The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm

Christian Lorentzen in Harper’s:

It is a commonplace that we live in a time of political polarization and culture war, but if culture is considered not in terms of left and right but as a set of attitudes toward the arts, then, at least among people who pay attention to the arts, we live in an era that cherishes consensus. The first consensus is that ours is an age of plenty. There is so much to watch, to hear, to see, to read, that we should count ourselves lucky. We are cursed only by too many options and too little time to consume all the wonderful things on offer. The cultural consumer (Alex or Wendy) is therefore best served by entities that point them to the right products. Find the right products, and you can undergo an experience you can share with your friends, even the thousands of them you’ve never met. Of course, individual people have preferences and interests, so filters, digital or human, will be required. Everyone will have favorites. What’s superfluous is the negative opinion. The negative opinion wastes Alex and Wendy’s time.

No doubt a consumerist mode of engagement with the arts has always been with us. Its current manifestation mimics the grammar of social media: the likable, the shareable, the trending, the quantifiable, the bite-size. It is no surprise that this set of gestures has become dominant. What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better.

More here.

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Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Alan Lightman on Transcendence, Science, and a Naturalist’s Sense of Meaning

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you don’t believe in God or the supernatural. Is there still a place for talking about transcendence, the sacred, and meaning in life? Some of the above, but not all? Today’s guest, Alan Lightman, brings a unique perspective to these questions, as someone who has worked within both the sciences and the humanities at the highest level. In his most recent book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he makes the case that naturalists should take transcendence seriously. We talk about the assumptions underlying scientific practice, and the implications that the finitude of our lives has for our search for meaning.

More here.

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Opportunity costs: can carbon taxing become a positive-sum game?

John Quiggin in Aeon:

Decades ago, economists developed solutions – or variants on the same solution – to the problem of pollution, the key being the imposition of a price on the generation of pollutants such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The idea was to make visible, and accountable, the true environmental costs of any production process.

Carbon pricing could stabilise the global climate, and cap unwanted warming, at a fraction of the cost that we are likely to end up paying in other ways. And as emissions were rapidly reduced, we could save enough to compensate most of the ‘losers’, such as displaced coal miners; a positive-sum solution. Yet, carbon pricing has been mostly spurned in favour of regulatory solutions that are significantly more costly. Why?

More here.

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On the Poetic Legacy of W.S. Merwin

John Freeman at Literary Hub:

Poet Laureate and environmental activist W.S. Merwin.

This inward movement of Merwin’s poetry happened simultaneously with a radical stylistic shift. In the introduction to The Second Four Books of Poems, Merwin describes how, beginning in the early 1960s, he began to shed punctuation, until he had given up on it entirely. “I had come to feel that it stapled the poems to the page,” he wrote. “Whereas I wanted the poems to evoke the spoken language, and wanted the hearing of them to be essential to taking them in.” In The Moving Target, the first of these four books, one feels the heat and pressure of this change keenly. “To My Brother Hanson,” addressed to a sibling who died in childbirth, Merwin’s lines hint at the scale of his project to come. “Yes, now the roads themselves are shattered / As though they had fallen from a height, and the sky / It is cracked like varnish.” In this period, Merwin began living part of each year in a rundown farmhouse in south- west France that he bought on the cheap with a small inheritance. It was part of a very old world, whose history and animal life humbled him while it also provided a doorway to a new kind of writing. The Vietnam War was raging, and although few poems in The Lice address it directly, the grim vision they evince of life’s evanescence, its violence, even, have the barbed edge of anger. At times it reads as if the poet is trading his citizenship for a larger tribal sense of belonging. “If there is a place where this is the language,” he writes in “The Cold Before the Moonrise,” a poem about the turning of the night, “may / It be my country.”

more here.

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Philosophers as The Emotion Police

Agnes Callard at The Point:

If you tell me to calm down, I probably won’t. The same goes for: “be reasonable,” “get over it already,” “you’re overreacting,” “it was just a joke,” “it’s not such a big deal.” When someone minimizes my feelings, my self-protective reflexes kick in. My body, my mind, my job, my interests, my talents—these are all “mine”—but nothing has quite the power to declare itself as “mine” as a passionate emotion does. When waves of anger or love or grief wash over me, that emotion feels like life itself. It wells up from an innermost core, like my voice, which it usually inflects. And so if you move to tamp it down, I parry by shutting you out: I erect walls around my sanctum sanctorum, to shield the flame of my passion—my life—from your soul-quenching intrusions. Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot feel?!

