholars. A weak form is now thought to be obviously true, which is that if one language has a specific vocabulary item for a concept but another language does not, then speaking about the concept may happen more frequently or more easily. For example, if someone explained to you, an English speaker, the meaning for the German term Schadenfreude, you could recognize the concept, but you may not have used the concept as regularly as a comparable German speaker.

Scholars are now interested in whether having a vocabulary item for a concept influences thought in domains far from language, such as visual perception. Consider the case of the “Russian blues.” While English has a single word for blue, Russian has two words, goluboy for light blue and siniy for dark blue. These are considered “basic level” terms, like green and purple, since no adjective is needed to distinguish them. Lera Boroditsky and her colleagues displayed two shades of blue on a computer screen and asked Russian speakers to determine, as quickly as possible, whether the two blue colors were different from each other or the same as each other. The fastest discriminations were when the displayed colors were goluboy and siniy, rather than two shades of goluboy or two shades of siniy. The reaction time advantage for lexically distinct blue colors was strongest when the blue hues were perceptually similar.

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January 22, 2019

What Was New Atheism?

Jacob Hamburger in The Point:

By 2014, many Americans had forgotten about New Atheism. For liberal Americans in the depths of the Bush years, anti-religious best sellers by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens came as—for lack of a better word—a godsend. With the Christian right in the White House, and jihadist terrorism perceived to be a constant danger in the wake of 9/11, a vocal rationalist atheism appeared to many a natural and necessary counterweight. But after nearly six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Bush and his born-again gang were far from the high seats of power, the War on Terror was no longer a feature of most people’s daily lives, and there was a widespread impression of leftward progress on social issues. The services of the anti-religious crusaders were no longer needed.

2014 was nonetheless the year a number of New Atheism’s celebrities began making their comeback. Chief among them was Sam Harris, who appeared in October on Bill Maher’s comedy talk show Real Time (Maher himself having contributed to the New Atheist phenomenon with his 2008 documentary Religulous), and the two entered into a heated argument with the actor Ben Affleck on the subject of Islam and the rise of ISIS. Affleck’s unwillingness to criticize conservative views held by Muslims, the two agreed, was a sign that self-described liberals were willing to sacrifice “liberal principles” like freedom of speech or the equality of women at the altar of cultural sensitivity. The following year saw a wave of terrorism in Europe, as well as the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the return of media scandals over “political correctness” on American college campuses. New Atheist celebrities formed a vocal contingent of an emerging collective which has sought to link these disparate developments into a common narrative. According to this narrative, a return of irrationalism in the Western world had rendered many mainstream liberal politicians, commentators and voters incapable of defending or even recognizing their core principles. At the forefront of this new attack against reason, they allege, are not only jihadists and the populist right, but also a radical left obsessed with equality and diversity.

More here.

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Mysterious Galaxy Measured Exquisitely, And Contains No Dark Matter At All

Ethan Siegel in Forbes:

One of the greatest puzzles in the entire Universe is the dark matter mystery. In theory, for every bit of normal matter (like us) in the Universe, there should be approximately five times as much dark matter. Both normal and dark matter should experience gravitation equally, meaning that the largest structures in the Universe — galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and cosmic filaments — should contain and be dominated by dark matter. When we measure the motions of individual galaxies, both isolated and in clusters, the normal matter alone is not enough to explain what we see. Dark matter is also required.

But the Universe is also a violent place, full of mergers, collisions, and cosmic smash-ups. Some of these events should expel enough normal matter to create new, small, dark-matter-free galaxies: with normal matter alone. For the first time, scientists believe they’ve found one such galaxy with no dark matter, solving an enormous cosmic puzzle.

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The art of condescension

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

So, there you are, having worked your way through a crowd denser than a Brexit negotiation, standing in front of your prize. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre. What do you do? Look more closely at that enigmatic smile? Wonder at the subtle gradations of light and shadow in Leonardo’s rendering of the face? Admire the illusion of depth?

No, of course not. You turn your back on the painting, whip out your phone and take a selfie.

And then you move on to your next prize.