Now imagine a much more ambitious intervention—someone who doesn’t just want to quench some particular bout of anger or grief, but to put an end to anger or grief, simpliciter. Who could possibly have the gall to tell the entire human race what it should and should not feel? Philosophers, that’s who!

more here.

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Hilma of Klint: Painting the Beyond

Susan Tallman at the NYRB:

Hilma af Klint: Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 2, Childhood, 1907

Born in 1862 to a prominent Swedish family (her great-grandfather had been ennobled for services as a naval officer), Hilma af Klint was a skilled painter of portraits and landscapes who in the first decades of the twentieth century began making hundreds of strange pictures articulating the fluid relations between spirit and matter. Many have no basis in the visible world, and their early dates—in some cases years before such benchmark abstract paintings as Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VII (1913) or Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915)—have led to excited claims for af Klint as the unknown woman who pipped all the famous men to the post. This is the seductive pitch behind the Guggenheim’s much-lauded exhibition “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future,” the first comprehensive American overview of the artist now hailed, some seven decades after her death, as the female progenitor of modernist abstraction. Even if this were true—and it really isn’t—it would be the least material or interesting thing about this ecstatic and perplexing body of work.

Af Klint was one of many artists (including Kandinsky and Malevich) drawn to the esoteric philosophies that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Spiritualism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and the like. But af Klint’s engagement went deeper than most, and she was tenacious in her pursuit of personal spiritual contact.

more here.

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The science of the con

Melanie McFarland in AlterNet:

Look at me, the con artist says. Watch closely so you can see everything I’m doing. We can’t, of course, because we’re not meant to. Yet we fall for frauds because we so want what they promise to be true: easy money, better solutions, painlessness and efficiency. Elizabeth Holmes, the woman at the center of the Theranos scandal and the central subject of “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” dangled all of these offers in front of the world using showy language, a moving personal story and the appearance of expertise and vision. She parlayed her youth, her intellect, her unwavering commitment to success and her connections to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital out of air. By the time she had scammed powerful politicians, wealthy media magnates and an entire drug store chain, she’d amassed enough money to become, for a short time, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. As in truly self-made, not Kylie Jenner self-made. Holmes did not benefit from the cushion of fame or industry wealth. What she had was a story.

Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 and as she charged into the field of biotech, she styled her approach after other great visionaries, such as Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison. She said all the right things and projected the right image. At the height of her company’s fortune, it was valued at $9 billion. If only that estimated worth was based on a product that actually worked. “The Inventor,” debuting Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO, is but the latest examination of massive fraud to draw the public’s attention and fascination. We’re still reeling over the college bribery scandal currently dominating the headlines, which broke only a few months after Hulu’s and Netflix’s separate looks at the Fyre Fest long con became top gossip at the water cooler.

More here.

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The Creativity of ADHD

Holly White in Scientific American:

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is typically described by the problems it presents. It is known as a neurological disorder, marked by distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity, which begins in childhood and persists in adults. And, indeed, ADHD may have negative consequences for academic achievement, employment performance and social relationships.

But ADHD may also bring with it an advantage: the ability to think more creatively. Three aspects of creative cognition are divergent thinkingconceptual expansion and overcoming knowledge constraints. Divergent thinking, or the ability to think of many ideas from a single starting point, is a critical part of creative thinking. Previous research has established that individuals with ADHD are exceptionally good at divergent thinking tasks, such as inventing creative new uses for everyday objects, and brainstorming new features for an innovative cell phone device. In a new study, college students with ADHD scored higher than non-ADHD peers on two tasks that tapped conceptual expansion and the ability to overcome knowledge constraints. Together with previous research, these new findings link ADHD to all three elements of the creative cognition trio.

Prior knowledge can be an obstacle to creativity. When we look to a prior model or example for inspiration, we may actually become stuck: designers refer to this as “fixation.” In creative generation research, when participants are given examples before a task that requires them to invent something new, such as a new toy, their inventions tend to incorporate aspects of the examples—and thus are less novel. The ability to overcome recently presented information is therefore essential to creative thinking.

More here.

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Wednesday Poem

From “understory”

…… (to my wife, nālani
…… and our 7-month old daughter, kai)

kai cries
from teething–

how do
new parents

comfort a
child in

pain, bullied
in school,

shot by
a drunk

APEC agent?
#justicefor

-kollinelderts–
nālani gently

massages kai’s
gums with

her fingers-
how do

we wipe
away tear–

gas and
blood? Provide

shelter from
snipers? Disarm

occupying armies?
#freepalestine–

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The Immortals and Time

Christopher G. Moore in CulturMag:

The word “immortals” is entwined in my mind with the Jorge Luis Borges’ story titled The Immortals. The story is an exploration of immortal beings imprisoned in the infinite and seeking to understand their condition. This passage in particular speaks a truth about our ideas of immortality.

“Indoctrinated by a practice of centuries the republic of immortal men had attained the perfection of tolerance and almost that of indifference. They knew that in an infinite period of time, all things happened to all men. Because of his past or future virtues, every man is worthy of all goodness, but also of all perversity because of his infamy in the past or future.”

Over the years I’ve gone back and reread the story. Each reading demonstrated that a different “I” was reading the story than the person who years before had processed the same words. The words had not changed. However, my perception and processing of the words had changed in ways that revealed the separation of that prior self from the current one reading the story. Having again reread The Immortals recently, I’ve collected the thoughts of the contemporary “I” on the subject of immortality.

More here.

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March 19, 2019

Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system

Dominic Gates in The Seattle Times:

As Boeing hustled in 2015 to catch up to Airbus and certify its new 737 MAX, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.

But the original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the MAX — a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly — had several crucial flaws.

That flight control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), is now under scrutiny after two crashes of the jet in less than five months resulted in Wednesday’s FAA order to ground the plane.

Current and former engineers directly involved with the evaluations or familiar with the document shared details of Boeing’s “System Safety Analysis” of MCAS, which The Seattle Times confirmed.

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Science Denial Won’t End Sexism

Debra Soh in Quillette:

Last week, Nature, one of the top scientific journals in the world, ran a review written by Lise Eliot of Gina Rippon’s new book, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain. Both Eliot and Rippon, neuroscientists affiliated with Rosalind Franklin University and Aston University, respectively, are vocal supporters of the view that gender, and the corresponding differences we see between men and women, are socially constructed.

Not a week goes by without yet another research study, popular science book, or mainstream news article promoting the idea that (a) any differences between men and women in the brain are purely socially constructed and (b) these differences have been exaggerated beyond any meaningful relevance. More recently, this argument has evolved to contend that (c) there are, in fact, no brain differences between the sexes at all. Eliot’s article appears to subscribe to a hodgepodge of all three perspectives, which not only contradict one another but are also factually incorrect.

More here.

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Needed: A U.S. Policy on Saudi Arabia

Jonathan Guyer in American Prospect:

Until the 1970s, Saudi Arabia was simply a docile U.S. ally and source of cheap oil. That began to change with the OPEC-engineered price hikes, masterminded by the Saudi government. The Saudi government then subsidized the spread of radically fundamentalist Islam through the Muslim world. The stakes increased with the attacks of 9/11 (the majority of the skyjackers were Saudi). But throughout this era, Washington continued to indulge Riyadh, either because of the politics of oil, plain conflicts of interest, the fact that the Saudi policy toward Israel was covertly not as hostile as it might have been, or all three. With the ascension of MBS, a newly bellicose kingdom has emerged. Saudi has reached out to allies in Asia who neglect human rights and are happy to displace U.S. influence. It has engaged in monstrous violations of diplomatic norms, of which the Khashoggi hit was only the most extreme case. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has at last reached the inescapable crisis that Washington has been dreading since 9/11.

But that said, what should our Saudi policy be, even assuming a competent government in the White House after 2020?

More here.