You could be forgiven, amid the Brexit fracas, for not having noticed that Wednesday was Museum Selfie Day, a ‘fun day to encourage people to visit museums’, in the words of Mar Dixon, whose brainchild it was.

A fun day? Not to the critics. ‘Art is serious. It is not light entertainment,’ the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote sternly in 2015, adding that selfies were a ‘spiritual menace’ to museums and galleries.

This might seem pompous and overwrought. For selfie enthusiasts, such critics are curmudgeonly snobs making ‘the age-old “us and them” divide: between those who use museum collections “properly” (for education or cultural self-improvement) and those who use them “incorrectly” (for mere distraction or entertainment).’

But who’s really being snobbish here?

More here.

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The Left Critique of Bureaucracy

Nathan J. Robinson in Current Affairs:

Sometimes my experiences with the Postal Service are almost enough to turn me into a right-wing libertarian. For instance: They offer a special discounted rate for sending magazines through the post. Which is good—I run a magazine that is sent through the post! In order to get the rate, however, you have to meticulously obey every single instruction in the 56 pages of Handbook DM-204, which governs Periodicals Mailing Privileges. There is an incredibly complicated application, and a $700 fee, and a seemingly endless set of potential pitfalls. I couldn’t figure out how to finish the application, so I hired someone to do it. That person eventually gave up in frustration. It ultimately took us a year to get the permit. Shortly afterward, the postal service threatened to revoke our permit (and send us back to step 1) because we had failed to print the contents of Form 3510-M in our magazine.

For every bad experience I’ve had with the post office, though, I’ve also had a good one. There are two post offices within a few blocks of Current Affairs HQ. At one, the staff are consistently ornery and chide you for doing something wrong. (I play a game with myself: “What have I done wrong this time?” in which I try to guess what I am going to be told I have done wrong. The last time I went in it was “failing to fold the priority envelope along the crease when sealing it.”) At the other post office, the staff are absolutely lovely. They apologize to you, they find fun stamps for you, they give you king cake during Carnival Season. I adore them.

On the left, we often talk about the importance of making things publicly owned and operated. But the structure and character of those institutions matters just as much as their being “public” versus “private.” There’s a reason why “Do you want your healthcare to be run like the post office and the DMV?” is a very effective conservative talking point against greater federal involvement in financing medical care.

More here.

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On Gary Indiana’s Village Voice Art Columns

Rachel Wetzler at The Baffler:

In his columns, Indiana skewered the art world’s bloated egos and grotesque superficiality, but he was interested, above all, in scrutinizing who held power and how it was deployed. In a particularly trenchant essay on Richard Serra’s lawsuit against the General Services Administration—the government agency that had commissioned his 1981 public sculpture Tilted Arc for the plaza outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Manhattan and, at the urging of the people who worked there, now planned to remove it against the artist’s wishes—Indiana chides Serra and his defenders for their naivete: “Who on earth did these people think they were dealing with in the first place?” he asks. “If you are so enamored of [power] that you regularly ornament its dinner tables, ride cackling through the night in its limousines, and sign worthless contracts with it, it is no problem of mine or anyone else’s if power decides, one bored afternoon, to add you to the menu instead of inviting you to eat.”

The timing of the book’s release in late November, just after the Voice was abruptly shut down by its billionaire owner, Peter Barbey—hailed as the struggling paper’s white knight when he bought it in 2015—was a depressing coincidence, but an appropriate one.

more here.

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Sad by Design

Geert Lovink at Eurozine:

Omnipresent social media places a claim on our elapsed time, our fractured lives. We’re all sad in our very own way. As there are no lulls or quiet moments anymore, the result is fatigue, depletion and loss of energy. We’re becoming obsessed with waiting. How long have you been forgotten by your love ones? Time, meticulously measured on every app, tells us right to our face. Chronos hurts. Should I post something to attract attention and show I’m still here? Nobody likes me anymore. As the random messages keep relentlessly piling in, there’s no way to halt them, to take a moment and think it all through.

Delacroix once declared that every day which is not noted is like a day that does not exist. Diary writing used to fulfil that task. Elements of early blog culture tried to update the diary form for the online realm, but that moment has now passed.

more here.