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The East in You Never Leaves

Júlia Sonnevend at Eurozine:

The East in you never leaves, I thought, after leaving the immigration bureau. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, here I was in Manhattan, and felt deeply and fully ‘eastern’. What does that mean for somebody who was only ten years old in 1989, whose memories of communism mostly relate to a monument she loved to climb on Gellért Square in Budapest? Simply put, it means a bodily sensation of inexplicable fear at the border. My deep-rooted anxiety about border-guards and law enforcement was back, even in the country where I have chosen to live; where, despite all the problems the United States now faces, I feel deeply at home. In that sense, your ‘eastern’ identity never leaves you, I thought, not even after three decades.

When entering the US immigration center, I was transported back to the little Trabant of my parents, along with my two brothers, as we were crossing the border from ‘eastern’ Hungary to ‘western’ Austria in the 1980s. Squeezed into the back seat with my much older brothers (how did we even fit in?), my stomach was in knots. My father stopped the car a few minutes before the border and explained the rules. The main rule concerned ‘silence’. You do not chat with the border guard.

more here.

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Two Memories of W. S. Merwin

Christopher Merrill and Alice Quinn at The Paris Review:

The sun was setting in Hawaii on a spring day in 1995, when W. S. Merwin invited me into his study to hear him recite a new poem, and since he did not care to turn on the lights I listened to the last stanzas of his “Lament for the Makers” in near darkness. His study had a sacred aspect—its door was to remain locked whenever I house-sat for him and his wife, Paula, during their travels to the mainland and then to their place in the Dordogne. This atmosphere was heightened by his melodic voice, which in my mind bore traces of the hymns he had composed as a child for his Presbyterian minister father in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A palm frond crashed into the ravine beyond the lanai, on which a pair of sleeping chow chows did not stir. William recalled his departed poet-friends: “One by one they have all gone / out of the time and language we / had in common which have brought me”—and here his voice began to crack: “to this season after them.”

more here.

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How The World Was Built for Men

Sophie McBain at The New Statesman:

The data gap is particularly dangerous, and maddening, in medical research. Women are severely under-represented in clinical trials, which means we could be missing out on drugs that work for us and are regularly prescribed inappropriate drugs, or inappropriate doses. As a result, women are significantly more likely than men to suffer adverse drug reactions. Scientists don’t even know the specific effects on women of a huge number of existing medications. This is alarming. We now know, for instance, that one commonly prescribed drug for high blood pressure lowers heart-attack deaths among men but increases them for women. One of my mother’s closest friends died of a heart attack within a few hours of visiting her GP, complaining of excruciating abdominal pain. Women are more likely than men to suffer fatal heart
attacks, and 50 per cent more likely to be misdiagnosed when they are suffering a heart attack because they are less likely than men to suffer chest pain. Many, such as my mother’s friend, instead experience nausea, stomach pain, breathlessness – and medical negligence.

more here.

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Tuesday Poem

Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation

In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning,
having been allowed an early entry
to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered
the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space

adorned with famous paintings and artwork.
There must be a term for overloading on art.
One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us,
his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss

recently delivered, while across the room
the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow.
Even in museums, the drama is staged.
Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,

foolish moth, toward the light coming
from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs.
Ready to descend, ready to step outside
into the damp and chilly air, I felt

the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense
of being watched. When I turned, I found
no one; instead, I was staring at The Return
of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it

as a student. But no amount of study could have
prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it.
There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot
left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd

as it sounds, something inside me broke, and
as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking
to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon
I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?

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A Counterculture Portraitist’s Chronicle of New York’s Youth

Michael Schulman in The New Yorker:

They come to New York City every week, in buses and trains and cars, carrying bags, carrying ambitions, carrying the fabulous clothes on their backs. They’re the fashion kids, the art kids, the theatre kids, the who-knows-what kids—creative renegades of nineteen or twenty or twenty-five. They’ve heard what we’ve all heard: that downtown is dead, that the rent is too damn high, that someone has paved paradise and put up a Duane Reade. Still, they keep coming, against all odds, tricked out in spangles, torn shirts, and tattoos, seeking a place where they can find themselves, and one another.

Ethan James Green, a photographer and former model, was one of them. Then he became one of their more stylish chroniclers. Born in 1990, Green is a counterculture portraitist, alive to a New York that still feels, somehow, like a freewheeling Wild West. His subjects—musicians and designers and all manner of “creatives”—are emissaries from a generation that has bushwhacked new expanses of gender expression and been reared on the self-curating powers of social media.

More here.

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