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Busoni’s Violin Concerto

Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:

The title of Ferruccio Busoni’s 1907 manifesto Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music might suggest that the Italian pianist-composer would be looking to the future, yet many of its philosophical passages find him lingering in the past. Writing out “of convictions long held and slowly matured” (he was 41 at the time), Busoni extolled the virtues of the Baroque and classical ages, Bach and Beethoven being the exemplars—in “spirit and emotion they will probably remain unexcelled.” Busoni’s embrace of the past, however, was no rejection of modernity. “Among both ‘modern’ and ‘old’ works,” he wrote, “we find good and bad, genuine and spurious. There is nothing properly modern—only things which have come into being earlier or later; longer in bloom, or sooner withered. The Modern and the Old have always been.” Past and present, tradition and experiment—all could happily coexist in art. Thus, in more or less the same breath, Busoni could praise the elegance of Mozartian classicism while pondering some avant-garde technique, such as microtonal harmony. What mattered most of all were spirit and emotion; “he who mounts to their uttermost heights,” the musician wrote, “will always tower above the crowd.”

more here.

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Pioneering brain study reveals ‘software’ differences between humans and monkeys

Alison Abbott in Nature:

Neuroscientists have for the first time discovered differences between the ‘software’ of humans and monkey brains, using a technique that tracks single neurons. They found that human brains trade off ‘robustness’ — a measure of how synchronized neuron signals are — for greater efficiency in information processing. The researchers hypothesize that the results might help to explain humans’ unique intelligence, as well as their susceptibility to psychiatric disorders. The findings were published in Cell1 on 17 January. Scientists say that this type of unusual study could help them to better translate research in animal models of psychiatric diseases into the clinic. The research exploited a rare set of data on the activity of single neurons collected deep in the brains of people with epilepsy who were undergoing neurosurgery to identify the origin of their condition. The technique is so difficult that only a handful of clinics around the world can participate in this type of research. The study also used similar, existing data from three monkeys and collected neuron information from two more.

Over the decades, neuroscientists have discovered many subtle and significant differences in the anatomy — the hardware — of the brains of humans and other primates. But the latest study looked instead at differences in brain signals. “There is a clear difference in behaviour and psychology between humans and non-human primates,” says Mark Harnett from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who studies how the biophysics of neurons affect neural computation. “Now we see this difference in the brain’s biology — it’s a tremendously valuable study.”

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Tuesday Poem

Geneology

Outside, it’s cold like the day
my father’s grandpa drowned
while Sigrid salted cod on walls
of stacked antlers. Their sons
and daughter fled to Eden
Prairie. One, my father’s uncles, lost
a claim in Manitoba, another crashed
a Hupmobile. One died ice-fishing.

My father’s mother, pink and vicious, made
him cover the bidet with plywood
when we lived in Tehran. Made me drive
all over Fairfax County in search
of Carnival glass. Told me “Never
marry a woman for her looks.” My mother’s
dad lost his lungs to mustard gas. Her mom

never gambled. Betty lived in Hollywood
working at the studios, roller-skating
with a man who would later play
Tonto. She rented a room
in a house with a victory garden until
the Tamuras were shipped
to Utah, then married Dad, who left
to kill Koreans. On the ship

to Japan to join him in Kobe, my sister
scared me with stories of dwarves. My children’s
mom is small and pale, like the pages
of an appointment book, except when speaking
Spanish. Then, her hands become larakeets, her eyes
marcasite. Her grandfather knew the Franks
before they moved to Holland, and he
to Pasadena, where he never met

my mother who skis like she’s waltzing,
or my father, who came home and built
a barbeque of brick, or my sister the shrink,
or my brother who sells drugs, or my other sister
for that matter. They all live
in California and no one
ever dies. There’s a boy

at the bus stop who dances
in place: knit cap, heavy coat, an extra
chromosome, perhaps. Sometimes he raises
his arms and spins. The world starts with him.

by Jeffery Bahr
from Rattle Magazine
#16, Winter, 2001

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